TV news without chasing ambulances Newsnight Maryland: Maryland Public Television launches a more cerebral local newscast focusing on entire state.

November 15, 1997

WHEN RAYMOND K. K. HO was fired two years ago from Maryland Public Television, one of the knocks against the controversial president was that he splurged on shows with a national or international focus, but neglected the folks at home.

Monday will bring the latest example of a new era at MPT when it rolls out a weeknight news program called Newsnight Maryland. It is the most ambitious venture to date under Mr. Ho's successor, Robert J. Shuman.

The show symbolizes the change at the top of the state's public TV station, from Mr. Ho, who had the air of a tent-revival preacher, to Mr. Shuman, a more contemplative executive from Potomac who founded The Learning Channel on cable.

Newsnight Maryland will be more local and less adventurous -- 18 states are already airing similar programs -- than anything Mr. Ho was wont to try.

Newsnight Maryland is still a gamble, however. MPT is betting an audience exists for a live, half-hour broadcast that eschews the typical motto of TV news, "If it bleeds, it leads." The success of National Public Radio and of public TV newscasts similar to this one, from Boston to Orange County, Calif., suggests there is a significant niche to be served. MPT officials are confident they have secured the best team to anchor the show in Camilla Carr and Bob Althage, former TV journalists in Baltimore and Washington.

In a state cleaved by different network news, MPT's newscast might help bring together the two metropolitan areas and other parts of Maryland. In fact, this show's potential to be a factor that unites a diverse state is of its most promising aspects.

Even so, there are pitfalls it will have to avoid. Most important, with one-third of MPT's budget coming from state government, is the need for it to avoid any appearance of serving as a mouthpiece for those in power. Otherwise, its credibility -- essential to its success -- will be in doubt.

We hope the project succeeds, if for no other reason than to buck conventional wisdom about the public's appetite for thoughtful journalism on the air.

For all the hand-wringing over the paparazzi's culpability in Princess Diana's death last summer, we have not noticed a U-turn away from tabloid journalism. Indeed, the most prominent stories this season have involved Marv Albert's bedroom attire and the case of a British au pair accused of a child's death.

Baltimore's own H. L. Mencken opined 71 years ago that no one ever lost money underestimating the public's intelligence. MPT hopes this latest venture will prove otherwise.

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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