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Tuned In: PBS pledges to defuzz line dividing analysis and opinion

Thursday, February 03, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

No punditry. No prosecution.

Those are the election season pledges PBS reporters made during the Television Critics Association press tour last month.

Gwen Ifill, the new host of PBS's "Washington Week in Review" (8 p.m. Fridays on WQED/WQEX), said those who offer analysis on her program are actual reporters.

"Some of my best friends are pundits, and the best of them are people who actually have been doing reporting and their punditry arises out of things they know," Ifill said. "The worst of punditry is the folks who roll out of bed and get in front of a camera and tell you what they think."

"Washington Week" uses columnists like David Broder, but Ifill said Broder and others are capable of separating what they do in their opinion writing from what they do in their reporting.

"There's always been a fuzzy line for years between analysis and opinion," Ifill said. "What you have to do is say what is actually happening and not tell people what they ought to think."

Ifill, who will continue to contribute reports for NBC News, also works for PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

Lehrer said an 11 p.m. version of "NewsHour" is in development. Whatever its fate, the original nightly newscast will continue to interview newsmakers - particularly presidential candidates - without prosecuting them.

"If I wanted to prosecute people, I would have gone to law school," Lehrer said. "Tough is not what we get up every workday to do. Our job is to ask people questions and let the audience decide whether you clearly thought this person gave a stump speech and didn't answer the question."

Not that he wants his correspondents to conduct weak interviews. Lehrer said context is key, not only to interviews but also the stories "NewsHour" covers. For instance, Lehrer said in 1992 "NewsHour" didn't report Gennifer Flowers' accusations of an affair with then-candidate Clinton until after his "60 Minutes" appearance following the Super Bowl.

"Sometimes events take over," Lehrer said, "and I would be the first to admit that we have called it wrong both ways on several occasions. ... We are always at risk of going overboard with our goodness and mercy, and we have got to be careful because we are in the real world."

What it often comes down to is choosing relevant, important information to report, rather than news that's entertaining.

"If somebody wants to be entertained, go get a good movie," Lehrer said. "We are not in entertainment. But if it's important, no matter how distasteful it is, we'll cover it."



"ON Q": For a start-up, WQED's nightly magazine show "On Q" is off to a strong start. There have been some missteps, but producers realized them quickly and made corrections.

Pundits are limited to Fridays, but host Chris Moore came off sounding like a prosecutor with semi-antagonistic questioning in early interview segments. It didn't help that all three hosts interviewed a single guest. They've since been split so only two hosts conduct an interview, a smart move.

In the studio, Stacy Smith is the most skilled and impartial interviewer. Again it makes me wonder why KDKA-TV doesn't take full advantage of his talents on its nightly newscasts.

Much as I like "On Q," I may never cotton to Friday's "Fearsome Foursome," a screaming match rip-off of John McIntire's "Free For All" on PCNC's "NightTalk," which itself mirrors Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect." Sometimes the conversation is thoughtful and interesting, but mostly it's just people jabbering at the same time.

Individual reports from "On Q" contributors make the show worth watching (the zippy theme song deserves kudos, too). These reports are frequently the most absorbing part of the half-hour, and they take viewers out of the studio where talking heads reign. There's nothing inherently wrong with talking heads, but the Q&A sessions contribute to the show's slow pace. The out-of-studio reports are alive with excellent camera work and smooth editing.

My biggest gripe with "On Q" is how WQED scheduled the show. To make room for it, the "Nightly Business Report" got bumped to 11 p.m., much to the dismay of that show's viewers.

There's an easy solution. Air "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" at 6 p.m., "Nightly Business Report" at 7 and keep "On Q" at 7:30. The only thing that gets bumped in that configuration is the kids' show "Kratts' Creatures," which could be moved to another daytime slot.



FAREWELL PLEX: The addition of Oxygen to some AT&T Cable Services suburban systems yesterday resulted in the deletion of Plex. AT&T spokesman Dan Garfinkel said Plex was dropped because it duplicated the offerings of other channels.

"They were showing movies and there's a lot of movie channels," he said. "Oxygen added another flavor to the mix."



OBNOXIOUS PROMOS: Local stations are going out of their way to make viewers actively despise them. KDKA and WTAE are particularly guilty of this in their ongoing ads attacking each other's weather weapons.

WTAE's most recent spot uses footage of KDKA weathercaster Larry Richert. Meanwhile, KDKA brags about how AccuWeather is more powerful than all the other stations combined, a dig at an earlier WTAE spot about how its Pinpoint Doppler is more powerful than all the other stations' radars.

Enough already. Petty bickering undermines the authority of news gatherers. Why should anyone tune to a station that seemingly puts more effort into slamming the competition than reporting the news?


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.



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