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Media Skirmishes Don't Serve Greater Good

March 27, 2000|JOEL BELLMAN | Joel Bellman is press deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. As a radio journalist, he won six Golden Mike awards for editorials, investigative reporting and public-service programs before joining the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner as an editorial writer and op-ed columnist. The views expressed are strictly his own

Maybe it's because I spent more time working in a radio news department than I spent on a daily newspaper. Maybe Brian Lowry's just sore over the fact that the venerable Los Angeles Times is in the process of being sold to one of those barbarous "new media" conglomerates based in the Midwest. But his misguided blast at broadcasters ("From the Pages of the Paper to the Mouths of Newscasters," March 21) really punched my buttons.

Lowry decries the lazy morning-drive newscasters who too often fall back on breezy rip-and-read summaries cobbled together from scraps of the daily paper. And he gleefully cites the crusty Toledo Blade publisher, John Robinson Block--mad as hell and not going to take it anymore--who sued a local radio station in September alleging deceptive trade practices, and seeking both profits and punitive damages. Should Block's suit succeed, Lowry smirks, "TV and radio outlets will need to be more careful about the liberties they take after the customary ritual of rifling through newspapers."

But Block himself, no sentimentalist, pretends to no such high-minded purpose. For him, a win simply means that a newspaper's work product "will immediately increase in value."

Personally, I'm aghast at the spectacle of one media outlet's litigation to chill another's 1st Amendment rights--and, incidentally, cut itself in on a piece of the action. But Lowry and Block raise a deeper question posed by the lawsuit: What is the actual creative product, and who is its true author?

For an answer, Lowry might compare an average morning paper with the previous day's local wire-service news budget and day-book, which are planning schedules comprising manufactured "pseudo-events" contrived for publicity, and structured press conferences that strive to provide the reporter everything but the copy-editing. Then, just for fun, Lowry might peruse a sample of the previous week's local news releases and wire-service stories, large chunks of which may well hit print--under someone else's byline--altering nary a comma.


For bonus points, Lowry might ponder those truly special cases where a big outlet will simply rip off wholesale the enterprise reporting of smaller and more obscure publications, who will be lucky to receive even a passing acknowledgment of their efforts.

In today's Darwinian media world, the intrepid reporter prowling the beat--uncovering the story, backed to the hilt by his idealistic news organizations and reporting without fear or favor--lives on in myth more than reality. For a goodly amount of news reportage is less "authored" than "transcribed"--and the actual work product may owe less to a reporter than to some anonymous wire-service correspondent, publicist or even press secretary.

In recounting Block's battle with WSPD-AM, however, Lowry flattens out a much deeper and more intriguing back story. In January, Blade staff writer Sandra Svoboda sued sister station WVKS-FM's morning-show host, Denny Schaffer, for slander over cracks that he made last fall, shortly after the Blade's original lawsuit was filed, about her alleged romance with publisher Block. Schaffer had accused her of shoddy reporting for allegedly piping Block's personal viewpoints because she was his "girlfriend." Her attorney, meanwhile--in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black--charged shock-jock Schaffer with "another form ofattack on the 1st Amendment" by impugning his client's journalistic credentials.

Lowry, are you listening? This is less a battle for the soul of the profession than it is a tawdry little grudge match.

After years of deregulation and downsizing, I'm amazed that any good TV or radio reporting gets done anymore--but it does, by some deeply dedicated and highly skilled journalists. They quite literally are among the last of a dying breed of hard-charging street reporters who have no more than 45 seconds, and often less, to convey the essence of a complex story. Unlike their print brethren and sistren, they have time for little else but brevity and clarity.

Ultimately, however, the radio outlets may have the last laugh after all. The Blade's own media writer acknowledged that both WSPD's and WVKS' ratings skyrocketed last fall, based in part on the buzz over the Blade's noisy coverage of assorted controversies, including its own lawsuit, swarming around their shock-jock morning hosts.

A print outlet using a ginned-up battle with local broadcasters to peddle its papers, while the broadcasters milk the same issue to boost their ratings and ad rates? Somehow, this "professional wrestling" match isn't quite the kind of new-media synergy I had in mind. But then, maybe I'm just a bluff old traditionalist after all.

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