KRONic Complaints

A media chain buys a local television station. Employees worry. Oh, the horror.

The video-editing machines at San Francisco's KRON television have been whirring double time during the past few weeks as on-camera staffers prepare tape résumés for stations from New Brunswick to Tacoma. They're scared witless that the station's new owner, Young Broadcasting Inc., will turn the KRON news operation into a glitzy-set, reporter-lean version of infotainment.

"They haven't communicated with us very well," says one source. "The transition's been hard on a lot of people. The pressure's been felt throughout the station. For one thing, we have no programming -- what are they going to fill the 24 hour news station with?"

Young Broadcasting bought KRON from the bizarre, secretive, feuding Tobin-Thieriot, Martin, and McEvoy clans as part of an asset reorganization accompanying the sale of the San Francisco Chronicle to the Hearst Corp. The Young chain is not known for top-drawer news programming, despite recently adopting the moniker "the 24 hour news station" for its KRON property. The KRON staff grows more troubled by the day.

"People are fearful for their jobs, and they're fearful of what this new vision means," our source says. "Morale's an issue. I've seen lots of reporters getting their reels together. Several have mentioned to me that they want to leave."

Which truly sucks. It would be just like those dirty rotten media chains to buy up our local patrimony, make employees really nervous, and otherwise assault the quality of life for the good citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area. Corporate chains can just cxxxxchtzzzzzzzzzzzzzzp tsuj nac sniahc etaroproc aerayab ocsicnarf ...(1)

Whoa Nellie! Stop this column and rewind for a moment. The week-in, week-out pressure of coming up with new opinions must've temporarily shorted a few of my circuits. Of all the San Francisco, knee-jerk points of view, lashing out at corporate chains is one of the most jerkiest, and kneeiest, and, sometimes, wrong-headedest there is. As for lamenting the possible fate of television "news" personalities, well, that just plain oughtn't be done. For them, a bad fate is not bad enough.

So allow us to interrupt our regularly scheduled column for some important announcements.

Journalism is the universal force. It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.(2) Because it is through news that people now perceive the greater part of their world, journalism is the modern Tao. Like a birthing tunnel that encompasses all of space, it is the source of the universe, just as it isthe universe.

Television is the Dark Side of this force. Whereas the print side thrives through truth and enlightenment, the Dark Side rules through ignorance and fear. Whereas print offers feature stories about science, economics, and the evolution of the human spirit, the Dark Side offers video clips of traffic accidents and pets.

Dark Side practitioners bully their beetle-eyed cameras to the front at news events. They're bossy with interview subjects, as if they were doing the interviewees a favor. At journalism graduate programs they stand out like Mormon missionaries in Mogadishu; they're the surreally incurious ones who dress for class as if for dates. The Dark Force of television is to be vanquished, not preserved. The idea that an out-of-state chain might Disney-fy one of our local television stations isn't the tragedy S.F. commentators have suggested it is; rather, if the naysayers are right, and Young Broadcasting spells doom for KRON, it means there will be one less Dark Side satellite to obstruct journalism's final triumph.

As for the complaint that news quality supposedly suffers under media chains -- that's plain bunk. There nowadays exists a feckless career path called "professor of media studies" where academics scam a living by repeating the following chestnut: When media outlets are absorbed by corporate chains, editors change the slant of the stories to please advertisers; then there're more media outlet purchases, more toadying, more substandard journalism. Etc.

These analyses tend to be offered bereft of any actual observation of the true behavior of real media outlets. But among San Francisco Bay Area dailies, for example, there is no consistent correlation, either negative or positive, between chain ownership and journalistic quality. The San Jose Mercury News, owned by the Knight Ridder chain, is the area's best daily newspaper. The Los Angeles Times, owned by the (Chicago) Tribune Co., is the state's best. The Bay Area's second most consistently cruddy news operation is owned by the justly loathed ANG chain, while the cruddiest is the Fang family's "independent" paper cluster. Among alternative weeklies, the best journalism is done by the New Times chain, with papers in San Francisco and (prospectively) the East Bay, and Metro Newspapers, with papers in San Jose and Santa Cruz. San Francisco's "independent" alternative weekly, the Bay Guardian, meanwhile, is a journalistic laughingstock most noted for being the region's most egregious low-pay media sweatshop.

Some media chains revere editorial content; others don't. Likewise with independents. It's that simple.

Now, there's hardly anybody outside the dark world of television who'll argue that KRON is the embodiment of the Bay Area's highest journalistic standards. It's true, I suppose, that things could get worse there. But the mere fact that an out-of-state chain took the place over from the quarreling Tobin-Thieriots, Martins, and McEvoys says absolutely nothing about whether things will get worse.

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