The Lizard on America's Shoulder

by Terry L. Heaton
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a busload of misfits en route from hell to heaven and of their adventure upon arrival. Each character has a particular obstacle to entry, and that conflict forms the fabric of the story.

One ghostly fellow is seen wandering with a little red lizard on his shoulder. The tiny beast whips his tail back and forth while whispering filth in the ghost's ear and irritating him constantly. The angel at the gate refuses to pass the ghost into the heavenly dimension with the creature on his shoulder and reaches to kill the thing. The ghost recoils, grows wimpish and fearful, and stubbornly defends the nightmarish ranting of the lizard in a vain attempt to hang onto familiarity despite its ruinous effect on him. "Don't touch my lizard!"

In the end, of course, the angel wins and the creature is turned into a stallion, which the ghost rides through the gates, a metaphor that lust can be harnessed and transformed into healthy desire.

As Americans go about their daily lives, they do so today in a constant state of agitation. We're at each other's throats, always striving for the want of more, yet terrified that forces outside our control will wrench what we have away from us before we can enjoy it. We lock our doors and shun our neighbors. Nervous disorders abound in the street-corner clinics as we search for refuge from that which might do us harm.

We have a lizard on our shoulder prophesying doom and gloom for all but the lucky. The name of today's lizard, I believe, is local television news.

I found myself feeding this creature in the latter part of a 28 year television news career, but it wasn't always so. When I first entered the business in 1970, covering the news meant serving people and helping them in their decision-making process. We respected viewers. We respected newsmakers.

Critics who think old-timers like myself are merely waxing nostalgic suggest that what we did in the old days wasn't really good journalism. We didn't uncover much, they say. I won't dignify that by arguing. My only point is there really was a sense of respect in the old days. Of course, I suppose we acted that way because we could. Local news as a profit center hadn't yet become an economic necessity for broadcasters. Money came from advertising in the rich programming that everybody watched, and that freed news people to perform "Fourth Estate" functions. The gore and turmoil of the French Revolution gave us that term to describe the role of a responsible media. Many people holding microphones or cameras today don't even know what it means.

Everything changed with corporate competition and a subtle, but powerful shift in viewing habits. Specialized cable networks (just the click of a remote away) signaled the inevitable death of networks that still tried to be all things to all people through broadcasting. This had a profound effect on the profit margins of local stations, so they fought back. As the advertising pie was sliced into smaller and smaller pieces by the ever-fragmenting market, stations turned their attention to their only local product — news.

Experiments with attention-getting concepts to maintain market share began, and thus was born the news consultant. What "worked" anywhere was winnowed from that which didn't "work" and was spread from city to city. The exploitation of base human emotion, disguised by words like "compelling," dramatic," or "interesting" became the draw. When the Nielsen company created meters to put in viewers' homes that directly measured viewing habits, these resourceful "experts" came upon a whole new way of doing things. Almost overnight, local television news was transformed into the business of managing audience flow, and along with it, I believe, came a sad disrespect of things once sacred.

Of paramount importance in this paradigm is the development of stories that attract, so that promotional announcements cleverly placed in, say, prime time would compel viewers to stay and watch. At the expense of that which was important, news managers suddenly found themselves devoting considerable time, effort and resources into finding and developing offbeat, titillating and sensational items for the promo boys to use. And now, only a mist separates all of television news from up-front exploiters like Jerry Springer.

Of course, everything about this has been carefully researched. That means you, the viewer, have told us through your behavior and your opinions that this is what you will watch. That's right. You want it! It's what I call "the sheep leading the sheep" on a selfish path to destruction. For what else is the end of a steady diet of man's inhumanity to man sans redemption? Call it fear. Call it anxiety. Whatever. It's the lizard on America's shoulder.

And gone, too, is any sense of respect, and that includes behind-the-scenes. Contrary to what most believe, television news people are not always skilled or qualified, make very little money, work inhuman hours for which they are rarely compensated, and are often evaluated based on the performance of others, thereby keeping them in a constant state of fear for their jobs. Generally speaking, most don't make it in the business past age 30. Why? Because for every experienced reporter, there are 100 glamour-seeking, cheaper candidates waiting in the wings. Who loses? The viewers, who, I believe, are ultimately treated in the same, disrespectful manner.

I know some will label my opinion sour grapes, because I now find myself embarking on my own "Great Divorce." I've left the business I used to love and I won't return. I admit contributing to its sad state, and I regret staying in the business as long as I did. The price I've paid personally has been staggering, so it's not sour grapes. Sadness is a better word.

As one of my contemporaries says, "Television stopped doing news, so there wasn't a place for me anymore." Alone with their thoughts, even the most hardened and cynical of my colleagues — if they can be honest — will have to admit the truth of the views expressed herein.

I call on all of them to join me in the prayer that somebody, somewhere will have the courage to stand up and say, "Enough!" And in so doing, find the power to transform the lizard into the glowing white stallion it can be.