Venerable WFAA-Channel 8 anchor Tracy Rowlett last week selected a very public forum--a Dallas Bar Association media awards luncheon--to take aim at a very surprising target: local television news.
And he did not spare his own station.
Rowlett, keynote speaker for the annual Stephen Philbin Awards, told a crowd of 80 attorneys and journalists last Friday at the Belo Mansion: "The stuff we do at Channel 8 is both good and bad."
Rowlett offered his criticism after tracing how WFAA built its journalistic reputation--and top-of-the-market ratings--on enterprising, investigative journalism. He cited the work of WFAA's Old Guard: former news director Marty Haag; reporters Byron Harris and Doug Fox--like Rowlett, hired by Haag after quitting their jobs at an Oklahoma station on journalistic principle; and investigative reporter Robert Riggs, who had just accepted a Philbin award, given out for excellence in covering the legal system. (Haag is now a Belo corporate executive; Harris is assistant news director for KHOU, Belo's Houston station.)
In years past, WFAA distinguished itself by doing its own digging, Rowlett noted--ending a local TV tradition of just summing up the morning's newspaper headlines and "adding pictures."
But recently, Rowlett declared, offering a litany of criticisms, "TV news is beginning to lose ground....We're back to following newspapers....We're focused on sensational promotion....We too often cover the easy stuff again."
Rowlett said that in TV news, technology and gimmickry--such as hidden cameras and "ambush" interviews--have become far too important, substituting for enterprising, thoughtful journalism. He said he marveled at the sea of satellite trucks in Waco during the siege of David Koresh's compound--"and all the Kens and Barbies who are running around to report on it.
"Time after time after time, invariably there's inaccurate reporting. Maybe we are back to covering those newspapers and those shootings and those fires."
Did such criticism apply to Channel 8? Rowlett was asked.
Absolutely, he replied. He suggested that WFAA has a special obligation to produce good journalism. "Channel 8 should be judged by a different standard," he said. "The stuff we do at Channel 8 is both good and bad.
"...Channel 8 used to be a reporters' shop. We were known for that. But I think we've become more of a producers' shop.
"I also have seen a number of reports [on WFAA] that are little more than newspaper follows," he told the crowd. "And I don't like it. It's easy."
Asked about TV newsmagazines, Rowlett said some, such as "20/20," produce good work, while others are miserable. He declared "American Journal"--a show, he noted, that runs each afternoon on WFAA--"absolutely putrid."
Rowlett's comments come at a particularly critical time in the evolution of the Dallas TV-news business. The shuffled network lineup has boosted the number of full-fledged local TV-news operations to four; KXAS-Channel 5 is starting to nip at WFAA's heels in the ratings (something that no one has done for years--and a matter of millions in ad revenues); and the crucial November sweeps are fast approaching.
WFAA vice president and general manager Cathy Creany declined to comment on her star anchorman's remarks.
But after the speech, Rowlett--adopting a slightly more diplomatic tone--told BeloWatch he has been "fretting" about the state of his business since watching television's "overblown" handling of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Rowlett said he doesn't think WFAA has become complacent--"Channel 8 is forever out there trying to get the best people and put out the best product"--but is concerned that it may nonetheless be sliding a bit toward the prevailing TV-news standards. He blames it on the deteriorating quality of younger TV reporters--"I've seen that there are fewer people who get into TV news these days who really have a sense of what should be driving them journalistically"--and a decline in internal competition.
"I think maybe we've lost a little of our internal dialogue. I'd like to see more of that internal competition. My thought is that inside any station we should have an ongoing dialogue, and that people should compete--we should have reporters inside our station competing for the lead.
"You don't sit back and wait for one of your competing stations to get you moving,"Rowlett said. "That's maybe the spark that we've lost."
Brad Bailey's lazy, sexist ("So let's take a look at Major TV Babes....In the case of 4's Julia Somers, let's take a look at her--please"), and otherwise idiotic treatise on local television news in the October issue of D defies much BeloWatch comment.
Bailey stands apart from his peers by employing fewer facts per story than any other writer in Dallas. In this case, he digresses from his sophomoric stream-of-consciousness ramblings to spend five paragraphs defending drinking buddy Dale Hansen from a year-old Dallas Observer cover story. Eventually he wanders onto the subject of Channel 8's Chip Moody, "the Jungian archetype of the Universal Nice Guy," with this crisp personal recollection:
"In 1983, I was working the dismal night police beat at The Dallas Morning News, maybe making $20,000 a year. Chip Moody was already the big time Channel 8 anchor knocking down the big six figures..."
Moody, of course, was anchoring for Channel 4 in 1983. He moved to Belo's Houston station the following year, and did not arrive at Channel 8 until 1987.
The DNA match
On September 18, a vociferous letter to the editor appeared on the editorial page of the Morning News. The letter-writer took umbrage with a Nancy Lieberman-Cline column alleging racism in the world of sports, which asserted that blacks are "underrepresented" at quarterback in football.
"Has anybody out there noticed that there is not one white starting tailback in the entire National Football League?....Has anybody noticed that every single starting defensive back in the NFL is black?....Why isn't anybody crying about white 'underrepresentation' at defensive back?
"The bottom line is that the best players at those positions happen to be black..."
The name attached to the letter prompted a call to BeloWatch. Surely the News had been hoaxed. The name: Gene Pool.
BeloWatch is grateful for the tip (keep 'em coming, gentle readers), but must report that the News letter-checking department remains unsullied. Chalk this up instead to the curious coincidences category--Dallas does indeed boast a letter-writing resident named Gene Pool.