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These Days, It's Mostly Action News

HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

December 04, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

What a difference a generation or two make.

Even now, there's something thrilling about the closing scene in "Foreign Correspondent," Alfred Hitchcock's grand 1940 movie about espionage just prior to World War II.

"You can hear the bombs falling in the streets," reports Joel McCrea as dashing U.S. journalist Johnny Jones in a stirring broadcast from London during the blitz. The bombs we hear are German, and the danger is palpable as Johnny, a newspaperman covering Western Europe, bravely ignores it and keeps addressing America from his London studio with gorgeous Laraine Day looking on.

The lump in your throat feels like a melon when he urges his countrymen across the Atlantic: "Keep those lights burning."

You wonder how many young people bought trench coats and aspired to become journalists themselves after seeing this romanticized picture of a foreign correspondent whose indictment of Nazism was so impassioned.

And you wonder what turns them on to journalism today.

Someone reporting from Baghdad? From Honduras? Or this?:

It was noonish on Wednesday when Los Angeles stations began live coverage of an LAPD pursuit across freeways and surface streets. The chase climaxed in San Pedro more than three hours later when cuffs were slapped on an armed fugitive after he had slammed his speeding car into a cliff-side guard rail and mired police in a lengthy standoff.

As far as news stories go, this one was mostly a marathon freeze-frame. Moreover, it was just another pinhole among many in a panoramic cityscape, recalling what Raymond Chandler had his hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe observe about an earlier Los Angeles as he stood beside his open window in "The Long Goodbye":

"Far off, the banshee wail of police or fire sirens fell. Never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, cruel, desperate with loneliness, remorse or fear."

Chandler was writing fiction, of course, and in his own stylish way embroidering reality as much as today's newscasts exclude and exaggerate by always stressing crime and mayhem, the difference being that Marlowe's urban vernacular approached the poetic, whereas Wednesday's airwaves offered a '90s blast of L.A. prose:

"This incredibly dramatic, very tense, extremely dangerous standoff between the LAPD and this parolee continues."

Did it ever continue.

The talking skyheads and chopper philosophers of KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV joined the standoff at various points. And recapping their recaps while clinging to breaking news that wasn't breaking, KTLA-TV and KTTV-TV hung on from start to finish, as if letting go would dump them into a bottomless abyss.

They're already there, L.A. being a city where TV stations themselves have become screaming sirens. Which is some of what drew a young New Yorker here to make a film about local news for the Learning Channel.

The documentary is "Breaking News," an hour from NYT Television, a subsidiary of the New York Times Co. The producer is Michael Kovnat, 32, who spent last May--a ratings sweeps period--monitoring the news operation at KCBS with three cameras.

This is the first of a series of documentaries on local news shops Kovnat hopes to make for the Learning Channel. He was attracted to Los Angeles, he said by phone from New York, by its notoriously "nutty news environment, a place where news happens constantly, where local news is extremely competitive, the kind of place where you would see this stuff at its best and worst."

Why choose KCBS, a station whose overall news ratings have been lowly for years, and sank embarrassingly during the just-ended November ratings sweeps even as CBS, the station's corporate parent, was winning in prime time?

KCBS became the subject, Kovnat said, when the city's other big network-owned stations, KNBC-TV and KABC-TV, refused. "And they really gave us total access," he said.

The tone here is worshipful, so much so--with pulsating music beating steadily in the background--that "Breaking News" could be almost a recruiting film for the business.

"I think they do a pretty incredible job," Kovnat said of KCBS. "They have limited resources. There is a whole debate about what news is and what they should cover. Do I think they always make the right decision? Not always. But I don't think they think they do either."

And about that ever-present music? Said Kovnat: "It helps the audience get into it [and] makes what could be a stale documentary more colorful and entertaining." Which is why some stations say they add music to news stories.

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