Hits just keep coming every night on the television news, but sweeps weeks produce vintage material, à la American Top 40 With Casey Kasem. TV news is so often annoying and ludicrous, but, like Kasem, it can be perversely attractive. Drive around on a Sunday and punch the wrong button on the car radio, and Kasem will pop up, making one of his long-distance dedications for some sappy song in the voice that brought you Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame. It makes you cringe, it makes you listen -- for a bit. So it goes with TV news during sweeps: Pain and pleasure are seldom so closely related.
No station seems immune. On Monday night, even front-runner KSDK (Channel 5) had Deanne Lane giving a grating but amusing account of scantily clad pubescent girls baring their midriffs, dressing like Britney Spears. What's a parent to do? They even had the snickering good idea of calling that night's "Cover Story" -- get this -- "Barely Covered." After showing a lot of navels and naked hipbones, Lane closed the segment with this advice to parents: "Keep your sense of humor." Sound advice for sweeps.
On the other end of the ratings scale, KPLR (Channel 11) took a different tack on sex, going after "sex in public places": Men with men. Public parks. Restrooms. Seamy stuff, complete with digitally obscured faces and the usual telltale signs of sweeps: hidden cameras and hidden microphones. Although the word "gay" was never used during this two-parter on mano y mano sex in public places, WB11 reporter Victor Ojeda spoke his first on-camera words from the front seat of a Volkswagen Cabriolet. We get the picture -- but doesn't using a Cabriolet constitute entrapment?
The words spoken by WB11 anchor Kathryn Jamboretz to tease viewers at the top of the Nov. 12 9 p.m. news had the usual edge: "Do you know what's going on in the very parks your kids could be playing in?" Well, Short Cuts believes everyone in the bi-state area knew except for WB11; they thought male-on-male sex in public restrooms was somehow news.
Ojeda opened the segment by saying he's spent "four months undercover in places where men are cruising for sex," but he didn't mean West County bars, the produce section at Wild Oats, PT's or the South Broadway stroll. He was talking about gay men cruising parks, mostly Forest Park, looking for some afternoon delight. And what did he find? Not much. An "undercover" cruiser (with a WB11 camera in the back seat) says one subject "just drove by twice, really slow and stared at us both times." He was probably an undercover cop, looking at an undercover reporter. Too bad neither one made a move -- that would have made great video.
Instead, viewers got to see a lot of shots of men, their heads pixelated beyond recognition, walking into bathrooms. And then there were lines culled from the undercover microphones, stuff like "I'm bored and horny. I'm just driving around." If that line weren't so long, it could replace the "Show-Me State" motto at the bottom of Missouri's license plates -- that, or it could be sold on bumper stickers at truck stops.
No public service is being fulfilled by these reports. If the intent was to warn the audience of potential hazards, why wasn't there a mention of what patches of forest and which lavatories in Forest Park are hot spots for clandestine sex? A Web site is discussed, its name graphically garbled, of course, but the screen is shown long enough to reveal that Bellerive Park, on South Broadway by the Mississippi River, is one of the spots in which horny guys like to huddle. In one "Best of St. Louis" issue of the RFT, Bellerive Park was nominated as one of the best places to get a good look of the Mississippi. Maybe next year Bellerive Park will be the inspiration for a new category: "Best spot to get a headjob and still be able to watch a barge." We'll work on it.
Predictably, understandably and justifiably, the local gay community was pissed off by the two-parter, and Pride St. Louis Inc. called and wrote to the station in protest. In a third night of reportage, Ojeda talked to Pride representatives for their reaction, and on Nov. 15, WB11 news director Sheldon Ripson appeared with others on Lavender Limelight, a weekly talk show on KDHX (88.1 FM) that focuses on gay and lesbian issues. Ripson admitted that sweeps were a factor in his decision to air the report but tried to reverse the sensational image of the ratings period.
"The reality of what we do involves ratings," Ripson said. "We are graded according to our performance during certain months of the year. What we feel we have to do is to put our very best material in those months of the year." Whoa, imagine what happens outside the sweep months of November, May and February.
The main problem with the piece, other than the fact that it wasn't news, was that it provided no context to the why of what was going on. Besides the hidden-camera footage, none of which showed anything of substance beyond restroom graffiti, the report aired only one on-camera interview, with St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa, who basically said this problem is as old as original sin.
Rolf Rathmann of Pride St. Louis says the gay community doesn't have a problem with media reports on illegal activity. His complaints involve the sensationalistic and simplistic reporting and editing. Cutting from shots of suspicious-looking men entering a public restroom and to a shot of a young girl flying a kite "a few yards away" is done for a reason. "It feeds into the old images that mainstream society has had that gay men are predatory, or just sexual beings," says Rathmann. Perhaps the only consolation is that because the Ojeda report aired on WB11, Rathmann says, he would have "never, ever have discovered" it if someone hadn't told him about it: "I watch the main stations."
Listen to D.J. Wilson at 7 p.m. Mondays on KDHX (88.1 FM). Tip Short Cuts: voice, 314-615-6711; fax, 615-6716; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.