Patriot Games

With a distant war, a vague enemy and no access, local media are left waving the flag

Another local manifestation of the patriotic surge appeared at Sinclair Broadcasting's KDNL (Channel 30), when it was one of the first six stations to drop Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher commented that the U.S.'s use of cruise missiles to bomb distant lands was cowardly. The controversy over KDNL's dropping the show seemed insignificant when the station decided to end all of its newscasts as of Oct. 12. If a station would rather show reruns of some variation of Star Trek instead of a local newscast, why be surprised that it doesn't want to air an open discussion of the day's events? Where's the money in that?

When the World Trade Center collapsed, the P-D's fashion editor, Lisa Jones Townsel, was in New York City, and she was drafted for the news side. Karen Branch-Brioso of the Washington bureau was sent to the scene by way of Amtrak. KMOV (Channel 4) sent John Mills, and KTVI sent Paul Schankman. Mills and cameraman Jon Davis drove through the night in a minivan, taking turns sleeping in the back. Editing three or four stories a day on a laptop computer, they filed about 25 pieces during the week they were based in Jersey City, N.J. Most involved some local angle, such as the 60 Missouri firefighters who made the trip. Before the scene was better controlled, Schankman tagged along with some Cahokia, Ill., firefighters when they first went to Ground Zero.

Yet virtually all of the local angles that matter can be covered without leaving town. And until bin Laden's stormtroopers bring the war to the heartland by toppling the Arch into the river or sending suicide bombers on the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour (that would mean war), there are some advantages to living in the provinces. St. Louis is about the 20th-largest market in America; it is not New York City or the nation's capital. It's not a target, at least not yet.

So despite all the warnings about airport security, anthrax, smallpox and kamikaze pilots, this war looks to be a distant fight waged for complicated reasons by a vague enemy. None of that lends itself to easy or cheap media coverage. One small side benefit is the de-emphasis of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The P-D's Soeteber says the minitrend may last a bit, or so she hopes.

"You're going to see a more serious approach to news for a long time to come," predicts the P-Deditor. "Society would have to be very fancy-free again for news to become as frivolous as a lot of it did on national television this summer. We put the [U.S. Rep. Gary] Condit story on Page One only once, the day he went on national TV to talk about it. We never put it on Page One any other time. Look at all the attention the damn shark attacks got from Florida. It was a slow summer."

So slow news days are over for now, replaced by the 9-11 aftermath, the new war and a window on the real world. But don't think Hollywood has been replaced for long. Even Levins thinks the fade is temporary. He admits to one drawback of not writing the "People in the News" feature: "I miss being read."

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