It's Shakespeare, but is it news?

'NewsHour' stimulates imagination; Turner Classic feeds appetite for courtroom drama

In a recent segment of the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," correspondent Paul Solman took to the streets of Denver to report on schoolchildren acting in scenes from Shakespeare's plays.

The yearly event is remarkable because many children participate in the joys of the Bard, memorize his difficult language, costume themselves, and have a hail-fellow-well-met good time doing it.

But is this news coverage? Mr. Lehrer and his colleagues think so.

And so do viewers, one of whom e-mailed the editors: "Paul Solman's features are always enjoyed for their intelligence, good humor, and relevance to real issues and problems. But tonight's piece on Shakespeare in Denver's streets [surpassed] fine. Inspiring and heart-warming...."

"Relevance to real issues" is the key here. Of all the nightly news programs on TV, the "NewsHour" (PBS, check local listings) is the only one to commit to the arts as relevant to real issues. The network news shows have 30 minutes to cover the world (less with commercial interruptions). They don't have the time, unless it's a truly controversial story.

Still, a big part of it is how you define the news. Ask Lehrer why the arts are news and he says, "Well, because they involve things that matter. The way I define the news is things that stimulate people's minds, imaginations, emotions, and affect their lives."

Most often, the craft of covering life includes a news "hook" - Pulitzer Prize-winning authors are regularly interviewed. "The Great Gatsby," a new opera by composer John Harbison, received insightful coverage from the "NewsHour," as it examined modern music, the influence of pop, and universal themes.

But sometimes a certain story will be covered just because it needs to be.

Take poet Robert Pinsky's brilliant idea of asking people all over the United States to submit the name of their favorite poem and explain what it means to them. Pinsky received 18,000 submissions, out of which 50 were selected. Those people were interviewed, and then read the poem they loved. The films, made by the Library of Congress, have been airing one by one on the "NewsHour."

What is remarkable about these segments is the sense we get of how significant poetry is to people. Most poets can't make a living at wordsmithing (they tend to have day jobs), yet when a construction worker reads Walt Whitman on air, his very expression of the words tells us how he sees his life and himself and the world around him.

"It has to be a good story," says Lehrer about any art story his broadcast covers. But of poetry, he says, "The basic way we communicate is with words, and the more reverence and attention you pay to words, the better you will use them...."

Lehrer says that everyone on the news team cares deeply for the arts, considers them a normal part of news coverage, and all contribute to deciding what arts coverage will hit the air.

San Francisco correspondent Elizabeth Farnsworth, whom Lehrer says has a particular gift for interviewing creative people, has spent most of her life chasing down foreign-affairs stories.

Says Ms. Farnsworth: "Why do I spend so much time reading, seeing art exhibits, and listening to music?

"When I was a young person and went to Peru, I wanted to know why the people were dying around me. I became a reporter. I want to know how the world works. These people [artists] are asking the questions I am, all kinds of questions about life and love." Artists help articulate how the world works, she says.

Jeff Brown, senior producer of national affairs for the 'NewsHour," is up to his eyes in the arts, too. "Pop art gets covered quite a bit.... Our sense of reporting is, we are not trying to do 'art lite.' We care about ideas, as well as things, and therefore we have no problems fitting the arts in as news."

* * *

Most of us get our ideas about how the legal process works from TV and the movies, and now TV is taking us back to the movies to consider our own passion for justice. "Reel Justice" feeds our appetite for courtroom dramatics with a sparkling array of great movies presented by Turner Classic Movies on Wednesdays and Thursdays through July (check local listings).

The cool thing about this TV film festival is the "talk back" by real-life attorneys Alan Dershowitz, Barry Scheck, and Bronx Supreme Court Justice Edwin Torres. They don't always agree on how the law is portrayed. Mr. Dershowitz strongly objects to the character of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," while Mr. Scheck thinks Finch (played by Gregory Peck) is what all attorneys should aspire to be.

They are stimulating, and none more than Mr. Torres (author of "Carlito's Way"), who shares his view of courtroom realism.

Look for classics like "Witness for the Prosecution," "Paths of Glory," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "The Letter." The 36-film festival also takes up military justice, the wrongly accused, mobsters on trial, true stories, and surprise endings. The issues are still timely, and the commentary enlightening.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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