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How Low Will They Go?

The TV Sweeps Are On and It Shows



During the crucial February TV ratings sweeps, comedy shows pack in more comedy and dramas wallow in even more drama. Perversely, news shows don't get newsier. They feature special reports hyped in newspaper, TV, and radio ads. Take Fox News on Tuesday, February 7, the second night of Walter Jacobson's well-publicized undercover homeless stint.

Fox could spare only 25 seconds for a protest in front of Mayor Daley's house by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which is worried about keeping affordable housing in the redeveloping South Loop. Walter got over six minutes to wander around with a scraggly beard and a bad complexion.

But who watches TV news for the real news anyway? Sweeps month simply distills TV news to its most concentrated, fun form. Unfortunately, most Chicagoans are too well adjusted to own three televisions and VCRs, so they could not have watched all the special sweeps reports available last week. If you had to choose, for instance, between "Boxcar Bandits" on Channel 2 and "Deadly Debris" on Channel 7, here's what you missed.


Return to the Streets (Part One), Walter Jacobson, Fox News

Synopsis: Rather than grow his own beard, Walter uses a makeup artist to become "homeless" for three days and two nights, starting out with $4 and some of those nice rubber duck shoes.

Actual Facts: Two. Chicago homeless are estimated at 5,000.* Chicago spends $21 million a year on homeless services.

Major Revelations: Homeless people often beg for money. Many people pass them by without giving them any. Walter is apparently not motivated enough to sell Streetwise, since a Streetwise vendor told him exactly where to go to get started and he never bothered. You can read the newspaper at a public library. Homeless people don't talk to each other, only to Walter Jacobson.

Reporter's Quote: "Despite the disguise, I was at times recognized. But that was OK, beacuse the people then opened up even more to me, realizing I was a reporter."

Bonus Points: Filmed almost exclusively by much-prized hidden camera technique. Nice reenactment of Walter falling and cutting his chin while preoccupied with deciding where to eat--filmed as if camera were strapped to Walter's chin.

Debits: Walter never explains why, if he was able to gather so much more information when homeless people knew he was a reporter, he didn't just scrap the disguise and do a real journalistic story on homelessness. Depressing blues guitar sound track became annoying almost immediately.

Parking Insecurity, Paul Meincke, Channel 7

Synopsis: Meincke tours a parking garage and discovers that security there is somewhat worse than at an an American nuclear weapons silo, somewhat better than at a Russian nuclear reactor.

Actual Facts: Many cars are stolen from parking garages.

Major Revelations: Cellular phones left on car seats will tempt car thieves. Many people buy Clubs for their steering wheels, and then they're too lazy to use them.

Bonus Points: Channel 7 got an actual ex-car thief to walk around a parking garage and look suspicious.

Debits: No mention of the real thieves: the people who set parking garage prices.


Return to the Streets (Part Two), Walter Jacobson, Fox News

Synopsis: Though Walter says he knows homeless shelters stop accepting people relatively early in the evening, he waits until late at night to try finding one. He finally gets to the Pacific Graden Mission at 11:30. The next night, he sleeps on Lower Wacker Drive and awakes "surprisingly rested."

Actual Facts: None.

Major Revelations: "Cold in Chicago in the middle of the night in the middle of February is very cold." When you call City Hall and ask about homeless shelters for the night, they do not come pick you up and take you there. "All right, so I walk there, right?" asked Walter. You can read the newpaper in a public library.

Reporter's Quote: "So then what's this all about? What'd I do, as some people say, play games for the ratings? It's a fair question and I'll answer it. On Fox News tomorrow, at nine." Also: "I felt what they were feeling."

Bonus Points: Walter truly does resemble a homeless person in that he is constantly talking to himself, whether he is walking around, begging, or sitting on a train station bench. However, he is speaking to a hidden microphone.

Debits: Second day of blues guitar sound track became irritating enough to constitute a credible murder defense in California.

Boxcar Bandits, Rob Stafford, Channel 2

Synopsis: Railroad police battle thieves preying on boxcars.

Actual Facts: Conrail police have made 742 arrests in Chicago during the last two years.

Major Revelations: A railroad employee surveys a pried-open boxcar and announces, "Fans. Twelve missing."

Reporter's Quote: "Stealing from trains is not new, it's as old as the train itself. But that was the Wild West. This is the midwest."

Bonus Points: Alliterative title. One interview subject filmed in shadow. Plenty of undercover police videos. Gratuitous clip from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Debits: Same alliterative line used twice, once by Bill Kurtis in his signature grave introduction, once in report by Stafford. Phrase: "everything from toys to televisions."

Dander Ahead: Deadly Debris, Suzanne Rico, Channel 7

Synopsis: Stuff on the highway can crash through your windshield and kill you.

Actual Facts: A fair number, since the report details several high-profile cases, such as that of the family whose six children were incinerated in a van on I-94 last year. Highway debris caused 1,600 reprted accidents in Illinois last year.

Major Revelations: Gravel trucks are bad news.

Reporter's Quote: "Some of our roads are becoming dangerous obstacle courses. Tonight we investigate why these roads are taking a deadly turn" (Anchorman John Drury).

Bonus Points: Subject should scare viewers. Alliterative title. Rico gets in a Mike Wallace-style confrontation with a trucking company official about a truck cited for safety violations.

Debits: The official was perfectly nice and sheepish about it; failed to cover camera lens and throw Rico out.


Walter's Perspective, Walter Jacobson, Fox News

Synopsis: Walter's mad that people made fun of his homeless stint.

Actual Facts: There are 10,000 homeless people in Chicago.*

Major Revelations: Homeless people don't talk to each other, only to Walter. Some homeless people don't like the way they are treated at shelters.

Reporter's Quote: "There were times on the street when they knew who I was. So what's wrong with that? When they knew who I was, they told me things."

Bonus Points: Some hidden camera clips again, including one of an operative from Don Wade and Roma's WLS morning radio show mocking Walter in his homeless getup. In "Walter's Perspective," Walter gets nasty and calls the operative a "dodo." No annoying blues guitar.

Debits: Still no explanation of why Walter didn't do a real journalistic report on homelessness if his disguise was such a hindrance to talking to the homeless.

Something's Out There, Jon Duncanson, Channel 2

Synopsis: People in small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula prefer to think that a certain light that appears at night is caused by a dead railroad worker rather than a nearby highway.

Actual Facts: Route 45 starts in Chicago and winds through Wisconsin to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Major Revelations: A town close to the so-called "dogwood" lights uses its "mystery" as a tourist attraction.

Reporter's Quote: "You have to ask yourself in this out-of-the-way spot, where nature runs pure, the people happy to help, whether anyone really wants to know what causes the dogwood lights to shine."

Bonus Points: Jon Duncanson gets to put on a parka and use binoculars.

Debits: No dramatizations of a dead, ghostly railroad worker lurching up and down a lonely stretch of track, swinging an eerie lantern.

Terror On-Line, Robin George, Channel 5

Synopsis: North Carolina homemaker Laurie Powell logged onto a computer forum for moms and got a computer stalker who has sent her threatening E-mail for two years.

Actual Facts: There is an Internet, The many men who are obnoxious and offensive in real life continue to be obnoxious and offensive on-line. As usual, there isn't much you can do about it.

Major Revelations: The piece uses a Vogue magazine article on Powell as a visual aid, with close-ups of its layout and photographs. This is how we find out that not only did Channel 5 get the story from a fashion magazine, they used the same title too.

Reporter's Quote: "It is like being stalked in virtual reality. But this is all too real."

Bonus Points: Subject should scare viewers, and Ron Magers tries to do so immediately with his introduction: "If you have a computer in your home, you may have opened your doors to some uninvited guests." Radio promo included the line "It's a new technology in terror. Could you be a victim?" Classic TV promo was so vague it probably left most viewers thinking the piece was about something supernatural.

Debits: No alliteration anywhere.


Cocaine Cash, Bill Kurtis, Channel 2

Synopsis: A lot of U.S. money has traces of cocaine on it that you'd only be able to find with sophisticated lab tests. Sheriff's police in Volusia County, Florida, like to stop people, especially minorities, and sieze their cash for testing. If it's positive, they keep it.

Actual Facts: Wayne Morris of Morris-Kopec Forensics says his studies show 55 to 95 percent of paper money is "tainted with cocaine," as Kurtis puts it.

Major Revelations: Yet another reason to avoid Florida.

Reporter's Quote: "So our money supply is contaminated. Chances are the cash in my wallet right now would test positive for cocaine." Kurtis brandishes some bills from his wallet. "Should that concern us? Here in Chicago, probably not."

Bonus Points: Alliterative title. Undercover police videos of drug buys. Kurtis admits there's no reason for Chicagoans to care much about this but does a yeoman's job of trying to scare viewers anyway with lines like "Sound unbelievable? Well believe it, because it happens all the time" and "Bottom line? Be careful!"

Debits: Who cares about Florida?

Tamed or Tortured? (Part One), Chuck Goudie, Channel 7

Synopsis: Circuses aren't very nice to their elephants.

Actual Facts: Elephant trainers use a nasty-looking metal hook to keep elephants in line. One circus elephant recently stampeded for several blocks in Hawaii, which looked especially impressive in slow motion. Since 1976, 20 elephant handlers in the U.S. and Canada have been killed.

Major Revelations: Elephant training isn't pretty.

Reporter's Quote: "But in the bush, you rarely see an elephant trot toward a teeter-totter and catapult an acrobat.

Bonus Points: Surefire sympathy getter with grainy videos of trainers whacking elephants. Goudie traveled to Florida and "tracked down" Ringling Brothers' elephant farm, whose location is "a closely guarded secret." Dramatic shaky video of Goudie standing at a gate being denied entrance.

Debits: Since that denial was completely uneventful, it's unclear why the cameraman couldn't hold the camera straight.


Tamed or Tortured? (Part Two), Chuck Goudie, Channel 7

Synopsis: Zoos aren't a whole lot better than circuses.

Actual Facts: Elephant trainers use a nasty-looking metal hook to keep elephants in line. There are over 600 elephant trainers in the U.S., and an average of one is killed every year.

Major Revelations: Most zoos use a training method from ancient India called "free contact training," which involves the nasty metal hook. A few zoos have just figured out there might be a better method, called "protected contact," or as Goudie says, "In other words, don't touch the elephants."

Reporter's Quote: "We have obtained some very disturbing videotape never meant to be made public. Are they being tamed, or tortured?"

Bonus Points: Alliterative title. Surefire sympathy getter with grainy video of Milwaukee zoo employees beating up an elephant. Gratuitous film clip of celebrities Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, who recently protested against elephant abuse.

Debits: Baldwin and Basinger--what haven't they protested against recently?

* While there is disagreement over the actual number of homeless people, it is customary to pick one number and stick with it. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates there are 60,000 homeless people in Chicago over the course of a year, based on a 1990 estimate of 40,000 to 49,000 by the Chicago Department of Human Services, with percentage increases since then as reported by the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities. The coalition says there are 10,000 to 15,000 homeless people in Chicago on any given night, based on a 1990 overnight count by the U.S. Census Bureau. "What [Walter] was saying was not accurate," says coalition executive director John Donahue. "It's likely that 5,000 would be the number of shelter beds. And then 10,000 would be because the the Department of Human Services would admit there's double that amount of homeless people." Chicago's Department of Human Services does estimate the nightly homeless count at a maximum of 10,000, based on the number of shelter beds and "surveys by staff persons and other not-for-profit agencies," says Henry Locke, director of communications. Locke says the number of homeless over the course of the year is 10,000, and did not know how the department calculated its 1990 number of 49,000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin; photo manipulation/Victor Thompson.

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