Nightcrawler Nation: Money, news and politics


When I heard my “>Dan Gilroy, the writer-director of their new movie, “Nightcrawler,” to marry me.

To be adequately horrified by the midterm campaign we’ve just endured, all you need to pay attention to is attention itself, and how attention is monetized.

We live in an information age. Every two days, according to Google CEO “>pointed out, “creates a poverty of attention.” We can’t increase the total attention we can pay; despite talk of multi-tasking, attention is a finite resource, a zero-sum game. “>brain. But our attention can be hijacked. The bottom-up part of our brain, which evolved in our primitive past, is wired to pay attention to danger. It’s immediate, instinctive, faster than reason; if fear had depended on thinking, we’d have been eaten.

Television stations are in the business of selling audiences to advertisers. The more people whose attention their programming can grab, the more money they can charge advertisers for 30-second spots. So it makes sense that station owners looking for ratings would air hours of programming dominated by murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, gruesome accidents — anything that will reliably scare viewers into watching.

That’s what the research I did with Seton Hall professor “>since 1998. In 2009, we did an intensive study of a single TV market, Los Angeles. We analyzed more than 11,000 stories aired by eight stations during nearly 1,000 half-hours of news over 14 days. Here’s some of 

  • A typical half-hour of L.A. news contained 2 minutes 50 seconds of crime news.  That’s more than any other category of news except sports and weather.
  • The average time spent on L.A. government news — including budgets, layoffs, education, law enforcement, prisons, lawsuits, ordinances, personnel, voting procedures, health care, transportation and immigration — was 22 seconds.
  • One station — KCOP — ran an average of 5 minutes and 3 seconds of crime per half-hour, and one second of L.A. government news.
  • Stories about local government led the news 2.5 percent of the time. But stories about crime led more than 13 times that: One out of three broadcasts began with crime. If it bleeds, it leads.
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    That’s the research cited “>“dark money.”

    The total cost of the 2014 elections is expected to reach almost “>studies of an “>or more political ads, providing those stations with more than half a million dollars of ad revenue, but those same 30 minutes have included zero minutes of actual reporting on those campaigns. Demand for air time for political ads during the news led station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, to add an extra 4 p.m. hour of local news to cash in. A “>Walter Cronkite Award for excellence in TV coverage of politics, and the winners, from markets small and large across the country, do heroic work against long odds, and their stations’ ratings haven’t suffered because of it. I wish they were the rule, not the exception. I wish that getting money out of politics were a hot button issue, instead of polling “>The Distinguished Gentleman,” which Eddie Murphy starred in and Disney released. I fantasized that that movie could make a difference, too. But today’s political corruption makes the legal con job that congressmen and lobbyists pulled on America a generation ago seem quaint.  On the other hand, if Gyllenhaal ever wants to run for office on a reform platform, I’ll be first in line to volunteer as a speechwriter.


    Marty Kaplan, who has been a political speechwriter, a screenwriter and a studio executive, holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

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