Channel 11 cashes in on free use of troopers

TV/RADIO COLUMN

A.M. traffic reports every 15 minutes

April 09, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The new superintendent of the state police, Edward T. Norris, was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. this winter to pursue a new emphasis: homeland security.

One of the 1,200 state troopers under Norris' command has a different priority, however, at least on weekday mornings. Sgt. David Perry's new assignment entails delivering a traffic report every 15 minutes for the four hours of WBAL-TV's morning news programs.

While performing this duty, which began last week, Perry is in uniform and paid by the state. Two other troopers have been trained as his understudies.

When emergencies occur, Perry's law enforcement responsibilities will supersede his new television gig. But Maj. Gregory M. Shipley, a spokesman for the state police, says that by appearing on WBAL, Perry is reaching tens of thousands of Marylanders with a message that includes safety tips.

"A major part of what we do and why we're here is traffic enforcement and traffic safety," says Shipley. "We see this as providing a service."

One of the happiest recipients of that service is WBAL: Perry and the other troopers appear without cost to the station. Previously WBAL paid an estimated tens of thousands of dollars for traffic updates provided by Metro Traffic, a service used by all the major television stations in the Baltimore market. (Not coincidentally, Metro Traffic is owned by a division of Viacom, the parent company of WBAL's chief competitor, WJZ-TV.)

First sergeants such as Perry, who is generally assigned to a training program not currently in session, typically earn about $55,000 a year.

Several of WBAL's rivals say they were taken aback by the arrangement.

"I certainly have some concerns about that," said Scott Livingston, news director for WBFF-TV and WNUV-TV. "You have to wonder if that's the best use of taxpayer money."

Said Drew Berry, general manager for WMAR-TV: "It's kind of interesting that my taxpayer dollars are being put to work [for] a competitor. I think taxpayers will have to decide whether that's appropriate or not."

WBAL news director Margaret Cronan says she received a warm response when she first proposed the deal during the Glendening administration to then-police superintendent Col. David Mitchell. Asked whether she thought it was appropriate for a state trooper to be on the public payroll while performing her station's traffic reports, she said, "That's a fair question," and sent it back to the state police.

For his part, Shipley says he's never had much money to promote his troopers' work, and notes that stations no longer give meaningful airtime to public service announcements.

"Now I have an opportunity to have a uniformed representative of the Maryland State Police on the air 12 times a day in front of 70,000 people," Shipley said.

The arrangement is not unique. Similar alliances between police agencies and news stations exist in Washington state and in California, where Cronan says she first encountered them.

In a related change, Cronan has unveiled a new visual package from a Philadelphia firm called Traffic Pulse, which is installing a new system of sensors around Baltimore's highways to determine precise time delays for drivers for the station. The traffic-reporting troopers appear on WBAL from Traffic Pulse's new Towson studios each morning.

As a state agency, the highway police force is often the subject of news articles. Just last week, the state Board of Public Works approved a settlement in a racial-profiling case filed against the state police by black motorists and the ACLU.

Yet, as Cronan points out, such complications crop up frequently in TV news. For example, hospitals have paid for the privilege of being consistent sources of information in medical reports on many local news stations, including in Baltimore. The practice has earned the scorn of media ethicists, but drawn shrugs from local television executives, who say they retain control of the reports they put on the air.

"My goal was to come up with something that could distinguish the station," Cronan says of the trooper traffic reports. "They would be much more knowledgeable than the average traffic reporter."

Live reports on death

The story of the week was the biggest question of the war.

Was Saddam Hussein, in President Bush's words from last fall, dead or alive?

At 9:18 p.m. Monday, veteran NBC reporter Carl Rochelle told viewers that U.S. planes had bombed a building in a Baghdad neighborhood believed to have held Hussein, two of his sons and key aides. MSNBC anchor Lester Holt excitedly broke into a taped report on United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to air the news.

Rochelle reported that four 2,000-pound "bunker-buster" bombs had been dropped on the compound. Might the Iraqi dictator have been killed by U.S. bombs? "The hole was big, so big, we are told that it may be a tough time discovering who was there," Rochelle said.

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