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No investigative reporting.

As a rookie city reporter for the Dallas News in the late 1950s, I shared the disdain my print colleagues had for television journalists, considering these creatures preferable to stray dogs only in that none knowingly harbored fleas. My memory is vivid of a 1960 press conference at which the Dallas district attorney, Henry Wade, announced the arrests of two con men who bought small burial insurance companies, looted them of their cash assets and then drove them into financial ruin. A television reporter listened to the rest of us for perhaps half an hour, then asked Wade a question that glibly summarized what had been discussed. His report that evening featured his seemingly incisive question.

What did not get onto the air was what the reporter asked me as the press conference broke up: "I got here a little late. Could you tell me, in a couple of sentences, what this situation is all about?" I did, and I heard my answer parroted back in his introduction to his piece.

So is local television news any better three-plus decades later? Oh, perhaps. The laws of probability dictate that television news has found some journalists blessed with qualities other than a photographable face and a Ted Baxter voice. At its best, local television news can be very good. For example, WFAA in Dallas is generally credited with the first substantive reporting on the savings and loan crisis. During the blizzard of 1979, I went gaga over Susan King of the old WTOP in Washington, D.C., for her marathon coverage of a storm that crippled the city. (She is now an anchor at WJLA in Washington.) Tom Sherwood of WRC does the best city hall reporting of any journalist in Washington, and his colleague Jack Cloherty knows the kooks and zanies of our city.

But my judgment is based on the area that I know best from my own experience, investigative reporting. In recent years I was asked to testify as an expert witness in perhaps a dozen court cases involving local television news. I did so in several that indicate a flaw that local news shares with the networks: starting a story with a premise, and ignoring contrary evidence.

In 1990, I testified in a case involving a San Antonio station that aired a series attacking a heart surgeon for doing unnecessary and bad surgery. The physician claimed that a disgruntled employee had targeted him and enlisted the television station to do her dirty work. I was dubious until I heard an outtake of an interview with a family member of one of the supposed victims. Once the interview ended, she asked if she should hire a lawyer. Someone on the crew said not until the story aired because they were trying to "sneak up on" the doctor.

The station had worked on the story for almost three months, covertly filming the doctor as he drove around town and visited the local airport. The footage had the grainy character of FBI surveillance photos. But the station did not try to interview the doctor until late in the afternoon just before the first story aired. He was out of town, and could not respond to his accusers. Several hours later, when the report aired, his medical career was in ruins. There was much more to the case, but the jurors' collective ears seemed to perk when they heard the "sneak up on" quote. The millions of dollars awarded to the doctor was eloquent testimony of the jurors' opinion of the station's professionalism.

In another case, a Boston station had accused a former New England college president of illegally obtaining building materials, spare parts for airplanes and other supplies from a federal surplus program. The evidence suggested that rival successors for the college presidency stirred the story. When I read through the documents that had been available to the station, it was obvious that the reporter had ignored repeated admonitions that he was confusing two federal programs, and that the president had obtained materials for his college in a way that was ethical and legal.

The case was settled out of court in June 1992. The amount awarded to the college president was secret, but the lawyer seemed pleased when he called to tell me of the resolution.

I constantly read criticisms, in AJR and elsewhere, of the "decline" of investigative reporting at local stations. But did such a creature ever exist? Surely one can cite examples of good work by individual reporters here and there. But given the overall record, it is easy to understand why a significant number of station owners have come to realize that they cannot trust the quality of work done by their reporters, hence their unwillingness to invest in further so-called investigative journalism.

This is bad for all of us. As a Jacksonian democrat, I feel that the American populace has a good deal of respect for factual reporting. What does the sorry state of television news mean in a practical sense? When traveling, I have a rule of thumb about newspapers: Will they get me through breakfast? Extrapolating to local television news, I seldom find anything that interests me beyond the weather and sports scores.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Goulden, Joseph C.
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Production over coverage.
Next Article:The tabloid style.

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