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The Passing of Doctor Death

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It's difficult to realize how good Southern California had it back in the days when Channel Two -- then KNXT -- introduced television viewers every weekday night "from the mountain to the sea" to the Big News. It was the hour-long creation of Sam Zelman, then its news director. It was a tribute to the viewers' intelligence. Sam employed Joe Benti, Maury Green, Ralph Storey and Bill Stout. to report and analyze the news. A first- rate group of producers and editors made KNXT the ideal model of what a television station's news programs ought to be. Bob Wood, the station manager who later would become the president of CBS News in New York and give the nation "All in a Family," recognized the value of Zelman's concept. John Hart was named to open a Washington bureau and Bob Simmons to report regularly from Sacramento. No one complained about budgetary problems back then. KNXT management and the network bosses willingly underwrote the model. But then something happened to television news departments elsewhere several years later when they lost their souls to a man named Frank Magid.

They used to call him the news doctor, but when Magid first showed up Los Angeles and other major television markets across the country in the late 1960s, serious news directors used to cringe and say, here comes Doctor Death. But their bosses, the station managers, were different. They lacked Bob Wood's vision. Their ears perked up when Magid showed up. He was like a visiting potentate. He brought with him, they thought, a cure for sagging ratings of their morning and evening news programs. Forget that it was a lack of imagination. Simple, said the television consultant from Iowa: forget all the serious stuff and substitute it with stories about crime, sex, gossip, scandal and acrobatic whales. Throw in weather, traffic and sports. Then put gabby, sometimes perky, anchormen and women in front of the cameras to read the teleprompters on the false premise that they actually were responsible for reporting the news. That was the ticket. Who cared about the public or journalistic excellence? The stations made money and so did Magid.

The current president of his media strategy group said of Frank, he was "always challenging fundamental assumptions; anticipating the evolution of the media landscape." Magid's emphasis was form over content and how best to attract and hold an audience, said one observer. Sure, like Fidel Castro.

In recent years, Magid, himself no longer lurked in the hallways of television stations, but his spirit lingered on. With the exception of a few television organizations like the Argus Group or the Hearst News Corporation, the overall content of local television newscasts generally became an embarrassment. So what if our cities' cultural programs were in budgetary freefall? So what if our do-nothing city governments and state legislatures escaped public scrutiny? And what if the health care moguls got away for years, ripping off millions of unfortunate, sick Californians in need of adequate insurance? To this day, few people know whom to blame for the economic melt-down. You could certainly point the fickle finger at Magid's inspiration -- local television news -- for much of the ignorance, the indifference and the consequences.

Gail Collins of the New York Times hit the nail on the head last week when she wrote that "when it comes to finances, California is the new Mississippi -- the place that all the other states are glad to have around because it means they can't come up worse than 49th."

The bottom line is evident. You get what you deserve. Magid or no Magid.