Gripping `News' story does have its holes

October 09, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Local News: One Station Fights the Odds is terrific storytelling and guaranteed to make you a smarter consumer of local television news. But the five-hour PBS documentary has its flaws, particularly in punches pulled and ambiguities not made clear.

Local News is a look inside the news operation of WCNC, a perennial third-place station in Charlotte, N.C. The Baltimore comparison would be WMAR (Channel 2).

Filmmakers Cal Skaggs and David Van Taylor spent 9 1/2 months inside the NBC affiliate in 1999, shortly after A.H. Belo, a Dallas-based media company with a reputation for quality television news, took over the station. This is the story of the attempted remaking of the local news operation at WCNC.

At the center of the story is Keith Connors, a Belo news director who comes in with a mandate to do better journalism and get better ratings. In television news, the two are rarely compatible, and the heart of this series is Connors' struggle to find a balance with which he and his corporate masters can both live.

Not that Connors is exactly Fred W. Friendly, the legendary Edward R. Murrow producer who resigned as president of CBS News in 1966 because the network chose to air reruns of I Love Lucy rather than live coverage of Senate hearings on Vietnam. Connors tries to cut it both ways whenever he can.

We see Connors, who is white, participating in the runoff of an African-American reporter who had been with the station for 22 years. For those not familiar with the term "runoff," it is what a company does when it wants to get rid of an employee but has no real cause to do so. He also urges a reporter to hype her story beyond what she knows to be true even though an innocent teen-age suspect might be defamed in the process.

And he's the good guy, which gives you some idea of the ethical and journalistic landscape of local television news. But, by the fifth hour, when a consultant and news executive from Belo sit down with Connors and tell him what needs to be done, you'll see how bad it could be if Connors didn't occasionally raise the flag of good journalism in the newsroom.

Part of what makes Local News so compelling is the decision to go cinema verite. Like Fred Wiseman's best work, Local News drops you in the middle of this world and then points you toward certain people with representative stories to tell. These include an anchorwoman demoted solely because research showed women don't like her, an African-American producer who reads the handwriting on the wall and resigns, and a reporter who came to the station hoping to be Charles Kuralt only to find himself the guy in the rain suit standing on the Outer Banks everytime a storm hits the coast.

There is a downside, though, to going without narration. In a world like this where appearances often lie and liars use language to make their bad deeds seem good, it is easy to be confused by what you are seeing.

For example, wasn't the African-American producer pushed out the door, despite all the nice things Connors is saying to her in her exit interview?

My biggest disappointment was in the language the filmmakers used in their postscript to offer viewers a final assessment of how WCNC was doing in the ratings. It was vague enough to suggest one conclusion about the relationship between journalism and TV ratings, while the specific facts would probably lead you to another.

I can't say more without giving away the ending. But it left me wondering whether you can spend 9 1/2 months in the world of local television news without maybe being a little corrupted by it.

The series airs tonight and for the next four Tuesdays at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 22).

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