TV Show Lets Plain Folks Describe Impact of News

We are living through history. The news we read about or watch on TV may seem to be happening to others because politicians and experts are usually the ones quoted. But big news about the environment, welfare, the urban experience, gangs, and so on happens all around us and affects us personally.

With that slant in mind, public television station 13/WNET in New York is launching a national news magazine on April 1 on PBS called "Imaging America" (check local listings).

Each of the first three "Imaging" programs will visit one city and examine a broad range of topics that impact individual lives.

The first program zeroes in on Portland, Ore., a squeaky-clean city that many visitors liken to European gems such as Zurich or Brussels. But Portland's charm is endangered by the tremendous growth of recent years.

"Imaging" points out that people may be moving there in record numbers, but most of them are looking for benefits they themselves are eroding. Urban expansion is encroaching on the beautiful environment in and around the city; real estate prices have skyrocketed, squeezing many long-term or native residents; and as the warehouse district becomes gentrified, certain amenities, like a nonprofit children's theater, may be crowded out.

The delicate ecology of the Portland region has been compromised by inadequate suburban planning. In the past, Oregon's famous rains flooded out the city only rarely. But last year the city experienced three serious floods, costing millions of dollars in damages. Water runoff from all those new slate roofs has not been properly routed.

On the outskirts of town lie hundreds of square miles of farmland, which is designated for agricultural use and cannot be sold for housing needs. Some farmers thus feel the pinch of progress in a different way. Says one man, "Now you are a member of a mass, not an individual anymore." Not permitted to deal with developers, he feels he is not allowed to solve his problems in his own way.

Meanwhile, back in the city, white racist skinheads fight white nonracist skinheads in a bizarre rivalry between factions of self-styled outcasts. Welfare mothers, pressured by imminent changes in welfare, scramble to find ways to keep their heads above water.

No welfare experts are interviewed; instead, "Imaging America" asks the affected parties directly - and who could be more of an expert on the effects of welfare cuts than those who face them?

Though creative efforts on the part of these women are shown, which may prove helpful to women elsewhere, the program offers no definitive answers. The "Imaging" news team, under the guidance of producer George Rivera, is trying to get at something elusive - locating people in the midst of their struggles with issues of the day.

Some of these issues, welfare for instance, affect the entire country. Others are peculiar to the various cities the news team visits, such as Portland's flooding problems.

This is the news in process, and solutions may be indicated but not necessarily in place. Plenty of loose ends are left untied.

"Imaging America" does ask the hard questions. Throughout the first show it hammers on the theme of controlling sustainable growth.

People may have different opinions about the most desirable future for a city like Portland, but they do have opinions. This show gives them a context, a place to air their ideas.

The "Imaging" approach has its drawbacks - none of the problems taken up can be explored thoroughly. Then, too, some issues are just not as relevant as others. Some of the stories seem more like travelogue material than news gathering. And if some of the territory looks as familiar as the nightly news, that's because we have seen "news in process" before (if only in sound bites) when ordinary people are interviewed on camera.

Still, the attempt to discover the news in process (as it enters the lives of individuals) is an honorable one. And a news magazine dedicated to it deserves some attention.

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