- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2004

On April 7, five days after The Washington Post reported that federal regulators are investigating Riggs Bank’s dealings with foreign embassies, WJLA-TV (Channel 7) aired a brief mention of the case during its 6 p.m. newscast.

It was the first — and so far, only — time the ABC affiliate has weighed in on the matter.

At first blush, this looks like another example of a news organization bowing to corporate pressure. After all, Joe L. Allbritton and his family not only control Riggs, they also own WJLA and its sister cable network, News Channel 8.

But consider this: The other TV stations in town haven’t devoted any more airtime to the Riggs investigation than WJLA has.

“We’ve been given carte blanche to cover this story any way we see fit. We’ve been told to pull no punches. That comes from the very top,” said Bill Lord, vice president of news for WJLA and NewsChannel 8.

Since news of the investigation broke, other newspapers — including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — have published stories about the Riggs case.

On April 18, The Post reported in a front-page story that regulators are preparing to fine Riggs for not reporting suspicious transactions by customers in its embassy banking division, quoting “people familiar with the investigation.”

WJLA and NewsChannel 8 did not follow that development because there was no hard news to report, Mr. Lord said.

“We did a brief story saying that an investigation was under way. We felt obligated to do that. If and when the investigation concludes, we’ll do that story. But we’re not going to do a story every time another media organization speculates about the investigation,” he said.

The WJLA anchor who narrated the April 7 report noted the station’s relationship to Riggs in the report, Mr. Lord said. It will do the same the next time it reports on the case, he said.

Staffers inside Mr. Lord’s newsroom generally support the way he has handled their coverage. They said they have debated the matter a lot in recent weeks, concluding that they wouldn’t be giving the Riggs story any more airtime if the bank wasn’t owned by the Allbrittons.

The real problem, many TV news staffers around town said, isn’t that one station isn’t covering the problems of a corporate cousin, it’s that stations don’t cover business stories.

Managers cite many reasons for this, including lack of manpower and time constraints: You can only squeeze so much into a newscast dominated by crime and other mayhem. Most local stations air brief business segments during their morning newscasts, but they are handled by area print reporters.

Staffers at WJLA and other stations believe it is time to do more, pointing out that as more Washingtonians become investors, interest in the business world has never been higher.

There’s also “The Apprentice” factor.

If the NBC series has taught us anything, it’s that viewers will tune into a prime time show about the business world if it’s presented in a compelling way.

Of course, the question of whether “The Apprentice” accurately depicts corporate America is a debate for another day.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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