Middle of the Pack

Fifteen minutes into this past Sunday's WFAA-TV Channel 8 navel-gazing special Covering Terrorism: Critiquing the Media, two things became clear: Peter Jennings is less than cordial, and a dying local news station has no idea why it was once great.

The disjointed, uninteresting, self-important program purported to give local journalists and audience members a forum to discuss the media's coverage of our post-September 11 world. Instead it gave Jennings a chance to snip at the invited audience and panel members. He quickly shooed away "moderator" Gloria Campos, whom he said was in the way of the camera. He inexplicably cut off Bob Mong Jr., president and editor of The Dallas Morning News, as Mong was trying to draw an analogy to how the paper covered a military action in Somalia years ago. "Can we deal with this crisis?" Jennings snapped. Stunned, Mong could only muster, "Well, Somalia is a great example, but OK." Finally, in a move of pure class, Jennings shushed an overeager pastor, who was identifying himself as a God-fearing red-blooded American, by asking him to "cut off the commercial." Jennings had, in a quarter-hour, made panelist and talk-show host Mark Davis seem as well-mannered as an English schoolboy.

About then, I turned to the Raiders-Chargers game. It was too painful watching the thinly disguised infomercial for Channel 8. Actually--not a good analogy. It was more like a Triple-A baseball game, heavily promoted because the parent team's star player was in town rehabbing a hammy. It was a silly, desperate act, what some in the biz call "stunting." It was bush league.

Which is, sadly, no longer surprising when it concerns Channel 8 or its parent, the Belo Corp. Like a team with an egomaniacal owner, the top-notch loyal employees at the station can only shake their heads as new inexperienced faces wander in, as they lose viewers and confidence, as management pinpricks their spirit day after day. It happens when they ask employees to forget about raises that are written into their contracts because times are tough. It happens when they ask videotape editors to please remove personal items like family photos from their spaces because they are going to be shared with other editors.

But mostly it happens when smart reporters know they are no longer able to do their jobs well because management doesn't have a commitment to quality over profit.

Don't believe me? Fine. I don't like you, either. But you don't have to take my word for it. Read instead the report issued last week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a journalists' group in Washington, D.C., affiliated with the renowned Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. (You can find it online at www.journalism.org.)

The annual study looked at newscasts in 14 U.S. markets during two weeks, a total of some 6,000 stories from 430 broadcasts, and found that one Dallas station was the best large-market station in its survey--not Channel 8, but KTVT-TV Channel 11, home of famed Belo refugee Tracy Rowlett and other former Channel 8 reporters.

Combining scores in seven categories (stations get good marks for things like using more than one source on a story, doing more enterprising or in-depth reports, etc.), Channel 11 was the only Dallas station to warrant an A grade. Channel 8 and KDFW-TV Channel 4 received Cs, and KXAS-TV Channel 5 earned a D.

"There were some stations with great reputations, like WFAA and others, that when we actually watched them, we were shocked that the quality wasn't there," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But things change over time, new people come in...And many of these stations are responding to the budget pressures we also reported on with this study. They try to react a bit to the flashy competitor, but the most off-putting thing a quality station can do is put a big slit up its elegant dress, to try to get a little slutty. It's very alienating to people."

(Like, oh, I dunno, say, running three days of reports about how the Belo-backed CueCat is going to change the high-tech world?)

Rosenstiel also noted that during the survey's four years it has shown that earning an A is the route to not only peer credibility, but also ratings stability--and, therefore, greater profitability. "We've done 189 separate stations over four years," he says, "and the stations that earn As are the most likely to have rising ratings trends. There's not much advantage in being a B, C or D. We find that you need to be a lot better for the average viewer to be able to distinguish the difference."

That, folks at Channel 8 will tell you off the record, is what the station used to be. It's also what Channel 11 is becoming, says lead anchor and managing editor Rowlett.

"We're very pleased, of course," Rowlett says. "I've said consistently that we have to do this the right way, to make this place a 'reporter's shop,' to make a commitment above all to quality. This is recognition of that.

"Because in some markets, flash works well. Not here. It's been proven that in Dallas-Fort Worth, quality works best. Channel 8 used to know that, but a few years ago that all changed, and that commitment is not there. The people who run that station now, none of them were there when it was going up, when it made its reputation of greatness, and they don't know how it was done."

Of course, I'd like to ask those managers to respond to Rowlett. More than that, I'd like to ask them to counter similar charges made by some people who still work at Channel 8. I'd like to ask them if they think they'll lose any more good people to Channel 11--then bet them a Benjamin they're wrong. But Belo has a policy of ignoring this paper. Management refuses to return phone calls and spends time trying to seek out reporters and editors at Channel 8 or the News who talk on background.

I don't pretend that the recent survey or this column reflects the only legitimate take on which newscasts are best in town. In fact, I'd bet that Morning News TV critic Ed Bark could make a pretty good argument that I'm buying too much of what Channel 11 is selling and ignoring the good work still done at Channel 8. He's been in this market longer; he has a wider range of sources; he watches more TV than I do, and he's very fair. I'd like to read his take. I won't. Neither will you. Even though, upon his recent appointment as top dog, the News' Mong suggested Bark would soon again be writing about local news, it hasn't and probably won't happen. The corporate bosses still won't let him. Because they own Channel 8. Because they're scared of bad press. Because they're bush league.