Sunday, May 6

Meryl and Me

OK, make that "Meryl and I," as in "Meryl Streep and I had a conversation about TV news. "

I was sitting at the WABC assignment desk early one morning, maybe 7:30, answering phones. The voice on the other end said, "This is Meryl Streep, and I have a complaint."

Y'know how sometimes you just "get" that the person on the other end of the line is for real? Maybe it was the anger in her voice, and I knew it was Meryl Streep and I knew she was upset, so I asked what was on her mind.

She told me she was watching Good Morning America, that she liked the show, but that she couldn't stand the local news cut-ins: they were all doom-and-gloom and body counts (my words, not hers--but you get the idea). She said she was trying to raise children in the city (I think she said two, but I'm not sure), and that she didn't want her children growing up thinking the world around them was evil and ugly and dangerous.

So I got the chance to trot out "Standard Reply #17:" "I understand completely, and certainly sympathasize with you. You have to remember, though, that we're in the 'news' business, and NOT MUCH NEW happens overnight that's not bad for someone. The Mayor doesn't cut many ribbons on new bridges at 2:00 a.m.--the cure for cancer won't be announced at 3:00 a.m.--the Knicks won't win the NBA championship at 4:00 a.m."

No, I explained to her, the "new" news overnight is pretty much murders and fires and robberies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

I think she got my point, and I know I got hers; but it's even more of a concern today. In the 25 years since she and I talked local news has gone in for more camera-pointing and less reporting. Al Primo's "Eyewitness News" concept preached taking people to the scenes of stories, introducing them to the participants and letting them get the same feeling they'd have gotten had they been there themselves by giving them a balanced look at the facts.

It was "we report, you decide" decades before Fox--but there was more reporting back then, more tackling of tough topics, more making sense out of complicated issues for the viewer.

How do you make sense out of a dead body on a New York street corner?

Ironically, I think the networks did an excellent job covering the biggest non-war "body count" story of this decade, the Virginia Tech massacre. They certainly did the "Ain't it a shock?" and "Ain't it a shame?" stories, but then they went further. They quickly got to "What does it mean? and "What does it mean to you?" and "What can we learn?? and "How do we prevent it from happening again?"

Felt like "Eyewitness" to me.

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