Don’t Touch That Dial!

One TV news show doesn't cover car wrecks and 7-11 holdups, and, what's more, it's run by a woman.

I ALWAYS NOTICE LOCAL newscasters’ hair. Nothing is out of place; it is long enough and short enough; it never moves. I have the impression that newscasters’ hair styles are molded in plastic and the poor guys pull them on like a football helmet before going on the air.

And who are these men who claim to tell us what’s going on locally? Where do they come from? Night after night they appear, flashy in double-knit suits and striped shirts, yet grim and concerned of expression, stentorian in vocal range. The beginnings of each broadcast are positive and incontrovertible: “Good evening, I’m Ruddy Dudd and this is the news.” Then follows a litany of freeway crack-ups, 7-11 stick-ups, and banquets given in honor of the mayor.

The management of commercial television stations, caught in the necessity to compete for both advertisers and viewers, learned long ago to treat their news show like any other show—as a product. If an anchor man’s ratings slip, they ship him out, shove in a replacement, and start promoting this new “personality” like crazy. We see him heralded in billboards along the streets, in large ads in the newspapers, and in commercial spots on the station which hired him. We see him typing frantically, jabbering on the telephone, leaping into mobile news units. Meanwhile, a voice-over tells us that this man spends his every waking hour in search of all the truth that can be found out there on the grimy streets of Metropolis.

On the air that night he appears once again as neat, clean, and shining as ever and with hair-helmet once again in place. Didn’t the awesome demands of daily truth-ferreting put one speck of dirt under a fingernail? Didn’t leaping into mobile van after mobile van put one crinkle in that stiff collar? And how many hours of dogged investigation did it take, how many powerful toes needed to be squashed, what burning sense of public mission was necessary, to bring us this film of a warehouse fire down on Third Avenue? If these men are telling us everything they know, do they know anything worth telling?

Aware what a drop in ratings can mean for his future, the local newscaster soon learns that his job is not so much to report the news as to sell it. And some news is easy to sell, some isn’t. In a recent broadcast on Channel 8 in Dallas (the station whose local news has the most viewers in that market) three of the first four stories concerned fires, two in Dallas and one in Pryor, Oklahoma, a small town only 335 miles away. The lead story that night gave the lowdown on a collision between a car and a truck.

But that same night a different local news program used a lead story about the Fort Worth Housing Authority, a subject which on the surface might seem unpromising in the extreme. In some ways it wasn’t even a story in the sense that a fire is a “story”. The Housing Authority’s funds had been cut in Washington, a decision covered long ago in the newspapers. Despite the cut, the Housing Authority was still obligated by law to provide housing for whomever qualifies for assistance. Again not a “story”.

The program, however, told viewers what the combination of those two bits of information meant. Since the demand for housing was increasing, a reduction in funds meant that the Authority had no money left in its budget for maintenance and repair. Tenants were left helplessly to watch their dwellings erode about them. Here was a significant story, one with considerably more importance to life in north Texas than a fire in Oklahoma. And it was a story the reporter hadn’t found by merely tailing a siren.

The reporter was Bob Ray Sanders. He works for Newsroom, a program carried on KERA, Channel 13 in Dallas, the local Public Broadcasting Service station.

A person seeing Newsroom for the first time may find himself a little confused if he is used to watching only local news shows of the garden variety. He will see no anchorman squeezed behind a tiny marquee. Instead there will be eight to ten reporters seated around a large six-sided grey table where they read their stories, not straight into the camera, but to one another. Most of them are young, looking to be just shy of 30, and they include a mixture of types that are noticeably different from the newscaster mold: a few sort-of-long hairs; two blacks; a Mexican-American; three women who, one discovers as the show progresses, are not paid to prance and pucker beside a weather map but to report the news.

In fact there is no weather report at all, no regular sports report, no stories on fires, robberies, or traffic accidents, no routine film clips of dignitaries arriving at the airport. Photographic coverage may be film or, when the situation warrants, a series of still photographs. Even the viewers can get into the act. During the show members of the audience may call in with whatever comments, questions, or vituperative tracts that night’s broadcast has provoked. As many as possible are read on the air at the end of the program.

This format has been essentially the same since Newsroom’s first broadcast on February 16, 1970. Its producer and editor at that time was Jim Lehrer, former city editor of The Dallas Times Herald. Lehrer was familiar with San Francisco’s Newsroom, public television’s first adventure in covering local news on a regular basis. That program, begun in September of 1968, was conceived with the idea of not competing with commercial news media but complementing them. Instead of police blotter reports, it offered broad, hard-hitting coverage of local events and issues. The reporters tired by the show, a strange combination of young, hip types and crusty city desk denizens of the nose-for-news-and-a-stomach-for-booze variety, suddenly found themselves not only on TV but also on a program that was encouraging them to snort and rip. They

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