Look Back in Confusion

A quick rundown of trends, notes and final thoughts about the year in local media, an aught-one that said goodbye to KLIF's Tom Kamb and hello, again, to the Crab Nebula's Marty Griffin.

Afghan Wigs: If you have a life, you may not realize that former Channel 4 anchorbabe Ashleigh Banfield became the hottest thing in TV war coverage since Arthur "Scud Stud" Kent. MSNBC reporter Banfield received national attention for her September 11 "ground zero" reports, then for her reporting on the war from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Soon after, critics began to pick apart her appearance, championing/deriding everything from her Tina Fey-ish black-rimmed glasses to her decision to darken her hair because blondes don't have more fun in Taliban-land.

Four quick points to make here:

How bummed is station management at perennial afterthought KDFW-Channel 4 that it let her get away a few years ago? Remember, Banfield was heavily touted during her stay here, adorning billboards with co-host Steve Eagar and station diva Clarice Tinsley. She was a gal-about-town, singing at clubs in Deep Ellum. Supposedly, though, some ego battles at the station (meow meow, hello catfight) accelerated her efforts to seek employment in a larger, more accommodating market. Too bad, because she could have made a difference, however slight, for Channel 4 in a few years' time. To think she wouldn't have is silly: She was very good even when she was buried on the hour-long 9 p.m. newscasts, always the right blend of perky, serious and in control, just as she is now.

Banfield reportedly has been upset at the way some TV commentators have focused on her, and in some ways you can't blame her. Even the aforementioned Arthur Kent had every story about his leather jacket offset by the due respect given his reporting abilities. Not so with Banfield. Because she is a woman, her good looks and fashion choices become the central part of any critique she receives, as though her tassled locks and sultry voice overshadow the horrors on which she reports. It is a sad commentary on the mindless male perspective of our media elite.

That said, she is pretty hot.

Back in the day, she was also outer-limits nutbar. A friend of mine who had a local humor column called "Dr. Funky Guy" in The Met once wrote something that made Banfield upset. No one quite remembers what the offending words were, even the good doctor himself, except that the mention was an innocuous comment about her newsreading job. A few weeks later, a brand-new color television showed up at the writer's cubicle with a note from Banfield. It said that if he needed more column material about her, he could now at least watch her newscast and get his facts straight. The national media sensation will be happy to know that the television is now in Dr. Funky Guy's bedroom.

Talk Matters: Have there been sadder, slower slides to irrelevancy than the ones experienced by KLIF-AM 570 and KRLD-AM 1080? Ten or 12 years ago, these two stations defined AM greatness, KLIF as a talk-radio station and KRLD as an all-news giant. Since then, KRLD tried to become a news-talk hybrid, and KLIF tried to reinvent itself as hip and topical with new hosts. Each transition begat more confusion, and the results were predictable. KRLD lost talent and direction, and KLIF--good heavens, what's to say about that abomination of a station? A random kindergarten show-and-tell draws more listeners. Unfortunately, no light of redemption is in sight for talk-radio fans. Just miles of tunnel.

But 2001 does bring relief from one of those stations caught in spirals of death, as KRLD is giving the news radio format another go. The station is reverting to all-news programming, a welcome blast from the past when you could set your watch to its CNN Headline News style of, well, headline news. Not sure if that will spell ratings success, but who cares? Just achieve something that's not aurally repulsive. Then worry about the numbers. Hello, KLIF, are you listening?

Belo, Be High: I've done several stories about Belo properties this year, primarily WFAA-Channel 8 and The Dallas Morning News. Most of these stories have not been "positive," technically speaking. They follow the standard alternative-weekly format: Big Daily Newspaper + Corporate Ownership = Unfettered Evil. Interestingly, though, there have been very different reactions to my columns from people who work at these places.

For the most part, people at the DMN react to shots across the bow with war-weary fatalism, as if to say, "Yeah, it does kinda suck to work here. What took you so long to notice?" Generally, the people I talk to--of every rank and from many different departments--seem resigned to their plight. They say they know the paper is solid, even very good at times, but for the most part they are fed up with, sick of, tired of and have about had it with the b.s. Said b.s. is usually understood to be management's lack of support for this slight or that injustice against humanity. The words "cue" and "cat" are often invoked.

At Channel 8, however, there are those who take criticism of the station seriously and personally. For example, I've written a few times this year on the ascent of Channel 11 as it attempts to take the crown of quality away from Channel 8. Afterward, there is always a group of station staffers at Channel 8 that makes known its disagreements. Those whose opinions differ with mine will cite specific stories they've beaten Channel 11 on, or challenge me to back up a contention with examples. They will argue passionately on behalf of their colleagues and deride the work of their competitors. "Celeste," one lengthy e-mail began, "you are wrong, and here's why." It then went on for about 1,000 words.

Now, I don't always concede their points. Too often, defenders of the faith miss my point or fail to see in their own station shortcomings for which they castigate others. But it's telling to me when I see Channel 8 employees fight for the reputation of their workplace. It shows they still care, which means either they've got a point or that they're just better paid than their print brethren. I suspect both.

A Fine Mood: A sobering year ended on just such a note last week when longtime Dallas news anchor Chip Moody died. I won't pretend that I knew Moody, except through some of his friends' good-ol'-boy stories. But I did know him in a way, and you did, too, or we wouldn't care that he was gone. We value newsreaders for their TV persona, after all, the way they make us feel when we watch them. Some may have journalistic skins on the wall, but we really don't care. We want someone who makes us smile when the story is feel-good, shake our heads at this week's scandal, unexpectedly choke up at tragedy far away, laugh at the day's silliness. Moody could do that. His public presence was one of hardened optimism, some days dulled but never dead. That memory remains, years after he last signed off, and it will be one of his legacies.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste