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Where Crime Does Not Play

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Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

It was a Tuesday early in June, heady times up there on the high road of television journalism, with cheers and applause bouncing off mellow, gray walls in a corner of the arena-sized, geometric-modern newsroom at KVUE-TV, the ABC affiliate here “Where the News Comes First.”

Flash back a few minutes and picture this:

A sleek building in suburban north Austin. Outside, temperatures in the sizzling 90s. Inside, 20 KVUE staffers starting their regular afternoon editorial meeting around an oblong table outside News Director Carole Kneeland’s glassed-in office. Then, all eyes snapping left toward the approaching Kneeland and the sheaf of papers in her hand. The diminutive Kneeland standing at the head of the table. Kneeland making the announcement to her bright, shiny faces like a preschool teacher bearing milk and cookies.

“The ratings are here!”

Ratings for May compiled by Nielsen Media Research.

Ratings setting advertising rates through July.

Ratings still ranking KVUE newscasts first in this state capital of 465,000 that is famous for bats, live music, Tex-Mex literati and a sprawling University of Texas campus.

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Ratings still allowing KVUE ad sellers to charge $1,400 for 30-second spots in the station’s most-watched half-hour newscast at 10 nightly.

Ratings still beating “Your 24-Hour News Service” on improving NBC station KXAN-TV. Still clobbering “News You Can Count On” at KTBC-TV, a former CBS station now with Fox. Still blackening “Your Eye on Austin” at KEYE-TV, a struggling former Fox station now with CBS.

Ratings that may indicate--although no one knows for sure at this early stage--that less crime pays. Or, at least, that less crime doesn’t hurt.

Kneeland to her happy staff: “Congratulations, everybody!” The following afternoon, KVUE will show its appreciation by treating everyone to a round of ice cream. Look, it’s Austin.

Ratings periods are throbbing, pulsating cliffhangers that determine fates and trends. At stake at KVUE, however, are more than mere adrenaline rushes, market shares and ad rates; more than egos and even careers. At stake is something possibly historic for TV stations approaching the 21st century, for it turns out that despite the catchy slogan, all the news doesn’t come first at KVUE.

Crime news doesn’t.

“Carole always said she would rather be right than first,” said former KVUE crime reporter Orlando Salinas, 35, now at WEWS-TV in Cleveland. As KVUE heads into summer, Kneeland seems now to have it both ways.

Here’s the history: On Jan. 21, a few days before the February ratings sweeps, this Gannett-owned station proved itself the lonest star in Texas, if not all the United States, by initiating an experiment it titled “KVUE Listens to You on Crime.”

In response to viewer angst over gratuitous crime stories, Kneeland and anchors Judy Maggio, 36, and Bob Karstens, 47, explained to viewers, the daily Austin American-Statesman and even the city’s most popular radio team, KVUE newscasts were going on a crime diet. Less fat, less felony.

Unlike vaguely defined “family sensitive” newscasts that surfaced on perhaps two dozen stations this decade with little effect, KVUE got down to specifics that, if not indelible, were at least a clear blueprint. KVUE was not going crime-less. Instead of regular helpings, however, crime now would have to earn its way into newscasts by meeting at least one of five guidelines drafted by KVUE. Is there:

* An immediate threat to public safety?

* A threat to children?

* A need for action?

* A significant impact on the community?

* A related crime prevention effort?

Hereafter, each KVUE crime story would carry a graphic listing which of these guidelines it met.

You’d think that KVUE had spoken out against warm puppies, for wounded groans from the ratings-weak crime-stokers at KEYE echoed through Austin, making their way into newspaper coverage of what KVUE was doing. “Censorship,” charged KEYE General Manager Dennis Upah, 34, and his news director, Jeff Godlis, 42, a Los Angeles-bred veteran of newscasting in San Diego and Bakersfield.

The murky linking of KVUE’s crime guidelines to censorship wasn’t cleared up in a recent interview with Upah and Godlis at KEYE. “It’s censorship,” Upah said, “because they say they are not going to cover certain kinds of stories that I think the public has a right to know.” Don’t KEYE’s and other news managers daily make such editorial decisions about what they will and won’t cover? Well, yes, Upah and Godlis agreed, still insisting that KVUE’s guidelines were somehow censorship.

KXAN News Director Bruce Whiteaker, meanwhile, has been quoted as dismissing “KVUE Listens to You on Crime” as a sales “gimmick” masked as virtue.

Yet KVUE’s “crime project,” as it came to be known, was not the act of a lowly station desperately lunging for something dramatic. Quite remarkably, what KVUE was fixing wasn’t much broken. The station was doing just fine, its newscasts already having moved ahead in the ratings, presumably with little to gain but solitude and integrity from getting tougher on crime coverage. Hence, KVUE maintained, it was acting--hold your hats--out of principle.

The bulk of its news viewers apparently concurs. Kneeland says response to the crime guidelines has been overwhelmingly positive--a “kadzillion” calls, faxes, letters and e-mailings from viewers, greater than any public outpouring in KVUE history. And to think that this “incredible, wonderful project . . . is winning too,” observed Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communications at the University of Texas.

The rave reviews did not emanate initially from all members of KVUE’s own news staff, whose average age is under 30 and most of whom arrived from stations where heavy crime dosage was as routine as team coverage and TelePrompTers.

“I feared we would be filtering the news too much, trying to sanitize it and sugarcoat it, and I still have some concerns,” said reporter Bettie Cross, 34. “A crime will come up, and we spend all this time figuring out what the community impact is even before we know what the facts are.”

Yet when she’s out on a crime story, Cross said, reporters from other stations often note how fortunate she is, making such comments as “I’ve already gone live six times, but you get to wait to see if it’s worth it.”

Only five months into his new reporting job at a Cleveland station that he says does “whatever sells,” former KVUE reporter Salinas is already longing for the “ideals” of his former boss in Austin.

“I didn’t realize how important they were when I left there,” he said. “I think Carole is on to something not only good for television but for society as a whole. I think for too long we have not given a damn about what we put out there.”

Will this lower-crime high road ever detour through giant Los Angeles, a metropolis as different from Austin as Mars from Memphis, and one where mayhem galore increasingly heads the menu of most TV newscasts?

Kneeland and many of her staff believe the concept to be widely transportable. Even to the West Coast’s glittery, goofy Oz? “No way!” said USC grad Walt Maciborski, 29, a KVUE anchor-reporter, recalling his stints in Los Angeles as a desk assistant at ABC News and News One, which services ABC stations with stories from affiliates.

“If a station in L.A. used any of these crime guidelines, they’d be laughed out of the market,” Maciborski said. “There’s such an appetite for excitement there. If they get a chopper on a shooting, they win the day. It’s perceived as aggressiveness, but being in L.A. really beats you down. We [at KVUE] wouldn’t take a chopper off the ground, even if we had one.”

That’s quaint compared with the techno-driven news agenda of stations in Los Angeles.

“L.A. is so big, and the preponderance of crime is greater here than in Austin,” said Jose Rios, news director at KTTV-TV Channel 11 in Los Angeles.

“It’s not ethically where I would want to be,” KCOP-TV Channel 13 News Director Steve Cohen said about the KVUE guidelines. “It forces the journalist to be a super-gatekeeper instead of just a gatekeeper. Some stories are just tragedies that allow us to understand what’s happening out there in the aberrant world.”

Cohen went further, comparing KVUE guidelines to news suppression in such despotic states as the former Soviet Union. The crucial difference, of course, is that in this case a free press is deciding what gets covered, not the government.

Austinites say that TV newscasts here have never sunk quite to the grubby depths of many of their counterparts in other cities. It is generally agreed that, even before this year, KVUE had never loaded up on the scary stuff in the manner of TV’s crime commandos in Los Angeles and most other cities where “Thou bleeds/Thou leads” is often the First Commandment of TV news.

Yet even KVUE had suffered its own “lapses” in crime news judgment, said Kneeland, 47, who was named news director in 1989 after more than a decade as Capitol reporter for WFAA-TV in Dallas. So last year, she, then-General Manager Ardyth Diercks and other key members of management began discussing possible changes.

“If people were to see us as taking the high road, we had to be consistent,” Kneeland said.

Not that KVUE has abandoned covering crime, Kneeland wants everyone to know, despite what some critics claim. A police scanner still squawks from the KVUE assignment desk, KVUE vans still roll to crime scenes, and its reporters spend as much time as ever investigating crime stories, Kneeland says. It’s just that fewer get on the air, clearing at least a little more room for news investigations and stories about education and finance. And the station now tries to swerve crime stories it does run toward broader issues rather than individual acts of violence.

One crime that failed the cut at KVUE in February--but noisily led newscasts on other Austin stations--centered on a feeble, nearly blind 82-year-old man who had barricaded himself in his house for six hours after allegedly stabbing his wife in the frontyard. KVUE decided the case didn’t fit its guidelines.

“Every crime isn’t news,” Kneeland said. “We went a whole day on that story. But we could not find anyone in this community who thought we had a very large spousal-abuse problem among the elderly.”

An even more spectacular omission in February was a triple homicide in the central Texas town of Elgin, where police said three Mexican men, with temporary jobs in Austin, entered an abandoned house and gunned one another down after a night of heavy boozing. KVUE spent two days on the story before turning thumbs down.

“We tried everything,” said Robbie Owens, 31, the KVUE reporter dispatched to Elgin for those two days. “We thought if we could turn it on its head, maybe we could make this fit the guidelines. But it just didn’t, and I’m very proud of the station for sticking to its guns.”

Said Kneeland, who was ridiculed by KEYE for omitting the story but says no viewers complained: “There was no immediate threat, because these three guys were dead. There was no threat to children, because no children were involved. There was no action to be taken, because the police said these guys killed themselves, playing with guns while getting rip-roaring drunk on a Saturday night. We thought maybe there would be a significant community impact, so we interviewed hundreds of people out there, but nobody even knew these guys. And finally, there was no crime prevention effort, and none was contemplated.”

The story was “weird,” Kneeland acknowledges, but “weird” wasn’t a guideline.

Nevertheless, Kneeland today doesn’t vigorously reject the arguments of such second-guessers as Bruce Hight, a reporter at the American-Statesman, where Kneeland’s husband, Dave McNeely, writes a political column.

“The one thing you ignore in your guidelines is that some stories are just interesting on their own merits,” Hight told her at a Mexican restaurant where a dozen print journalists had gathered one recent evening to hear--and be heard--about KVUE’s crime project.

And, asked Mike Quinn, a journalism professor at the University of Texas: “How do you ignore three guys shooting each other to death?” Kneeland seemed almost to concede his point, saying, “Maybe we made the wrong decision.”

That time, perhaps.

Yet why do newscasts routinely report violent deaths, Kneeland wonders, while ignoring ordinary persons who die of heart disease, cancer, diabetes or AIDS? Why assign separate values to ways of dying?

“This really is a very simple thing,” said Cathy McFeaters, KVUE’s 32-year-old news executive producer, whose office adjoins Kneeland’s on the edge of the newsroom. “You just hold crime stories up to the same standards you hold other stories to.”

If Kneeland is the soul and sentinel of “KVUE Listens to You on Crime,” the architect is McFeaters, a San Antonio native whose stints as a news producer in Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., preceded her return in 1993 to KVUE, where she had worked while a senior at the University of Texas.

McFeaters found herself overdosing in Charlotte on the crime gore she had a role in beaming to viewers.

“As a producer in that kind of environment for a couple of years,” she said, “I got to the point where I couldn’t remember one story from the next . . . and I began questioning why the industry puts so much emphasis on death and destruction.”

Actually, she knew the answer: “Crime coverage is easy to do. You can have one-stop shopping. Everything is there for you. The images of death are compelling. And it’s human drama.”

The problem, as she and other observers of the medium note, is how easily the dramatic can distort--that crime reporting in local news is often excessive to the point of obsession, its constant message of peril feeding national paranoia by inflating the crime threat into something fatter than reality.

“I think what it’s also doing,” McFeaters said regarding accused perpetrators whose mugs are carried daily to U.S. homes, “is taking us down a road of mistrust, making us fearful of all African Americans, all teenagers. Juvenile crime is up, for example, but not every kid is engaged in crime. They may have problems, but they’re not all vicious killers with no regard for human life.”

Upon returning to Austin, McFeaters encountered TV’s fright factor firsthand, learning from family members and friends that the city she remembered as safe in the late 1980s had become a “major mecca of crime.” Well, not exactly, but that was the message sent by local media, she said, despite figures for overall violent crime in Austin showing a trend downward.

“We’re scaring people to death--that’s the problem,” says Kneeland, an indictment of newscasts echoed by Austin Police Chief Elizabeth Watson, 46, who leads cheers for KVUE’s measured approach to crime coverage while blaming other TV reporting for “a fear in this country that we are all at risk.”

Yet isn’t it self-serving of Watson to de-emphasize Austin crime, thus creating the impression that she has it under control? Quite the opposite, answered Watson, a former Houston police chief, in her downtown office. “When there is a perception of crime, that’s how police chiefs get more cops, more overtime, more equipment.”

Watson too faults TV news for reporting crime minus context, for usually including only the foreground in its cross hairs instead of also what’s beyond. “Unless when it’s a Ted Bundy,” she said. “I got his background pretty good.”

Meanwhile, a recent Wednesday morning provided an example of what Kneeland and McFeaters say they are especially proud of, their staff now evaluating potential crime stories instead of responding to them viscerally. The discussion in the KVUE newsroom concerned a 19-year-old mother accused of causing the death of her 8-month-old son, who authorities said had died of head injuries at the family’s home in the town of Taylor.

Pulled from her education beat to cover the story--although there was no assurance it would be aired, McFeaters emphasized--was Owens, who previously worked at a smaller station in Waco, Texas, after earning a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern.

“So where are we at this point?” asked McFeaters, approaching Owens’ cubicle, where the reporter and some of her colleagues were hashing over possible angles and whether the story merited the 45-mile drive to Taylor. “So she’s a teenage mother who lives in a house with 16 other people, and they’re poor?” McFeaters said. “Make some calls. I think we want a broader issue.”

They got it. Owens ran through the guidelines. The only one appearing to apply was “crime prevention effort,” a guideline that Kneeland acknowledges is “a little bit of a catchall” that could be tailored to just about any story, if KVUE were so disposed.

So prevention became the hook, related to the likelihood that the accused mother, if guilty, had slain her toddler in a fit of rage. “The story I’m looking at doing is how parents can tell when they’re getting close to the edge,” said Owens, who at 12:20 p.m. left in a van with head cameraman Lalo Garcia, 31, en route to a nearby park, where, at a picnic table by a lily pond, she found two young mothers willing to talk on camera about tensions arising from parenting small children. From there the KVUE twosome drove across town for a prearranged interview with a young couple who had attended stress-control classes for parents.

The story didn’t make KVUE’s 5 p.m. newscast that day, but it led the 6 p.m. half-hour, with Owens giving a brief intro live from the newsroom, briefly reporting the death and the charge against the mother and quoting statistics on the state’s child-abuse homicides, leading into sound bites from her taped interviews.

Lasting just a minute and 25 seconds, the story was hardly in-depth, TV ultimately being TV. Nor was it quite business as usual, though, with KVUE seeking at least to rise above the perfunctory, while KEYE interviewed the accused woman’s family members and had its reporter do a live stand-up outside their house. KTBC, on the other hand, opened with an interview of the mother, which Kneeland admiringly found “very dramatic” and lamented not having for KVUE.

And KXAN, now closest to KVUE in the news ratings? It ignored the crime story entirely, instead leading with a piece from Taylor--on gas prices. In this case, at least, KXAN had looked more like KVUE than KVUE did.

Not that crinkled old TV skins are easily shed in Austin or anywhere else. Now renowned in some journalism circles, McFeaters was in Utah recently, following up an invitation to chat about “KVUE Listens to You on Crime” with editors at the Salt Lake Tribune. Why not also take her message to the city’s TV stations? “They didn’t ask me,” she said.


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