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‘Week In Review’ overhaul


About six weeks ago, a relatively little known but much respected TV talk show with a reputation for not raising its voice brought smoke to the ears and blood to the eyes of millions (well, maybe thousands) of fans over the age of 55, mostly journalists and other members of the “chattering class.” Not because of anything it said or did, but because of what had been done to it.

What happened is that a couple of new executives at the Washington PBS station WTEA fired Ken Bode, the four-year scholarly moderator of the proudly stodgy “Washington Week in Review.” The new execs had recently moved to PBS from the not-very-news-serious Sundance and Travel cable channels.

To some, the flap signifies a crisis in the future of Public Broadcasting and its freedom to report and interpret the news without interference. To others, it is a signal that PBS itself -- now that a variety of cable channels are showing documentaries and airing endless newstalk, and now that corporate sponsors are determining what gets on the air at PBS and polluting the screens with their 10-second promos -- has outlived its usefulness.

For me, for several years, “Washington Week in Review” has been the center of my Friday night news orgy, a more-or-less three-hour indulgence consisting of “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” “Washington Week,” the horrible “McLaughlin Group” when it had that time slot, and, as the day winds down, ABC’s “Nightline.”

“Washington Week” has been good not because it was the most entertaining or even necessarily the deepest news program, but because of its different format -- four knowledgeable journalists and a moderator sitting around a specially designed table with semicircles carved out to allow the participants to lean into the action.

These journalists, unlike Lehrer and Ted Koppel, do not interview government officials, politicians and experts -- like Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and William Bennett, who seem to inhabit these shows as if they had no other life, no family, no jobs, nothing else to do.

The “Week” journalists are the experts. We amateurs get the impression of eavesdropping on the stimulating conversation of some super-informed professionals. The show prides itself on its no-noise analysis -- no McLaughlin- or Crossfire-inspired shouting, no blustering, predictions, left-right posing or fake insults to roil the waters and wake up nodding viewers.

According to Bode, the new executives at WETA were planning to inject some of those elements into “Washington Week” -- “surprise guests” like senators (Orrin Hatch?), high school journalists (!!!), and conservative-liberal verbal slugfests (as if conservative and liberal are the two recognized categories into which all opinions fit). Non-journalists, like ex-White House staffers, would appear as panel regulars. The executives’ buzz words for the makeover were edge, attitude and opinion.

The New York Times has run three pieces on the controversy; but Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media writer, has stayed on top of the story both in a series of Post reports and in his excellent CNN Saturday night/Sunday morning press review program, “Reliable Sources.”

On the March 13 broadcast, Kurtz and his cohost Bernard Kalb pushed Bode on the reasons for his ouster: Was he resisting all change? Were ratings falling? Ratings were strong, Bode said: The program was tied for fifth in the entire PBS national schedule.

According to some reports, Bode had made modest changes -- a new table, live feeds from correspondents on scene, a more diverse panel. But he was drawing the line on opinion.

Clearly, PBS, infected by the Hype Virus transmitted by the cable mentality, was on the brink of ruining a good thing; now it has backed off for the time being and plugged Paul Duke, who was moderator for 20 years, into Bode’s seat. As this is written we can be sure that the redesigners are still at work, ready to install a new look and a jazzier discussion leader.

A college classroom

But frankly, the old format has struck me as a little artificial, like a college classroom. Bode is, in fact, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He would turn to each panelist, remind him or her that he or she was the expert on the topic: “Well, Thomas Friedman, you are just back from the Middle East ... “ Or, “Well, Gorgie Anne Geyer, you’ve covered Latin America for many years. What can you tell us about ...?” The pro would hold forth until another panelist, pretending to know nothing about the topic, asks a question to which he obviously knows the answer: “Well, how is the Clinton administration going to react to that?”

A lot of the talk has been straight information rather than analysis, which could give us a new angle. Sometimes it seems to be a show for viewers who have not read the newspapers -- not the most challenging use of all those brains at the odd-shaped table.

On two critical news weekends, March 26-28 and Easter, I compared “Washington Week” with the “Newshour,” CNN, “Nightline,” the weekend newspapers and the Sunday morning newsmakers shows, to see which contributed most to my understanding of our policy in Kosovo -- which seemed to show increasing signs of not having been well thought out. On March 12 and March 19, “Washington Week” gave Kosovo about 20 seconds each night; on the 26th the expert was Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, and he got 80 percent of the half hour to explain that Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian, that Milosevic is refusing to sign the peace treaty worked out without him at the table, that he had talked to Sandy Berger that morning, that our tactic is to “degrade” the Yugoslav military, and so on. Martha Raddatz of ABC News added that the MiGs shot down over Bosnia may represent a grave escalation by the Serbs. The following Friday, a new panel suggested that Milosevic had moved so swiftly and brutally to drive out a third of Kosovo’s population that this operation must have been long-planned.

Brilliant. But cumulatively, from the other sources, I was gathering a sense of the broad situation on another level: that our whole policy had not been thoroughly thought through; that Milosevic is a very strange bird, determined to hold on to personal power at any cost by exploiting Serbia’s nationalist nostalgia for Kosovo as the scene of its lost 14th-century battle against the Turks; that the administration has flooded the networks with cabinet members and generals arguing for our plan but not giving us the facts we need to make an informed judgment; that we haven’t had a word on civilian casualties; that, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., (probably running for president) dared to say on ABC’s “This Week,” we absolutely cannot afford to lose and may well have to send in ground troops to save the situation.

I’m sure “Washington Week” panelists knew all those things, but the format did not give them a chance to say so. While “objectivity” is an important journalistic value, an intelligent opinion can often do more to help us think through a problem than more so-called “objective” chat. After all, most of “Washington Week’s” stars -- like Thomas Friedman, Steve Roberts, David Broder, and Gloria Borger -- are opinion columnists; they specialize in telling us what to think, and they can do so without yelling, oversimplifying and waving their arms.

Give them a chance

In the New York Times on April 2, Friedman published his tentative solution: Bomb and call in George Mitchell to negotiate. The next day, Anthony Lewis spelled out a six-step plan from total destruction of Milosevic’s forces to indicting him as a war criminal. Give these writers a chance to publicly defend their proposals to journalists who can answer back.

In no way would senators, students or selected spokespersons give new life to the old “Washington Week,” but leading the informed discussion to some closure would give (excuse the expression) an “edge” to an already good show and, more important, help the public comprehend what the Manchester Guardian has called “the crisis of our generation.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999