- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Terence Smith has distinguished himself in the past seven years as the only reporter working in television news whose beat, or at least much of it, is television itself.

The media correspondent for PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” has covered the morning news wars, dissected presidential campaign advertisements and chronicled the rise of the bloggers and the fall of the payola pundits.

Occasionally, he has even reported on the Public Broadcasting Service itself — a subject, he confesses, that makes him a bit uncomfortable.

“It’s sensitive,” Mr. Smith said last week from his office at WETA-TV (Channel 26) in Arlington, which produces the “NewsHour” and distributes it to other public stations through PBS.

“At the same time, PBS is and should be a legitimate subject of our reporting and analysis. We should look at its role in a 200-channel universe.”

On the Feb. 18 edition of the “NewsHour,” Mr. Smith interviewed Karen Everhart, senior editor of the Current, a biweekly newspaper that reports on public broadcasting, about the latest flaps at PBS, including the dispute over a profanity-laced “Frontline” documentary on soldiers in Iraq.

The segment aired under the banner “Embattled PBS.”

Mr. Smith handles touchy assignments like this with aplomb. His long career in journalism has given him a deep appreciation for the profession, which he tempers with a keen sense of skepticism, even when dealing with subjects close to him.

“He’s not a knee-jerk defender of the press,” Mr. Lehrer said.

Mr. Smith, the son of the late sportswriter Red Smith, created the “NewsHour” media unit when he joined the program in August 1998. Before “NewsHour,” he had lengthy stints at the New York Times and CBS News.

The five-person media unit has produced about 500 pieces. Most of its early reports focused on the tenor of press coverage of the big stories of the day, but lately its work has shifted to reporting on journalism’s ethical lapses.

“I have learned in these seven years that news people are every bit as protective of their hides as the people they cover,” Mr. Smith said.

Reporting on the Jayson Blair saga at the New York Times was “painful,” Mr. Smith said, because he knew most of the people involved.

He found the flaws in CBS’ report on President Bush’s National Guard duty “inexplicable” but said they don’t necessarily prove the network was out to get the president.

“I absolutely do not believe anyone at CBS or ‘60 Minutes’ comes to its reporting with a political bias,” he said. “By and large, the people I have worked with at newspapers and TV really have tried to be objective.”

Mr. Smith is surprised that he is still the only TV reporter working the media beat.

The broadcast networks “are reluctant to criticize each other and spotlight each other’s failings, lest they in turn have the spotlight turned on their own failings,” he said, comparing the competition among the networks to the rivalry between the Macy’s and Gimbels department stores in New York.

“It may also be because they know the power of their medium that they are reluctant to look closely at it.”

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

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