- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

The February sweeps were more like the February sleeps. The monthlong ratings derby that concluded March 3 demonstrated just how mediocre local television news can be.

As if we needed the reminder.

The region’s TV reporters once stalked City Hall and Capitol Hill in search of their next big scoop, but now they don’t seem to leave the house.

“Panes of Pain,” a report by Sherri Ly of Fox affiliate WTTG-TV (Channel 5), detailed the dangers of touching hot glass panes on fireplace doors. Oh, it was silly, but give Ms. Ly credit for finding a couple who claimed they didn’t know they should keep their toddler away from the family hearth. Such people can’t be easy to find.

WTTG’s Will Thomas began a report on flammable mattresses with dramatic narration over the images of a retailer’s selection of beds: “So many mattresses to choose from. Soft. Firm. Deadly?” He then told viewers, “You may not realize it, but if your mattress catches on fire, the flames can quickly grow out of control.”

You don’t say.

Viewers were pressed to find examples of real investigative reporting at other stations.

It’s unlikely cheap diamonds and oil-change rip-offs are burning issues in our area, but that didn’t keep NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) from devoting airtime to stories on them.

Even when the stations tackled meaty topics, they often came up short.

Stacey Cohan of CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) introduced viewers to a dog breeder who claims airport security officers don’t check her crates when she ships the animals. Is this a trend, or was the report based on the experiences of one breeder? Viewers weren’t told.

Mr. Thomas reported on a Northwest man who can’t drive his new BMW because of a bureaucratic mix-up at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once viewers finished drying their tears for the poor fellow, they probably began wondering how often this stuff happens in the District. Too bad Mr. Thomas never told us.

There were occasional flashes of ambition and imagination during the sweeps.

WUSA’s Dave Statter examined the debate over building suburban houses closer together. Builders say this construction method reduces sprawl, but firefighters say it’s hazardous.

WTTG’s Shawn Yancy found pews in the District are emptying as the suburban mega-churches continue their rapid growth.

ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) sent Andrea McCarren to El Salvador, where a crackdown on gangs has sent some members scurrying to the Washington area.

WRC’s Wendy Rieger did a fun feature on a local couple trying to find corporate sponsors for their wedding. Not a big issue, but interesting nonetheless.

A telling moment on the state of local news came Feb. 24, when WUSA marked Gordon Peterson’s 35th anniversary at Channel 9 with a montage of career highlights. Viewers saw clips of Mr. Peterson reporting from such far-flung places as Northern Ireland, as well as covering stories here at home.

It was a bittersweet reminder of a time, not long ago, when the news still mattered.

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

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