WBFF's newscast is tiring

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Super-short stories only skim surface

February 05, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

WBFF has started a new 11 p.m. newscast - Baltimore's fourth - and, judging by its debut, the program will offer a vertebrae-jolting headline service laced with a populist, conservative flavor. It is news at the speed of slight.

A suggestion for viewers: You may want to take advantage of the commercial breaks to suck down some Gatorade. Executives at the Fox affiliate's parent company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, have clearly taken note of the speed of CNN's Headline News and even closer note of the hyperbolic delivery on cable ratings leader Fox News Channel.

The tone of Fox 45 Late Edition is intended to distinguish it from the increasingly homogenous, crime-centric late newscasts of the region's two top-rated stations: WBAL and WJZ.

"When you do a counter-programming show at 11 p.m., it's got to be something different," says Morris Jones, one of the show's anchors.

Many stories on WBFF's Monday broadcast merited fewer than 15 seconds - some fewer than 10. In only a handful did a reporter actually recount a story. Most were narrated by anchors Jennifer Gilbert or Jones. Large topics such as the shuttle explosion and the possible war in Iraq were treated in a rapid-fire and sometimes scattershot manner. The result was exhausting but not exhaustive coverage.

An exchange described as an "exclusive interview" of a Baltimore man gave him time to utter two sentences. Nine seconds were devoted to a promise by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, an influential congressional voice on space issues, to keep funding coming for the shuttle program. Mayor Martin O'Malley's State of the City address was reduced to a six-word sound bite: "Baltimore is about to be tested."

I had to watch the newscast twice more to catch a reference by Jones to the discovery of an abandoned warhead by weapons inspectors in Iraq. The only reason it even registered at all was his remark a few seconds later: "Regarding that warhead's discovery ..."

The 11 p.m. news program's dizzying feel is in direct contrast to the flow of WBFF's 10 p.m. news, a program with a much more deliberate pace that, on occasion, commits serious time to serious topics.

The new half-hour program is also an unusual amalgam of local and national news. Gilbert, one of WBFF's chief anchors, works from the Fox station on Baltimore's Television Hill, introducing excerpts of stories from the earlier local newscast. But her partner Jones, a former anchor at WTTG in Washington, is based at News Central, at Sinclair studios in Baltimore County.

The setup may serve as a model for how Sinclair could arrange new late-night news programs for some of the 60-plus stations it owns and manages around the country. And if Monday night's newscast is a reliable guide, Sinclair intends to serve up a newscast with a slightly right-of-center populist sheen. Jones, in particular, interspersed editorial comments throughout his news reports.

Here's how Gilbert introduced a brief report on a narcotics bust in Baltimore: "Another victory in the war on drugs."

And how Jones segued into a piece on an accused al-Qaida terrorist: "We may not like it, but Zacarias Moussaoui has the right to a fair trial ..."

In a segment called "Get This," Jones led with a whimsical item on the Vatican's apparent approval of the Harry Potter books. Without pausing, he went on to say that according to the conservative watchdog group Media Research Council, CBS news anchor Dan Rather had questioned whether President Bush's tax policies would affect the fortunes of the space program.

Jones quoted Rather as saying: "Where is the money going to come from, with the nation fighting one war, on the brink of another, and going through, not a series of [tax] increases, but a series of tax cuts?"

Then Jones said: "Gee, I don't know, Dan, where will we find the money? Maybe from your inflated salary."

When asked for her reaction to the comment, CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said Rather raised the question about new funding for the space program during an interview. "Dan asked a perfectly legitimate question that reporters all over the country are asking of government officials. It's unfortunate that this gentleman took part of a legitimate question out of context to suit his own agenda," she said.

Jones says his remarks were intended lightheartedly. And he rejects the notion that the show's approach would appeal to conservatives.

"It's an unfair swipe to say that Sinclair is right of center," Jones says. CEO David D. Smith "wants everybody to be out there - a la Fox News Channel."

The newscast as a whole, Jones says, "is going in the direction that I think local TV news must be going."

NASA TV

When space-program officials described memorial services for the Columbia shuttle crew, they said it could be seen on NASA TV.

NASA TV?

It's a station that doesn't show up during ratings drives, doesn't really advertise its existence, and definitely doesn't have any big stars, except the stars in the sky.

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