Return of the Living Anchorwoman
There were two good reasons for cheer when KSTP-TV (Channel 5) announced that Cyndy Brucato had been selected as the lead anchor for the struggling ABC affiliate. Brucato is a 53-year-old woman, hardly the typical profile for a new hire in the wrinkle-intolerant milieu of local television news. So her ascension at least looked like a blow against TV's ageism and gender bias.
But the hiring of Brucato was notable for another reason. For the better part of the past two decades, Brucato has been a consummate political and corporate insider. Following an earlier stint at KSTP (from 1981 to 1986), she worked as press secretary for former Republican Governor Arne Carlson, communications director for Republican Norm Coleman during his successful run for the U.S. Senate, and--over the past eight years--as a hired flak.
In the latter capacity, Brucato spun professionally for the likes of the Minnesota House Republican Caucus, the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, and Koch Industries (a privately held company that made headlines a few years back when it received the largest environmental fine in state history for pollution at its Rosemount refinery). More unusual, Brucato has retained a post in state government, where she serves as the chair and citizen member of the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards.
In the view of some mainstream journalists, such past and present affiliations raise a warning flag. "According to Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, you are to avoid any conflict of interest that is real or perceived," notes Al Tompkins, a veteran television journalist who now leads the broadcast division of the Florida-based Poynter Institute. "You can say, 'No, I can still be fair.' But the question is, What's the public perception? Because when it comes to fairness, perception is reality."
Of course, there are examples of people who have successfully moved between careers in politics and journalism. At the network level, reporters such as Tim Russert, Jeff Greenfield, and George Stephanopoulos all worked previously in politics, yet have gained general acceptance in their new roles as journalists.
But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points out that Brucato's work in PR raises additional questions that Russert and the others didn't have to contend with. "Does she have financial relationships with potential sources that would get in the way of her having a primary allegiance to the public?" Rosenstiel asks. "She has to demonstrate a renewed allegiance to factualness, to truthfulness, and that these private alliances she had with people for money are no longer important to her. That isn't to say she can't accomplish that. But there are some real hurdles."
While Brucato remains the owner of a public relations firm--Brucato and Halliday--she says she is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. If a story about a client suggests a conflict of interest, she adds, she will disclose the relationship to viewers.
Beyond that, Brucato regards her unusual career trajectory as an asset, not a liability. "I learned more working in the governor's office than in a three-year graduate program [in journalism]," she offers. "And I learned more working in a campaign than I would have had I just been a reporter covering a campaign."
Brucato says she has no intention of being a mere news reader and has assumed a "more strategic role in the newsroom." Unlike some other anchors in town, she pitches stories, participates in news huddles, and has opened her Rolodex to fellow reporters. Cumulatively, that serves to raise one question: Will the Brucato effect lead to the FOX-ification of KSTP?
A cynic couldn't be faulted for harboring the suspicion. After all, KSTP's ownership--the Hubbard family--is well known for its generous support of Republican causes, having collectively donated more than $1 million to mostly GOP candidates since 1996. KSTP-AM (1500), the Hubbards' St. Paul-based talk-radio station, features a programming slate dominated by hardcore conservatives. And on Channel 5, even the weather tilts right. The station's longtime meteorologist, Dave Dahl, is a leading global warming skeptic in the Twin Cities' meteorology circles.
Since Brucato's ascent this month into the top spot, some overtly "ideological" stories have crept into the newscast. On the 10:00 p.m. news of July 26 (wedged between reports about traffic accidents), KSTP aired one of its more peculiar offerings: a soft-focus feature about a suburban couple who were upset that Planned Parenthood is selling T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "I had an abortion."
The story, apparently plucked from the Drudge Report and then localized, didn't have a concrete news peg. The extent of the couple's protest was to circulate a chain letter denouncing Planned Parenthood, which is hardly a dramatic or especially newsworthy tactic. But the camera lingered long and lovingly on the couple's young children and then abruptly cut to the "I had an abortion" T-shirt. The effect was pure agit-prop.
For her part, Brucato says she regarded that story as simple enterprise reporting, and insists it wasn't driven by antiabortion bias. If the couple was more sympathetic than the Planned Parenthood "bureaucrats" who spoke in defense of the T-shirts, Brucato says, that's simply the nature of the medium that prefers the personal to the institutional. In Brucato's view, it is "very hard" to inject bias into a newscast. This, of course, begs the question: Has Brucato ever watched the Fox News Channel?
Still, Channel 5's current approach to the news is less noticeable for ideological taint than sheer banality. Under former news director Scott Libin, the station enjoyed a reputation as the local TV station most likely to appeal to serious-minded people. With an emphasis on long-form stories and public-spirited reporting, it won awards and respect--and, as has long been the case, lagged in the ratings.
When management dumped Libin in 2003, it adopted the so-called "urgent news" format. In KSTP's case, this has amounted to an emphasis on getting camera crews and reporters to crime scenes, explosions, and, with a truly staggering frequency, car crashes. The strategy did not lead to an increase in viewers, and the station's numbers hit historic lows during the latest sweeps. But KSTP's management blamed the dismal ratings on its recently departed anchor team, meaning that, for the near term, viewers can still expect to get their car crash news with a Republican flavor.
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