Bill Stout on the State of TV News

FOR 37 YEARS, Bill Stout has been seen and heard on Los Angeles television and radio. Twenty-two of those years he has growled the news over Channel 2. His reputation is that of a kind of caustic Walter Cronkite: a father figure whose reporting and analyses might be unadorned and a little sarcastic but always honest and credible.

On Oct. 28, he suffered a heart attack. It came from years of smoking and drinking and a love of well-seasoned food.

It also came from the fast-lane life of a news junkie. There are awards and plaques all over his Beverly Hills home, and two wire-service machines--Associated Press and City News Service--sit just outside the kitchen. When it's on, the TV is tuned to news programs.

Stout is both appalled and enthralled by the broadcast news to which he is addicted. The highly paid anchors, inexperienced but photogenic reporters and oftimes vapid stories aired strictly to boost ratings have always made him queasy. Live, intelligent coverage of breaking news events has made him hopeful.

"Television news in some ways is quicker and better than newspapers," he says. "The Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in South L.A. in the mid-'70s was a good example. We covered it live. Newspapers covered it later in the day. They had great stuff, but not as good. Not with the immediate wallop of TV.

"On the other hand, complicated stuff is difficult. Economics, government. We try with graphics, but newspapers are better."

How did narcissists take over the local news? It's a long story, Stout says. It started in the early 1960s: "The troubles really began when local broadcast news was discovered by management and sales people to be profitable. When it was neutral or a slight loser, they didn't give a damn, but when those who always considered the news departments to be harmless collections of Bolsheviks saw them making money, they suddenly said 'Hey! This is too important to leave to you guys.' "

Enter the chatty anchors and such obnoxious innovations, in Stout's opinion, as "happy talk." TV news executives have frequently pandered to the lowest instincts of television audiences ever since, Stout believes. But he doesn't blame the audience.

"I get a lot of mail, and what amazes me is the level of smarts, interest and curiosity of the audience."

On Feb. 3, Stout will be honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By mid-February, he hopes to be back on the air and participating in the resurrection of no-nonsense news at Channel 2.

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