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Tuned In: Attacks still influence TV news, programs

Thursday, October 11, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Reflecting the cautious state of America, the prime-time television schedule continues to be in flux.

Just as things started to get back to normal, American bombing of terrorist targets in Afghanistan made things topsy-turvy again, most notably with another postponement of the Emmy awards.

Should the Emmys have been postponed? In retrospect, probably not.

"Alias" and "The Practice" aired on ABC Sunday night, so why not the Emmys on CBS? Hollywood celebrities and executives are terrified of public perception that they're not exercising appropriate sensitivity, so they canceled. Plus, some of the stars bailed out, fearing for their safety.

At this point, there doesn't seem to be a public outcry demanding the self-congratulatory show be rescheduled. But a low-key, taped ceremony, which is being discussed, would allow CBS and the Emmy folks to avoid taking a huge financial loss.

In addition to the effects on the entertainment industry, news divisions have come under fire. Probably the biggest media hand wringing has been over local and network news anchors wearing pins of the American flag or red, white and blue ribbons.

Those who have sat through classes in journalism ethics know fairness, impartiality and objectivity are among the profession's most valued tenets. But most consumers of journalism didn't sit through those classes. They often see media outlets -- print and broadcast -- as politically partisan in some way and are therefore appalled that anyone would object to the wearing of the flag.

In the ideal, hermetically sealed world of academic debate, journalists should operate as reporters and watchdogs, not cheerleaders. That's what freedom of the press is all about. But in the real world, where viewers already know which side American news anchors are on regardless of whether they wear the flag, it's a moot point.

More troubling are the promotional spots that have turned up. Using a tragedy to boost a station's image is nothing new (think about the promos that followed past tornado and shooting spree coverage), so it was no surprise to see the somber spots on WTAE and WPXI that followed Sept. 11.

KDKA's spot with Patrice King Brown took a different approach.

"Isn't it about time to appreciate how great life in this country really is?" she asks.

As if no one appreciated America before? That's pretty presumptuous.

Over at Sinclair-owned WPGH/WCWB, executives have pressed anchors into duty reading what sound like station editorials, proclaiming the stations stand "100 percent behind our president and our nation's leaders in their vow that terrorism must be stopped."

There's nothing wrong with station editorials. Though the practice has pretty much fallen by the wayside, it's an appropriate editorial outlet for a member of station management.

But to have news anchors reading the statements, once again, raises questions of objectivity. Of course, the Sinclair stations just instituted their fourth management team in three years, so there may not have been anyone in the executive suites to front such spots.

Ethics squabbles aside, there's an issue that has a greater impact on viewers. TV news promotion writers, who frequently use fear tactics to tease viewers into watching, need to cool it.

Last Thursday during prime time, Channel 11 ran promos about an "anthrax scare" on the "East Coast." At the time, there was no evidence that the Florida case was linked to terrorists, but the spot was clearly pandering to people's fears of chemical attack. That's just irresponsible.

Terrorism themes

Tonight it will be hard to change the channel without coming upon some reminder of the terrorist attacks.

PBS's "Frontline" rebroadcasts a show that aired Tuesday night. "Looking for Answers" (9 tonight, WQED/WQEX), reported by Lowell Bergman, tries to explain the hatred for the United States that motivates terrorists. It traces the history of hate through interviews, some conducted back in the late '90s. It's a chilling portrait.

"The American government don't get it," said Ahmed Sattar, an Egyptian radical who refers to the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as his mentor and friend. "You can kill Osama bin Laden, today or tomorrow you can arrest him or put him on trial in New York or Washington or whatever. This will end the problem? No. Tomorrow you will get somebody else."

Over on CBS, terrorists seem to have infiltrated the writing staff of the new CIA drama "The Agency" (10 tonight). How else to explain the show's clairvoyance?

The show's pilot was scrapped due to references to bin Laden and scenes of an American being blown up. Tonight's episode, still scheduled to air as of yesterday, features a race to track down a terrorist intent on releasing anthrax over Washington.

It's an intense hour, and the timely nature of "The Agency" makes the show more compulsively watchable than it otherwise would be. We can only hope our own spies are as good as these TV spooks.

During the same hour, Peter Jennings will dust off those giant maps of the Middle East that he walked on during the Gulf War for a new special: "Minefield -- The United States and the Muslim World" (10 tonight, ABC).

'On Q' on track

After almost two years of sometimes painful-to-watch in-studio segments, the folks at WQED-TV's "On Q" made a smart and much needed change. They retooled the daily magazine show that airs live weeknights at 7:30 p.m. upon its return from hiatus Oct. 1.

Despite some excellent taped pieces, it became clear not long after the January 2000 premiere of "On Q" that the show suffered from too-many-chefs-in-the-kitchen syndrome. With three wildly different hosts, studio segments were often yanked in three different directions with questions that didn't flow logically.

That's been solved. The three have been separated and plugged into specific segments in a new, more structured format. It makes "On Q" a better, easier half-hour to watch.

Stacy Smith begins the show with a "Cover Story," a taped piece that usually runs six minutes or more, much longer than the typical one-minute-thirty-second reports on local newscasts. They're reported by Michael Bartley and new-to-"On Q" reporter Tonia Caruso, formerly of WTAE-TV.

Sometimes the stories are more original (a Jewish group paying for security guards at local mosques); other times it's nothing we haven't seen elsewhere (local reservists preparing to ship out).

Chris Moore interviews newsmakers in the studio in the show's middle segment. He had an informative sit down Tuesday with a local professor about high-tech secret messages possibly used by terrorists. Lastly, Carol Lee Espy introduces a typically lighter segment called "Made in ..." that often focuses on cultural activities.

Friday's talking head fest, the "Fearsome Foursome," has been renamed the "Friday Forum," and participants are now wisely arranged in what appears to be a rough circle, allowing for better camera angles (before they were in a straight row, like a police lineup).

"On Q" has a new set, including an anchor desk from which Smith introduces the "Cover Story." The music also has a more urgent, newsier sound.

There's still no need for three hosts, but at least now they're not tripping over one another.

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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