Elections in the spotlight


TV/Radio Column

October 30, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

And now, back to your regularly scheduled news programming: this year's elections.

Both nationally and locally, coverage of the search for those responsible for the sniper shootings blotted out most other topics for the month.

"It sucked all the oxygen out of the room for three weeks," says Jeffrey Salkin, the host of Maryland Public Television's Direct Connection. "Now you've got this shortened election season."

Though it would be easy to forget, there are several major, competitive races coming to an end Tuesday: for governor, for Maryland's 2nd and 8th congressional seats and for Baltimore County executive.

So news stations are careening to return viewers' attention to politics, especially the pitched battle in the governor's race between Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The parent companies of WJZ, WBAL-TV and WMAR each had made corporate pledges to commit a specified amount of time to covering candidates and the issues during the campaign. None of the three stations is likely to meet the goals, which seem modest enough at first blush. (WBAL-TV, for example, has promised to devote five minutes total in its two hours of evening and late-night newscasts to the campaigns.)

Even so, during the Washington-area shooting rampage, television stations and radio shows took some time to explore political issues. WBAL-TV news director Margaret Cronan says her station will miss its commitment to campaign coverage by only a slim margin. Her lead reporter, Deborah Weiner, tracked political developments throughout the sniper ordeal. WBFF-TV, in particular, consistently made time to allow politicians to speak on a variety of issues.

But as Cronan acknowledges, all stations had to push aside stories that ideally they would have had time to air in favor of the shootings.

Mark S. Miller, news director of WBAL-AM, says he would have liked to assign reporters to do more stories on the Baltimore and Harford county executive races. But other significant developments also received short shrift, he says. Miller points to the guilty plea of rogue Allfirst trader John Rusnak last week and the disclosure that state probation officials failed to keep tabs on the young man charged with the arson that killed a family of seven.

In the final week's sprint to Election Day, there will be far more coverage.

For example, Townsend and Ehrlich are scheduled to appear on consecutive nights - tomorrow and Friday - for live half-hour call-in sessions during Salkin's evening program on MPT. Both candidates are also set to tape half-hour segments for WBAL's Saturday evening public affairs show. Townsend joined Marc Steiner on WYPR-FM yesterday afternoon to take questions, while Ehrlich and running mate Michael Steele held court on WBFF Monday evening.

On Monday night, WBAL-TV carried live the debate at Towson University between congressional opponents Dutch Ruppersberger and Helen Delich Bentley. The same night, WBFF had at least a half-dozen distinct stories on Maryland politics. Next Monday at 7:30 p.m., WJZ will broadcast a half-hour special devoted to one-on-one interviews with each gubernatorial candidate.

If you can't find candidates for office in coming days, you aren't looking hard enough.

The quality of coverage is open to more question. A competent report by WBAL-TV's David Collins after Monday's congressional debate remarked on the largely civil tone but also Bentley's charge that Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening had abused the reapportionment process to shape a district favorable to Ruppersberger. It might have been useful also to note that a decade ago, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer angered his fellow Democrats by insisting that same district be drawn specifically to favor the Republican incumbent - one Helen Bentley.

For its part, WJZ-TV would be well-served by more judicious selection of what footage to air during Pat Warren's reports. In separate recent dispatches, both Ehrlich and Townsend have introduced Warren to passers-by, illuminating exactly nothing about the campaign.

Don't get your hopes up too much - most local newscasts have covered the resignation of Robert Blake's lawyer from his murder case and the shoplifting trial of Winona Ryder, episodes that belong more on Entertainment Tonight than real-life newscasts during serious times. But there is an effort to offer some coverage in these last days.

Changes at WYPR-TV

At WYPR-FM, this fall's fund-raiser pulled in more than $230,000. But plans for a news desk for the public radio station are starting to take shape, thanks in large part to an additional, six-figure grant from a private foundation that is to be announced later this fall, according to Steiner.

Steiner, the nine-month-old station's talk show host and executive vice president for programming, says WYPR intends to kick off a search for a news director shortly, and should have one on board within a month.

The station would then hire one or two full-time reporters by early next year, and rely heavily upon a cadre of National Public Radio stringers and other journalists in the area whom it could train in radio production.

The news reports would likely last for two to 10 minutes apiece and be broadcast within NPR's news shows, with an emphasis on features, public affairs coverage and investigative pieces. "People are not looking to us for breaking news," he said. "I hope we bring you the analysis of the news, to look behind the headlines."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com

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