AS A FORMER news "person," I have become increasingly alarmed by developments taking place among those entrusted with keeping the public informed.
The first hint of trouble came one day while I was watching WMAR's Sally Thorner on the 5 o'clock news. The station's slogan is "Friends you can turn to," and to prove how friendly members of the staff were with one another, Thorner showed a clip of her playing a practical joke on her co-anchor, Stan Stovall: When he wasn't looking she pinned something on his jacket that amused her greatly. Did she ever whoop and holler!
The joke was a real knee-slapper -- recalling kindergarten, when we used to stick signs saying "Kick Me" on the backs of unwary classmates.
But, as was also true the next day when several WMAR people, in a spirit of irrepressible jocularity, sprinkled snow on weatherman Norm Lewis, I wondered what such puckish pranks had to do with the station's news coverage.
I wondered: Would a shot of Eric Sevareid banging Edward R. Murrow in the backsides with a pig's bladder have increased their fans' faith in the competence of their reporting?
My concern deepened during the weeks that followed as Thorner told viewers, "We really care about the things that affect you" -- at which Stovall jumped in with: "We consider how the news affects you and how we can help."
The statement -- with its underlying suggestion of tampering with the news by those who disseminate it -- bothered me. As time went by, I began to dream about it. The dream took the form of a play.
Setting: a Baltimore television studio just before the evening news. Pertly prim along a counter are ace anchorwoman Oogie Schmaltz, her impeccably dressed co-anchor, Reg Rabbit, and weather prognosticator Cloudy Schmidlap.
CLOUDY: Another boring day with no change in temperature.
RABBIT: But -- we care.
CLOUDY: Oh, God yes.
The door bursts open. Sports reporter Earnest Cliche rushes in. He is very excited.
CLICHE: Stop the presses! Tear out the front page! Tell mother I won't be home for dinner!
RABBIT: What are you babbling about?
CLICHE: I've just learned the new stadium is infested -- from boxes to bleachers, from restaurant to restroom, with galloping athlete's foot. Not even Cal Ripken Jr. -- who hasn't missed a game since he was born -- will go near it.
RABBIT: Good God! What are they going to do? Refund the people's money?
CLOUDY: It'll be a cold day in July when they do that.
All begin to talk at once, but the babbling ceases abruptly when the station's general manager enters.
G.M. (in funereal tone): I gather you have heard the news. The question is how do we report it without making every baseball fan in Baltimore want to stay home and soak his feet in Lysol? We've got to preserve our image as friends you can't turn off.
OOGIE: I don't suppose we could finesse it. You know, announce it casually at the beginning of the show and devote the rest of the time to all the horsing around together. We might even persuade Reg to loosen his collar and take off his tie.
G.M. (Thoughtfully): Taking off Reg's tie would certainly be a step in the right direction, but we need more. Oogie, what can you take off? (Smacking his forehead) No! I didn't say that. I definitely did not say that! Cloudy, what about that song of yours you're always singing? Something about rain in Spain. You know the one.
CLOUDY: You mean (Singing)
Let the rain pitter patter
It really doesn't matter
If the skies are gray --
G.M.: That's the stuff!
CLOUDY: But it's not my song, chief. It's Irving Berlin's.
G.M.: Makes no difference. It's still a good song. (Thinking) Now if we could only change that rain to athlete's foot --
CLOUDY: Let the feet pitter patter --
G.M.: Good! Good! But we mustn't sound ridiculous.
It was the word "ridiculous" that did it. I awoke in a cold sweat, but with a strong feeling that, however ridiculous it might at times appear, news reporting at local TV stations is in caring hands.
R. H. Gardner is the former drama critic of The Sun. "Those Years," his recollections of his early years in Baltimore, was published late last year.