LESSONS FROM WILLOWBROOK

1188506834_1799-1All the talk these days in industry circles is about the future of local news. Where’s it going? Will we survive? How do we continue to make money on information that is obsolete even before it airs at 11pm? While I don’t have a crystal ball, I’m confident that local news will survive. The distribution models will change, certainly. And formats will adjust accordingly. Will anchorpeople survive? Or get lost in the race for immediacy, hyper-local coverage and “choose your own news” options? Hard to say.

But to see where local news is going, it’s sometimes important to look at where it’s been. I was perusing YouTube recently and came across what is probably the most explosive story to come from a local news station. In this case, it was WABC in New York back in 1972. A young investigative reporter looking to make a name for himself exposed a house of horrors known as Willowbrook, an institution for the mentally handicapped on Staten Island in New York City. The expose, titled “Willowbrook – The Last Disgrace” garnered national attention and won a Peabody Award for the reporter, Geraldo Rivera. An outstanding documentary looking back at Rivera’s investigation was released a few years ago and is riveting to watch. I’ve compiled some clips from the original Rivera broadcasts – clips that illustrate the awesome power of local news.

I can’t help but wonder if that story would even air today on a local news station if it was shot in 2011. Would corporate lawyers squash the content for fear of lawsuits? Would the FCC fine the station for the nudity? No, because the nudity would have been blurred out along with all the faces of the mentally handicapped victims. Imagine how the story would lose so much of its impact if we couldn’t have looked into the eyes of the children (because their faces were blurred). Would it see air today? Probably. In a heavily cannibalized and sanitized version. And that’s sad.

Local news will continue to uncover corruption, expose child predators and report on the darker side of its communities. That’s inevitable. My concern is more about people in general. The threshold of what we as a society are willing to tolerate keeps rising. Fictional TV and movies keep topping themselves with ever gorier and ghastlier content. We’re practically immune to the nickle and dime shootings we see on local newscasts. Hell, I even advocate not covering most spot news because viewers simply don’t care about it.

Perhaps the real question is, the next time a local newscast exposes a tragedy like Willowbrook, will we still be able to recognized it as such?

Ray Signature

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