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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Not Just Reporters, Crusaders! : Television: The self-congratulatory 'Crusaders' boasts that it 'advocates a specific point in every story'--which is part of its problem.

September 22, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Next to talk shows, newsmagazines are TV's fastest spreading rash. Leading to this.

Up, up and away!

You may have heard the melodramatic radio promos for "The Crusaders," a new syndicated news program from Buena Vista Television airing at 7 p.m. Saturdays on KNBC-TV Channel 4. An announcer says something to the effect that:

They're not just reporters, they're on your side.

Or is it our side?

Well, it's somebody's side.

A self-obsessed escalation of the kind of help-the-little-guy-fight-city-hall reporting that local stations and some newspapers across the country have been doing for years, "The Crusaders" is an example of a nice idea--maybe even a noble one--gone bonkers. While supposedly trying to help others, these guys just can't help repeatedly patting themselves on the back.

A description of the hour in a publicity blurb reads like the premise for one of those dime-a-dozen prime-time series about do-gooder superheroes who operate outside the mainstream: " 'The Crusaders' bypass the unwritten journalistic edict of non-involvement, empowering disenfranchised victims and viewers by helping them to solve their problems and learning how to navigate the system." To complete "The Mod Squad" image, these dedicated slicks are said to operate from a "renovated warehouse" in Burbank.

The opening for last week's episode was downright funny, with executive producer John Butte speaking of "men and women committed to righting wrongs," and the Crusaders themselves spinning out high-minded sound bites.

Then came the Supermanesque theme as seven silhouetted figures approached from a distance, rising from behind a hill before stopping and defiantly folding their arms. They didn't teach this in J-school.

Each "crusade" is introduced from the studio by one of four "senior" Crusaders. The first of last week's trio of "crusades" was "senior" Crusader William LaJeunesse's campaign to rid "the nation's waterways" of old car-type batteries that he said had been dumped there by the U.S. Coast Guard. The batteries are used to power buoys, and mercury and lead from discarded ones presumably could contaminate the water and seep into the food chain.

A Tampa station had already done an expose, resulting in a local cleanup, LaJeunesse said. But he wondered, "Could our crusade lead to a nationwide cleanup?"

Quickly now, into the phone booth and on with the blue tights and cape.

LaJeunesse picked up the trail at Tampa, coming away convinced that "we're not talking (merely) about 3- or 4,000 batteries in Tampa Bay, but half-a-million batteries polluting lakes, rivers and bays across America." Hence, westward ho, where he found a single battery with apparent Coast Guard markings at the bottom of the sea near Santa Barbara.

Then he was off to Washington to interview a Coast Guard official. "We wanted a commitment from the Coast Guard," he said, "that they would clean up the rest of the batteries in our nation's waterways."

LaJeunesse: "Is the Coast Guard assuring the American public that they're going to clean these up?"

Official: "Yes."

On camera, though, no one defined "these."

LaJeunesse (now seemingly talking to himself in a voice-over): "The job of my program is to go out and find every single location where these batteries are located at. That's my job."

LaJeunesse (in a voice-over for the TV audience): "And with that pledge, we accomplished our crusade to get the Coast Guard to acknowledge the scope of the problem and commit itself to clean up the rest of the batteries."

Welcome to Crusaderspeak . Actually, nothing of the sort happened. No one from the Coast Guard acknowledged on camera that there even was a problem, much less one of the magnitude described by LaJeunesse. Nor had he fulfilled that pledge to "find every single location" where the batteries had been buried at sea. He'd visited only Tampa Bay and Santa Barbara.

Perhaps he was on the right track. Yet viewers had to take LaJeunesse's word--because he produced no evidence--that half a million discarded batteries were oozing underwater somewhere and that his "crusade" would lead to a "nationwide cleanup."

Nevertheless, "The Crusaders" triumphantly folded its arms and broke for commercials.

When the program returned, Crusader Diana Nyad acquainted viewers with Bill Hornback, an Illinois man who suffered severe brain damage when hit by a drunk driver last year. Nyad "crusaded for the medical care the family can't afford and Bill can't do without." She was shown making therapy contacts and stimulating "the fund-raising process."

It was a tragic, heart-wrenching, human-interest story that called attention to genuine plight and demonstrated how a reporter's involvement with her story in some cases can be productive. If the technique yields good results fairly and honestly, bravo.

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