Wednesday, November 24, 1999

TV news: Just say 'I don't know'




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I don't know. I just don't know. If TV and radio reporters don't know something, why can't they say: “I don't know.”

        Did an EgyptAir pilot say a prayer before turning off Flight 990's engines? Or did he say the prayer after they were turned off?

        Was it really a prayer? Or just a Muslim expression?

        I still don't know. But that hasn't stopped reporters filling the airwaves with speculation and rumors around-the-clock since Oct. 31.

        Why did Diane Sawyer tell her Good Morning America audience Thursday about someone “claiming there may be some sort of Bermuda Triangle” off the Massachusetts coast where EgyptAir 990, TWA 800 and John F. Kennedy Jr.'s planes went down? I don't know.

        Seldom do you hear a reporter admit he or she doesn't have the information. Instead, they fill the 24-hour news cycle with whatever they can scrounge up. Usually they're no more accurate than TV weather forecasters.

        Why did so many report that a terrorist bomb brought down TWA 800? Was that green streak across the sky last Wednesday disintegrating space junk? A UFO? Part of the Leonid meteor shower?

        I don't know.

        Just once, when Monica Lewinsky testified before a federal grand jury in August 1998, I wanted to hear a network correspondent say: “We're not supposed to know what Ms. Lewinsky told grand jury because grand jury testimony is secret. That's our system of government. So I don't know.”

        It's so simple. So honest. So rare.

Something is going on
        • After Channel 5's Deb Cole reported that three Tristate IGA stores had sold ground beef tainted with pork, anchor Norma Rashid inquired: “What happens to these stores now? Anything?”

        Ms. Cole replied: “It depends on if the problem continues, or if authorities check.” (Do health inspectors plan to check? How often do they check? Might they pull a surprise inspection? Why didn't she tell us? I don't know.)

        • When police arrested a man after a fatal Springfield Township drive-by shooting, Kimberly Ray told WVMX-FM (94.1) listeners: “Sheriff's deputies don't have a motive for the shooting — or if they do, they're not saying.” (Which is it? I don't know.)

        • I'll never forget Ginger Allen's live report on Channel 5 last December when an Arlington Heights police officer was struck by a car during a traffic stop: “We have confirmed that it's likely that alcohol is involved.”

        In other words, she didn't know. But why let a few facts get in the way of a breathless live report from a crime scene?

Listen real carefully
        Listen carefully, and you'll be stunned and dismayed at what is dispensed as factual information.

        Once during Jim Scott's daily WLW-AM conversation with ABC News correspondent Batina Gregory, she qualified a response by saying: “I'm just reporting what I think.”

        Scarcely will you hear the honesty Channel 12 viewers heard from Howard Ain last week, after his report about an air bag that didn't deploy in an auto crash.

        When anchor Kit Andrews asked how to know if her car's air bag would work properly, Mr. Ain replied: “You're not going to know! So always wear your seat belt, because you might not have the air bag go off.”

        Why can't more reporters be as candid? I just don't know.

John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.