Distress Signals

KTCA tried to survive the public TV wars by being bigger and better. Too bad the grants dried up and the talent jumped ship.

"NewsNight tries to take the time to look at an issue from all sides," says Lee. "That's what we want to do. We want to let people speak."

"They allow people to say what they really think," says Her, nodding.

"Yeah, but they need us," says Everett. "They need us to keep it real."

Keeping it real, especially as Cushman looks for ways to enliven a studio-bound news show, is crucial not only to the kids from Hype but should be central to NewsNight's effort to remain relevant. Everyone from Hanley to Halbreich to Pagliarini says the one thing NewsNight has that viewers can't get anywhere else in town is a finger on the pulse of the community; a concern for what people think about their neighborhoods, neighbors, and leaders. Unfortunately, whether it's because of time pressures, dwindling resources, or a lack of courage, the program is too often overrun with "experts"--the usual suspects who observe an event instead of experiencing it from the inside out, like the kids from Hype.

"One of the things I tried to guide my colleagues on early in the NewsNight process was that if they really wanted diversity the Rolodexes had to change," says Hickman. "We also had to be conscious that diversity didn't just mean covering a story in North Minneapolis or showing up at Cinco de Mayo. We have to incorporate those voices in a range of discussions. That's what I preached and preached.

"Was it heard? Sometimes. But when you're talking about limited resources and a limited staff it's human nature to go back to what you know. So we have to keep putting things in place to stay out of that comfort zone."

When pressed about that comfort zone, asked why there are more news analysts on NewsNight than guests from the underserved communities the program was designed to cover, Hanley points to Hype. This irks more than a few staffers, who complain that 10 episodes a year don't do the trick.

"That's a crock," says one producer. "Hype should not be ghettoized that way, and NewsNight can't expect to be forgiven for all of their sins just because they let some kids tell their stories every now and then."

Hickman agrees Hype is only part of the answer. "You have a culture here that's not very diverse, organizationally," she says. "So there's not an overall sense of urgency in terms of diversity. It's due to a lack of experience. That concerns me."

Cushman agrees more should be done to diversify his guest list, but argues that the need to clearly communicate an issue sometimes supersedes TCPT's community-service mission. "Should we have more sources? Absolutely. That was my big push right after I started the show; dump the golden Rolodex and get real people on," he says. "That's what you should be doing, but frequently real people don't come across very well on TV. Some do, most don't. We did a show last week on housing. I went back and forth on whether I was going to put this resident in front of the camera. I've done that before and the person freezes, and then you've got nothing. I know people don't want to hear that. They'll say there must be something you can do.

"The reality is, getting real people on TV is tough. We're constantly striving for that middle ground."

Ledbetter has a different explanation. "Most organizations don't want to attach their name to a program that's uncomfortable or controversial," he counters. "So local public stations are nervous about making mistakes or providing a real mouthpiece for those not represented in the mainstream media. They're being funded to provide 'quality' and 'excellence,' and they know it. What that usually means is safe, bland, and narrow."

In the end, Ledbetter and Cushman are not that far apart. What separates them is TCPT's institutional reluctance to go out on a limb, to say to hell with the funders for the purposes of unique TV. Of course this is easier said than done. But next time Cushman's dragging and needs a boost to get him through another day; next time Pagliarini is musing over mission; next time anyone at TCPT wants a reminder what it's all about, they should sit in on a Hype meeting. Just sit in and watch. They'll see kids--some talking in broken English, some using slang, some just taking their time--talking about the world not as the mass media see it, not as some pundit sees it, but as they see it.

They'll see what NewsNight was supposed to be, before Newt Gingrich or budget cuts or grants gone bad. They'll see everyday people telling each other about their lives, keeping it real.

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