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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

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Balancing the News

It takes fancy footwork and nicely rounded hips.

NOBLESSE OBLIGE. In sports and popular music there's an almost constant generational turnover. Cal Ripken, Jr., takes his great record into retirement to make room for youngsters like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, who have their own assignations with destiny. Bruce Springsteen steps aside from the spotlight (mostly) so that newer poets of despair like Eminem can charm and inspire their own peers. But for a long time now, network news has seemed curiously immune from this natural relay race of the generations. The anchor men and women seem to have taken their designator literally, attaching themselves to their illustrious chairs as if they had become as immanent as Mount Rushmore. Tom and Peter and Dan kept sitting there year after year after year. At 60 Minutes, the crown jewel of the Tiffany network, that obsolete pocket watch counted seconds but never years as Mike and Ed and Morley and Andy imperceptibly ossified into fright masks. Over at the PBS/NPR fort, Bill and Dan held forth and out against all pretenders, secure and invulnerable behind their rich, fruity, and oh-so-superior voices.

All those graying faces seemed like the Great Wall of Broadcast News. but now, suddenly, there are cracks in the wall and new hope for rising stars. This fact was driven home to us by the latest round of Media Research Council Awards, published last Friday. Yes, there were plenty of greybeards among the winners, but even some eye-popping performances by Dan Rather , Tom Brokaw, and Bill Moyers could not conceal the fact that these three gentlemen were delivering their swan songs. Moreover, the recognition accorded to such giants as Morley Safer, Walter Cronkite, and Mike Wallace seemed reminiscent of the Motion Picture Academy's Jean Hersholt Award, a kind of consolation prize for old-timers who are glad to be remembered at all.

Make no mistake: new blood is surging into the body of broadcast news. We note with pleasure the attainments of rising network stars like Keith Olbermann, Aaron Brown, David Gregory, Matt Lauer, and Byron Pitts. And we're positively delighted at the growing corpus of female talent,  including some veterans like Katie Couric and Claire Shipman, of course, but more importantly some faces and voices that were quite new to us.

Two in particular we'd like to single out for special attention, because they appear to be offering the kind of balanced perspective that will rebuild the foundation of the mainstream media in ways that are appropriate for our new century. First up is a member of the print press, Deborah Horan of the Chicago Tribune. On May 24, 2004, she wrote this little gem during a visit to Iraq:

The Sami sisters, ages 17, 15 and 11, listen to Madonna and Britney Spears. They read Agatha Christie novels and watch movies starring Russell Crowe. They also rarely venture outside their upscale home in central Baghdad out of fear of explosions and violence....Their teenage world was simpler when Saddam Hussein was in power. Back then, they said, they hung out with friends at the Pharmacists Club, a swanky place with a swimming pool to which their father, the vice president of Iraq’s Pharmacists Union, belonged....Iraq’s new freedom — or chaos, depending on your point of view — has imprisoned the girls.

People have been saying the newspapers can't compete with TV or the Internet in attracting younger consumers. Well, not unless they know how to write stories that will touch the hearts of our beloved kids. That's what Deborah Horan knows how to do. How could anyone capture more brilliantly the sorrow and the pity of post-Saddam Iraq? Not even television could give us a more vivid image of the consequences of American imperialism than this word portrait of fine young women deprived of the freedom to hang out with their equally cool young friends at the club. It's more like a cold hand at your throat than anything. We look forward to great things frm Ms. Horan in the future.


Kimberley

We're even more impressed by our second spotlighted newcomer, Kimberly Dozier. CBS News had the smarts to snap her up early and put her on the air in its national newscasts. In her most notable performance, she too reported from Iraq and found a perspective on the fall of Saddam that too few Americans have the wit to appreciate. We were especially struck by balanced insights like this one from her December 16, 2003 report about the capture of Saddam:

...But Saddam Hussein also gave Iraqis dignity and pride. He became a symbol of defiance across the Arab world, never backing down from a fight....

You can view a more extended excerpt here. Like us, you may be bowled over by what you see and hear. It struck us so forcibly that we did some research to see if we could find any precedent for such penetrating foreign policy analysis. Amazingly, we stumbled on a 50-year-old bit of newsreel film narrated by one Virginia Dozier and filed from the tragically downhearted nation of Germany just after the American colonial adventure called World War II. You can (and really should) see it here. Is it possible that Kimberley has inherited the mighty torch of truthtelling from a precocious grandmother? We would like to think so. For some reason, Virginia never filed another report from Germany -- or anywhere else -- and we found no explanation for her eclipse other than intimations and a cryptic reference to footage that had been omitted from the U.S. army film she used as a source in her report. The following still was cited as representative of that footage.



Thankfully, Kimberley shouldn't experience the ill treatment suffered by her putative grandmother. As far as we know, there was no film of massed dead bodies taken in the Saddam regime. CNN and company had the good taste to refrain from such sensationalistic journalism. We hope and believe that Kimberley will go on to enjoy the kind of career Virginia was denied.

Party on, Deb and Kim. We salute you.







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