A week in the life of a media-watcher

IF the folks who count their proteins and carbohydrates - and generally scrutinize like a suspicious customs officer what crosses their lips - paid the same attention to what they ingest from television, newspapers, and magazines, they might send out (quick!) for the moral equivalent of a stomach pump. Junk food is a model diet compared with a lot of the junk we watch, a lot of the junk we read. And when our media fare is not junk, it is often unbalanced, to continue with the nutritional metaphor. We are what we eat? We had better not be, to judge by a sampling from a recent week's menu.

Let's start with television, indeed with one of television's better ideas - the talk show. Once upon a time, in the days of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, the talk show consisted of two couches, a house band, and one Gabor sister. The host smiled permanently, the guests smiled temporarily, and the band played nothing but upbeat music, leading into jolly commercial breaks. A happy-chat scene, for a fact. Now, in the era of Phil & Oprah, a talk show can make a Russian novel read like lighthearted farce.

During the week of our survey, Donahue- or Winfrey-watchers could learn everything they didn't want to know about ``crime victims who take the law into their own hands,'' children who witnessed a parent's murder, teen-age boys seduced by older women, and last but surely not least, the techniques of ``divorce revenge.'' A slice of life without doubt - or at least a sleaze of life.

The ``entertainment'' menu for the week was no less grim. One program manager packaged his nightly films under the heading ``Women in Turmoil Week.'' Included: ``The Burning Bed'' and ``Happy Birthday to Me,'' promising ``six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see.'' Nor was male turmoil neglected, what with a couple of rowdy tales from Clint (``Make My Day'') Eastwood and Charles (``Death Wish'') Bronson. Meanwhile, Chuck Norris ``hit the trail of revenge'' in ``An Eye for an Eye.'' For both sexes, of course, there is always that ubiquitous skulker, the horror film - this particular week it was ``Fright Night,'' luring the viewer with the blurb ``Beware of the evil that awaits you.''

Apart from these darkish reruns, the week's dramatic series and specials offered plots about wife abuse, child abuse, drug addiction, and AIDS, plus assorted battle scenes in Vietnam and elsewhere - the usual late-'80s answer to ``Leave It to Beaver,'' you might say. Whatever happened to the Madison Avenue formula - happy stories about happy people, with, above all, happy endings? Wretched stories about miserable people, with grisly endings - this is more like the winning recipe today.

By now a watcher is one hysterical couch potato. In a panic, the viewer snaps off the TV and turns to print, that nice, calm, rational voice. No special effects in gruesome ``living color'' here. No nerve-twanging sound tracks in Dolby stereo.

Ah, but is print ever trying to do its scary best! Take, for instance, those magazine cover stories boasting art work left over, it seems, from old ``Dracula'' film posters. Remember the skull-and-crossbones Time cover on water pollution that started all the doomsday reports? Lately newsmagazines have considered further apocalyptic possibilities - that the earth will disappear into the ocean ```Where's the Beach?''), or maybe the air will just disappear into, well, non-air (``Why the Ozone Hole is Growing''). But as every editor knows, the most popular cover stories - next to Bruce Springsteen or Madonna - are dedicated to a disease, invariably described as an ``epidemic.'' Newsweek did two cover stories on AIDS in less than a month. U.S. News & World Report editors, recognizing a fail-safe subject when they saw one, went for broke with the all-inclusive cover story, ``Defending Your Health: How to Ward Off the Five Top Killers.''

How can a newspaper with mere headlines compete against this kind of gloomy splash? In journalism's game of best championship disaster, though, newspapers will not give up hope of a circulation victory as long as editors of science and technology sections have the San Andreas fault, an occasional earthquake, and good old radon steadily seeping, combined with a smidgen of leaky radioactive waste here and there. Nor will the dailies - excuse the expression - say die as long as the last surviving personal-health columnist can still throw salt over one shuddering shoulder and villainous sugar over the other.

Of course catastrophe and more catastrophe is not the only message transmitted by the media. But do we realize how much of what we are fed is scandal, violence, plague - plus a couple of scenarios a week about the way the world will end? In the name of news, in the name of realism, we risk trading off Pollyanna for Cassandra - becoming knee-jerk pessimists just as once we tended to be knee-jerk optimists, going to black from rosy with no shades in between.

Is it a reaction against Ronald Reagan's Hollywood-America that makes us decolorize the screen in favor of this bargain-basement hell - this sense of tragedy on the cheap? Alas, as we become more and more glib at ticking off the demons within and the obstacles without, the only thing we prove is that the American Nightmare can be nearly as one-sided a supposition as the American Dream at its most naive.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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