Ethics in the TV newsroom

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The public's right to know vs. what's best for society -- this conflict has long presented a problem for the news media. How the element of audience ratings confuses the issue even more is the topic of a riveting drama about television news.

News at Eleven (CBS, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.) should be required viewing for anybody who depends solely on local TV news for a balanced picture of events.

Despite unevenness in the writing, acting, and directing, what emerges is a disturbingly relevant story focused on the conflict between a socially-conscious news anchor and his ratings-oriented news director. The drama pinpoints an ethical battle that seems inherent in much of commercial television.

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A teacher is accused of raping a student, and, even before any indictment is issued, a disagreement arises over whether and when the story should be aired.

``It's our obligation to report, not judge,'' says the news director, whose real interest is in making his station No. 1. ``There are times when you have to decide between Emmies and profits,'' he tells top management.

The anchorman insists that the question is not over informing the public so much as pandering to its lowest instincts. ``They sometimes say that TV news has a natural bias towards the left,'' he mutters, ``but the bias is towards sensationalism.''

All of the characterizations are drawn in black and white. The unprincipled news director, venomously played by Peter Riegert, is the unredeemed villain of the piece. The anchor, played by Martin Sheen, is the lily-white hero.

(Feminists may have major reservations about the co-anchor, portrayed as gorgeous but incompetent.)

The story itself is far from new. But seldom has it been so clearly and vehemently dramatized.

The melodramatic script, which careens between lifelike complexity and oversimplification, was written by Mike Robe, who also directed, leaving fine actors like Sheen and Riegert to pull through on their innate talent.

But all this is secondary. ``News at Eleven'' deals with a topic so immediate, so engrossing, so important, that it offers meaningful viewing for almost everybody.

I guarantee that those who watch it will start viewing their local news with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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