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CBS' 'Inside Edition' Puts a Chill on TV's Hard News Coverage

January 11, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Television needs a lot of things, but not David Frost on a soapbox hosting a series. In fact, it may not need Frost at all.

"We want to set a man free!" Frost, that do-gooder-come-lately, announced at the top of Monday's premiere of "Inside Edition" on KCBS-TV Channel 2. That man is James Richardson, who has spent 20 years in prison for the murder of his children in Florida.

Based on the show's own investigation, "I think James Richardson is innocent!" Frost proclaimed. Yippee.

If ever a single revolting performance epitomized a show seeking to whip viewers into a frenzy, it was that of the huffing, puffing Frost on the opener of "Inside Edition," a new, syndicated tabloid series that splashes "the new face of reality" across the screen. You may prefer the old face.

The marginally older face that "Inside Edition" supplanted on Channel 2 is "USA Today: The Television Show," which offered its own "new look" in its debut Monday on KNBC Channel 4. You may prefer no look.

When it comes to news, Channel 2 at least gets credit for bizarre eclecticism as it continues its eternal struggle to rise from overall third-place in the ratings among local network-owned stations. Its new youth brigade of local newscasters gives way to the nerve-jangling-Dr. Strangelove-tight Dan Rather, who has now become the lead-in for the 7 p.m. "Inside Edition," which has been shaped by John Tomlin and Bob Young, former producers of Fox Broadcasting's "A Current Affair."

Television is becoming a landfill for junk news, and there may be no turning back. Given the popularity of "A Current Affair" and the incestuousness of the industry, it's no accident that larger and larger chunks of television are resembling the tabloid racks at supermarket check-out counters.

Yes, you had to admit that Jon Scott's story on Richardson did have heat and passion , perhaps because the field producer was Craig Rivera, brother of hot-and-passionate Geraldo Rivera and former employee of "Geraldo."

In the bold tradition of yellow journalism, moreover, "Inside Edition" favors advocacy over straight reporting, its points of view arriving on the tips of nuclear warheads. So what if the Richardson story fell just short of declaring outright that he was "set up" by corrupt authorities? Frost was there to tidy up that loose end himself:

"How on earth can society pay its debt to James Richardson for 20 years of anguish and pain? We'll come back to that in another program. Right now, the first priority is to set him free."

Frost urged viewers to write Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and demand that Richardson be set free "not next month or next year--but now! This week! By lunchtime tomorrow! If only on parole for a start."

Following the commercial break, it was on to another story, this one about the placing of newspaper ads alleged making false promises through special-exchange telephone numbers. Ace reporter Marguerite Bardone and a camera crew ambushed and harassed the alleged culprit--Robert Spanville of New York--as he pushed a stroller on a Manhattan street, accompanied by a small girl who appeared to be his daughter or grandchild.

"Robert Spanville eventually gave up trying to mislead us about his ad," the smirking Bardone reported. The nerve of him for even trying.

After making a case against Spanville, Bardone claimed that despite his denials, he is being investigated by the New York State Attorney General's Office and that "criminal and civil prosecutions may follow." The operative word here is may . And if Spanville isn't prosecuted? Not to worry, for "Inside Edition" has already prosecuted--and convicted him--on television.

Well, what to make of all of this?

Richardson--who made a compelling defense in his own behalf on the show--may indeed have been "set up." And Spanville may actually be the scum that he is alleged to be.

But that's for viewers to decide, not a tawdry, rouged-up streetwalker in hot pants like "Inside Edition," whose self-parodying anchor sits in a mock, three-tiered news set occupied by choreographed extras who move about and rustle papers--probably copies of The Star--on cue.

Frost, who popped up in syndication last year with a series of serious interviews with the U.S. presidential candidates, capped the first half-hour of "Inside Edition" with a pathetic comedy monologue titled "Frost Bites," followed by a promise that the series would include "no three-headed babies. No programs devoted to issues like: Should one-legged lesbians be allowed to adopt ferrets? No sex surveys. And hopefully, no broken noses for the host." Get it?

How on earth can Channel 2 repay viewers for the anguish and pain of watching this show? By freeing the airwaves of "Inside Edition." Not next month or next year--but now! This week! By lunchtime tomorrow!

If "Inside Edition" is your basic screamer, "USA Today: The Television Show" continues to be a half hour lacking a pulse on Channel 4.

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