Friday Night Folly
By Al Diamon
Created Jan 24 2008 - 7:39am
There's nothing I like to do more on Friday evenings than kick back and watch a nice public-affairs show on TV. Something with lots of long interviews about topics that have already been beaten to death in the rest of the media. Maybe a glass of warm milk and a cookie, too.
I'm lying, of course.
I prefer my public-affairs viewing to be fast-paced, pointed and edited so that it doesn't rehash what everybody already knows. And I prefer not to watch it on Friday nights, which are best spent in establishments licensed to sell alcoholic beverages, where the TVs are all tuned to sporting events. So, if it weren't for the DVR, I'd never see "Maine Watch." And I wouldn't be all that unhappy about that state of affairs.
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network doesn't produce much news programming on its television stations. There's "Maine Watch" and … uh, well … that seems to be it. Twenty-seven minutes a week. You'd think its one little show would shine. You'd be wrong.
I don't mean to imply that every program is bad. More like mediocre. In watching a month's worth of MW (where's Amnesty International when you need it), I found the shows consistently fell short of what they could have been with only a little extra effort and some sharp editing.
Take the Jan. 11 show, for instance. It had potential, since it focused on Gov. John Baldacci's state of the state address and Maine's budget problems, both hot topics, even in bars. Host Jennifer Rooks was joined by veteran reporters Mal Leary of the Capitol News Service, Glenn Adams of the Associated Press and A. Jay Higgins of Maine Public Broadcasting. Adams had little of consequence to say, but Leary and Higgins offered numerous insightful comments on Baldacci's speech and his efforts to cover the state's shortfall. I read four daily papers, and I still learned a lot.
The trouble with this show was Rooks, who kept interrupting her guests just when things were getting interesting to ask questions of surprising inanity. As Higgins and Leary discussed the impending consolidation of state agencies, she blundered in to inquire if there was a shift in state government with all this consolidating. What on earth did she think they were talking about? Just as Higgins started to explain the implications of the governor's wood-to-energy proposal, she intruded to introduce video from Baldacci's speech in which he mentioned he'd just celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary.
In short, Rooks added nothing and took away quite a lot. Next time, just turn Leary and Higgins loose on the set without any host.
On Jan. 18, Rooks devoted the network's only local news show to … something that wasn't particularly local. She interviewed Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general investigating government contractors in Iraq. Her Maine angle was that both U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Tom Allen had sponsored bills to give Bowen more authority. Bowen, who was in Maine as Collins' guest, was touring the country in an effort to fend off bad publicity caused by news reports that the FBI was investigating his office for fraud, violating federal regulations, inappropriate behavior and abuse of position.
Rooks had read a Washington Post story on the investigation, but didn't seem to have enough background to ask hard questions. Once Bowen dismissed the allegations as the work of "disgruntled former employees" and brushed aside suggestions the investigation was politically motivated, Rooks let the subject drop. Instead, viewers were forced to endure a long, dry interview about the state of Iraqi reconstruction, in which Bowen said stuff like, "This is not the right way to approach contingency operations."
Then, Collins and Allen, who are running against each other for the Senate, each got a chance to tout their bills. Edited down to a minute or two, these Q&A sessions might have been interesting with Collins casting blame on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Allen finding fault with Collins. But most of it was blather, of which this show already had produced a surplus.
A Jan. 4 program on redeveloping the soon-to-close Brunswick Naval Air Station had potential. Rooks' guests included both the head of the redevelopment authority in Brunswick and the director of a similar group that has been overseeing the replacement of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone with commercial enterprises. What could the latter tell the former that would ease the transition? There were some interesting exchanges, which would have had more impact if they'd been edited down to a couple of minutes, rather than buried in more than 10 minutes of two guys engaging in self-promotion. Still, that was preferable to enduring the lengthy video of Rooks touring the base, where she raved about how swell the bachelor officers quarters looked (`like a nice motel"). This show skipped across a lot of ground without digging deeply into any of it.
When Rooks announced the Dec. 28 show would be about "the new paradigm: collaborative research," I grabbed the DVR remote to hit the anti-jargon button. Except, for some reason, this useful feature isn't included with my model.
It turns out that "collaborative research" means that fishermen and scientists are cooperating to learn why fish stocks are declining and how the trend can be reversed. The half hour was simply a rehash of material that had already been thoroughly covered elsewhere. In fact, most of MW's video was file footage from 2003. With all the urgent issues facing the state, it's difficult to figure why Maine Public TV devoted its only public-affairs show to something about which it had nothing new to say.
"Maine Watch" needs somebody to think harder about what constitutes a topic that can fill 27 minutes. It needs somebody who'll sort through the tape and throw out the dull, the repetitive and the irrelevant. It needs a host who's better prepared to ask tough questions and make sure she gets real answers. It needs a little of what a promo for a PBS show called "must-see, make-your-blood-boil television."
Until it gets that stuff, it's probably just as well it's buried on Friday night.
More than a decade ago, Al Diamon was a regular panelist on "MediaWatch," a Maine Public TV show that aired on Saturday nights, until he was fired for criticizing Maine Public TV. Obviously, he didn't learn all that much from the experience. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.