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A rare and perceptive glimpse into how TV news is gathered

Sunday, October 07, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

An excellent meditation on the current state of local television news, PBS's five-part documentary "Local News," beginning Tuesday on WQED/WQEX, shows viewers how the news is made.



"Local News"

When: 10 p.m. for the next five Tuesdays on WQED/WQEX.


It reveals reporters, anchors and managers to be real people, struggling to do the right thing. They're not just the ratings-hungry sharks some people may assume them to be. They're that too -- more the executives than the people you see on TV -- but mostly they're trying to practice responsible, quality journalism while getting high enough ratings to keep from being fired.

Filmed throughout 1999 at WCNC, the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., "Local News" shows news professionals seriously considering whether to report a possible threat to a school.

"Let's get this thing sorted out," says news director Keith Connors to his staff. "We're not going to add fuel to the panic. ... We need to be calm. We need to be reasonable in an unreasonable situation."

There are also scenes of newsies joking about coming up with a title for a special newscast (e.g. "America on Alert," "America Under Attack," etc.).

"If it doesn't have a colon in it, it's got to be alliteration," says one producer, laughing.

The absurdity doesn't stop there. In the last episode, an executive suggests the station create a "Big Local Story" label for the top of the newscast.

"I like the word 'local' in there," Connors says, dissecting the minutiae.

Viewers see a fire department spokesman so in love with being on camera, he directs himself to start over for a second take. They hear a reporter for a rival station exclaim, "Oh, nice!" when he sees a house fire that will make for good video. "Local News" demonstrates how technical gaffes are made with the devastatingly bad debut of a new anchor team.

And there's a lot of talk about ratings and money. The higher the ratings soar, the more money the station can make. WCNC is a third-place station that at the time was struggling. Today it's still in third place, but a much closer third and supposedly the fastest-growing station in Charlotte.

"It's a business, and first and foremost we have to make it work as a business," says one employee. "Hopefully, we'll make it work, and then they'll give us more money to do it better."

Viewers will get to know several reporters well, including education reporter Sterlin Benson Webber, who covers a controversial school desegregation case. Reporter Mike Redding wants to be Charles Kuralt but finds himself standing on a beach in a hurricane instead. Anchor Alicia Booth gets demoted from anchor to reporter before leaving the station.

Through Benson Webber and Booth, in particular, reporters are seen agonizing over their stories. Benson Webber strives to present both sides of the school issue fairly. Booth covers the murder of an 8-year-old boy in the fourth episode.

"It's important to know how the neighbors feel, but I hate it," she tells the documentary crew. "I hate that perception that we're all just a bunch of hawks descending on the neighborhood."

A photographer echoes her comments.

"I'd hate like hell to see a camera outside the funeral home," he says. "Sometimes they push it too far. ... I think it's tacky. I do it because it's my job."

Booth is also seen negotiating with sources and her news director over what details to include in a report. If she says police suspect a 15-year-old who lives in the same neighborhood as the murder victim, will it hurt their case?

"Local News" offers a rare glimpse at how a TV news operation works, but it has flaws. In Tuesday's premiere, newsroom personnel provide voice-over commentary, but the documentary fails to identify them. Viewers won't know who's speaking.

Next week's installment is the most troubling. From the start, it fails to adequately explain what's going on. There's talk of Beatrice Thompson -- a veteran black female reporter -- being fired, but it's never explained that her contract was not renewed. The program also fails to give the station's point of view or explain its "no comment" policy on personnel matters.

African-Americans rally around Thompson, accusing the station of racism in her firing. It's a stretch. I'd be more likely to believe ageism (she comes across as a bit crotchety), but a few months later, WCNC didn't renew Booth's contract, and she's young, white and blond as a Barbie doll.

Despite a few missteps -- the role of anchors in TV news is pretty much ignored -- "Local News" does exactly what a PBS documentary on the subject should: It acts as a watchdog over commercial television and lets viewers see how it works.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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