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On local TV, bad news makes good business



Fox 35 News Director Bill Avery got the biggest laugh. Asked the mission of his news department, he said, "to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." This response busted up the room, which was about three-quarters full of 60 public relations flacks and news junkies.

The old saw, coined in an era before the blow dryer, didn't used to be a joke. But then, breathless promotion of the parent company's television shows didn't used to be news.

The scene was a June 30 forum, jointly arranged by the local chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association and the Central Florida Press Club, called, "From the Sensational to the Cerebral: Finding the Balance in Local TV News Coverage." Avery was joined by Robin Smythe, news director for CFN-TV 13, the Sentinel-affiliated 24-hour cable news channel launched last year.

Their counterparts at the three other stations -- Lauren Watkins of WFTV-Channel 9; Russ Kilgore of WESH-Channel 2 and Bill Berra of WKMG-Channel 6 -- were no-shows. Calls to their stations seeking comment were not returned.

At least Smythe and Avery were entertaining, both displaying a wit seemingly steeped in shame. In two hours they depicted a constitutionally protected, taxpayer-subsidized industry that has abdicated its public responsibility while mired in a lazy, thoughtless and deeply provincial value system.

Moderator Pat Duggins, news director at WMFE-FM (90.7), asked the pair about their goals. Avery at first described his mission as "get it first, get it right, get it on," a line that drew applause without defining what "it" is.

Smythe went with the "mirror" of the community metaphor, which took longer to explain and seemed to leave the crowd a little restless.

But as the discussion progressed it became clear the news isn't everything of significance that happened, nor is it really a reflection of the community. News is what interests news directors. News is whatever is bizarre or exciting. And news is what's convenient to news people.

Again and again Smythe advised flacks to get their clients heard by making the story easy: "When it's 98 degrees outside, gimme a quick crime scene to shoot and I can go home."

By contrast, both news directors find investigative reporting difficult and scary, especially (as is almost always the case) when the story idea comes from a member of the great unwashed. "When `Orlando International Airport spokeswoman` Carolyn Fennell sends a press release I don't feel compelled to check it with three people," Smythe said. "When someone calls blindly with some horrible allegation about something that's going on at that very same airport, I'm going to want two sources on that."

So stations squander their credibility with sensationalism. Stories about the cops' battle with a highway sniper are plugged all day, yet not until the end of the newscast is it revealed that the sniper was a 14-year-old with a pellet gun.

"On a business level it works," says Smythe, "and that's the scary part."

Smythe and Avery disagreed on a couple of points. For example, Avery doesn't think ignoring local politics affects voter turnout; Smythe thinks it does. Both agreed, however, that print critics such as the Sentinel's Hal Boedeker -- who in April wrote an unflattering (albeit factual) review of Fox 35's newscast -- should just shut up.

"Get a grip! He goes wandering off," Avery sputtered, "Let's face it, he's a movie critic! It's nuts! It's just his personal opinion!" etc.

Boedeker's review focused on Fox's logo-crazed pointlessness, and Avery addressed its substance only with the next question, in which a flack solicited tips on how to make business news more compelling to cover. Avery suggested they send information pertaining to his 18-49, rock & roll demographic, citing a recently aired piece on "ergonomically correct underwear for men."

Such ironic juxtapositions highlighted the evening, as when Smythe termed her station "the voice of the voiceless." Or when Avery explained why he went into news: "We had some feelings about things we thought we could make a little better. It's the same reason people go into law enforcement."

The forum required participants to ask their questions in writing, and not every question was read to the panelists. One that was skipped over: "How difficult is it for television news to tell unflattering stories about important sources, as when Sheriff Kevin Beary had his electoral opponent arrested on trumped-up charges, or when an assistant state's attorney sues Lawson Lamar?"

Avery did scold a critic who wondered why no local newscast competes by increasing the news and reducing commercials.

"Let's get this straight: It's the news business. I don't care how lofty you go ... we're all in this business to make money," Avery said. "It's just a means to an end."

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