A reporter friend from Washington, D.C., called the other day to discuss war coverage. This friend is "plugged in," as they say. Perhaps you saw him during President Bush's recent news conference, sitting in front of our commander in chief, nodding thoughtfully, looking somber and balding. No matter. The point is that this friend wanted to know if he had indeed seen a Dallas television newsman filing a report on NBC.
"Yeah," I told him. "Ken Kalthoff, from Channel 5. I saw him, too, talking to Forrest Sawyer. He's a Kent Brockman type. Why?"
"How many local stations in Dallas sent reporters to be embedded?" he asked.
"Four, I think. Robert Riggs and Sarah Dodd with Channel 11 and Byron Harris at Channel 8 are there, too. Why?"
"Because, there's only one station here that sent someone," he said. "And this is, like, Washington, D.C."
Which shows one of two things. Either the stations here are stupid and should have saved money and resources to cover local events while simply airing stories filed by their network's correspondents, or local television in Dallas is better than in many other top media markets.
I'll go with the latter. Probably because this theory fits neatly into my point, which is that the Dallas-area media have done a pretty good job of covering the war effort, locally and abroad. As much as is possible. There have been some gripping stories in The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, compelling pictures on most of the local news channels, even some worthwhile debates on local talk radio stations.
But they can only give you a description of the part of the elephant they are touching. Which is why I don't blame them for falling short on giving you, the readers/viewers/listeners, appropriate context for the war. They try, sure, but they mostly fail. In the local papers, you get a few great features, many standard recaps of the day's events, even some well-meaning but treacly columns about divided families or protesters or whatever. TV gives you dramatic images of sandstorms and guns firing. Radio gives you well-rehearsed debates from cliché-spouters. Again, they're doing what they can within the limits of their mediums and their contacts. In all, an earnest, satisfying effort.
No, all you folks calling or e-mailing me complaining about war coverage have yourselves to blame. Fantastic, in-depth, well-connected, unbiased reporting and opinion are out there. It's on the Internet. Try Slate.com. Try the Washington Post, the Times of London, the BBC's Web site. Try the scores of bloggers from the Middle East, the military sites, even the networks' sites, which often surpass what you see on the air. Just quit calling me and bitching because the stuff you read, write and listen to locally doesn't perfectly conform to your predetermined right/left philosophy.
Just got a call from a person in Plano who reads both this newspaper and The Dallas Morning News. His assessment of the daily's new Collin County initiative, in which the paper tries to force news about the northern 'burbs (Frisco, McKinney, Plano and Allen) into its pages to better reach affluent white-flighters: "It's just completely, totally awful."
Now, this person went on to indict every media member in the tri-county area as conspirators in a global scheme to promote filth and godlessness--no, I am not kidding--but that's not really the point, is it? Point is that he and I agree on one thing: Day One of the Collin County initiative was less than stellar. A recap:
··· On the front page, a story that examines how a mall spurs development in the burgeoning suburb of Frisco (complete with helpful locater map of the mall off Highway 121).
·· ·At the top of the Metropolitan section, a story about how totally supah-sweet the new minor league ballpark in Frisco is (complete with a locater map of the ballpark's location off Highway 121).
·· ·Inside the Business section, a story about how a developer is excited about developing in McKinney (a town bracketed by Highway 121).
So, lemme get this straight: It took increasing the Collin County bureau to 44 staffers (from 15) to produce this level of insight? Can't we get this same information in D magazine already, and on glossier, heavier stock? Is 121 the epicenter of the paper's interest or the number of readers in central or Southern Dallas who will still subscribe by 2010?
Two and a half years ago, when the Morning News opened a bureau in Cuba, I wrote a fake news release that fake-quoted Belo chairman Robert Decherd detailing the paper's fake moneymaking strategy. At the time, I thought that, even as satire, it was a little too over the top. It read as follows...
Decherd reiterated that this ...[would not] compromise the Morning News' ability to cover North Dallas. "Oh, Christ no!" Decherd exclaimed. "We know where our bread is buttered: in the ad-rich, demographically desirable, milky-white world of Frisco, Plano, Carrollton...anywhere north of Mockingbird Lane, basically, up to the Red River."
Looking back, I feel like I should have entered that parody into investigative journalism competitions.
Sent an e-mail to Rene Syler, the former Channel 11 anchor who is now entering her sixth month as co-anchor of CBS's The Early Show. The show was ripped early on. Now, with the war and all, not so much. Here are parts of her reply:
What's the best thing about the new gig? Well, without a doubt the new paycheck! All kidding aside, I absolutely feel like I've found the perfect TV job for me. Being able to feed my hard news appetite is wonderful, but because life is about balance, I get to do the fun things, too.
The worst? Since my family is still in Dallas, I would have to say the toughest part for me is the travel back and forth. That situation should be remedied in about three months when my family moves to New York.
Still miss Texas? Oh, heck yes! But I am there every weekend, so I get to see the inside of D-FW Airport with incredible frequency...And when I say "y'all" here in New York, I know I'm a Texan, no matter what my birth certificate says.
Do you think you're there long-term? OK, now I can interpret this two ways. Either, do I think I'm here long-term because CBS brass wants me here, or do I think I'm here long-term because I have designs on other projects? I will answer it this way...heck, I hope so! I'm about to uproot my entire family and move them across the country; I certainly hope I'm here for the long run. Failure was/is not an option for me.
Have the sharks stopped circling? I think having our best February sweeps [in terms of total viewership] since 1995 has a way of silencing some critics. That said, we're still finding our comfort zone, but it's clear that some people like the alternative...So whatever was/is written doesn't change the fact that I have to get up every day at 4 a.m. and do my level best to communicate the day's events...And now, you can cue my theme song, John Mayer's hit "No Such Thing"--just the verse where he says, "I'd like to think the best of me is still hiding up my sleeve."
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