Friday, May 12, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Bear Baiting Local Official
Easy Target For TV News

Bear baiting was a popular sport in England for centuries. Chain a bear to a post and then let the dogs loose.

That fine tradition is carried on today by some in television news…at least in the way they choose to cover some local officials.

KSDK (Show-Me Five) had a film crew at City Hall Tuesday night. They were there for the first item on the agenda of the Council’s Work Session. The agenda said we were going to see a clip from a Channel Five news broadcast.

Specifically we were shown a clip of an interview Cordel Whitlock had with Councilman Mark Brown over two months ago. Some of Mark’s detractors on the Council were upset with his remarks at that time. They felt he had intimated the Council was corrupt. It therefore appeared the intent of placing the item on the agenda was to call Councilman Brown on the carpet.

Being a dyed in the wool Missouri boy, I needed someone to “Show-Me”, so I watched the short clip from the Show-Me Five folks with the rest of the Council, the audience and viewers at home. I also got to watch the Channel Five crew filming their own news clip being shown at the meeting. Covering your own previous news coverage seemed a bit desperate to me. It’s the journalistic equivalent of taking your cousin to the Prom. Of course it did guarantee Channel Five an “exclusive” since no other television news station is going to cover the showing of one of their competitor’s old news clips.

Controversy is fair game. We all say we want to hear and read more good news, but if there was a newspaper devoted exclusively to good news, it wouldn’t sell. Part of being an elected public official is answering questions from the press. I routinely talk with the reporters for this and other newspapers. I’ve done my share of television interviews as well. I’ve also seen my share of ambush journalism where provocative questions are posed in such a way to elicit a certain response. I once had a television news reporter ask me the same question ten different ways because I wouldn’t give her the answer she wanted. I wasn’t being the least evasive, I just wasn’t giving her the response she needed to fit her preconceived vision for that report.

Where I’ve drawn the line is talking with other opinion columnists or going on entertainment talk shows. The regular rules of journalism don’t apply to opinion columnists or talk show hosts. Their aim is primarily to fuel controversy, not report the news. I don’t mind being publicly hung on occasion, but I’m under no obligation to provide the rope.

Councilman Brown, however, was in no mood to be hung out to dry Tuesday night. He asked that the interview be played again, but this time in its entirety and not just the brief segment that had been selected. Hearing the entire interview put it in context that he was primarily referring to events surrounding the investigation of flawed recall petitions and forged signatures against Councilwoman Greer. The only person in the clip to say there was corruption involving the Council or City was the reporter “paraphrasing” what Councilman Brown said.

Now what someone forgot about the ancient sport of bear baiting is that the bear, while at a disadvantage, always fights back. This resulted in the next hour of the Council’s time being taken up with acrimonious debate. Channel Five only had to film a few minutes of the debate. Their reporter and cameraman got to go home. The rest of us got to stay till 12:30 in the morning. I tip my hat to the newspaper reporters that regularly cover our meetings. They stay to the end. Electronic journalists seldom do. They are there to cover the fire…not the cleanup.

Regular viewers of the Council on cable television (and there are more of you than people think) are drawn to watch for a variety of reasons. One has to be the occasional verbal slugfests between Councilman Brown and Councilman Weller. It doesn’t matter who you are rooting for to appreciate these bouts. However, I do believe we’re missing a great opportunity not putting gloves on them.

Tuesday night I would have to say the decision went to Councilman Brown.

The biggest losers, however, were the viewers of broadcast television news. What Channel Five could have covered was the compromise this Council forged to protect the interests of those opposed to the use of eminent domain and those wanting to encourage redevelopment and investment in an area of town most people agree could use it. But solving problems and reaching a political consensus on a major issue apparently isn’t as newsworthy as some officials being mildly annoyed at what a political antagonists may or may not have said two months ago.