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The Globe and Mail

TV news reporting? Good night and good luck to us

Where have you gone, Edward R. Murrow? Broadcast journalism needs you now, perhaps more than ever.

Chain-smoking and straight-talking Murrow still stands as the consummate American TV newsman and he has been dead since 1965. Journalism schools in the U.S. still proudly hail his damning indictment of commie-hunting senator Joe McCarthy on the news program See It Now in 1954 as one of the television medium's finest hours. There's even a high school named in his honour in Brooklyn, N.Y.

But the Murrow legacy of fair and balanced TV reporting? Don't look for it in America today.

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Take a snapshot of the current TV news picture south of the border: Ratings for the evening newscasts are at all-time lows on all three big U.S. networks (it turns out Katie Couric isn't nearly as adorable as once believed).

And is 60 Minutes even on TV any more?

On U.S. cable, Fox News now has the lion's share of available viewers, courtesy of Tea Party coverage and relentless Obama-bashing. The almost 60 million Americans who voted for John McCain in the last election need something to fill their days.

And CNN? Instead of the Fox News route of choosing a political side and sticking to it, CNN has opted for Parker Spitzer, a nightly point-counterpoint show hosted by disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (for the left) and columnist Kathleen Parker (for the right). Since launching a few weeks ago, Parker Spitzer has earned CNN its lowest ratings numbers in a decade. Cancellation is imminent.

Moreover, as a TV news organization, CNN appears to have lost all credibility. Consider last week's appearance by Jon Stewart on Larry King Live. King: "Why do you pick on CNN so much?" Stewart: "You're terrible!"

In this country, we have every right to look down our noses at American broadcast news. Each Canadian network has a dedicated news division, structured more along the lines of the British broadcast model; unbiased reporting is simply an unspoken necessity, practically a public service. The same style of reportage still surfaces in America, though only in occasional fits and starts.

And invariably it happens on public broadcasting. Tuesday night, the PBS programs NOVA and Frontline contribute timely episodes on two very important news stories that recently made worldwide headlines. In both instances, you will learn something new.

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On NOVA (8 p.m.), a report titled Emergency Mine Rescue tells the real story of the ordeal of the 33 Chilean miners trapped in a dank chamber about 700 metres underground for 69 days. Unlike most North American TV news outlets, which latched onto the story in its final days, as the miners were being pulled out of the mine one by one, the NOVA team was at the San Jose mine for the long haul.

More specifically, the NOVA cameras were on site within days after word came that the entombed miners were still alive. Mostly, they documented the tireless efforts of the three rescue teams that gingerly punched through the hundreds of metres of rock to get to the trapped miners.

Here, for the first time, really, we see footage of the miners' prison and obtain a more accurate chronology of their time spent underground.

With minimal narration, the program allows viewers to experience the pitch blackness, the unbearable heat and, worst of all, the miners' constant fear that they would never get out alive.

And since NOVA is a series devoted to science, the timeline of the trapped miners unfolds from the scientific perspective. There is no uplifting soundtrack to tug at viewer heartstrings, or dramatic slo-mo footage of the miners being extricated from the earth. Just the facts, as it should be.

Toward the same cause, Frontline (9 p.m.) attempts to deconstruct another recent disaster, with a less happy ending. The venerable news program details the events that led up to last spring's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - an environmental catastrophe that will have an impact on generations to come.

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And it's a safe bet that they won't be showing this program at any BP shareholders meetings.

Frontline trains its sights squarely on the British oil and gas giant, which, in the past decade, has grown to into one of the largest, most profitable energy companies on the planet. How did BP do it? By absorbing the competition in mergers and fostering an alarming disregard for public safety and environmental concerns.

In consort with the non-profit news agency ProPublica, Frontline correspondent Martin Smith uncovers the company's shameful track record in safety violations and incidents predating the Gulf of Mexico disaster. In March of 2005, for example, a massive explosion at BP's Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and was thereafter quickly swept under the carpet.

After every new disaster, BP promised to do better. And then didn't. The Frontline program is top-drawer reporting, by professionals who know how to get to the heart of a story. Edward R. Murrow would be proud.

Check local listings.

John Doyle will return.

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