Young (very young) reporters hot on the trail of TV news

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CE News Magazine PBS, Thursdays, 8:30-9 p.m. (check local listings). 12-week magazine-style news series premi`ering tomorrow. Executive producer: Harry Moses. Isn't that an awfully young voice reading off corporate credits just before this show starts?

Yes - and it turns out to be an awfully young bunch of investigative reporters filing the stories in this fascinating new series.

In fact, they're only 8 through 14.

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But don't let that fool you. During interviews they sniff out adult subterfuge like German shepherds scenting explosives. They are cool, savvy, and politely persistent. They act very much, in fact, like young Mike Wallaces on ``60 Minutes.''

And that's no coincidence. ``CE'' as a TV concept began in 1985, when a ``60 Minutes'' producer named Harry Moses did a segment about a print news service named Children's Express.

CE had already been nominated for a Pulitzer and had gained journalistic fame in 1976 for breaking the story - about a day before its grown-up competition - about Jimmy Carter's picking Walter Mondale as his running mate. Mr. Moses, who is now this series' executive producer, saw a good thing and persuaded PBS to fund a pilot TV program which would feature young reporters.

The result, premi`ering tomorrow night, is a series that deals with the sometimes harsh realities surrounding today's young people in a style as hard-edged as anything you'll see on ``60 Minutes.'' It is tough-minded, crackling with immediacy, and expertly packaged. There are the familiar close-ups of documents and other editing devices that sew a story tightly together - most of that done by adult film-production veterans.

The opener deals with psychiatric hospitals, Christian rock, and high school newspaper censorship - and all at the same rat-a-tat-tat pace that ``60 Minutes'' is known for. The lead story - first of two parts - is a horrifying probe of alleged abusive overdrugging and false advertising in institutions for troubled youngsters. You see interviews with parents who sent their kids to these institutions after reading ads about the expert care they'd receive. You also hear heartbreaking testimony from youngsters like one girl who was awakened each morning to be given drug doses (they make her easier to manage, you see). She was told the injection was vitamins.

Jonathan Zachary, a 13-year-old from Brooklyn who files the report, has a serious-minded, faintly world-weary air, as if he'd already seen it all. He and the other youngsters have early imbibed the spirit of the investigative process. They are polite but dogged in their questioning. They show no fear or favor. They are healthily skeptical of hide-covering bureaucrats who spout the institutional party line.

Future topics are almost all probes of serious problems. Two, already finished, concern beer companies that vigorously market their products during spring college breaks, and war toys.

``CE'' also has two stories in Zambia on its shooting schedule - one about the impact of third-world debt on people's lives, the other about the victims of a South African-supported guerrilla force called Renamo. It plans stories on a 15-year-old boy on death row, gay teen life, children in welfare hotels, an 11-year-old chess prodigy, a beauty pageant for kids, a full-length program on children with AIDS, and other no-nonsense coverage.

The subjects may not be brand new, but they are crying out for examination. A skilled integration of interview bits creates a sense of deft urgency on screen. The show may use youngsters to explore their own world, but the treatment is almost indistinguishable from adult TV shows of their kind.

And those are precious few. Some adult viewers may question what children are doing snooping into such issues. The adults being interviewed definitely feel that way at times.

The third item tomorrow night, for instance, is a harrowing one about a student newspaper in Florida trying to cover a shooting spree that took place in the high school cafeteria. The school administration killed the article, claiming it was inaccurate. Others felt the real reason was that it made the school authorities appear foolish during the crisis. At one point, reporter Jamie Zelermyer has a school spokeswoman on camera who speaks smoothly but seems also to be seething underneath - as if saying what right has this youngster to question the administration? All she has are the facts.

And that really is what this series is all about. At the very least it serves as an antidote to ``reality TV'' like ``A Current Affair.'' The medium is in desperate need of ``CE's'' serious-minded brand of reporting.

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