- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Viewers of local television news had every reason to be skeptical when television station WUSA (Channel 9) introduced “USA Tonight,” the Washington area’s only locally produced 7 p.m. newscast, one year ago today.

In a message posted on the CBS affiliate’s Web site before the show’s debut, anchor Derek McGinty promised “this is not your father’s local news show.”

“We’ll never lead with that crime story or fire you don’t care much about.”

Then came opening night. The first report presented on the first edition of “USA Tonight”: A brief update on the serial-arson investigation in the District and Prince George’s County.

An important story? Yes. One that most Washingtonians cared about? Probably not.

For the most part, though, the slickly produced “USA Tonight” has lived up to its pledge to be different than other local newscasts. The show’s challenge now is fulfilling its potential to be better.

It’s already making strides.

When it comes to good reporting, it doesn’t get much better than the work done on “USA Tonight.”

WUSA has assigned two of its finest correspondents to the show: Bruce Leshan, a terrific storyteller, and Stacey Cohan, a rising star who gets better all the time.

Mr. Leshan has a gift for connecting his stories to viewers’ everyday lives.

One example: Last fall, he examined the cost of President Bush’s war spending plan by determining what $87 billion will buy in the United States (eight times as many Pell grants, for one thing.)

Ms. Cohan shines in covering stories other stations ignore, such as her recent reports on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The cool Mr. McGinty presides over it all with quiet confidence. He is at his best debriefing reporters about their stories and responding to e-mail during “McGinty’s Mailbag,” a nightly segment that gives viewers a chance to sound off on the news.

But Mr. McGinty also is at the heart of one of the program’s major weaknesses.

On each show, he quizzes a guest or two about one of the big stories of the day. These segments are designed to showcase his deft interviewing skills, sharpened during his days as a talk-show host at radio station WAMU-FM (88.5).

Sometimes the interviews work, such as the night a skeptical Mr. McGinty challenged an official from Exodus International, a religious group that claims it converts homosexuals into heterosexuals.

But “USA Tonight” stubbornly sticks with the interview segments, even on nights the show can’t round up a compelling guest.

On a recent edition, for example, Mr. McGinty chatted a doctor up about the dangers of the pain-relief medication Vioxx.

This kind of conversation would be fine for Mr. McGinty’s former radio show, but it has no place on television, which, for better or worse, is a visual medium.

WUSA deserves praise for sticking with “USA Tonight,” despite lousy ratings and tough competition from Tom Brokaw on the local NBC station, WRC-TV (Channel 4).

So far, the show hasn’t turned out to be the great leap forward for local TV news that some of us hoped for, but it hasn’t been a step backward, either.

These days, that’s enough.

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

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