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‘Ambush’ Technique Aims at Best, Worst of TV News

Last Thursday, the nightly television news contest really got rolling at 4:59 p.m., when KFMB-TV (Channel 8) anchorman Hal Clement took his Sincerity Stroll, delivering his “A Few Last Words” commentary in his friendly ol’ boy style while slowly walking from the set of the 4:30 newscast to the set of the 5 p.m. program, which he also anchors.

As he does every weekday, he strolled past bored-looking reporters, dangling cables, cameras and assorted hangers-on to greet anchorwoman Susan Roesgen, waiting anxiously on the set, which, from this camera angle, looked like a throw-away decoration from Disneyland’s “Star Tours” exhibit.

The Sincerity Stroll is a bizarre concept, purposely breaking down the walls of perception that television news tries so hard to build, and it was a completely appropriate way to kick off a marathon session of watching local television news. Thursday was chosen at random as a good night to review all that is good, bad and trendy in local television news.

It’s fun to do this type of ambush journalism, to take one day or one event and make profound observations and draw conclusions from it. Television consumer reporters are experts at it, setting up hidden cameras to see how people respond in a controlled situation. Usually, nobody can complain (read: make legal waves) because it is always made very clear that it represents nothing more than the true events of one circumstance. It is only implied that it is a typical occurrence.

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Thursday night had all the trappings of a typical night for local television news, and it was a big night for consumer reporters.

After a brief absence from the scene, all three network affiliates feature aggressive consumer teams, seeking to trap and maim evil-doers. On this night, which just happened to be part of a sweeps ratings period, Mr. Remote Control found both channels 10 and 39 using hidden cameras to catch representatives of different carpet cleaning companies attempting to jack up their prices. It was great voyeuristic television.

Channel 10’s approach was more sensational, skewering the companies by showing the video and listing their estimates. But the KNSD-TV (Channel 39) report was more complete, actually including the responses of the carpet cleaners after the trap had been revealed.

KGTV (Channel 10) was in full self-promotional stride on this night. Always seeking to make news as much as report it, anchorman Stephen Clark told viewers the station was on the prowl for “water wasters.” As an aside, he proudly said that a man who called the mayor’s office to complain about a water abuser was referred to Channel 10.

Thursday was also a big night for fans of Channel 39 reporter Paul Bloom. To one degree or another, all television reporters are taught to give a story an angle and tone. Bloom attracts criticism because he does it with a little more zest than most.

On this night, Bloom’s angle was unspoken, but clear nevertheless: Can you believe Roger Ip may go free? Ip was convicted of involuntary manslaughter last week for shooting a young man after a traffic altercation in 1989. At the time of the incident, “it appeared to be cold-blooded murder,” Bloom emphasized. With sledgehammer subtlety, he left the impression that the jury, “which apparently believed that (Ip) fired out of fear,” may have found it “easier” to find Ip guilty only of manslaughter. After showing an interview with the prosecuting attorney, and offering no word from the defense, Bloom, with just the slightest hint of incredulity, emphasized that the past 18 months “may be the only time Ip spends in jail.”

Bloom and the consumer reports spiced up a night dominated by lengthy weather reports and conversations with Padres star Tony Gwynn, who Channel 10’s Larry Sacknoff repeatedly refered to as his "$4-million friend.” Channel 8 struck some emotional chords with its feature on a woman who found a way to keep her son off drugs, but, for the most part, the evening focused on a blithering array of features and basic news reports.

It was a big news night, with events unfolding in the Middle East, but the only real meat came from the networks. The local stations did the usual interviews with local military wives, military personnel and dazed-looking academics about the situation in the Middle East. Channel 39’s Bob Dale gave viewers details of the weather in Kuwait with the same delivery he once used to introduce “Laurel and Hardy” movies. The only surprise came from Channel 39, which took 10 seconds to inform viewers that a peace march will be staged in Balboa Park on Saturday.

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At 6:30 p.m., channels 8 and 10 moved into their 6:30 programs, which always seem like hodgepodge newscasts, sort of Cliff Notes versions of real newscasts. Thursday night was no different, except Channel 39 waded into the fray with this month’s edition of the forum show “Third Thursday.”

Channel 10 likes to do these televised encounter groups, too. But the station that “Stands for San Diego” never quite manages to produce the focus and energy of “Third Thursday.” This edition of “Third Thursday,” focusing on censorship, was a typically wild and wooly affair, including a staged demonstration from one group near the end of the show.

After “Third Thursday,” the news marathon took a break until 10 p.m., when KUSI-TV (Channel 51) jumped into the fray with its newscast, top-heavy on international, national and state reports. The only real moment of interest came in an interview with Dr. Sanford Lakoff, a local university professor called upon to give his analysis of the Middle East Peace plan. Forsaking the customary role of analyst, Lakoff launched into a lengthy description of his own plan for peace. The world can only hope that Saddam Hussein and George Bush happened to be watching Channel 51 Thursday night.

During a 10:45 p.m. commercial break, Channel 10 anchorwoman Carol LeBeau announced that a “leak from the White House” detailed exactly what Bush thought of the Soviet-proposed peace plan, but didn’t bother to tell viewers anything more. They were forced to tune in at 11 p.m., when each network affiliate launched into its wrap-up shows.

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While Channel 39 was reporting on itself, showing highlights of “Third Thursday,” Channel 10’s Marti Emerald was doing a “Perspective” piece on one of her own stories, railing against the “uncaring, unfeeling bureaucracy” which had ignored her revelations about a hearing-aid scam. A few minutes later, Channel 10 gave viewers the results of its telephone poll, which proved that people willing to spend 50 cents for a phone call felt Bush should reject the peace plan. Then Channel 10 put a bow on the night, going off the air with a story about British troops that found a litter of fox pups in the desert.

Just a typical night of local television news.

Channel 8 anchorwoman Susan Roesgen reportedly has accepted a job as a reporter and anchor with WABC-TV in New York . . . KUSI-TV (Channel 51) is studying the possibility of doing a 7 p.m. weeknight newscast. . . .

KSDO-FM (Classic 103) program director Scotty Brink has given his notice. He’s going to take a job in Seattle.

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