Channel 2, which likes to remind viewers it is on their side, had a little luck on its side last weekend.
Anchor Maryalice Demler was on a vacation with her husband in Rome when the death of Pope John Paul II was announced. Like any newsperson, Demler was inspired by the huge international story to make it a working vacation.
"She realized the historical importance of the story and it was very meaningful to her," said Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner.
While news rivals Channel 4 and Channel 7 scrambled to get reporters to the Vatican by Wednesday, Demler was able to give her personal observations of the outpouring of love for the pope over the weekend. She did it mostly via telephone, though there was at least one live camera shot of Demler, without makeup, on the scene.
"The timing was incredible," said Toellner. He was uncertain whether the station would have sent a reporter to Rome if Demler hadn't been there.
"As much as we'd love to get someone there, it's pretty hard to get access to anything that NBC (Channel 2's network) wouldn't get access to," said Toellner.
But having someone in Rome isn't as much about access as it is about image, prestige and telling viewers how important this pope was to Western New York. "This is a very Catholic and religious town," said Toellner.
The big three local affiliates all did news specials about the life and death of the pope, who had strong ties to Western New York for several reasons. They included his Polish heritage and the fact that an area woman, Ann Odre, was shot in 1981 when the pope was wounded in an assassination attempt.
Channel 2 pre-empted a repeat episode of NBC's "Will & Grace" Tuesday for a 30-minute special anchored by Demler from Rome. She ended the special with some personal observations.
"It has been an amazing and sometimes an emotionally overwhelming experience," said Demler, before heading to Channel 2 promo territory. "I'm so happy and proud to bring it to you in Western New York."
Ordinarily reporters don't want to become part of the story, but this was no ordinary story. Local and national reporters are sharing their experiences with the pope. Channel 2 replayed Tim Russert's poignant story about the day the pope blessed his son, Luke. Spotting a T-shirt with a Latin expression that Russert had made to get the pope's attention, the pope said: "Very nice, very nice."
Most of Channel 2's special was a recap of news stories that have run since the pope's death. The strongest piece was veteran reporter Rich Kellman's look at the pope's connection to Western New York. It included some shots of a much younger Kellman as part of a Buffalo group meeting the pope in 1987. It concentrated on the pope's positive achievements, including helping bring down Communism.
"He was not without controversy," added Kellman. But in keeping with the reluctance of all the local affiliates to give a balanced view of the pope, Kellman didn't deal with the controversies. It can be done without appearing disrespectful, as evidenced by a "Frontline" special on the pope and a Time magazine piece that ran this week.
On Monday, Channel 4 carried the lengthiest, most thorough and strongest of the three specials. At an hour with commercials, WIVB was able to devote enough time to veteran reporter Rich Newberg's exemplary past reports about the pope. Anchors Don Postles and Jacquie Walker also conducted live interviews with people who have met the pope.
Among the best storytellers was former county executive, Ed Rutkowski. He noted that his wife had come with some items that she had hoped to have the pope bless. Though she didn't bring them to his attention, the pope returned to her and asked, "are these items you want me to bless?' "
Postles also gave his personal reminisces about his coverage of the pope when he worked for Channel 7. Amusingly, Postles was also part of Channel 7's 30-minute special Monday. The special served as another reminder of how far the mighty have fallen. Anchor Susan Banks sat on a couch and was the host. The station quickly headed to the lead of the 1981 newscast anchored by Irv Weinstein the day the pope and Ann Odre were shot.
"The papal vestments run red with blood," intoned Weinstein. It was hard to know what was more surprising -- that the legendary anchor said it back then or that Channel 7 thought it was worth repeating today.
Almost as strange was the decision to have former Channel 7 reporter Steve Boyd, now an attorney, essentially serve as Banks' co-anchor. With Postles at Channel 4 and no veteran reporter like Kellman or Newberg on Channel 7's news staff, I suppose Channel 7 didn't have many options. Boyd covered the pope's visits to North America and he still has a strong television presence.
He and Banks both used their personal experiences to try and explain the power that the charismatic pope had over people of all religions. But Channel 7's best moment came with Banks' closing: "Pope John Paul II: A man of our times for all times."
Very nice, very nice.