In 1986, Fox’s A Current Affair invented the tabloid news magazine. It taught us that a suspect moving in slow motion is guilty until proven innocent, that camcorders are a scandal’s best friend, and that we live on an unfathomably dangerous planet.
I loved this show growing up, but to tell you the truth, I can’t recall many specific images or stories. All I remember is feeling a fiery range of emotions, from scared to excited to vengeful. The original transposed Rupert Murdoch’s sensational entertainment as investigative journalism to resounding success in television. Its influence was visible in direct rip-offs like Hard Copy and true crime shows like America’s Most Wanted, then extended to network news magazines like 20/20 and Dateline NBC. Now, with the advent of 24-hour news scandals and bi-monthly Trials of the Century, there is no such thing as tabloid news. It is the news.
This tabloid timeline might make A Current Affair seem responsible for the Long Island Lolita, the Bronco chase, Jesus juice, and the fall of Western Civilization. But now that it has been resurrected (its new incarnation debuted 21 March), A Current Affair looks surprisingly modest. It reminds me of a “Golden Age,” when Fox News didn’t mean rabid patriots and screaming pundits but wet T-shirt contests, serial killers, and Rob Lowe’s sexcapades. The new Current Affair world is still a Grim America of unpredictable never-ending violence, Satanic cults, and out-of-control libidos delivered with a knowing wink.
Each episode follows the original’s three-segment format. The first details a horrific crime (this will sometimes take up the second segment as well); the second is a heartwarming story usually involving a horrific crime (a lawyer loses his hands in a bomb blast, somebody finds his wedding ring years later); and the third is a titillating and/or humorous sorbet to cleanse your traumatized palate. In an inspired move that set my heart aflutter, the producers also decided to use the original Trump-meets-Nagel pyramid graphic and “do-di-do-di bong” sound effect.
Ex-Atlanta Falcons defensive end Tim Green is a natural fit as anchor. He’s got Bill O’Reilly’s arrogant smirk, Maury Povich’s stern but good-natured demeanor, a hint of Geraldo’s pomp, and a mischievous glimmer that says, “I’m pretending like I’m your friend, but I could totally kick your ass.” He strains to play nice, a pleasant approach compared to the mad histrionics on-air personalities use trying to jockey up the cable news ladder.
Besides an update on the trial of Debra LaFaye (described as “the statuesque blond who has come to embody the teacher sex epidemic sweeping America”), A Current Affair avoids national scandals in order to explore suburban horrors and hijinks. The show has made one clear 21st century update in its preference for today’s principal boogeyman, the scary teenager. In its first week, four of the five main stories were teen-related, three about killer kids. The stories are horrible and upsetting, but the repetition makes disturbing generalizations about teen violence. Outcast adolescents are unknowable aliens who form groups like “The Crew,” dabble in the “Goth subculture,” have “strange sexual habits,” and listen to “bizarre music.” They’re basically immoral automatons taught by the media and the Internet to murder. Branding children as a Village of the Damned-style menace became commonplace in the media after the Columbine tragedy. Watching A Current Affair pick up the mantle so enthusiastically after some of the fervor had died down is distressing.
The Current Affair universe swings between poles of outrageous horror and humor. As Green says, “When we give you something heavy, we’re gonna try to give you something light to end up on.” The final portion of the show is usually fun, newsmagazines at their harmless best, and one gonzo reporter away from a Daily Show bit. The debut episode featured a publicity-hungry Virginia politician who tried to outlaw “backside cleavage.” The bill was set to pass until the plumbers’ union squashed it, because it “jeopardized their way of doing business.”
A Current Affair, like all tabloid news, is still guilty of trafficking in fear, a cheap ploy that promotes paranoia and ignorance. Affair concentrates on sleazing up local stories; cable news now uses the same hit-the-panic button tactics on national and international level topics. This can be fun and the manipulations laughably obvious, but there’s a devastating potential in spinning one-sided half-truths, as seen in the machinations of our newest media juggernaut, the Republican party. They have mastered tabloid story-telling tactics (along with prepackaged video clips, commentators, on-staff “reporters,” aircraft carrier hooplas, and lock-step talking points) to distract from their lies, swindles, ineptitudes, and destruction in America’s good name. Distraction is tabloid’s result. Instead of discussing societal and individual factors in the development of troubled teens, we hear about psychopathic killers; instead of analyzing the United States’ torture policies, we see stories on Jessica Lynch.
The first A Current Affair debuted during the Reagan years, when the U.S. was pumped full of the Red Menace, the war on drugs, and inner city violence. After September 11, Republicans exaggerated another very real environment of fear to pursue their own goals, and it’s no wonder that Fox (which has already benefited greatly from trumpeting GOP talking points) thought this would be the perfect environment to re-launch their show.
Wait! Power, corruption, secret torture chambers — somebody get a camcorder, I’ve got a great idea for a story.