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Q&A WITH JERRY DUNPHY : 'Sensationalized News Should Be Passe'

June 05, 1993|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With his familiar "from the desert to the sea" salutation and his glistening white hair, Jerry Dunphy has become a local TV institution. After launching his broadcasting career in 1947 and working in Peoria, Ill., Milwaukee and Chicago, he's been anchoring in Los Angeles since 1960.

He started here at what was then KNXT-TV Channel 2 (now KCBS), fronting "The Big News"--the first hourlong local news broadcast in the country and to this day considered by many to be Los Angeles TV news' finest hour. In 1975, Dunphy moved to KABC-TV Channel 7 and its "Eyewitness News" format, helping the station achieve No. 1 status for more than a decade. In 1989, KCAL-TV Channel 9 lured Dunphy away with a five-year, $5-million contract and the challenge of building a competitive news department from scratch. He now anchors the 6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts there.

Dunphy, 73 this month, will be honored at the Los Angeles-area Emmy Awards tonight with the governor's award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, saluting his career achievements. In an interview, he said he loves his work and has no intention of calling it quits any time soon.

* Question: Is "The Big News" at Channel 2 still the highlight of your career?

Answer: That was the most exciting time. We were doing as good a quality broadcast as could be done. There just wasn't any of the flimflam that you see today because it wasn't necessary, because there was no competition. We had the marketplace alone, and you can do quality when you are dedicated to doing good journalism. As soon as competition set in, things got a bit frothier, promotions got a little bit flakier. When it comes to making the buck and splitting the audience, and when your dictum is ratings, things begin to disintegrate just a bit from the purity of the news that we knew then. When you look at L.A. today, you have a lot more stations going for the ratings and the dollars now and it makes them do strange things. They'll do anything in the world to attract attention. Every exaggeration that ever existed has been promoed and hyped ad nauseum.

*

Q: So it's the heated competition that has diluted the news product?

A: I'm sad to say it, but it has skewed the judgment of everyone from management down to the news departments. This dash and fright to get the numbers--I think it's a disgrace what some people are doing. The junk that gets on the air today in the name of news is unfortunate, and I try, in every way I can, to tone it down when I see it in script or in the way the teases are hyped. I try to bring some sobriety to it. But look around and you see a lot of lightweight, repetitive stuff on the air.

*

Q: Like gratuitous live shots? An overemphasis on crime and sensational blood-and-guts stories? Wiping out entire programming blocks for hours on end to report repetitively on minor earthquakes?

A: Yes to all of that. But technology--the fact that we can send a reporter to a war in the Middle East and talk to him live--that's marvelous when you use it properly, to really enhance the way you tell a story. And I must say this, the rate of crime now compared to during the "Big News" is sensational. I never reported on a carjacking back on Channel 2. It simply didn't exist. So some of what we report on with helicopter coverage and all that is warranted. But I have to agree, with some of it there is just too much ado about nothing. Nothing is still nothing no matter how fancy we can get reporting it, and a pimple on the ass of L.A. is still a pimple.

*

Q: Doesn't the public lose out if they receive nothing but this hyped-out product?

A: Yes, if you're compelled to cheapen the product, the public gets cheated. We need to be able to keep our focus well enough to see that when the product is good and is told in a compelling fashion and is properly promoted--not hyped to death--I think it will sell. If you take out all the fluff and the fancy words and the screaming, I think you will do a respectable job and you will be respected for doing it. I don't think all management understands that because the panic is on for the bucks.

*

Q: How has the role of the anchor changed over the years?

A: When I started as an anchor, I covered City Hall in the morning. I'd go down and talk to the mayor and go back to the station, write it, edit it and put it all together. It's gotten a little bit more compartmentalized as we've gone along. I think some anchors don't have enough input. I had input at (Channel) 2, and for a while at (Channel) 7 I did, after which I was ignored. Here (at Channel 9) they listen and they respond. I think I've made some impact in giving advice and taking out the exaggeration. Sometimes an earthquake hits, for example, and there are a lot of kids here who never were in an earthquake before and they are hyping the hell out of a 3.0.

*

Q: Does the criticism that anchors are just readers--glamorous personalities and performers and not real journalists--ever bother you?

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