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'The Trick Is Not to Bore People'

November 05, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1967, Bob Navarro, a young high school dropout who grew up near USC, landed one of the most sought-after jobs around: a news writer at then-KNXT-TV Channel 2 on "The Big News," considered by many to be the premier local TV newscast in the country. A few years later, he pestered his way onto the air as a reporter, and he has been working in the trenches of local news ever since.

Beginning in 1978, he served a 10-year stint reporting in Sacramento and Orange County for KNBC-TV Channel 4. He has also produced documentaries at KCET-TV Channel 28, served as news director at Spanish-language KVEA-TV Channel 52 and worked as a reporter at KTLA-TV Channel 5 and KCAL-TV Channel 9.

Last April, he returned to Channel 2 as KCBS' director of editorials, researching, writing and reading the station's on-air position statements on local affairs. No longer a reporter, he satisfies his inquisitive instincts by hosting and producing "Bob Navarro's Journal," a discussion program--"don't call it a public-affairs show"--that examines one news issue each Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

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Question: You've been around from the good old days of serious and thoughtful TV news to what your former colleague Jess Marlow once called "the dark days." What changes have struck you most in that time?

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Answer: There are now so many more outlets in media across the board, and that has forced everyone, including newspapers, I wouldn't say to dumb down the product, but to go for a mass audience. Also, increasingly, newsrooms are a little more representative of the community at large. When I first came to "The Big News," there was a woman reporter, a woman writer, no woman on the desk, no woman producer. That was it. There was an African American, but no Chicanos. I was the first one. And today, newsrooms are supposed to be profit centers. Although I'm sure "The Big News" was a profit center, that wasn't its cachet. What the general manager showed off was, "Look at this jewel that I operate."

Q: How has all that affected what the viewer sees?

A: Well, you can still find the information, but you have to hunt a little more. In trying to reach the mass audience, the emphasis is still on information, but it's in tandem with trying to make it compelling, so the viewer will hang around. When I first started, the deal was: This is what they need to know. That's it. Not what they want to see, but what they need to know. That has blurred.

Q: Is the news we get diluted or sensationalized?

A: Definitely there's some of that. For a long time now we've seen just a shameful display of body-bag journalism. It's such a cheap way to do things, and this station just put an end to it. And what has bothered me a lot is that there seems to be a lack of respect (among many TV journalists) for what they're doing. The willingness to trivialize, the willingness to be flip with facts. To sort of put yourself above or on the same level as those you are reporting on. You hear it when they call the President "Bill." It's all part of the vulgarization of discourse across our country.

Q: Is there any hope?

A: Since every crazy thing has been tried, I think you're starting to see stations sneaking back to the basics, without preaching to you that you're seeing a basic newscast in fear that people will run off. The trick is not to bore people to death, if that's the way you pitch it--which may be more difficult than we'd like to think, because if you look at the ratings, the more crap you throw out there, apparently, the better it's accepted. But maybe now we're starting to reach the level where we're crap-proof. I tell you one thing, if it's junk, and you people out there refuse to watch it, it will change.

Q: Still, take the O.J. Simpson case. Isn't it overkill, pandering to the tastes of that mass audience to the neglect of significant events such as the governor's race?

A: What are you going to do? If I'm running a newspaper, I'll put the President and the governor's race on the front page and find my select audience and try to sell it. But if you're in a mass media? The one station that cut out of the preliminary hearing went down the toilet.

It's shameful that we might have a 20% voter turnout in this election. But you can't just blame TV news. I think it's just an overall cynicism among people out there. There really isn't an institution in this country--Congress, the presidency, the media and all other businesses--that hasn't been sullied by its own members. That needs to be addressed, but everyone in all those institutions has to want to address it.

Q: Has the position of minorities in TV news improved?

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