Kneeland Raised Standards
Despite the fact that crime rates have generally dropped over the last decade, mainstream news outlets - especially television - have continued to play up crime in their coverage, and the gorier, the better. For too long, the philosophy has been, "If it bleeds, it leads." There are simple reasons for this: One, crime is seemingly an easy hook for viewers. And it's an easy day's work for a lazy reporter (or assignments editor) - there's not a whole lot of research necessary, just get the five Ws from the cops and you're done.
Unfortunately, this fuels fear among viewers that they're living in a dangerous community - when, in fact, exactly the opposite may be true. The repercussions end up resonating loudly within the political spectrum, with a barrage of legislation mandating more prisons, more draconian penal codes, demonization of youth (particularly minorities), and concealed handgun laws.
But two years ago, KVUE, under Kneeland's leadership, dared to try something different. The station decided to subject crime stories to the following questions before running with them: Do viewers need to take action? Is there an immediate threat to public safety? Is there a threat to children? Is there a crime-prevention aspect to the story? Will the crime have a significant impact in the community?
Rather shamelessly, some of KVUE's competitors attacked Kneeland's idea.
Craig Millar, then general manager at Fox-7 (KTBC), was quoted at the time in the Austin American-Statesman as saying, "Most of the stations that [have implemented similar policies] aren't doing it any more. We feel our job is to present the news.... We're a hard-news station, and our philosophy is to present the news as is." (Or, as we have noted, as isn't.)
The most vociferous attack came from Jeff Godlis, news director at K-EYE, who asked in a letter to the Statesman, "Is one of Austin's TV stations conceited enough to tell me what is news and what is not?" (Apparently, Godlis doesn't understand the job description of "news director.")
Two years after the implementation of these policies, it's worth noting that KVUE towers atop the ratings among local newscasts, with nearly a quarter of the market. K-EYE and Fox-7, on the other hand, are currently battling it out for the ratings basement, and Millar has been fired.
Kneeland has left behind a lasting legacy of responsible reporting in TV news in Austin. The report on Kneeland that KVUE ran on the day she died was a moving portrayal - never maudlin or manipulative - of a brave woman facing her own mortality. Kneeland's own words - her fears, not of death, but of being a burden on her friends and family - showed her to be dignified, selfless, and courageous. We cried for her, for her husband - Statesman state politics columnist Dave McNeely - and for Austin.
Who's the Boss?
What does the Texas Monthly sale mean for the readers of the mag? Probably not much, since creative control will remain in the hands of TM's current management team, including publisher Michael Levy and editor Greg Curtis. So what does the sale mean for Mike Levy personally?
"It puts some cash in my pocket [$37 million went to majority owner Levy and co-owners Curtis and Dow Jones & Company] and lets me keep doing what I've been doing," says Levy, who is now under contract with new owner Emmis Broadcasting Corporation to produce the mag.
"When Dow Jones wanted to sell its interest, we wanted to start talking to some folks. But everyone we talked to wanted [to control] the whole thing. I can't just put money in my pocket without being mindful of my responsibilities to the magazine and what Texas Monthly means to this state," Levy says. "Emmis is a good company with Midwestern values; they're different from the New York publishing companies. We turned down offers from New York companies."
The new owners from Emmis were in attendance - along with the state's First Lady Laura Bush - at last week's 25th anniversary party which celebrated Texas Monthly's venerable history of first-rate photography. During his remarks at the LBJ Library, Levy reassured the new owners by making reference to his quiet, passive demeanor. The guffaws in the audience were especially loud among TM staffers.
We Told You So
Some thoughts about the Austin American-Statesman:
One had to get a weird sense of déjà vu when reading the front page of the local daily on January 15, which spotlighted an article titled "Vision for Austin's economy: Study says livability is vital to growth." Wrote Earl Golz, in his lead sentence: "To maintain Austin's economic success and livability, the region should focus on the businesses it has rather than trying to attract new industry, an analyst who has completed a study of the region's economy said Wednesday."
The next paragraph quoted researcher Ted Lyman of ICF Kaiser Economic Strategy Group, the analyst in question, as saying that Austin's challenge is "making the most of [success] and making sure it doesn't wash over you and destroy all that you have." Highlights of the study noted by the Statesman included a recognition that the Austin area should "leverage its quality of life: its clean environment, recreational opportunities, and stimulating social scene," and that Austin's multimedia, film, and music scenes were vital to the local economy.
Showering Lyman's vision with applause were the Statesman and the Chamber of Commerce. Editor Richard Oppel gushed over the report in an editorial, saying it marked the dawning of a new day in environmentalist/business relations, and Joe Holt, president of Texas Commerce Bank, was quoted as saying, "I thought [Lyman] was right on target, that it was very factual in terms of how Ted and his colleagues see the current status of the marketplace."
Of course, Lyman's vision has been articulated before - in the pages of The Austin Chronicle for the past 15 years. Back then, however, this paper was written off by the Statesman and the Chamber as crazies, tree-huggers, and anti-growthers. Now our former politics editor is on the city council - as are six other Chronicle endorsees - and the Chamber is holding meetings with the Save Our Springs Alliance. Should all of this make us nervous?...
Why the daily chose to run the embarrassing January 18 puff piece on former city manager Camille Barnett, now in the same post in Washington, D.C., is a head-scratcher. A reprint from the Washington Post by Vernon Loeb, the story was headlined "Controversy outlasts Camille Barnett: As she starts new job, her skills and record are hotly debated in Austin."
Yet, the story featured anything but hot debate. Loeb claimed in the story to have interviewed two dozen people from among people who either "loved or loathed her." But for some reason, out of the story's 1,239 words, Barnett's supporters garnered 919 of them. Her detractors - former Mayor Bruce Todd and Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy were the only ones mentioned by name - were allotted only 147 words to make their cases. One almost has to wonder if the original piece was simply cut from the bottom up to fit the space.
The Statesman has its own staff writers in Washington. The daily surely could have done better by assigning one of them to do an original article and simply throwing the Post in the recycle bin...
Oppel showed up in the most recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review in an article on the deteriorating wall between the business and editorial sides of daily newspapers. In a piece critical of the way in which business managers often have a direct contribution in forming editorial policy, Oppel was quoted: "I work closely with the advertising and circulation and production side. I think we're a team. There is a lot of mutual respect."
Oppel did say he drew the line on just how far such relationships can go. While he supports such arrangements down to mid-management news executives, he says, "I'd be wary of" reporters getting involved. "Reporters and copy editors should stick to the task of journalism."
Oppel's right. While circulation and advertising are what keeps papers printing, when the business side starts driving actual copy - which CJR reports has resulted in weak editorial content at the Los Angeles Times - you're headed for trouble.
Speaking of the Statesman, some people may see the daily's short blurb on the recent arrest of its Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist as embarrassment over the incident. However, I'm personally thankful not to read any more about it. The Peewee Herman-like arrest of the artist at a local porn bookstore on charges of public lewdness for disrobing is only mildly newsworthy. (Now if it happened at Book People, that could be cause for concern.)
Still, three of Austin's four television news teams devoted time to covering this story (once again, KVUE gets credit for superior judgement). And the quote in The Daily Texan's prominently placed story - "He was probably on lunch break coming in for a quick jerk" - was utterly gratuitous. Given the precious few minutes that each station devotes to news - and the very little space the Texan has for local news - was this really an item that merited the time and copy? What justifies reporting this when similar arrests go uncovered every day - his celebrity status? These are questions that responsible journalists should think about. Especially in light of that other over-reported story - Lewinskygate.