A good start for 'Newsnight'

November 18, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Maryland Public Television promised in-depth analysis of issues affecting our lives, and that's exactly what it delivered with the premiere last night of "Newsnight Maryland."

The topic of the show's main story was hospital mergers, and the bottom line for viewers was that knew you knew a lot more about how such mergers might affect your health care after an eight-minute report and a 10-minute discussion.

In fact, you probably had enough information and context actually to reach an informed opinion on the matter. When was the last time you can remember that happening with a local news program?

Following the format of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," the program zeroed in on its main topic with a report from Cumberland in Allegany County on the proposed merger of the area's two hospitals -- Memorial and Sacred Heart.

The producers gave us the emotional images of industry representatives for the merger and local residents against the plan arguing at town meetings. Normally, that's all you get on local news.

But MPT's report then went beyond the quick hits to let each side coherently make its case. Then, adding yet another level of context, the producers tried to help viewers synthesize all the information and understand that beyond the economic story is a cultural one.

One question asked: What will happen to women's reproductive rights if Sacred Heart, a Catholic institution, is the only hospital with a birthing center?

Co-anchor Bob Althage, formerly of WUSA-TV in Washington, ran a smart and focused discussion of the issue with a heavyweight panel. When one industry executive proclaimed that such mergers lead to "right-sized" institutions, Althage responded with, "Right-sized sounds like down-sized to me. Is that what you mean?" Althage was on his game.

The weakest part of the show was the Newsmaker segment anchored by co-host Camilla Carr. Yaphet Kotto, one of the stars of "Homicide: Life On The Street," was interviewed on the set. Kotto's an interesting guy, but this segment has to feature people who are in the news of the day in a more meaningful way.

"Newsnight Maryland" is a good-looking show with network-quality production values. Its biggest obstacle will be in overcoming the huge potential conflict of interest it faces in having key members of the Maryland Broadcasting Commission that oversees MPT appointed by the governor (and almost a third of its budget coming from Annapolis).

Let's hope the tremendous public-service promise of "Newsnight Maryland" is not lost to Maryland politics.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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