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Reporter’s Notebook If It Bleeds, It Leads

Fox 4’s critics deride the station’s blood-and-guts approach to news. But the truth will surprise the old-school broadcasters-Fox has the best news in town.
By WARNER MCGOWIN |

I’ve changed my mind about Fox 4 News.

It’s true that in the month I’ve been taking notes on the station’s 9 o’clock broadcast. I’ve found everything I had expected. Fox 4 is, after all, an affiliate of Rupert Murdoch’s broadcast company, the one that brought us shows like When Good Pets Go Bad, Part il and Busted On She Job. So Fox 4 does often indulge in Murdoch’s controversial approach to television: sensationalist treatment of stories, graphic footage of tragic events, titillation in the extreme. From grainy video of skinhead attacks to up-close shots of knife victims, shock value is a significant element of the station’s broadcast. In fact, Fox 4’s newscast often seems more like cinéma vérité than true reporting.

So why do 1 believe it’s the best news program in Dallas?

Because Fox. for all its emphasis on tragic video footage, reports on the city with immediacy. The station has seven-and-a-half hours a day of news space to fill, more than any other station in Dallas. That news hole means two things: On slow days. Fox does resort to facile stories of visual interest. But it also means that Fox puts more emphasis on live reporting, immediate coverage, and in-depth analysis of important local stories. When the news is happening, there’s not a better station in Dallas than the underdog.



ON THE DAY I VISIT THE station, news is happening. I’m at the edge of the newsroom downtown, and one of the station’s producers is standing at his desk, a phone cradled at his neck, notepad in his hand. He yells across the crowded room.

“The judge has is-sueda T.R.O! T.R.O!”

The words send everyone into a flurry of action. Assistant news director Kings-ley Smith-at 6-foot-2 usually a casual, lumbering man-bolts from the corner where we’ve been standing and picks up the phone. Anchor Steve Eagar rushes up, awkwardly putting on his blazer. His face is thick with camera makeup.

“What does that mean?” he asks.

“We’re going live!” Smith yells.

“What are we saying?”

Someone hands Eagar a sheet of paper with the details, and he sits at the desk at the front of the newsroom, editing the words he’ll be speaking on camera in 45 seconds. Behind Eagar, on the bank of TVs against the wall. Fox reporter Barbara White is standing outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building, ready to report that Judge Joe Kendall has issued a temporary restraining order demanding that American Airlines’ striking pilots get back to work. The cameraman is counting down the seconds, and Eagar is still asking questions about the copy in his hands.

“Does this mean they have to get back to work?”

Kingsley Smith hangs up the phone and stands to the side as the cameraman points to Eagar, and the anchor is on the air.

“’Fox 4 News is reporting this afternoon that Federal Judge Joe Kendall has issued a temporary restraining order against…”

Eagar’s delivery is smooth and calm. White handles the anchor’s questions easily, struggling only with the strong wind outside the courthouse, which has blown a thick strand of hair over her face. In no time, the exchange is over, and Fox 4 returns to the Montel Williams show. A full five minutes pass before Channel 5 breaks in to report the same news Fox has just delivered. No other station-not even perennial ratings-winner Channel 8-reports on the development until the news hour.

This day, Fox has won. and everyone in the newsroom knows it. The live report is the kind of thing broadcasters long for-important news, delivered before the competition, about a local crisis. At this moment, Fox looks every bit the powerhouse local station.

But a few minutes later, as Smith and I stand in front of a computer screen detailing that evening’s news lineup, the broadcast director points to an item that puzzles me. When I ask. Smith abandons his tone of seriousness.

“Oh, this? This is great,” he says. “’It’s live footage of a copier crash on a rooftop in South Africa.”

A South African helicopter crash? On local news?

On Fox4 News, absolutely. The station that consistently earns the city’s highest prime-time viewership among the advertiser’s dream demographic-males age 18-49-has mastered the art of mixing the serious with the gratuitous in the news. The lure of arresting footage-car chases, fatal beatings, and South African helicopter crashes-is a strong weapon in the station’s efforts to bring that valuable demographic into the 9 o’clock news hour. Fox 4 is intent on showing us not just what we need to see but-if national trends are any indication-what we want to see.

But prurience isn’t the only key to Fox’s success. Credibility is important, and the station may be the most credible in town for local coverage. The five-minute drama of the American Airlines live coverage was a telling scene, and it proved for me a theory Fox’s news directors had espoused–the station with the most time to fill rinds itself uniquely qualified to report on breaking news. I knew then that the station I’d come to think of as the last bastion of tabloid TV-skinhead beatings, dog attacks, violent arrests-is, in fact, a serious news station. My preconception wasn’t any less true, but the surprise was this: When serious news happens. Fox is as good as any of its competitors, maybe better.

It’s just that in the current media landscape, entertainment is as important as content.

And Fox doesn’t plan to be left behind.



YOU MIGHT EXPECT THE TWO ARCHITECTS OF a local station’s news programming to be a pair of old-school broadcast reporters. But news director Maria Barrs and assistant news director Kingsley Smith don’t lit the image. Smith, 34, has a round face and the slow gait of a small-town businessman. He doesn’t have any of the rough edges you expect from a journalist-he wears suspenders and well-ironed white shirts; on his office walls are pictures from duck hunts in Missouri. He’s the kind of guy your grandmother would like.

Barrs, 42, is closer to the stereotype-she has a careful, calculated manner of speech and a slight hint of weariness in her eyes. But, like Smith’s, her movements are casual, easy. When you draw her into conversation, you sense that she could philosophize for hours over coffee. She speaks like a true humanist- every observation leads to another, then another after that.

Still, Barrs is practical when it comes to the news. She sees the seismic changes in the media landscape-the Internet, cable news, Matt Drudge’s rumor mill-not as a problem for localized programming, but an opportunity. She doesn’t buy into the notion that information overload has weakened local broadcast journalism. Simply put, Barrs isn’t a purist.

“I really look at the news as an adventure,” she says. “I think it’s a mistake to set up a bunch of rules and say, This is law.’” Kingsley Smith agrees. “We operate under a system where mere’s not a lot of hard and fast rules,” he says. “So there has to be a lot of hard and fast dialogue.”

In other words, improvise.

The day I visit the station is a busy one: The Clinton impeachment trial is winding down, and American Airlines” labor strife is snowballing. The newsroom is abuzz with reporters and producers and anchors scrambling to piece together that evening’s three hours’ worth of programming.

But other days, the station’s producers have to rely more heavily on footage from Fox News’ national 24-hour feed. They piece together a patchwork show of live local reports and international tragic video. Want to see a Boston man being beaten by a skinhead in Prague? A crash landing on a Tuscaloosa airstrip? A murder victim’s family attacking the suspect in a Seattle courtroom? On slow news days, Fox 4 is the place. The station has mastered the art of seductive news, programming that you have to watch. I found myself engrossed as the video of the skinhead beating progressed-the skinhead kicking the Boston man again and again, an eerie yellow light reflecting off the pavement. Why was 1 watching this on local news? What did it have to do with me? In a word, nothing. But I could not stop watching, and that’s all a. programmer needs to know.

Barrs and Smith argue that these kinds of videos aren’t gratuitous. They see them as a way of making the news entertaining, and entertainment value is important in a market like this. Dallas-Fort Worth has five local news broadcasts, all competing for the same viewers. Channel 8, with the substantial backing of its parent company, A.H. Belo (publishers of the Dallas Morning News), has long been the giant on the block, leading all local news broadcasts in viewership. But in a city with nearly two million television households, there is room for Fox. The key lies in finding a way into the pre-baby boom generation.

Dallas-Fort Worth, the seventh-largest market in the U.S.. has long been important for networks and their advertisers, but not simply because of population size. The area is a gold mine for advertisers who want to reach young, upwardly mobile males. The median age here is 31.8, younger than the national average of 33.2. According to the critical head-of-house-hold data, Dallas is the youngest of the major markets-the area has more households headed by people under 35 than any other major U.S. city. Add to that the fact that less than 51 percent of families here have cable (compared to 73 percent in New York and 79 percent in Boston, for example), and the local-TV battle lines are set.

So how does Pox capture this valuable audience for the news? It depends on whom you ask. Maria Barrs and Kingsley Smith cite their 1ive programming and a unique approach. The news directors talk about their ability to find unusual angles on widely reported stories. Smith calls it “peoplizing the news.” He argues that when you’re reporting a story where everyone has the same facts, the difference lies in relating those facts in a new way.

“We tell our producers to have fun,” Smith says. “It has to be a newscast that’s fair and honest but that’s also fun to watch. We want to be in touch with the viewer. Good journalism and good TV aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Even if “good TV” means journalism mat looks like something else.

In January, Fox featured a story on domestic violence during its 9 o’clock broadcast. Accompanying a reporter’s voice-over were images of a bloodied rug, a smashed-in door, a deep laceration on a woman’s calf. The pictures were followed by a view from inside the car of a Dallas policeman. The camera, positioned near the floorboard, focused on the policeman as he drove through a neighborhood and talked about the frequency of domestic violence. This was followed by a clip of bystanders on a street comer, witness to the aftermath of some horrible act of violence, their faces were awash in the red and blue lights of a police cruiser. From the graphic imagery to the cinéma-vérité camera angle to the dramatic voice-over, the feature was like a localized COPS segment. The effect is dramatic, direct, and narrative. But is it news?

Some analysts don’t think so. Charles Davis, assistant professor of journalism at SMU, says that Fox oversteps the bounds of good TV journalism. “When video footage defines news,” Davis says, “local coverage is the first thing that gets thrown out because it isn’t flashy. It’s city council meetings and school board meetings.”

As for the idea of peoplizing the news, Davis says that’s nothing but rationalization. “That’s the populist argument. It’s cute, but it’s not legitimate. I think Fox’s local news is drawn some by me synergies of the national broadcast.” Davis says. “There’s a corporate allegiance there. To keep the younger audience, they have to do something.”

How much that corporate allegiance influences the news is debatable. Nationally, Fox has earned a reputation as the original purveyor of schlock TV, and while upper management is reluctant to make a long-term strategy based on that kind of television, the success is hard to argue with. Bill Carter, TV analyst for the New York Times, says the national network will struggle to clean up its act. “As a long-term strategy, Fox doesn’t believe in [shockTV]. Advertisers hate it and don’t want to be associated with it,” he says. “But it’s sort of like breaking a crack habit, They gel great ratings from these shows.”

That same dilemma plays out on the local news. Maybe I can’t stop looking at the video of dog attacks and crash landings, and maybe the video is engrossing. But once you’ve made the decision to format your news that way. can you ever go back? Once your audience has come to expect that, can you return to straightforward news? If Fox remains successful, will the competition follow its lead?

Maria Bans and Kingsley Smith don’t say. They insist that their only objective is to produce a good and entertaining news show. But when the main evening newscast (from 9 o’clock to 10:30) is sandwiched between, say. When Good Pets Go Bad, Part II and Extra, a celebrity-rumor show, it’s easy to see how the success of all that can influence local coverage. For programmers eager to keep the attention of young males into the news hour, breaking with a successful formula is difficult.

When I ask Smith about the ethical dilemma presented by graphic footage, he recounts an incident that highlights the problem. One afternoon last December, Fox reporters learned that police were in the middle of a car chase with a robbery suspect and his companion, and the station decided to broadcast the chase live from its helicopter. The event was a rarity: local news being played out before the camera. But the chase took an unfortunate mm when police drove the suspect off the road. The man pointed a handgun, police shot him in the chest, and the woman in the passenger seal grabbed the gun and shot herself in the head.

In an instant. Fox’s attempt to present an arrest rife with drama had turned into a broadcast of a shooting and a suicide-live, during children’s programming. The station received numerous complaints, but, as Smith points out. “at least we were shooting from the helicopter. Channel 5 had cameras on the ground, and you could see everything.” In other words, verity has its price. Fox got burned by the event, but not as badly as Channel 5.

Smith doesn’t address the larger question: Was the chase news at all? Sure, a criminal on the run is noteworthy, and any police action is open to scrutiny. But is it something to broadcast live? In the competitive local news market, yes. Immediacy is everything.

When important news is happening, that immediacy is a treasure. When Judge Kendall ended the pilots’ labor act. the station was there first When Don Venable stormed out of a DISD meeting, quitting his position. Fox was there to show the school-board rancor. After two Arlington men murdered Amy Robinson, Fox was the only station that got an interview with the killers as they admitted their guilt. In the end, mixing important stories like these with violent eye candy is the only way for a news station to be heard over the competition.

Maybe Fox’s model for success is a deal with the devil. Maybe it’s a cynical way to make the news sexy, and perhaps the audience will turn away. But until it does, Dallas’ best local coverage will be accompanied by sometimes irrelevant but always eye-catching video. For the traditionalist, there’s always public radio and the newspaper.

Fox 4’s directors have no plans of changing the programming. And can you blame them?

Maria Barrs doesn’t think so.

“There arc times when people should be shocked.” she says. “It’s not our role to clean up the world and package it for people.”