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IT WAS MORE LIKE A CONTEST BETWEEN TWO PIANO-PLAYING CHICKENS IN A FAIRGROUND VENDING MACHINE, THE WINNER DECIDED BY A JUDGMENT OF WHICH PECKED OUT THE MORE CONVINCINGLY APPEALING VERSION OF OUR FAVORITE POLITICAL TUNES. “Newsroom.” The concept and format for “Newsroom” were originally hit upon dur ing the 1968 San Francisco newspaper strike, when KQED-TV anchor Mel Wax brought reporters into the studio to deliver their stories live on the air. The Dallas show, however, quickly outstripped its predecessor. The showwhich opened idealistically to the strains of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and a tight close-up of the day’s date on a large wall calendarfeatured print columnists from several local news organizations jawboning the day’s events and locking horns over what made the news and why. The panel’s ethnic and gender diversity was impressive by any standards, and Lehrer presided over the chaos with a charming bemusement. In an era well before a hydra-headed News Corp. and her Gorgon alter ego, Turner Broadcasting, “Newsroom” contained an element of seat-of-the-pants media criticism, in that the panel offered differing opinions of what might be the best way to report a story. And because this was 1970, these opinions were based not on what would make a story better television, but what would better serve the local citizenry. Such a description may raise more than a few cynical eyebrows, but sincere adherence to “public service” missions back then led even the local ABC affiliate in DallasWFAATV, a station owned, along with the Dallas Morning News, by newly-inducted corporate cephalopod Belo Broadcastingto put its homely curmudgeon of a general manager, Mike Shapiro, on the air once a week for a viewer-mail show called “Let Me Speak to the Manager.” One of “Newsroom’s” most remarkable technological innovations \(remembering pleaseinteractivity. Crew members \(and questions from a phone bank out onto the studio floor, where Lehrer would pick the most provocative and incite fresh discussion. On more than one occasion, “Newsroom’s” director \(a veteran of WGBH’s patched through Dallas’ mayor live to joust on-air with his journalistic detractors. Such idealistic beginnings! Inside of three years, Lehrer was in Washington, D.C., flush with Fred Friendly’s Ford Foundation money and teamed with Robert MacNeil to produce national public affairs programming, including gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings. Lehrer has admitted that he was, at first, a bit out of his depth: in a 1992 C-SPAN interview \(rebroadcast the afternoon before this year’s words from the more suave and telegenic MacNeil for him to learn to stop rocking his head back and forth, saucer-eyed, while reading the TelePrompTer. Still, at the time the very idea of “public television” was considered so “dangerous” that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed to insulate individual member stations \(as well as programs produced by But now, look how far he’s fallen, this Icarus of Insiders. John Malone’s Liberty Media, a subsidiary of TCI, now owns controlling interest in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and thus the “NewsHour.” \(Perhaps it’s merely to gain easier access for his intended drive-by on idealistic reporters eager to serve the public trust, Lehrer is surrounded by the likes of Mark Shields, who receives \(as Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted a year Martinthe nation’s largest military contractorfor his Wednesday evening appearances on WMAL-AM’s “Look at Today” radio program. Given the lingering possibility that the CPB will be “zeroed out,” Lehrer may even find his NewsHour privatized, and himself back at work for Gannett or Time Warner. So maybe it’s no wonder, really, that Jim Lehrer was chosen to spend a couple of evenings tossing whiffleballs at the candidates, or, in the last instance, helping those of others over the plate. Maybe it’s to be expected that he didn’t ask any pointed questions about specific issues like telecom re form, or about major media donations \(including Seagrams/MCA, Disney/ABC, Dreamworks SKG, Time/Warner, and TickBut let’s be clear: the 1996 presidential debates were dull because Jim Lehrer didn’t make them interesting. Lehrer’s one hamhanded attempt to generate a bit of drama during the first debatewhen he attempted to lure Dole into bullying Clinton on the character issuehad all the subtlety of Elmer Fudd propping up an orange crate with a stick and a string tied to it. Lehrer long ago stopped seeking or reporting the news. Instead, he now passively “moderates” a flow of unquestioned political press releases. Apparently, no one knows the difference. The final debate resembled less a “town hall meeting” than a Ricki Lake set. Lehrer, seated in a space-age swivel chair reminiscent of the one he used to sit in on e “Newsroom,” was reduced to dolorously facilitating a tiresome parade of earnest, Gallup-approved Average Americans whose questions belied the criticism that major media is out of touch with citizenry. And that may be the sad solution to the puzzle. You don’t even have to buy a vowel. Given the chance to get in the ring ourselves, it seems, we all behave a little like chickens. Tom Dowe is an Austin-based freelance writer, who as a child occasionally ferried phone messages for the Dallas “Newsroom.” A shorter version of this essay appeared as the front page for the online daily Suck \( ANDERSON & COMPANY COFFEE TEA SPICES TWO JEFFERSON SQUARE AUSTIN, TEXAS 78731 512-453-1533 Send me your list. Name Street City Zip NOVEMBER 8, 1996 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15