Something’s Not Right on Channel 11

The director of programming at WTTW won’t be goaded into what he calls “the labeling game.” WTTW has just added two distinctive new shows to its schedule, but Andy Yocom denies that any sort of ideological imbalance is being redressed. “I think we get all points of view in the programming we get from our national sources,” says Yocom defensively.

The labeling game is played with a vengeance by a New York media critic named Jeff Cohen, who gallops under the banner of FAIR–Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Cohen is the fellow who recently assailed Nightline for its establishment-fixated guest list; and for the past year and a half he’s been riding the Public Broadcasting System for its hospitality to “partisan rightists” and “business viewpoints” in its public affairs programming and its inaccessibility to “progressives.”

The National Review’s William Buckley and John McLaughlin have their weekly forums; Adam Smith’s Money World and Wall Street Week look at the world through the eyes of big business. But where’s the pundit, Jeff Cohen wonders, who speaks for the Left?

Well, there is Jonathan Kwitny, who puts out a weekly investigative show that Cohen told us is “amazing–it deals with issues that are not on television anywhere else.” But Kwitny doesn’t like labels either; what he says he speaks for is tough reporting that goes against the grain. Distributed nationally for the past year by PBS, The Kwitny Report could not be seen in Chicago until last Sunday, when a show on political corruption in Haiti began a trial run of a trifling three weeks. “We’ll see what kind of a reaction we get,” said Yocom.

We asked him what he liked about the show. Yocom echoed Cohen. “Oh, I guess I would have to say I like the fact it sometimes deals with issues that are not presented with any regularity on television.”

Such as? “Oh, let’s see,” Yocom replied. “How about the use of nuclear weapons for strategic purposes without actually dropping a bomb?”

That study of covert nuclear saber rattling was one of Kwitny’s favorite shows; a couple of others he mentioned when we talked to him the other day were his inquiry into the savagery of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, America’s designated good guy in the Angolan civil war, and the show linking Guatemala’s death squads to its U.S.-backed minister of defense.

Kwitny used to be an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where he was preeminent among the wonderful band of reporters there who kept finding out things about the world that didn’t square with the assumptions of the editorial page. He’s published books with the titles The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA and Endless Enemies: America’s Worldwide War Against Its Own Best Interests.

His slant on matters isn’t William Buckley’s.

Kwitny is pleased that Chicago is finally getting a glimpse of his efforts, chiefly so they’ll be visible to the city’s philanthropists. After six months of what Kwitny says has been editorial interference by station management–although the given reason is a lack of resources–The Kwitny Report was canceled by WNYC, the small PBS affiliate that produced it. Unless he finds new underwriters, The Kwitny Report is going under.

Kwitny told us he brought in his 26-show season on a budget of $690,000, with WNYC also providing valuable in-kind services such as offices and technical facilities. “If we can get the funding,” Kwitny said, “PBS says they intend to move us to their core prime-time schedule. To do what PBS would like, which is 39 weeks of really innovative reporting, we’d need a couple of million bucks. They’re prepared to keep us on as just a talk show, which we don’t want to be, but if that’s the only way to keep us on the air until we can be more, we’ll take it. PBS will take it, too. PBS is solidly behind the show. But they can’t produce it. They don’t have the programming budget.”

We asked Kwitny if he agreed with Jeff Cohen that the mix of opinions on PBS is skewed to the right. He thinks so, and he thinks PBS thinks so and wants to do something about it. Then he added, “But I’m very concerned that our show be conceived as fair journalism. I’m still a reporter, and I think our stories hold up to the same standards I was taught in 17 years at the Wall Street Journal. It’s not to be neutral; it’s to be pointed. But pointed after consideration of the facts, not before. I certainly don’t want our show represented as some liberal answer to a conservative bias . . .

“A few weeks ago we showed a bunch of Angolan kids without arms and legs because of American weapons in an American-engineered war. Last week we showed a bunch of Afghan kids without arms and legs because of Soviet weapons in a Soviet-engineered war. But I’m proud of both shows. If one appeals to liberals and one appeals to conservatives, so be it.”

Kwitny is also looking for corporate sponsors, but he isn’t optimistic. “I don’t know that it’s the most likely thing, because of the kind of shows we do.”

Forget all the other labels. The important way public TV shows sort out is into the ones that big business is happy to back and the ones that scrape along or go bust. “Corporate underwriters decide who gets on and who doesn’t,” said Jeff Cohen. “John McLaughlin has become center stage on television from his conservative background because corporations would underwrite him.”

WTTW’s other new show, South Africa Now, goes on the air in August when PBS begins distributing it by satellite. This is a weekly newsmagazine created 14 months ago by a group of people with TV backgrounds who’d concluded that South Africa’s media restrictions had succeeded; apartheid was once again being conducted largely in privacy. South Africa Now takes advantage of black stringers, smuggled tapes, and a lot of materials that its producers say are out and around but the networks won’t touch anymore. By devoting half an hour at a stretch to South Africa and its neighbors Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia, whose affairs South Africa considers its own, the producers try to demonstrate that it is still possible for TV to be not only thoughtful about the region but revealing.

The anchors are Carolyn Craven, who was once White House correspondent for National Public Radio, and Fana Kekana, a South African actor. The show’s put together in a loft in Little Italy and at WNYC for under $20,000 a program.

“Kwitny’s raised much, much more money than they ever did,” Jeff Cohen told us.

Gerber Story Unfit to Print?

When we wrote last week that the firing of Ann Gerber by the Sun-Times was the day’s biggest local news story we had it half right. It was the biggest TV story. The press ignored it.

And not just the Sun-Times and Tribune. The next week’s Skokie Review didn’t run a word, even though the Review was there for the press conference at Gerber’s Skokie home when she said “it is clear the Sun-Times acted from panic and fear.” A story was written, distributed by the Review to the other papers in the Pioneer Press’s central group, and actually appeared a week later in two Pioneer papers with early deadlines. Then it vanished.

What happened, says Chuck Hutchcraft, executive editor of the central group, is that Richard Gilbert, president of Pioneer Press, told central group publisher Suzanne Thomas that before his papers covered the Gerber saga “he wanted to establish a reporting mechanism whereby we’d get details from the Sun-Times.”

Things are always stickier when it’s family. Newspapers normally rely on reporters, not “reporting mechanisms,” and the reporter in this case had done his duty, calling downtown for quotes. But Pioneer Press is owned by the Sun-Times Company, rendering normal procedures insufficient.

We could not reach Gilbert. Thomas said that what Hutchcraft told us was correct and she wished to say no more; she saw no reason to discuss the matter with an outsider, though she might if someone from her staff approached her.

As Thomas certainly knows, the Newspaper Guild at the Skokie Review asked for a labor-management meeting, a procedure identified in the union contract for airing sensitive issues. The issue, according to the Guild, was censorship. The request was turned down, no reason given.

Prairie News

A couple of weeks ago, you probably recall–although the announcement was made at the height of the Bulls-Pistons series–the developers Miglin and Beitler said they wanted to put up a 1,914-foot-tall building.

The New York Times pounced on this initiative as fresh evidence of natives dutifully perpetuating local customs. The first duty of all foreign correspondents is to send home frequent reassurance that the world remains an eccentric but familiar place.

Correspondent Isabel Wilkerson therefore reported:

“With an almost primal urgency born of a second-city attitude, Chicagoans are rooting for the new tower with the same ardent civic pride that makes them root for the football Bears.”

It might be time to ask if Chicago’s fabled second-city attitude isn’t easiest to find in the illusions of New Yorkers who cheerfully keep insisting on it. Deep into her piece, Wilkerson did allow that “there are detractors” of the Miglin-Beitler project, and she pointed out that the Sun-Times cautioned: “Before sailing this thing through in customary Chicago fashion, the city should pause to ask some hard questions. What are we doing to the Loop?”

A foreign correspondent who truly understood her natives would appreciate the folly of identifying any project the Sun-Times keeps its distance from as an example of “ardent civic pride.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.