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KCBS' 'I-Team': Tainted by Hype

HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

May 08, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Hand it to KCBS-TV Channel 2 for carving an investigative niche in local news here.

From reporter Joel Grover snooping in putrid restaurant kitchens to its present ratings-sweeps campaign of putting pressure on auto repair shops that appear to scam the public, Channel 2 is tapping universal themes that resonate with the public. Themes beyond the usual street crime, thank goodness.

Talk about a Los Angeles station distinguishing itself from the herd.

In this case, Channel 2 had its hidden cameras monitor what happened when a slew of unsuspecting auto repair services were asked to check out two vehicles said by the station to be in tip-top condition. The result: a Grover-led series titled "Taken for a Ride."

As a bonus, Channel 2 also has pointed out mechanics that are honest, and has made solutions--how to avoid being cheated--part of its reporting. It also aired a list of 15 auto repair shops that it said charged for work that wasn't needed.

"I-Teams" like Channel 2's marching investigative unit are a consultant-driven phenomenon now visible on stations all across the country (I was a judge in a TV news contest earlier this year in which probably half the entries were from "I-Teams"). There's also nothing original about turning hidden cameras on allegedly shady auto mechanics who either overcharge or persuade customers to pay for problems that don't exist. That's been a ratings-sweeps staple for years.

Yet none of this in any way invalidates the positive work that Channel 2 is doing.

It's the station's endemic hyperbole and self-congratulatory crowing that come close to doing that, a style of operation that taints even its genuine achievements.

It begins with the tiny fib, like having Channel 2 anchors regularly boast to viewers in all newscasts that "everyone is talking about" the station's auto-fixing series. Everyone? Please! Unquestionably, there's been some buzz. But most of the talking originates from Channel 2 itself.

Well, it's a small thing. If Channel 2 lies about that minutiae, however, you wonder where else it may be lying, shading or not telling the entire truth regarding its investigations. Where it may be twisting data. Where it may be editing tape to fit its hypothesis.

Or crossing other lines it shouldn't.

As in reporter Jaie Avila's accusatory tone (similar to Grover's) in a taped voice-over attached to his recent interview in Sacramento with Marty Keller, chief of the state Bureau of Automotive Repair. It's not what he says but how he says it that is troublesome, implying a lack of concern on Keller's part.

And here also was anchor Michael Tuck responding angrily on the air Wednesday evening to Keller maintaining in that interview that consumers could better protect themselves against repair scams by becoming smarter about the workings of their cars:

"I'm sitting here stunned! Did I hear a state regulator say he blamed the victims? I don't know any other business where they blame the victims!"

That old admonition "buyer beware" would seem to apply here. In any case, who gives a flying fig whether Tuck is stunned? Inanity we've come to expect. But is unlabeled punditry also now a function of anchoring? So much for separating commentary from reporting.

Regarding Channel 2's tenacious deployment of hidden cameras in all its undercover investigations, meanwhile, the news is both good and bad.

Hidden cameras are controversial and part of an ongoing debate in the news business because they're a form of deception, the antithesis of what good journalism is meant to represent. Yet in some rare cases--when no other means is available to tell a story of great importance as effectively--the deception is justified on behalf of the greater good.

That was surely the case when Channel 2 investigated those restaurant kitchens whose appalling conditions in some instances had to be witnessed by viewers to be believed. Some of Channel 2's methods were questionable there, too. When public health was at stake, though, the end justified the secret lens.

*

The car repair series is another matter, though. One in which hidden cameras sometimes have been used gratuitously (with one accused mechanic later being captured on camera claiming, Grover tsk-tsked, that "he hadn't ripped off the 'I-Team' "), as a convenient way of wallpapering a sexy story with voyeuristic pictures along the lines of tabloids.

It's the whole peeping, "caught on tape" syndrome at its tawdriest, which by extension tends to trivialize the more honorable use of hidden cameras.

What's striking is how a station that professes to have so much sensitivity regarding the public interest can act with complete indifference when boorishness suits its purposes. As on a recent Sunday afternoon during ratings sweeps when it leased a plane to fly above the Los Angeles area, including packed Dodger Stadium, with a banner advertising, "Backyard Porn. Monday at 11."

Like Tuck, Dodger fans were stunned.

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