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July 16, 2007
TV news honchos in political hot seat

Sacramento Bee/Jose Luis Villegas

It was open season on local TV news earlier today at the Capitol.

The event: the Commonwealth Club of California’s Voices of Reform Project roundtable.

The debate: the "potential for better coverage of public policies" in TV news.

Representing local TV: news directors Anzio Williams (pictured, above) of channels 3 and 58 and Steve Charlier of channels 13 and 31, as well as political reporters Marcy Brightwell of News10 and Kevin Riggs of Channel 3.

Among those representing political interests: Pablo Espinoza, former Channel 19 reporter-turned-deputy director, Speaker’s Office of Member Services; Bob Jimenez, former NBC reporter and current communications director for state Sen. Ron S. Calderon, and Jeff Macedo, the governor's deputy press secretary.

Moderator: Steve Swatt, former Channel 3 reporter, now a public relations consultant.

First, let's hear from Williams and Charlier.

Williams called covering state politics a "challenge," especially when a typical "long" story on KCRA runs 1 minute 45 seconds. ("And I'm trying to get it down to 1:20.") He said TV avoids "process" stories and must find a way to "put a face" on an Assembly bill. "If Kevin (Riggs) doesn't leave this two-block radius of the Capitol, then that's missing the point (of a story)."

Charlier, whose stations do not have regularly assigned Capitol reporters, said he assigns stories based on merit and that any number of his reporters can cover state government. He said his station will not cover a story just because politicos have sent out press releases.

That got Jimenez going.

"You can't just send anyone down (to the Capitol) to report," he said. "Those are the kind of people who get manipulated or may even get the story wrong...."

Both Jimenez and Espinoza noted that TV news has a public trust (it's part of the FCC license), but that networks care primarily about the bottom line.

Espinoza told the story of standing outside a Capitol conference room where a meeting about the growing budget stalemate was taking place.

"No one (from the media) was there at all," he said. "Then I saw two cameramen whizzing by, going upstairs. When they came back down, I asked (the cameramen) where they'd been and they said it was a hearing on Sen. Calderon's porn tax. I mean, OK, that's good legislation, but there was nothing new on that story that day."

Charlier and Williams' made the point that, for better or worse, TV news outlets are for-profit businesses, and that ratings matter. (Several studies have shown that politics rates low on viewer preferences.)

But Williams' remark comparing coverage of politics to coverage of auto mechanics drew some grumbles from the crowd. Williams added that politicos who complain about lack of coverage are no different from the gripes of non-profit groups or of religious groups with whom he recently met.

Charlier was more blunt: "Would you watch 45 days of budget coverage every evening?"

Said Jimenez: "I don't think the news should be a popularity contest. We still teach (journalism students) in college that you need to give people what they need to know..."

Espinoza: "I don't think anyone is asking TV stations to do something that's not going to be good for business. What I'm asking for is open-mindedness in the newsroom."

So, who "won" the roundtable discussion?

I'd have to say it was Stacy Owen, news director at News10, who wasn't there.

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