Staffers concerned about credibility

TV: WBFF's patriotic statements read by news anchors draw more media attention.

October 04, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Baltimore's WBFF appears to have hunkered down after a patriotic statement of support for President Bush read by the station's anchors prompted widespread media scrutiny and vexed some staffers.

At a recent meeting with employees, station officials warned staffers not to talk to the press, pointedly reminding them they could be fired if they did. And Bill Fanshawe, the station's general manager, criticized The Sun for its coverage of the original incident in a rare, on-air editorial which ran Monday and Tuesday.

Several days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some 60 stations owned or managed by the Baltimore County-based Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., prepared editorials supporting Bush and other government leaders. Most of the broadcast remarks were made by stations' general mangers or Mark Hyman, a senior Sinclair executive.

At WBFF (Channel 45), however, anchors were tapped to read the statements, as Fanshawe was out of town. Seven staffers - including news anchors, sports anchors and a weather forecaster - taped the messages, which also aired on sister station WNUV (Channel 54).

The statement explicitly cited the views of "station management" as a concession to concerns expressed by some journalists there. They feared that announcing support for Bush and his response to the attacks could compromise their credibility.

The Sun wrote about the statements on Sept. 18 and 19. The WBFF statements soon received coverage from many news organizations, including the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times.

Company officials say they have received considerable support from viewers for what they characterize as a non-political stance. However, some observers within the profession, such as Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, have criticized the station for jeopardizing the public's trust in the staff's independence.

In another meeting this week, Fanshawe sought to make clear that the station's newsroom would not be the target of deep job cuts. Just last month, Sinclair eliminated an entire news department at its St. Louis station. But the general manager assured WBFF employees that the two cities had different dynamics.

Yet some staffers here describe a climate of tension or bewilderment in a newsroom admired by peers for its award-winning reporting and the previously hands-off stance of its upper management. Asked about his comments to the newsroom, Fanshawe says he is the appropriate person to speak about the station publicly. Others may prove ill-informed about internal matters, he said.

During his editorial Fanshawe stood before a screen displaying the images of a waving flag and the Statue of Liberty under a caption that read: "Operation Help Our Heroes."

He said: "We question why The Baltimore Sun has appointed themselves as the media watchdog for the coverage of this tragic event. Fox 45 and WB54 continue to provide fair and balanced news coverage in these unprecedented times. We suggest The Baltimore Sun do the same."

In an interview, Fanshawe explained his objection: "The Sun is the direct competitor of TV and radio stations in this marketplace. I would use the analogy that GM doesn't critique the cars put out by Ford."

Unlike his counterpart at WBAL-TV, Bill Fine, Fanshawe appears on the air infrequently. Fanshawe said yesterday that he does so when he feels it to be appropriate. He could not recall, however, when he last recorded an editorial or its subject.

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