How well do top New Jersey stories fare on New York-based nightly newscasts? Let’s roll the proverbial tape.
In August, the Newark Police Department will become the first police force in the entire nation to release monthly race and gender data for its controversial stop-and-frisk program. The New Jersey Supreme Court last week ruled that Gov. Christopher Christie cannot move forward with plans to abolish the state Council on Affordable Housing. And a rise in prescription drug abuse and heroin use in the Garden State might be connected to Russian organized crime, according to a report released last week by the state Commission of Investigation.
Major news stories all – but good luck finding detailed coverage of any of them on the four major New York television news stations, which were last week more focused on Eliot Spitzer, Daniel Barrera, and Amanda Bynes.
The short shrift given to New Jersey news wouldn’t matter, according to advocates and elected officials, if the Garden State at least had other news stations that were dedicated to covering major events west of the Hudson. However, WWOR-TV, the Secaucus-based network that was mandated in 1983 to do specifically that, decided two weeks ago to abruptly end its only nightly news program, which previously aired week nights at 10 o’clock.
WWOR-TV has ‘failed for over a decade to live up to its broadcasting obligations to New Jersey.’ – U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.
But U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ 6th Dist.), and the advocacy group Voice for New Jersey all said the cancellation of the 10 o’clock news is the final insult to Garden State residents who have seen news programming chipped away at WWOR-TV for years while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has failed to step in.
Pallone is now calling for the FCC to revoke WWOR’s broadcasting license.
Station ‘emboldened’ by FCC inaction?
“If you were to carve out New York and Philly, New Jersey by itself would be the fourth largest media market in the country,” Chuck Lovey, a Voice for New Jersey member, said recently. “If you are the only high-powered commercial television station in the fourth largest media market in the country, how can you say that you are adequately meeting your public service obligations with no news programming? Northern and central New Jersey are an area that includes more than four million people alone.”
Voice for New Jersey has long been critical of WWOR-TV and has alleged for years that the station has failed to fulfill its federal mandate to serve the needs of residents in the state.
The station moved from New York to Meadowlands Parkway in Secaucus in 1983. The following year, the FCC allowed the station to keep its broadcast license but required the station to “perform a higher degree of service to its Grade B coverage area than is normally required of a broadcast licensee. At renewal time, WWOR-TV will be judged by how it has met the obligation to serve the greater service needs of northern New Jersey.” Specifically, the station was required to offer news and public affairs programming essential to northern New Jersey residents.
When the station’s license came up for renewal in 2007, several residents testified at FCC hearings organized by the late U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg that the license should be revoked. At the time, these residents argued that WWOR’s New York-centric programming violated the mandate set by the agency in 1984.
In response to the criticism, the station underwent a mini-makeover. The station’s slogan, which had been “My 9 NY” was changed to “My 9 News.” And a photo of the New York skyline, which was prominent on the station’s web site home page and on-air backdrop, was changed to a photo of the George Washington Bridge. The station also added more New Jersey coverage to its mix of 10 p.m. news stories.
The FCC allowed WWOR-TV to continue to operate, even though its license had expired, but postponed making a decision on its renewal.
The station’s 10 p.m. news broadcast took its first hit in 2009, when WWOR cut the program from an hour to 30 minutes and laid off several staff members. Then, in February 2011, the FCC launched an investigation into WWOR’s coverage and whether the station had misled the federal agency regarding the amount of New Jersey programming it aired.
Despite the situation, WWOR-TV has been allowed to operate with an expired license since 2007.
“By now, we would have hoped to have seen some action, either a denial of the license or, at a minimum, a renewal with conditions requiring more public service programming,” said Lovey. The cancellation of the 10 p.m. newscast earlier this month, he said, “is an outrageous breach of [WWOR’s] obligation. It’s incredible to us the FCC has taken no action all these years and has also stalled the investigation.”
Inaction on the part of the FCC, he added, “emboldened” the station to cancel its 10 p.m. news broadcast.
An FCC spokesperson did not respond to questions on the WWOR situation by press time Thursday.
Pallone and Menendez are now pressing the FCC to make final decision on the station’s license.
‘Chasing’ creator: Program marks an ‘evolution’
In a letter dated July 9, Menendez wrote to Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn: “I am writing to request a prompt and thorough review of News Corporation’s application to renew the license for WWOR, which has been pending before the FCC since 2007. I further request that the FCC conclude its ongoing investigation concerning misrepresentations by WWOR included in their license renewal proceedings. In light of WWOR’s decision to drop their nightly news programming, a decision which affects millions of New Jerseyans, it is becoming increasingly critical that the FCC make a determination about WWOR’s license.”
In his own letter to Chairwoman Clyburn, Pallone went a step further, demanding that the license be revoked immediately. WWOR-TV, he wrote, has “failed for over a decade to live up to its broadcasting obligations to New Jersey.”
In response to a series of questions from the Reporter, FOX-TV spokeswoman Claudia Russo directed the paper to the company’s news release on “Chasing New Jersey.”
The release notes that the program – which was created by Dennis Bianchi, vice president and general manager of WTXF FOX 29 in Philadelphia – will “take viewers on a fast-paced, unpredictable ride across the state of New Jersey as ‘chasers’ hit the streets to cover the stories that are placing New Jersey firmly in the national headlines. Originating from…Trenton, ‘Chasing’ will cover a broad range of topics and issues, including interviews with local politicians, law enforcement officials and citizens on a variety of issues affecting New Jersey communities.”
The release quoted Bianchi as saying, “This type of evolution is long-overdue in local news and is intended to shake up and revitalize the genre.”
Taken by itself, Lovey said Voice for New Jersey would ordinarily applaud a program like “Chasing New Jersey,” since it meets the public affairs needs of Garden State residents. But, he said, “It cannot replace traditional news programming.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.