When network news magnates from Manhattan send their cameras to cover small towns in the Midwest, what happens? Well, when CBS News came to my hometown of Viroqua, Wisconsin, the result was a grain of truth wrapped in an inch-thick sour ball of negative hype.

When it comes to the Great Fly-Over between New York and Los Angeles, story ideas often aren’t original. The CBS story had all the fingerprints of a much longer (and better) story in the Wall Street Journal last June. Like the Journal, CBS focused on the retail giant Wal-Mart and how its arrival could spell doom for small businesses. Like the Journal, CBS trekked to Viroqua and to Anamosa, Iowa. The network’s motto must be: better late than never, and better with a TV camera.

As part of their Eye on America series, CBS sent reporter Frank Currier from Chicago in a folksy sweater and jeans to tell the tale. But the beginning of the story demonstrated all the shortcomings of the network news, particularly its tendency to make a drama out of everything. Drama is fine if you don’t mislead the viewer in the process, but CBS began with a depressing mèlange of images: “Closed” signs, locked doors, boarded-up buildings. All of these were intermixed with audio snippets of local people: “It’s sad to see a town become a ghost town,” “our dime store went out,” “they were run out of business.” Whose ghost town? Whose dime store? Whose failed business? With CBS focusing on at least two towns, viewers had no clue as to what those audio snippets were referring. Currier solemnly began: “In town after small town. Main Street is going out of business.”

Those first 30 seconds may have set a mood, but they didn’t tell the truth. Local viewers had to be confused, or perhaps amused. As CBS painted a picture of Midwestern ghost towns, they made the big-city mistake of showing the city limits signs for Avalanche and Bud, two of Vernon County’s tiny unincorporated towns. The metropolis of Bud contains a cheese factory and the Volden family, and other than the Volden kids migrating into town, there is no depression in Bud.

As one voice declared “It’s sad to see a town become a ghost town,” they showed the city limits sign of Coon Valley (population 758), which is nearing extinction no time soon. I know this from a very good local authority: my dad, who’s sold advertising for Viroqua’s radio station for thirty years. Local businesses have suffered (and some long-lasting stores closed) due to the arrival of Wal-Mart and its buy-by-the-ton price advantage. But Currier, who cited no statistics for his earlier assertion that entire small-town Main Streets were going out of business, then contradicted himself: “Change helped save Viroqua, Wisconsin, where they beat the drums on Main Street, where merchants challenged Wal-Mart and restored faith in family business.”

After the story appeared, my dad told me some local merchants were disappointed with the tone of the story. I told him the story’s fairly upbeat ending came as a surprise. While most of our television entertainment aims to capture our attention by making us feel warm and fuzzy, the news shows often succeed by exaggerating the negative, aiming at our anxieties about the future. After all, in the Viroqua I grew up in, businesses came and went, survived the Great Inflation, boomed a little in the 1980’s, and yet never came to the attention of the national news before.

Viroqua may have had its four minutes of national fame, but in the translation from real-life experience to small-screen drama, the network’s cinematic montages failed to make any distinction between the thorny challenge of business competition and the imminent migration of small-town America, leaving everything behind for the wildlife.