Tuesday, March 29, 2005

This week’s edition of “Now,” PBS’ distinctive Friday newsmagazine, ends with a close-up of Basil Chapman, a retired West Virginia railroad worker who has been sued by his employer because his retirement has become too costly.

“You know, once you retire, you got nobody but the courts,” Mr. Chapman says, his creased face seemingly numb with despair.

“You got no labor board. No jurisdiction. They can’t help you. Unions? They can’t help you because you’re retired. You don’t belong to the union once you retire. You got nobody.”

In a world in which the latest twists in the twisted Michael Jackson trial wind up as a lead story on the morning news shows — and above the fold on the front pages of some newspapers — it is easy to overlook stories like Mr. Chapman’s.

Thankfully, “Now” doesn’t.

The half-hour program devotes this week’s edition to “The Broken Promise,” an engaging report on employers that are slashing the benefits of their retirees. It is a timely story for a nation experiencing a rapid rise in both health care costs and retirees.

In the Washington area, WETA-TV (Channel 26) will air the episode Friday at 8:30 p.m.

It is a heartbreaking half-hour, albeit one that could restore your faith in the ability of television — or at least PBS’ corner of it — to tell stories that matter.

At the outset, viewers are introduced to Mr. Chapman, 60, a union man who spent 38 years working for railroad manufacturer ACF Industries.

He suffers from emphysema and took an early retirement in 2002 because of health reasons, according to the reporting by “Now” host David Brancaccio. The next year, ACF informed Mr. Chapman it was cutting his benefits.

Then the company sued him, essentially so it could charge him more for benefits.

ACF did not return telephone calls from “Now,” Mr. Brancaccio tells viewers.

James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, an advocacy group for corporations, tells the program that benefits are essentially a perk that employers have the right to rescind.

Ellen Schultz, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has followed the story, tells “Now” that lawsuits like the one targeting Mr. Chapman have “been done increasingly in the past few years,” although neither she nor Mr. Brancaccio ever tells viewers just what that means.

It’s the only quibble in an otherwise solid half-hour.

The report, produced by Brenda Breslauer, also includes a profile of a retired Texas couple whose health care costs have skyrocketed and more insight from Ms. Schultz, who has spent considerable time reporting on the plight of retirees.

What distinguishes “Now” is not gee-whiz graphics or fancy camera work, but stories like this that send viewers to bed with a better understanding of the world around them.

There is an almost quiet nobility in the way Mr. Brancaccio and his crew have carried on in spite of recent budget cuts by PBS that forced the program to cut back from an hour each week.

Given the sad state of TV journalism today, that makes “Now” worth watching.

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

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