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HOWARD ROSENBERG

To Stay or Not to Stay at KCOP? : Television: The big question is whether Bill Press, the new state Democratic Party chairman, should remain a commentator on Channel 13. He wants to stay, but would his credibility be hurt?

April 05, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

No doubt about it, Bill Press is a terrific commentator for KCOP-TV Channel 13. Smart. Funny. Bold. Good thinker. Good writer. Effective, incisive communicator. Not such a partisan liberal that he won't sometimes blast his fellow travelers.

Now that Press has been elected to the non-paying Democratic Party post he intensely campaigned for, however, Channel 13 should act swiftly to make him its former terrific commentator.

On Saturday, Press became state Democratic Party chairman after getting endorsements from such influential party poobahs as Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and two expected candidates for the party's gubernatorial nomination--State Treasurer Kathleen Brown and State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

Press correctly notes that he's always been straightforward about his politics, and that in any event commentators are not bound by the same standards of objectivity as are anchors and reporters. Moreover, he insists that winning the Democratic post won't automatically make him a TV propagandist for his party or beholden to its power elite, that before addressing issues touching them, he'd park his political indebtedness and gratitude for their support outside the KCOP studios.

Spoken like a staunch moralist.

When it comes to credibility, however, members of the media must recognize the unpleasant reality that public perception equals truth. Thus, even if Press is sincere, who will believe him? If 80% of Republicans previously considered him a knee-jerk, left-wing Democrat, count on that zooming to 100% now that he's been indelibly stamped by the party chairmanship.

And if now and then he does say something unkind about Speaker Brown or the rest of that Democratic crowd, who will believe that he was not unfairly overcompensating, not bending over backward as a token symbol of his independence?

If Democratic Party honcho Press is allowed to retain his job as a TV commentator in KCOP newscasts, then any partisan party servant--even elected officials--should be eligible for that livelihood. Maybe Gov. Pete Wilson could moonlight as a TV commentator in Sacramento, being careful, of course, to treat Democrats as fairly as his fellow Republicans.

Isn't there already enough public mistrust and confusion with regard to media without KCOP exacerbating it? The line separating newsmakers and news media is already blurry. When it comes to the job market, for example, the revolving door connecting politicians to media has been operating for years. After Richard Nixon left the White House, Diane Sawyer left him to join CBS News. Ron Nessen left NBC News to join Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford. More recently, NBC News hired George Bush's Pentagon spokesman, former TV newsman Pete Williams. And veteran NBC correspondent Carl Stern has just signed on as press spokesman for U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

Traffic along the government-media corridor is especially heavy in the direction of CNN. After getting booted by the Bush White House, John Sununu was hired for the conservative seat on "Cross Fire," a vacancy created when Pat Buchanan departed to seek the GOP nomination for President. After Buchanan failed, "Cross Fire" welcomed him back (presumably he also could have done the show even if he had made it to the White House).

These confusing, role-blurring hybrids are not necessarily related to politics. ABC's Sam Donaldson is a reporter on "PrimeTime Live," a commentator on "This Week With David Brinkley." Michael Tuck is an anchor on KCBS-TV Channel 2 weekdays, a commentator weekends. KNBC-TV Channel 4's Jess Marlow is another anchor-commentator hyphenate. Reporters regularly become commentators on panel shows. And listen closely and you'll hear network reporters increasingly using the tags on their stories to give their opinions about those stories.

Meanwhile, KCOP is said to be thinking about hiring a conservative commentator as a way to keep its liberal commentator on the payroll, as if that would change Press' status. In any event, what took so long? It's outrageous that the only real commentary on Channel 13's "Real News" has come from someone as relatively doctrinaire as Press--as outrageous as that syndicated conservative windbag Rush Limbaugh getting a half-hour on KCOP each afternoon--unopposed--to rail against anyone and anything that doesn't meet his own fatuous agenda.

Channel 13 could argue that the presence of both Press and Limbaugh is necessary so that they can balance each other out. But that would be like saying that Times sports columnist Mike Downey balances the Op Ed pieces of George Will, even though they may not have the same audience.

For years, Press was KABC-TV Channel 7's liberal counterpart on "Eyewitness News" to conservative Bruce Herschensohn, who twice used his commentator's job there to launch campaigns for political office. After losing the U.S. Senate race to Boxer last year, Herschensohn retired to academe.

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