Foreign news back in demand

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Coverage: The question is how long viewers' interest in other countries is likely to last.

September 26, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

"We live in a smaller world now," says Erik Sorenson, president of MSNBC, the cable news channel. "The problems that we used to think were the problems of other parts of the world are now our own."

Some television news heavyweights say this realization heralds a time of sustained interest in foreign news unseen since the Cold War. Maybe so.

Hourlong documentaries aired last weekend by CNN and MSNBC on Afghanistan - the nation believed to harbor the organizers of the terrorist attacks. And both drew unusually large audiences. Sorenson has put his entire 65-person documentary staff to work on all aspects of the story, especially abroad. More than 50 people called The Sun yesterday seeking more information about a National Geographic Channel documentary on Afghanistan.

Over time, however, Sorenson is less certain that the viewing public - or the media - will keep as focused on stories from abroad, except when the conflict flares in the open.

"It depends on where the story goes, and it depends on the level of interest from the audience," says Sorenson. "There are many of us in the journalism community who have wanted American viewers to be more interested in foreign news."

Meanwhile, many media outlets slowly are shifting away from the extraordinary to the more predictable.

On CBS, The Early Show was up to its old tricks yesterday morning, referring to the national trauma to drum up interest in its third round of Survivor.

"Millions are sure to appreciate it not only as an entertainment, but as a distraction as well," says CBS' Mark McEwen, who narrated the ad-like segment.

Late Monday night, CBS-owned WJZ lodged the logo "Breaking News" prominently in the left-hand corner of the screen as it broadcast Kai Jackson's report on the deadly tornado.

Such a caption is considered a sure crowd-grabber. And yet it referred to the same tornado that had cut a swath through Prince George's and Howard counties nearly six hours earlier. By yesterday morning, the station already was using footage of the event in promotions touting its coverage, with the inflated caption: "Eyewitness News Live!"

No one could challenge its worthiness as a topic for the news. But that terrible story wasn't occurring as the station went to air. It had already happened. That's simply called news.

The gimmick brought to mind anchor Sally Thorner's revelation that presidential aides claimed the White House itself had been a target of the terrorists. Although several cable channels and networks were already carrying the information, Thorner read copy that said: "Eyewitness News has learned ..."

News director Gail Bending says that phrase shouldn't be taken to mean that the station is in sole possession of that information. Rather, she says, it means WJZ made an effort to get that information, even if from the news wires, such as the Associated Press.

To the casual viewer, however, it certainly suggests that WJZ has magically developed its own sources in the Secret Service, the White House or the FBI. The tagline is frequently misleading.

In reporting on terrorism, there are real developments, real news stories, and a very real threat that exists. Now more than ever, the packaging shouldn't get in the way of the news.

New MPT program

Next Monday at 6 p.m., Maryland Public Television will roll out Direct Connection, a new public affairs interview program rising from the ashes of the canceled Newsnight Maryland.

Jeff Salkin will serve as the primary host of the half-hour show, which is being characterized by station executives as less Nightline than Larry King Live for Maryland. Yolanda Vasquez will be a roving correspondent for the program, speaking with people about the topics raised by the show.

"It's the old Paul Harvey line - you've heard the news, now here's the rest of the story," Salkin says. "By 6 o'clock, most people have heard the news already. Now they want to learn more about the story and make it more interactive."

The station expects to draw figures from the worlds of politics, commerce and culture for their nightly interviews, which are likely to last 10 to 12 minutes.

There are two primary reasons for reconceiving the old Newsnight Maryland. First, it was expensive, costing the station about $1 million annually, without attracting sufficient corporate sponsorship. And second, the old Newsnight Maryland often aped the frenzied atmospherics of its commercial counterparts. This new forum, given time, may prove more enlightening.

Unfortunately, that means MPT has fired three of its five reporters on the old show, including John Aubuchon. The news veteran understood how Annapolis works better than any television reporter covering the state's political scene, except perhaps Lou Davis of WMAR (Channel 2). Former Newsnight Maryland anchor Camilla Carr can be found doing some stories for WJZ.

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