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Faculty members at the University of Oklahoma journalism school are split over Melissa Klinzing's decision to leave an Oklahoma City television station to accept a post as news director for KMGH/Channel 7 in Denver. Assistant professor Bill Loving says that some of his colleagues were delighted to hear that Klinzing--who brought tabloid-style TV news to Oklahoma, and to Miami before that--had gone. But to him, Klinzing's departure means he may have to dig a lot deeper to find mate-rial for the classes he teaches on media law, ethics and investigative reporting. After all, says Loving, much of his food for thought was provided by KFOR-TV's "flash-and-trash" journalism, such as the "news" story on the latest bikinis and the "Jungle Love" piece about sexy, pouty mail-order brides from South America.

And then there's the matter of the libel suit Klinzing is in the process of defending. In that case, KFOR inflamed Oklahoma City's Muslim community by identifying an Iraqi immigrant as Timothy McVeigh's pal and the infamous John Doe No. 2.

But while the critics hated what Klinzing did at KFOR, the public loved it. After just four years in Oklahoma City, Klinzing managed to propel her station to the top of the ratings. And when John Proffitt, general manager of KMGH in Denver, began searching for someone take the helm of his No. 3-rated station, he turned to Klinzing. She started work in Denver April 1.

Media watchers are curious as to whether Klinzing will try to work her peculiar kind of magic in Colorado. "What you bring to a station is an effort to reflect the community and its values," says Klinzing. And what about the flash, violence and T&A she brought to Miami news? "Those, frankly, are Miami values," she says. "What that station did--and I was a part of it--reflects the culture around you. It depends on what the community will bear and what life is like in that community.

"You could look at an Oklahoma newscast and a Miami newscast, and you'll see that they're completely different."

It's true that under Klinzing, Oklahoma City got a tamer television version of the news than she'd delivered in Miami. So what about Denver and Channel 7? "Watch out for KMGH now," says George Lang, who reports on the media for the Oklahoma Gazette. "It's going to be interesting."

The 42-year-old Klinzing, a Tulsa native, arrived back home in Oklahoma in early 1992 via a roundabout route that took her from Washington, D.C. (where she was a Carter White House staffer), to Berkeley (where she was a graduate student in journalism) to Salt Lake City (where she was a producer at a local television station) and to Miami (where she became assistant news director of WSVN-TV, the station "people love to hate").

In Miami, Klinzing and her mentor, Mark Toney, turned what was once considered one of the finest news organizations in the country into what is now referred to as a "slash 'n' trash" station, albeit a ratings winner. They accomplished that with the use of slick graphics, hand-held cameras, a new set and an emphasis on blood and guts. Although critics vilified it for its combination of "news, hype and gore," the chair of the Fox network declared WSVN's style "the future of television," and other newscasts around the country quickly began imitating it.

Toney's style was so closely identified with the news-as-entertainment style that he left the Miami station in early 1990 to take a job producing the show Personalities for Fox. And when Toney went back to his roots two years later and hired on as news director at KFOR in Oklahoma City, he brought Klinzing with him. Toney stayed one year, after which Klinzing succeeded him as news director.

The duo's slash-and-burn mentality quickly became apparent. KFOR became "a lot more sensational," says Lang. The reporters became confrontational. And "they've done a lot of 'stunts'--that's what Melissa calls them."

During one notable sweeps period, Lang says, KFOR ran a series called "Jungle Love," about a video service that sets up Oklahoma bachelors with women from South America. The series was replete with clips of "women lying languidly in front of waterfalls and dancing in sweaty clubs in Uruguay," says Lang.

Then there was the one called "Fat Like Me," based on an article that had appeared in a women's magazine. The premise was that a shapely woman reporter would experience bias when clad in a padded "fat suit."

"KFOR took a lot of grief for that," Lang says. "It really didn't prove anything. The woman looked ridiculous in the fat suit. And the morning drive-time radio DJs had a field day with it."

Other media watchdogs found humor in a story KFOR ran in which the newscasters claimed to have uncovered the "last" photo of the federal building before the explosion. (Some competitors believe the photo was actually years old.)

 

Klinzing blames much of that criticism on two factors: one, many of her critics are "print" people, as opposed to "television" people; and two, change is often viewed with trepidation.

"Each art form evolves," she says. "Newspapers have evolved, as well. But television doesn't bother to criticize newspapers, because it doesn't work on TV--it's boring."

And anything boring is anathema to Klinzing. "We've been criticized because we also try to entertain," she says. "'Entertainment' is not a bad word. It's not a dirty word at all. TV was entertaining in the Edward R. Murrow days."

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, however, forced the Oklahoma City media into a whole new realm of reporting. And the public's thirst for immediate, minute-by-minute reports led to some speculative, and dangerous, journalism. For the first three days, for example, the nation was led to believe that the attack may have been the work of Middle Eastern terrorists.

"There was a rush to judgment," says Mas'ood Cajee, a spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Oklahoma. "This is our city, too. I had friends who were killed or injured, and yet at the same time, as a Muslim, I was being blamed for this bombing. It was guilt by association."

According to Susan Kelly, news director of KOCO/Channel 5 in Oklahoma City, people threw stones at Muslim-owned businesses, made harassing phone calls and shouted racial slurs. There was a drive-by shooting at a mosque in Stillwater. It was a pattern repeated throughout the country, right up until the time Timothy McVeigh was arrested in connection with the blast.

The Muslim community was beginning to recover from those assaults when, on June 7, 1995, KFOR made a stunning announcement: Its reporters might have uncovered the identity of John Doe No. 2, the name given to a man spotted with McVeigh at a Ryder truck rental agency prior to the bombing.

"They teased [the story] very, very heavily," says Kelly. "It was unlike any other teasing I'd seen. They ran crawls across the screen during the NBA playoff games, advising viewers to stay tuned for their reports."

However, the first segment of KFOR's story left viewers and media competitors alike with more questions than answers. The station had digitized photos of the suspect's face and didn't mention his name, though it identified him as an Iraqi refugee who'd served in that country's military. KFOR also ran videotape of blurred, darkened images of "witnesses" whose disembodied voices had been altered. They claimed to have seen the same man with McVeigh at a bar several days before the bombing and fleeing from the federal building moments before the blast.

But, Kelly wondered, why hadn't KFOR reporters interviewed the suspect himself? And why had no one from a law enforcement agency appeared to say whether or not the man was considered a suspect?

KFOR's story frightened many in the Muslim community, says Cajee. "People did not want to leave home," he says. "Women who wear the hijab [the traditional head scarf] would not go shopping or to work, because they were afraid."

That same morning, Kelly and her counterpart at KWTV/Channel 9 received phone calls informing them that KFOR's John Doe No. 2 was Oklahoma City resident Al-Hussaini Hussain.

"The fact is," says Lang, "that the digitization was not enough to obscure some very basic facial features. It wasn't enough to obscure his identity. What was evident was the shape of his face, his hairstyle, maybe even the breadth of his nose. And people who knew him were immediately able to determine that it was him. Then he started getting all these questions from co-workers and comments like, 'We saw you on TV.'"

Kelly decided that her crews had better go talk to Hussain. They did. So did Channel 9. So did George Lang. Hussain, who is not fluent in English, spoke to them through a translator. (Ironically, the interpreter was Abraham Ahmad, a Jordanian-American who was picked up and detained by federal agents in London who suspected that he might be connected to the bombing.)

Hussain told reporters that although he'd been followed by KFOR for weeks, station reporters had never attempted to interview him--a fact confirmed by KFOR's attorney, Robert D. Nelon. "We didn't interview him prior to the first news report on June 7," Nelon says, "but there were a number of reasons for that, some of which we can't get into. We didn't know that interviewing him would add anything to the story. If he had done it, he was unlikely to admit it in an interview."

 

But a little digging by other media turned up Hussain's time card, which showed that he'd been at work at the time of the bombing. Hussain's co-workers confirmed that he'd been on the job that morning. The FBI remained mostly silent, although one agent was quoted as saying that Hussain was not, and had never been, a suspect.

The reaction to KFOR's report by other media outlets was unprecedented, Lang says. "There's all kinds of backbiting behind the camera, but it's sort of an unspoken rule that you don't bash other stations on the air," he notes. But bash KFOR they did.

Despite that criticism and the evidence that appeared to clear Hussain, KFOR and Klinzing not only continued to stand by the story but "continued to push the story very, very heavily," says Lang. It wasn't until mid-August, he says, after Hussain hit KFOR with a lawsuit, that the station dropped the story.

Hussain's suit--which names Klinzing, the station and two reporters-- claims the broadcast was "false, malicious and defamatory" and that it omitted "facts which would plainly refute the false impression [that the broadcast created]."

Klinzing issued a statement shortly thereafter saying that she still stood by the story. And today she says she's "more confident than ever before about the story. We continued to research it, and we have additional sources, additional material, that we didn't have before."

As to the reaction from the other Oklahoma City stations, she says, "They decided to make it a competitive beef without, frankly, doing any of their homework. They said stuff that was completely inaccurate."

Hussain has managed to keep out of the limelight since filing suit; he's left the state. Klinzing herself might have stayed on--she expressed a desire just last year to stay in Oklahoma--had KMGH not come calling.

Proffitt says he didn't hire Klinzing because of her work on the bombing. "That's just one story," he notes. And he calls it "absurd" to think Klinzing might bring tabloid TV to Denver. "Hell, no," he says when asked if that's what she was hired to do. "She's got great leadership abilities and a great management style."

Proffitt says he's not worried about the libel suit brought against KFOR during Klinzing's watch. "Tell me the name of one good newsperson who's not had that accusation brought against them," he says.

But Proffitt does worry about ratings. And he believes Klinzing can boost them at Channel 7.

Lang agrees. "If anyone can turn them around," Lang says, "Melissa can. Because she's very good at what she does. I don't necessarily agree with what she does, but she pulls it off very well.


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