McAdams On: News Puppetry

CLEVELAND, ROCKS: There used to be an old-style circus freak show on Venice Beach where a tattooed guy stood out front and barked about his two-headed turtle. It closed down recently because there is nothing stranger than reality anymore, as demonstrated by this week’s news headlines.

Among my favorites, “Cleveland TV Station Uses Puppets To Re-enact Federal Trial.” WOIO-TV in the City that Rocks found a way around courts that prohibit TV cameras by using knock-off Muppets rather than colored-pencil sketches. The station’s taken a few brickbats over the obvious satire. It’s supposed to be a serious news organization, after all. Never mind how often we hear that more people trust Jon Stewart’s version of current events than anything churned out by the serious news organizations. I’m not so sure that speaks well of anyone, but it is what it is, and Stewart has 16 Emmys to show for it.

The case being tried in Cleveland involves a former county commissioner, “hookers, gambling and “sexually transmitted diseases,” according to The Associated Press.In other words, typical night-time telly stuff. WOIO says it’s doing regular coverage during the newscast and closing it with “The Puppet’s Court.” 

“Now it’s time for our daily lampooning of the Jimmy Dimora trial,” anchor Danielle Serino says introducing day No. 2 of the puppetry. “The sometimes absurd, frequently comical, and always circus-like testimony at the heart of that corruption trial. The testimony is real, the puppets are not.”

“I’m horrified,” she deadpans after the clip in which the only non-human puppet is the reporter played by a squirrel in a suit.

WOIO hasn’t said how “The Puppet’s Court” is affecting ratings. The response in social media is generally favorable. “WOIO deserves an award for this,” Jeff Ryznar tweeted. “LMAO!!! I will remove one and nine from my remote,” tweets Terminal Blues. “All local news teams should use puppets instead of court sketches,” Izizree Zulkefli tweeted. CNN’s Newsource referred to it as “#muppetational!” Kevin Lynn was less enthused, calling it a “new low for local TV.”

The Radio Television Digital News Association’s Edward Esposito is rolling with it:

“Some viewers will be outraged, saying the use of characters far more familiar to little tykes watching PBS is an abuse of the solemnity of the judicial system,” he said. “Others, including this writer, have great respect for the creative vision that uses one of the oldest forms of entertainment--and satire--to not only portray details surrounding one of the biggest public corruption cases to hit Ohio but also make a statement on the federal judiciary’s long-outdated insistence that public understanding of justice is still rooted in the time of Johannes Gutenberg and now the technology employed a thousand years ago by storytellers: puppetry.”

I’m on board, too. The behavior of public officials is more frequently absurd than not, otherwise Carl Hiaasen would not have a venerated career. The dialog coming out of the Dimora trial sounds like it’s straight out of one of Hiaasen’s best sellers.

“I don’t want ya to go down like da Spitzer,” says one puppet to another re-enacting an FBI wiretap. “I ain’t gonna bleepin’ pay for no bleep,” the other says. “That’s why he went down. Never pay for no bleep.

Imagine trying to cover that with a straight face. It’s comedy, pure and simple. The tragedy is how these guys get voted into public office in the first place. That’s what the serious investigation needs to focus on. Why do we elect clowns?

I think WOIO is on to something. If NBC4 here in Los Angeles started puppetizing high-profile trials, I and half of the rest of the city would tune in. I hope C-SPAN takes a hint.

~ Deborah D. McAdams