A Shaky Start for Trib’s New TV Critic

Ken Parish Perkins, the Tribune’s new TV critic, watched two weeks of tapes of Fox Thing in the Morning, then published his judgment of the show’s host, Bob Sirott.

“Call me too new and too naive,” wrote Perkins, “but I like the guy.”

Sirott was touched, but not speechless. He responded on camera with a lecture wrapped in the cheery, steely smile that names in this town get to inflict on newcomers who aren’t names.

“I appreciate the fact that in today’s Tribune the new TV critic, Ken Parish Perkins, writing in Tempo, likes me. And I do appreciate that. But Ken, I’d rather have you dislike me than misquote me.”

Sirott’s audience, as Perkins’s article pointed out, is a small one. But among his viewers that morning were Rick Kogan, the editor of Tempo and Perkins’s predecessor as TV critic, and Karen Olson, the Tribune’s TV editor. This was not pleasant to see.

“There’s a line here”–Sirott was maneuvering the morning paper now–“let me find it, that I didn’t say. I didn’t say this, and I never have said this. And you know the guy had a tape recorder, and it was on–I saw the red light. But for some reason this line is in Ken’s piece.”

Sirott read the line. “But we also try and remember [that] this is a conversation conducted through the airwaves. We like to make people laugh one minute and cry the next.”

Sirott looked Chicago square in the eye. “And I never said that. Are you crying? I don’t really want to make you cry. I really don’t.” Then he was speaking to Perkins again. “But if you don’t print accurately what I say, then I think we should use the two hours to devote to your column.”

And he laughed. A Tribune editor might call the laugh chilling.

“Seven 25. Coming up next: no crying and today’s weather, which is cold and miserable,” Sirott continued.

“I’ll cry about that, though,” sidekick Marianne Murciano chimed in.

When Olson got to the office it was clear to her what had to be done. If Sirott was wrong, the Tribune would ask for an apology. If he was right, the paper would run a correction. Perkins checked his notes and tape.

Two days later the correction appeared. “It was a paraphrase of what was in the notes,” says Perkins. “I was working real fast. He wasn’t referring to his show. The subject was how you can go from serious to light news. He was saying that what he admired about some of his mentors was that they were able to do that. I screwed up by attributing to his show what he was saying about news in general.”

So–a rough start for the most interesting new face of the Howard Tyner era. Perkins, who’s 35, grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes and is now one of two black TV critics at daily papers in the country. Entertainment editor Gary Dretzka hired him away from the Dallas Morning News. One of the clips that impressed Dretzka most was Perkins’s critique of I’ll Fly Away, the civil rights series set in the south. Most critics loved it. “I’ve always thought that one thing television’s been able to do is deal with racism back in the 50s,” Perkins told us. “It’s always been very difficult for it to deal with racism as you see it in the 90s. I didn’t want a weekly visit to this place where you had to cross the street when a white was walking toward you, where you kept your eyes down. For me, as an African American, I didn’t want to see it every week.”

This week Perkins nailed 704 Hauser, the new black sitcom from Norman Lear. “Black conservatism to Lear seems to be more intriguing than it is–some of Goodie’s boot-strap comments are often forced and even out of the realm of black conservatives.”

The history of television offers a parade of cultural and social critics writing eloquently to no effect. We welcome a black commentator as a fresh source of illumination, even if in the end he makes no more of a difference. The terrain Perkins is now surveying dismays him. Chicago television has slipped since he left for college in 1977. “I was a big WBBM Channel Two fan. I liked Walter Jacobson quite a bit. I liked Bill Kurtis. I thought they were a very good team. I’ve been thoroughly disappointed. Not only with Channel Two, but with Chicago news. When I was in Dallas I’d brag that Chicago had very straightforward, very hard news, and everything was in its place. Hard news here, features there. And when I came back everything had mixed. Everybody was playing to tabloid TV, and it was really unfortunate.”

But before Perkins can begin delivering sermons he has to establish his credentials. Sirott’s public lecture didn’t help.

“This was not the kind of splash I wanted to make,” Perkins told us. “Credibility to a journalist is everything. Without it I’m dead in the water.”

Reconstructive Surgery

Is it possible for every reporter in the room to get it wrong? Yes, at least under these conditions: (1) The subject is health care; and (2) the speaker either (A) did not say what it sounded like he said, or (B) said what it sounded like he said, but (I) did not mean it or (II) stopped meaning it the next day when he saw how much flak he was catching.

See how easily it can happen?

Oddly, the reporters who misunderstood the testimony two months ago of David Murray, chairman of the board of regents of the American College of Surgeons, misunderstood it in exactly the same way.

New York Times: “The American College of Surgeons today endorsed a health care system in which the role of private insurance companies would be eliminated and the Government would pay for health care. The group, which presented its views in a Congressional hearing today, is the first large organization of doctors to support such a single-payer system, the kind of system used in Canada.”

Washington Post: “The American College of Surgeons yesterday endorsed the concept of a government-run health insurance system similar to the one in Canada.”

Wall Street Journal: “The American College of Surgeons stunned the medical and health-policy world by endorsing a national “single-payer’ health system for the U.S.”

And the American Medical News, under the headline “Surgeons back single payers”: “Sending shock waves through the health world, the American College of Surgeons has become the first major medical organization to back a single-payer health plan in the United States.”

The ACS received hundreds of letters and telephone calls at its headquarters in Chicago. Dozens more came to Murray personally in Syracuse, New York. Some members went so far as to call for his impeachment. Angry mail can never be taken altogether seriously–“I’ve had more letters from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, than I’ve had from the combined states of California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts,” Murray told us last week, but obviously many of the ACS’s 55,000 members weren’t happy with their organization.

In March the ACS attempted to undo the damage. The membership was notified that Murray had written to inform the guilty publications that they’d given the public “a totally wrong impression with regard to what we have–and have not–said about a single-payer health plan.” Murray chastised the American Medical News, which is, after all, published in Chicago by the American Medical Association, for choosing “to repeat the same errors made by the lay press.”

Murray stressed that the ACS “did not, and has not, issued any formal statement with regard to endorsement of a single-payer health plan.” And he reminded the News that it’s a house organ: “We think it is unfortunate that at a time when the American Medical Association is espousing unity for the entire medical profession, it would choose to headline an article erroneously simply to increase effect.”

The News did not back down. Instead, a follow-up article quoted at length from Murray’s testimony to a House Education and Labor subcommittee. When Murray told us his formal statement to the subcommittee spoke favorably of “single-payer approaches” but went no further, we read to him what the News said he said:

“In fact, Dr. Murray told the subcommittee: “It is our conclusion after careful review of the proposals out there, and also current changes in the delivery system that are going on without any legislative reform, that we would endorse a single-payer system as the best method for ensuring that patients receive consistent, cost-effective and high-quality care at the most manageable costs.”

“It’s possible I did use the word “endorse’ at one time or another,” Murray acknowledged, observing that the formal statement was followed by several hours of discussion. Nevertheless, he insisted that “endorsed” overstates the case.

Next we turned to the office of Congressman Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat who’s a doctor himself and the author of a single-payer bill. After Murray testified, McDermott put out a press release that said the ACS “announced it has endorsed single payer health reform” and will be working with McDermott “to bring it about.”

“We ran it past their PR people, who approved it,” McDermott’s press secretary told us. “There’s no question what they did.”

A recent Boston Globe article described the aftermath of Murray’s testimony in terms of “backlash,” “semantic cartwheels,” and “damage control” that illustrated “how leaders of physician groups, who are steeped these days in the arena of health policy and often understand the options better than their colleagues, can get ahead of their rank-and-file members.”

Murray didn’t care much for the Globe article. “I can’t believe there are very many people who are reading the Boston Globe who are acutely interested in a statement made by the College of Surgeons six weeks earlier.”

Murray ought to be right. Health reform should be too volatile a subject for anything said in February to be studied like tea leaves in April. But it isn’t. What’s happened, we suggest, is Whitewater.