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From the Pages of the Paper to the Mouths of Newscasters

March 21, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY

Those who work in the print media are often perceived to be snobs toward their brethren in TV and radio, dismissing "broadcast journalism" as an oxymoron--one of those self-contradictory terms like "jumbo shrimp," "long shorts" and "congressional ethics."

This isn't entirely fair. Some very credible reporting gets done in broadcasting circles, which--especially with the obvious visual element of television--can possess a truly visceral impact.

Too often, however, TV and radio personnel, especially on the local level, are simply content to rip and read--lifting material directly out of newspapers without bothering to do any independent reporting.

Yet a tiny chill should run up the spines of all the well-coiffed and baritone-voiced news readers who blithely engage in this practice, thanks to a fed-up newspaper publisher in the Rust Belt environs of Toledo, Ohio.

As reported in the American Journalism Review, the Toledo Blade has gone to war against a local radio station, WSPD-AM, for "pirating" stories without attribution. According to the Blade, the station presented substantial portions of articles without crediting the newspaper. The morning host even used the slogan "I Read the Blade So You Don't Have To."

The Blade filed a lawsuit under the Ohio Deceptive Trade Practices Act, seeking profits generated from the radio program as well as punitive damages.

Consider what enforcement of such guidelines might mean for the so-called "entertainment reporters" at Los Angeles' news outlets, who pilfer stories out of the show-business trades, Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and seldom acknowledge the source. The impression left, rather, is that these TV reporters just heard the news themselves about Julia Roberts' next movie role, then breathlessly rushed into the studio to pass along the information as if the Berlin Wall were again coming down.

Sorry, that doesn't qualify as reporting. That's repeating--a job for a parrot, so long as it has good teeth and hair.

The same lack of attribution occurs on AM radio outlets such as KFWB and KNX, which grab stories out of The Times, USA Today or the L.A. Daily News and only sporadically identify the publication. Of course, that gives them more time to indulge, respectively, in lighthearted anchor chatter and features that are actually not-so-thinly veiled promotions for sister TV network CBS about what's on that night.

Then there's talk radio, where personalities regularly rail against newspapers but would be absolutely lost without them.

Most of the time, talk-radio hosts read a story out of some ink-stained bastion of the "liberal media," then spend the next hour (minus 27 minutes of commercials, news and traffic reports) weighing in on it. Granted, this isn't journalism, but a well-informed radio talent is the rare bird who bothers to read two articles on a subject before launching into that day's diatribe.

At times hosts can't even remember which pipes they are plumbing. Last week, KABC-AM's Dennis Prager criticized the media for their silence regarding professional athletes fathering children out of wedlock, which is ironic, since Prager wouldn't have known about the issue if there hadn't been a major Sports Illustrated piece to bring it into the national spotlight.

For the most part, TV and radio stations echo items from newspapers with little fear of recrimination from those publications beyond the rantings of cranky columnists. John Robinson Block, the Blade's publisher and editor in chief, is hoping that will change.

"Radio guys operate right up to what they can get away with," Block said, adding in regard to WSPD, "They did not do any reporting of their own. They simply took it out of the paper and reworded it a little bit for broadcast."

Block points to another element of the story that has become sadly common in broadcasting--namely, the radio station's staff, in the wake of an ownership change, was slashed from 13 a few years ago to just a couple of people, making any sort of thorough independent reporting nearly impossible.

"It's great for them to say, 'All news, all the time,' but they don't have any news," Block said, stressing he has great respect for many broadcast journalists but "total disrespect for the bottom-feeders who take news without giving credit."

The lawsuit is not without precedent. In fact, the paper won a similar lawsuit against another station way back in 1955. Although WSPD says it has done nothing wrong, Block is confident that the Blade has a good chance in the latest action--which has a tentative September trial date--and that the same strategy would work in other jurisdictions.

"This is not rocket science law. It's not new law. It's old law," he said. "Newspapers have rights vis-a-vis radio and television."

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