Lean Times, Bad News

Last month we wrote about Leslie Baldacci and her run-in with slavish imitation. Baldacci’s the enterprising Sun-Times reporter who wanted to tell the story of a reservist’s family trying to cope while Dad was away at war in the Persian Gulf. Baldacci wrote one article, and then TV reporters descended on the family like crows after corn.

A letter soon arrived from someone who used to work at Channel Five, the primary usurper of Baldacci’s story. “I think you’re really missing the boat by not reporting on the decimation that’s taking place in our once proud local TV news operations,” said the correspondent. “They’re being gutted by the bean counters at the frantic networks, and we’re paying a price in news coverage. Hence the total lack of enterprise you wrote about.”

Well, the gutting is real. An anecdote:

Midway through a David Copperfield special on Channel Two April 9, Bill Kurtis came on the air with gloomy news. A threat of flooding along the Des Plaines River, said Kurtis in roughly those words. More at ten.

In Des Plaines, David Tilley glanced out his family’s dining-room window at the river 25 feet away. It didn’t look that high to him. Tilley is secretary of the Maine Civic Association, a group of home owners who live in floodplains in Des Plaines, Niles, and Park Ridge. His father is president. Their phone started ringing. “What’s going on? Are we flooding?” the callers wanted to know. “We saw it on the news.”

At ten o’clock, Channel Two filled in the details. The threat of flooding turned out to be limited to Riverside, several miles south of Des Plaines. But even this report was “irresponsible,” Tilley argues. For the river had crested at Riverside–below flood level–before Kurtis’s 7:30 PM teaser. WBBM TV apparently based its scary announcement on a National Weather Service statement that had been issued at 11 AM! And all the Weather Service predicted then was minor flooding at a forest preserve.

Tilley, a mail clerk who’s studying journalism nights at Medill, called Channel Two to complain about the “alarm and panic” the station had spread. “I had a five-minute conversation with this guy who refused to tell me his name,” says Tilley. “I said, doesn’t this stuff go past a copy desk? I guess I was sounding a little ignorant of newsroom procedures. He said, ‘How old are you?’ I said 23. He said, ‘This isn’t school, young man, this is the real world. When stories are breaking we just don’t have the time to run over every little fact. We’re running on skeleton crews.'”

Skeleton crews and mirrors. A lot of the news on TV today that seems to be locally produced isn’t. The stations routinely air stories that come in by satellite from correspondents of network affiliates claiming, say, to be “reporting for WMAQ.” And like newspapers, TV has come to depend on syndicated features, often passing for homegrown. For instance, tapes of prepackaged medical and consumer features come in with the narration on a separate track, so that the voice of the local “consumer affairs reporter” or “medical reporter” can be dubbed in reading the prepared script.

What this amounts to is the surrender of a large measure of editorial control over the “news” the local stations put on the air. But times are tough.

And the stories that the stations actually do generate reaches the viewer in a more slapdash fashion. “All the stations have pretty much cut back on their internal news-gathering support,” said someone at Channel Seven. “We used to have several researchers–we’re down to one. We don’t have people inside to work stories like we used to.” And Channel Seven, riding high in the ratings saddle, has escaped the worst of it. We’re told that WBBM and WMAQ have shrunk their newsroom staffs by a third to a half over the last few years. Even jobs guaranteed by contract aren’t safe. At WBBM, Pam Zekman and Walter Jacobson have been limping along for months with investigative teams that are each one person short.

Of the three network stations, WMAQ has been hardest hit. The number of crews available on a given day is down by about a third from a few years ago, and overtime is virtually forbidden. Some stories are necessarily cheaped out; there are other stories the station can’t afford to bother with.

“Three years ago,” someone at Five told us, “you could say, ‘This could be a great story! I hear they’re selling drugs in a schoolyard.’ And you’d set up a hidden camera in a van and wait.”

Today you forget it.

“Perhaps four or five years ago we would shoot on the average maybe 60 field cassettes [a day]–60 little pieces on 20-minute tapes,” said Joe Paszczyk, a Channel Five newswriter and shop steward. “Now the average number of cassettes we shoot is 16 or 17. There’s a great reduction in the amount of material shot locally.

“We don’t have a library anymore,” he went on. “We do no local filing anymore. We used to keep folders with running stories so somebody could request it the day before and there would be the folder, up to date. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

We told Paszczyk about Leslie Baldacci’s experience. Of course, he said; by appropriating Baldacci’s family, his station avoided the time and risk involved in trying to find its own.

“In the past, we used to have the luxury of pursuing stories that may not lead anywhere. Even our investigative unit has less of that luxury today. You can’t afford to gamble, you can’t afford to have something fall through.

“So you have to go for the sure thing. Which makes for less aggressive journalism. It makes for copycat journalism.”

TV news departments, observes Medill professor Abe Peck, have turned into Potemkin villages. They may look great on the screen, but there’s nobody home. Which means that once again it’s the papers deciding what’s news, and television adding pictures. TV has regressed to an era it was outgrowing 20 years ago.

Sun-Times, Dumb Views

It’s never seemly when a newspaper rages at the little guy on behalf of the big.

Last week the Sun-Times felt a need to rain contempt on the owners of McCuddy’s, who have been campaigning in and out of court for a chance to set up shop again alongside the Sox’ new ballpark. “Public owes nothing to McCuddy’s saloon,” thundered the headline over the lead editorial on May 1, making the paper’s intentions clear: the Sun-Times intended to give McCuddy’s what-for and do it in the name of the people.

“Patience,” said the Sun-Times, “is running thin with the constant demands that no other site offered by the Illinois Sports Facility Authority will do, with the constant whining about allegedly broken promises, with the planes buzzing the Opening Day crowd with banners demanding to know, in effect: Where’s ours?”

The editorial went on: “Excuse us, but we fail to find mention in the lawsuit or in the PR packets of the fact that McCuddy’s was paid $257,000 for the old site [across from the old park]–‘the highest appraised value for the property,’ according to the authority. Not one airborne banner proclaimed the truth: ‘We got our 257 grand, but we want more.'”

Actually, say owners Pat and Pudi Senese, it was 235 grand. And sure they want more. They want to go back to making a living beside the ballpark. Even if they’re wrong in thinking they deserve to, it’s an honorable desire. Why does it make the Sun-Times so angry? Does the paper sneer because they went public with their beef? A newpaper’s the last place you’d expect to find someone condemned for taking his case to the people.

“Allegedly broken promises”? There’s nothing alleged about them. As the editorial grudgingly admits, “We will stipulate that former Gov. Thompson, while savoring a McCuddy’s brew and his legislative victory saving the Sox, made some promises about finding McCuddy’s a new home.” But so what! Instead of arguing that a governor’s word should stand for something, the Sun-Times takes the very strange position that it should not–“seeing as how in a democracy, not even an Illinois governor is king.” Better that the state wriggle away from Thompson’s guarantee than that McCuddy’s be restored “at public expense.”

It’s nice of the Sun-Times to be so concerned about public expense, which has already come to $140 million on behalf of one private tenant, the White Sox, and would come to a few thousand more if the state built a new home for McCuddy’s. But we don’t think the public is seriously troubled by the “constant whining” that assails the ears of a dyspeptic editorial writer. We know who is. The state of Illinois wishes that the Seneses would shut up and go away; and so do the White Sox, who were given a monopoly on food and drink sold at the new ballpark and mean to keep it. Their patience is undoubtedly running thin.

And it’s their water the Sun-Times is carrying, not the people’s.

But if McCuddy’s put the Sun-Times into a surly mood, another editorial the same day found the paper rejoicing. The Sun-Times proclaimed its delight at the “Solomonic settlement” of the Nolan Ryan baseball card trial in Wheaton. The two sides agreed to auction the card off and give the money to charity–an “inspired solution,” said the Sun-Times, noting approvingly, “The boy didn’t gain anything in his attempt to beat a businessman out of an honest price.”

Sure he didn’t. For the 12 bucks he spent on the card, all Bryan Wrzesinski gained was a coast-to-coast media ride and an invaluable lesson in life. The lesson being that you can sucker the unknowing, jerk around a judge (remember Bryan announcing in court the day the trial began that he’d traded away the card?), and generally make yourself obnoxious.

And one slick PR maneuver at the last moment will have the world eating out of your hand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.