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TV Advocates to the Rescue in ‘The Crusaders’ : Television: The series has been criticized for sending do-gooder reporters to right alleged wrongs. ‘What is wrong with trying to help people?’ asks a Crusader.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s . . . a journalist?

The real-life reporters on “The Crusaders” neither fly nor wear capes as they roam the country battling red tape and bureaucracy, but they act like Supermen and Superwomen nonetheless, using their journalistic savvy and the power of TV cameras to right wrongs on behalf of the little people.

There’s one looking into health insurance fraud--confronting the alleged bad guy on the street with her camera rolling, cajoling a government agency to take action against him and then finding a doctor and a hospital to perform a sight-saving operation for free on a woman who was allegedly defrauded.

There’s another getting a couple of Florida teen-agers released from Haiti after a U.S. immigration mix-up that kept them from their homes for months.

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And there’s still another persuading the National Wildlife Federation to file a lawsuit demanding that Amtrak cease its routine policy of dumping human waste on the railroad tracks in Glacier National Park because the scent attracts grizzly bears to the rails, where they are all too frequently run down by speeding trains.

Airing locally on Saturdays at 7 p.m. on KNBC-TV Channel 4 and seen in about 90% of the country, the syndicated series, produced by Disney, uncovers real problems and injustices through what its producers and reporters insist is sound journalism, and then goes one step further--a step most journalists are taught and expected not to make: The reporters get personally involved as advocates in an effort to solve the problem for the victimized.

“There’s this great frustration in this country that things just don’t function like they used to,” said John Butte, who helped launch the show a year ago as its first executive producer.

“I grew up with the notion that ‘Shoot, we’re America!’ and if there was a problem, you solved it. Now we don’t have that attitude any longer and, instead, we have a fear that nothing is going to get solved and things are only going to get worse. So we wanted to see if we could do an investigative news program where we identified problems and then showed that problems can be solved.”

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Butte, a former TV news director in Tampa, Fla., left the show earlier this year. The series has gone through a number of upheavals and personnel in its quest for higher visibility and higher ratings in the last six months, but, as it prepares for its second season, staffers say the main business of the show is unaltered.

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And that’s a business--crusading rather than simply reporting--that gives some news purists the willies. They don’t condemn what “The Crusaders” does--as long as the producers don’t call what they do “news.” Warren Olney, for example, a veteran local television journalist, insisted that once a reporter crosses the line and becomes an advocate, he or she ceases to be a reporter.

“The distinction is important because reporters are supposed to find truth, to present things in a fair and balanced way and let their readers or viewers make up their own minds,” said Olney, who currently moderates a daily radio program about local issues on KCRW-FM (89.9). He said he declined an invitation to audition for “The Crusaders” last year. “When you become an advocate, you’re not doing that, and I’m not sure that TV viewers watch critically enough to know the difference.”

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Olney said that as long as more traditional reporting thrives, a show like “The Crusaders” has a place and can be of benefit. But he expressed concern “for the fate of my profession as shows like this proliferate, because it changes the expectations of viewers, so that instead of looking for information or even provocative analysis from the media and then looking to themselves for answers, they look to TV to be fed an opinion and told what to think.”

Producers and reporters at “The Crusaders” say they don’t find going to the person who can fix a problem and asking them to do so either inconsistent with journalism or confusing to viewers.

“Traditionally, journalists shine a light on some problem, and, hopefully, the people who see it will care enough to change it themselves,” Butte said. “But our ability to shine the light on problems has far exceeded society’s ability to solve those problems. The list of problems is too long for anyone to do anything about, and that has led to the frustration. So for us to say these problems can get solved, and get people off the dime to do it, seems like a positive step, even if it’s not for everyone.”

The “Crusaders” reporters, most of whom came from local stations around the country, concede that it was tough at first to cross the line and become an advocate, but now they find it more rewarding than their previous jobs.

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“All of us felt a little strange the first few times we got involved,” said reporter Mark Hyman. He recalled a story he did about a sheriff in Three Forks, Mont., who was battling the town’s elite because of his crackdown on drunk driving, which required Hyman to go before the City Council to help save the man’s job.

“And I, as a reporter, didn’t want to do that,” Hyman said. “But I had to do it to get my point across. In the old days, I covered the story, and then I went back to the station and reported it. Now, I’m only half done. The other half is finding a resolution--and to do that, I have to get involved. It’s not for everyone. And this show is not for everyone. It’s a good niche, but it doesn’t replace local news.”

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Dan Gingold, assistant professor of journalism at USC, said that as long as the audience perceives it as entertainment with a dash of information thrown in for good measure, providing the public with a powerful TV advocate is commendable in many ways. He nonetheless shares the concern that the format of the show forces the reporter to become a prosecutor, rather than someone who simply provides information. And that’s a treacherous role, he said, because anyone who has worked in news for a while knows that most situations are not simply black and white, good guy against the bad.

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“And it’s become this gonzo journalism where the reporter becomes the star and suddenly takes on the role of both the judge and jury determined to make some guy pay for his crime,” Gingold said. “That’s not what a reporter has ever really been supposed to do, except maybe for Clark Kent--and even he had to change into another person in order to right the wrong. It’s dangerous because at some point the reporter can make a mistake or a misjudgment, especially if he is under pressure to find a solution simply to suit the show’s format.”

Such admonitions are far overblown, according to Howard Thompson, another “Crusader” reporter, who is unashamed and unrepentant about being a self-appointed public do-gooder.

“What is wrong with trying to help people?” he asked. “The media are a very powerful institution in this country, and if we first adhere to all the basic tenets of journalism and tell both sides of the story, and then we become advocates and try to help people fight City Hall, what is the problem with that?”

Thompson, who previously worked as a news reporter in New York, said he got tired of defending his profession at parties, tired of having garbage thrown at him when he went into certain communities by people who thought the media were making things worse.

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“I just felt like I was just piling on--here’s another shooting, here’s another racial attack, here’s another senseless death,” Thompson said. “Everything negative that happened, we’re going to give you some more. Nothing was changing. It was just a big sausage grinder. Here, I really feel like I can accomplish something.”


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