Crossing the Line--for the Right Reason

If journalists were given awards for smarts, restraint and sensitivity, Christina Gonzalez would have a shelf full of them.

It was Gonzalez, a reporter for KTTV-TV Channel 11, who pitched in Monday and gave cardiopulmonary resuscitation to three unconscious victims of that terrible fire at a Westlake district apartment building. It was also Gonzalez who wisely and selflessly shunned the spotlight.

In textbooks, at least, reporters are taught to observe, not participate. The messenger should not eclipse or even compete with the message. It's unfortunate when that fundamental principle is overlooked in the quest by television news--whether local or network--to advertise its personalities like performers on a stage. Make that center stage.

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As the idealistic reporter played by Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News" remarks, caustically, about newscasters versus newsmakers: "Yes, please, let's never forget we're the real story, not them."

When reporters do become personally involved in their stories, it can mean trouble, or at the very least, controversy. Take, for example, KTLA-TV Channel 5 reporter Warren Wilson--the Marshal Dillon of local news.

Wilson is best known for the slew of criminal suspects who have surrendered to him in the last five years. He hasn't advertised in the Yellow Pages; it's just that these people obviously trusted Wilson--a fixture in local television since 1972--more than they did police.

This being the case, it's proper for Wilson to benefit journalistically from his unique situation. When his role in an arrest is apparently unavoidable, it's also proper for him to include himself in the story, as long as he doesn't become the story, and as long as he makes clear that he is acting independently as a journalist, not as an extension of law enforcement.

So it's fine that Wilson has allowed alleged criminals to surrender to him. However, it wasn't so fine that he accepted a $25,000 reward from the Los Angeles City Council for bringing in the accused (and later convicted) murderer of a Los Angeles police officer in 1988. Wilson initially refused to be considered for the reward, declaring it "blood money." Later, he changed his mind.

If Wilson had been a private citizen, no problem. Being a journalist, there was a problem. Even if he had earmarked the money for Mother Teresa, it would have been wrong for him to accept it because doing so made it appear he had crossed a line--become part of a story--for personal gain. As if he were a sort of journalistic bounty hunter with a private agenda.

The Gonzalez line-crossing case is strikingly different. It involves someone acting purely as a compassionate human being.

Assigned to cover the fire, Gonzalez knew when to drop her notebook: when a firefighter asked her to assist in the rescue. Yet she also knew when, symbolically, to pick it up.

Almost as impressive as her life-saving effort was her insistence that she not become part of the story, refusing to be on camera as she worked over a little girl. She also rejected an ill-advised request by KTTV producers that she hash over her personal experience during her live stand-up from the scene on the station's 10 p.m. news.

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Working in a news medium that glorifies the messenger, most TV reporters and anchors would have leaped at the opportunity to play the heroic role of Good Samaritan before the camera. Think of the self-serving promos it would produce.

In contrast with Gonzalez, consider the decision of KNBC-TV Channel 4 to have Paul Moyer co-anchor its 11 p.m. newscast Monday from the site of the Westlake fire.

Moyer was professional; he was dignified. He wore a jacket and tie, not a raincoat and firefighter's hat. He didn't wipe away phony tears. His demeanor was faultless. Yet his gratuitous presence on the scene of this tragedy--it added nothing tangible to a story that Channel 4 reporters were covering in the field--appeared to have a subtle purpose that had nothing at all to do with information.

The message to viewers? We--KNBC and Paul Moyer--care. In a sense, then, KNBC was injecting itself into this story, ever so gently exploiting a catastrophe for self-promotion.

Something Christina Gonzalez refused to do.

The "we care" message is not peculiar to KNBC; stations for years have been using their newscasts--and news personalities--as public-relations ornaments. The strategy is to convince us that, beyond being cold, unfeeling, money-making institutions, these stations and these people are our pals.

Thus on KCBS-TV Channel 2, you have anchors Michael Tuck and Bree Walker, for example, adding their own irritating two cents to every heart-rending story, on the order of: "Our hopes are with them" or "Let's keep our fingers crossed" or "Such a sadness." Yes, our pals.

At times like this, it helps to recall the advice that National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr got four decades ago when he joined CBS News after working as a print journalist: "The secret of success on television is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday May 8, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 4 inches; 119 words Type of Material: Correction Reporter reward-- In Howard Rosenberg's column Friday in The Times, KTLA-TV Channel 5 reporter Warren Wilson was reported in 1988 to have refused initially to be considered for a $25,000 reward from the Los Angeles City Council for bringing in a suspect in the slaying of a Los Angeles police officer, calling it "blood money." He then was reported to have changed his mind and accepted the reward. Wilson told The Times on Friday that his reference to "blood money" pertained to a separate reward of $15,000 being offered by the Los Angeles Police Protective League. He said he did turn that money down. His basis for differentiating between the two, he said, was that "the police reward came from police dues, and the City Council reward came from general tax money." He did accept the money from the City Council and said he gave most of it to charity.
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