- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Somewhere along the line, the people who work in television news stopped being journalists and started trying to become their viewers’ best friends. This tragically misguided notion is never more evident than during a ratings sweep like the one that concluded last week.

Sweeps are the quarterly periods when TV stations try to boost viewership so they can charge advertisers more for airtime.

A sweeps month is one of the few times of the year that budget-conscious newsroom managers give their reporters and producers time and money to work on the kinds of stories that can fall through the cracks during a normal news cycle.

Those opportunities were squandered spectacularly in November.

Instead of using the extra resources to inform their viewers on matters that affect the common welfare, the local stations gave us reports on the latest fat-reduction surgeries and hidden-camera “investigations” into the dangers of using sweaty exercise equipment.

This isn’t news. It’s chatter — the kind you might pick up talking to a neighbor or a nosy aunt who’s too eager to dispense with unwanted — and usually unneeded — advice.

Even when a station lands a big scoop, it doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.

WRC-TV (Channel 4), the local NBC station, made a big deal of Barbara Harrison’s interview with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, taped a few days before President Bush nominated her as secretary of state.

Perhaps it’s just a reflection of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but the two-part discussion focused more on Miss Rice’s childhood and her affinity for the piano and pro football than her views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were occasional flashes of imagination in November.

At Fox station WTTG-TV (Channel 5), Elisabeth Leamy discovered most Metro directors do not regularly ride the troubled transit system. Her report aired three days before The Washington Post put a similar story on its front page.

Not long ago, viewers could count on the TV stations in this town to tell them not only what was happening at City Hall, but also at the White House and on Capitol Hill. National news was local news in the Washington area.

Now stations are too busy trying to buddy up to their viewers. Witness empty slogans such as WRC’s “Working 4 You” and “Seven on Your Side,” the mantra of ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7).

Most people are smart enough to know they shouldn’t use exercise equipment without wiping it off first. And if someone wants fat-reduction surgery, chances are they’ll call their doctor, not a television anchor.

Viewers don’t need TV news people to be their friends.

We just need them to give us the news.

Poetic justice

Gordon Peterson’s debut on WJLA’s 6 p.m. newscast drew a healthy 168,000 households Monday. It finished second in its time slot behind WRC, which drew about 197,000 households.

The 6 p.m. news on CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) — which Mr. Peterson co-anchored until he was essentially forced out in November — finished fifth with about 61,000 households.

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

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