War News, From the Home Front

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By now every television critic, pop-culture theorist, political hack, sociology scholar, professional weight lifter, cabaret singer, shameless gasbag and even Ashleigh Banfield has released an opinion about television news’ coverage of the Iraq war. But we wanted to take the subject to the street-you know, actual, un-focus-grouped TV viewers-so we traipsed on down to New York’s altar of real-life television worship, the early-morning audience outside the Today show set in Rockefeller Center.

There, on Tuesday, April 29, we did ourselves a little survey, and though the results are staggeringly unscientific-the only result we can claim as scientific is that Al Roker has, indeed, lost half an Al Roker-there were a couple of trends.

One is that people standing outside of the Today show don’t necessarily watch the NBC Nightly News as their principal news source (sorry Tom Brokaw and all you NBC brand synergists). Another is that people standing outside of the Today show seem to like-those guys again!-Fox News.

And as far as war coverage is concerned, the people we spoke with-amid Katie Couric’s story on conjoined twins and Mr. Roker’s weather reports and Matt Lauer’s friendly dives into the crowd for photographs-generally felt satisfied, though they thought there was waaaay too much of it and they worried it was bad for kids. They also agreed there wasn’t much of an international perspective in the coverage, and that there wasn’t much TV blood and guts for a war, but they didn’t seem too worried about those oversights.

“I got to tell you, I work out of my home and I had it on like 24 hours a day,” said Phyllis Wagner, visiting from Taylor Mill, Ky., with her friend Catherine O’Neill. She said her favorite channels were MSNBC and CNN. “I think we had enough. I would not have wanted to see any harder coverage. Because of the children watching it. I found myself drawn in to the point where it was almost unhealthy.”

Brett Bastien, in from New Mexico with his friend Robin Beachner, agreed. “There was quite a bit of coverage. Maybe too much coverage,” he said. “There was a lot of information. It seemed like too much.”

Still, Mr. Bastien was impressed by coverage technology. “I remember watching Vietnam and even the war from 1991, and with all the mobile cameras and people that went there, it seemed like it was pretty well covered,” he said. “Maybe it was just on too often.”

Ms. Beachner said she didn’t watch any TV news at all, other than occasionally tuning in to monitor the news ticker crawling across the bottom of the screen. “I only watched for a few minutes,” she said. “I just liked that thing underneath. I didn’t believe a lot of the stuff that was being said. I think it was a lot of propaganda.

“I think they could have shown both sides,” Ms. Beachner added. “They should have interviewed more Iraqi people. Because it’s pretty jaded over here. There’s a guy on CNN, I don’t know his name-white hair, fat guy-and he has got it out for them.”

But Trent Armstrong, visiting from Dallas, found a lot of the war coverage “fascinating.” “Just having the live shots from downtown Baghdad, 24-7, and being able to wake up and see the U.S. as they drive into Baghdad.”

Mr. Armstrong loved Fox. “I like the friendly attitudes of the reporters,” he said. “They seem to be fair, they seem to be covering every aspect of it-the good and the bad.”

Mr. Armstrong even liked Geraldo. “I love Geraldo!” he said. “I didn’t particularly like him at first-Rivera and his ‘Tour of Terror’-but he got himself in and was really positive with the troops.” He said he wasn’t fazed by Mr. Rivera’s troubles with the U.S. military, which briefly booted him for scribbling troop positions in the sand (he was later reinstated). “He probably knew better. He probably should not have done what he did. I appreciated that they let him go back.”

Scott James, in from Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Debbie, was another Fox News fan (so was Debbie). “We scan some of the other stations, but a lot of them seem to be one-sided,” he said. “I think Fox gives more of both sides of what was going on.”

Also watching Fox was Nashville’s Amy Andrews, though she wasn’t exactly sure why she did. “There was no reason,” she said. “It was just what I went to. It was on.” But then: “My husband always had it on, so that’s just what I would flip to.”

Boston’s Travis Kistler said he tried to avoid television news altogether. He preferred looking at newspapers, the Internet or listening to NPR. “I think I have more control if I go to the news myself instead of having it come to me,” he said. But once in a while he’d check out BBC TV coverage. “It’s interesting to see what the international perspective on our situation is, because we’re always so introspective, American-centric.”

And Lynn Gaffey of Waukesha, Wis., just appreciated the fact that television’s war coverage was finally winding down. “It got a little overwhelming,” she said. “There is such a fine line between information and overkill.”

“War is never glamorous,” Ms. Gaffey said. “I understand we need to do what we did, but it was glamorized too much. And there is nothing glamorous about it.”

On NBC this morning, Today . [WNBC, 4, 7 a.m.]

Thursday, May 1

That anti–Michael Bloomberg ad is too much! Have you seen it? It looks like something out of that Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places , with gauzy footage of nutty rich people drinking, smoking and whooping it up at a cocktail party. It’s sponsored by the people at Local 1180-the New York arm of a national communication-workers union-and designed to call attention to the billionaire Mayor’s budget cuts and what the union considers his “out-of-touch” attitude.

“The Mayor has asked city workers to bear a disproportionate burden of getting out of the deficit we’re in right now,” said Local 1180 union president Arthur Cheliotes.

The company behind the ad is New York outfit called the Advance Group. Its president, Scott Levenson, said the cocktail party footage is old B-roll material, which staffers located after hours and hours of scouring clips.

“To stage something like that costs a fortune that was way beyond the production budget,” Mr. Levenson said. “We ended up spending an awful lot of staff time to find the right clips.”

Mr. Levenson said the footage was originally shot for something quite different than a political ad.

“It was actually originally a bowling ad,” he said. “None of the bowling segment obviously made it into the final cut.”

As for the commercial’s dated, low-budget look, Mr. Levenson said that it was on purpose. “We were not looking for current footage,” he said. “We were looking for things that reinforced ‘out of touch.’ It needed to be a little dated, but not too dated.”

Mr. Levenson said the response to the ad thus far has been “nothing short of phenomenal.”

“I think it’s a message that’s been resonating,” he said. “For whatever reason, Mike Bloomberg has not had his wealth used against him before. Even throughout the Mayoral campaign, it didn’t really become an issue as it relates to his ability to be empathetic to the average New Yorker. Maybe it’s not an issue. But it’s something he’s arguably vulnerable to.”

Tonight, scan the dial for the Local 1180 ad blitz. Those guys probably can’t afford time on Friends , so you’re better off looking someplace like Live from the Headlines , with suddenly sleeping-in Paula Zahn. [CNN, 10, 7 p.m.]

Friday, May 2

Bob Costas is back with his third version in three years of his HBO talk show On the Record . If that characterization makes it sound like it’s a show that’s getting messed with too much, then that’s the wrong idea. They just keep fiddling with the Emmy Award–winning program’s time. The first year it was an hour, the second year it was a half hour, and for the third season it’s going to be an only-on-HBO 45 minutes. Maybe for season 4 it can be 15 minutes and Mr. Costas can do it running down Sixth Avenue eating a Chipwich. Chipwich’s done, he’s done.

The accomplished Mr. Costas is pretty much in that he-gets-whoever-he-wants mode of his interviewing career; already he’s had On the Record sitdowns with everyone from Bobby Knight to wrestling boob Vince McMahon (in the same show, no less!) to wrestling non-boob Tom Cruise. For his May 2 debut he’s cannily invited Baseball Hall of Fame disinvitees Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to join actor Robert Wuhl and director Ron Shelton to have the Bull Durham reunion the H.O.F. was supposed to have before freaking out. (Kevin Costner had a previous commitment and had to say no, and if you’ve ever seen him being interviewed, you know you shouldn’t feel so bad about that.)

Besides Mr. Costner, there are a few gets Mr. Costas hasn’t gotten yet, chief among them that well-known publicity-chaser Sandy Koufax. “Koufax is a guy who has a great career, a tremendous mystique and legend surrounding him, but he is seldom heard from,” Mr. Costas said. “So that makes it all the more alluring. But I completely respect his position that he’s just not comfortable doing it.”

Another guest Mr. Costas won’t likely see on his show soon is Kirby Puckett, a player he befriended during his baseball days who recently was acquitted of charges that he assaulted a woman. “It doesn’t seem like now is the right time,” he said. “But eventually it might be.”

But Mr. Costas said he’d be open to having a TV discussion about the much-talked-about Sports Illustrated cover story about Mr. Puckett’s post-retirement troubles. He said there had been “considerable disagreement” among sports journalists over whether or not SI ‘s approach to the story was correct. “It isn’t so much an issue of fact as it is of proportion,” Mr. Costas said.

And even though it’s come and gone, Mr. Costas said he’s also open to the idea of revisiting the women-at-Augusta controversy. Though he believes Augusta National Golf Club’s policy on women is “antiquated,” he said he was not surprised that the protest helmed by National Organization of Women president Martha Burk didn’t cause much of a fuss over Masters weekend.

“I think it’s actually a tribute to people’s common sense,” Mr. Costas said. “It isn’t that Martha Burk doesn’t have a point. It’s just that that point doesn’t rise to the level of great moral outrage. And the attempt to link it with exclusion based on race in this particular instance, or to link it to other great moral questions, falls flat.”

Dare you to say that to Susan Sarandon tonight, Bob! On the Record . [HBO, 32, 11:30 p.m.]

Saturday, May 3

Speaking of sports guys, it’s probably time to declare our steadfast allegiance to Budd Mishkin. In a profession dominated by cynical screamers and gimmick artists, the veteran NY1 sportscaster is a low-key, classy anomaly, an island of tranquillity in a sea of idiots-intelligent, thoughtful and still enthusiastic about the games people play. On the grating scale , the majority of sports call-in shows fall somewhere between fingernails on a blackboard and Fran Drescher being chainsawed in two, but when Mishkin’s in the chair for NY1’s sports call-in show, Sports on 1 , he keeps it calm and elevates the conversation. As a result, he generates respectful callers who may be rightly miffed about the Mets or the Knicks or the Rangers, but seldom stoop to gratuitous name-calling.

The polite Mr. Mishkin said that shouting just wasn’t his style. “I’m not a screamer or a yeller,” Mr. Mishkin said. “Not that I’m putting down anybody who is. Everybody has to be their own personality.”

This has been a challenging spring for Mr. Mishkin, a huge winter sports fan, who doesn’t have a Knicks or Rangers playoff appearance to talk about. “I’m kind of in mourning,” he said. In place of hockey and basketball, the majority of the talk on Sports on 1 has turned to the under-performing Mets, a zestier subject compared to the near-unbeatable Yankees.

“Tales of sorrow and woe tend to bring out the phone calls,” Mr. Mishkin said. “If you’re a Yankee fan, what are you going to call about? ‘This team is unbelievable! It’s amazing!’ How many times can you say that?”

Away from sports, it turns out that Mr. Mishkin is an accomplished Russian folk musician. (We always did get the feeling he wasn’t the kind of guy who went home and puttered around on PlayStation 2 all night.) He’s visited the Soviet Union four times and once studied there, and along the way developed an affection for the work of Bulat Okudzhava, the acclaimed singer-songwriter Mr. Mishkin called the “bard of Russian folk music.”

Mr. Mishkin began singing in his apartment and eventually worked up to doing some live performances. Occasionally, he said, his two worlds collide. Every once in a while, someone will call him live on the air on New York 1 and in a Russian accent ask, “You sing Russian folk songs, right? Alright , as far as the Yankees are concerned …. ” [NY1, 1, 11:30 p.m.]

Sunday, May 4

On ABC tonight, Tim Allen Presents: A User’s Guide to Home Improvement . Before a live audience, Mr. Allen hosts a saw-down-memory lane with special guests and clips. Who does he think he is, Lucille Ball? Just come back and do another sitcom, bub. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Monday, May 5

Tonight on ABC, ABC’s 50th Anniversary Blooper Celebration , hosted by Dick Clark. Zzzzz. Another Dick Clark blooper show? We want to see ABC’s 50th Anniversary Executive Blooper Celebration , hosted by a paddle-wielding Michael Eisner. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, May 6

Tonight’s E! True Hollywood Story examines Nicky and Paris Hilton. Forget it, you’re on your own, it’s too easy. [E!, 24, 8 p.m.]

War News, From the Home Front