BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most news outlets find themselves under fire for bias from time to time, but there's one outlet that struggles with a different problem -- like if the sports reporter's voice is changing. Over 30 years ago, Al Primo changed local TV news forever when he created the "Eyewitness News" format. Now he trolls for a different demographic, and "Eyewitness Kids News" is on about 200 stations across the country. NPR's Mike Pesca spent some time with a news team whose major competition is Saturday morning cartoons.
ALAN WEISS: All right. Lauren, you'll do a countdown first, okay?
MIKE PESCA: Veteran news producer Alan Weiss houses, feeds, clothes and suggests line readings to his star reporter.
LAUREN: ...1 -- and here's the scoop on how inflation affects you.
ALAN WEISS: Say [yoo] -- you're saying [ya]. Say [yoo].
MIKE PESCA: Weiss isn't one of those Newsroom Napoleons. Just Lauren's dad, and in this case, her boss. Today, 13 year old Lauren Weiss is in the kitchen of their Westchester, New York home filming a report about inflation, which will be driving up the price of ice cream this summer.
LAUREN: And here's the scoop on how inflation affects you.
MIKE PESCA: Lauren's nailing her lines, but she rushed home from play practice and, practically famished, she's eating the props. Not since Al Roker's pre-gastric bypass days has the news business seen a situation like this. But Teen Kids News is one of a kind. The basic principle is that for kids to become interested in the news, it has to be presented by kids -- even, as Weiss explains, if it's really written, edited and produced by adults.
ALAN WEISS:We're not trying to turn these kids into journalists. We're just trying to use them as vehicles to convey the news to their peers. Better having their peers tell them the news than having adults tell them the news. Even if the copy was written the same exact way.
MIKE PESCA: Weiss says they want to engage kids. But they also want to protect them, so if kids are likely to be upset by the obvious lead story of every newscast in America, like say the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, Kids News will tread very carefully. Using their editorial partners at the 78 year old Weekly Reader, the classroom mainstay, to advise them on what to cover and how to phrase it.
LAUREN: New hope for peace between India and Pakistan. For the first time...
MIKE PESCA: The man who conceived of and funds the program is Al Primo, who in the 1960s invented the "eyewitness news" format, replete with a multi-ethnic cast of reporters covering crime, fires and consumer affairs, all ending with a little happy talk. Teen Kids News has a lot of those elements, but the stories are actually more in-depth than almost anything you'll see on local news -- for instance, a multi-part series on training for war. Still, it is snappy.
TEEN REPORTER: Teen Kids News.
TEEN REPORTER: Cosmetic surgery: is it too extreme for a teen? [WHOOSH SOUND EFFECT]
TEEN REPORTER: I'll show you how American soldiers trained for Iraq. [WHOOSH SOUND EFFECT]
MIKE PESCA: The graphics are cutting edge, and the whoosh is straight out of the mixing board at the Fox News Channel. But to get there, the show had to first assemble a cast. A few spots were filled by child actors, but that talent pool dried up quickly. Alan Weiss explains the problem.
ALAN WEISS: We want kids to act as reporters, we wanted kids who are comfortable on TV to be reporters, and there were very few kids that can do that.
MIKE PESCA: Luckily, Al Primo knows a few people in the news business.
AL PRIMO: I was, you know, at a party in the summer, and Paula Zahn was there. I know Paula. And I said I'm doing a Kids News. She says well you know, I have a daughter. Said really? She says yeah. I said well, send me a picture.
MIKE PESCA: Primo had just found an anchor.
HALEY: And I'm Haley. Let's see what's happening in the headlines.
MIKE PESCA: Next up, sports.
AL PRIMO: Frank Gifford, who I hired, lives in Greenwich, where I live, and I saw him and so he tells me - he says you know, I got a teenage son, Cody -- I said he's that old? He said yeah, he's 13 going to be 14.
MIKE PESCA: And with that, Cody Gifford, son of Frank and Kathy Lee, followed in his father's footsteps.
CODY GIFFORD: Troy Aikman was a champ with the Dallas Cowboys, and now he's a champ for kids.
MIKE PESCA: The nepotism quotient isn't that out of line with regular TV news. Just ask Chris Wallace, John Siegenthaler, Andrea Koppel or the man who oversees all of television, FCC chief Michael Powell. But the breakout star of this show, entertainment reporter John Meyers, earned his stripes working for a kids news service.
JOHN MEYERS: Since I'm 10, I've been in print journalism, and I rode that for a while.
MIKE PESCA: But like Dan Rather and Wolf Blitzer before him, Meyers was lured to TV. Now he hobnobs with actors like James Caan, or, as Meyers calls him--
JOHN MEYERS: Well me and Jimmy, we go back quite a bit. First we, we did the junket together for Elf. We met again at the premiere. And then we actually met again in the bathroom afterward, which was actually unplanned, but it was a wonderful third meeting.
MIKE PESCA: Meyers, who admits to preferring Hitchcock and the Friars Club Roasts to most of today's entertainment, probably wasn't too miffed about missing out on the premiere of the Olson Twins' latest movie, New York Minute, at the Tribeca Film Festival. [CROWD AMBIENCE] [FAN SCREAMS] That assignment went to Al Weiss's other daughter, 10 year old Nicole, who stood on a milk crate to interview the twins. Afterwards, the Olsons, whose longest stretch away from the camera was when they were in the womb, seemed pleased to have talked to a reporter shorter than themselves.
MIKE PESCA: Nicole there is 10 years old. Do you think it's too late for her?
ASHLEY/MARY-KATE: No! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ASHLEY/MARY-KATE: Not at all! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ASHLEY/MARY-KATE: [...?...] any age! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ASHLEY/MARY-KATE: [...?...] we started when we were 7 - when we were 9 months old - and I think, you know, people just start when they become interested, so.
MIKE PESCA: After Mary-Kate and Ashley walked off, so did almost all of the other reporters, but Nicole's producer, Janet De Hart, had a hunch. And it led to what she explained to Nicole was a big "get." The Tribeca Film Festival's founder came walking up to Nicole, and she asked him a question.
NICOLE: [...?...] a question?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yes.
NICOLE: What is a New York Minute?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know. I, I haven't seen the movie yet, so-- but it could be many things. You tell me.
MIKE PESCA: After Robert De Niro walked away, I asked Nicole what it was like to interview him.
NICOLE: Well I don't really know who he is, but--maybe one day I will. [LAUGHS]
MIKE PESCA: Janet seemed happy. That's something.
NICOLE: [LAUGHS] Yeah. If Janet's happy, then I'm happy.
MIKE PESCA: Indeed, everyone was happy, including kids watching in about 200 markets who would get to see an Olson interview. Plus bonus footage of that crazy old guy who played the dad in Meet the Parents, or, as John Meyers calls him, Bobby. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, and edited by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and Rob Christiansen our engineer; with added expertise from Wayne Shulmeister on our movie remakes piece. We had help from Derek John. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. Garfield will be back with me next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. [MUSIC TAG]