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Victims of their own success

You've got to love Stefan Mychajliw. Certainly, you do if you think that sanctimony is one of the besetting sins of TV news -- and maybe all journalism -- these days. Here is a young man who has, in a short and eventually hugely popular career, found a way to become a problem to two -- count 'em -- local TV news departments.

He left Channel 2 News late last week in circumstances no one will talk about -- on the record or off. Whether he was fired, or merely resigned with shocking suddenness, is immaterial; his peremptory departure left enormous consternation in its wake. He had, after all, become a kind of symbol of WGRZ's theatrically aggressive Red Jacket reportorial style -- a style that, whatever else it has done, has lifted the station's news out of the doldrums, where it had lived so long that it set up a neighborhood watch.

Mychajliw had earlier been suspended from WGRZ. When he worked for Channel 7, he was fired for maintaining a Web site that sometimes chomped on the hand that fed him.

What I personally find lovable about Mychajliw (we've never met -- or talked) is his echo of an earlier racier journalistic era when reporters were happy to burn as many occupational bridges as possible in pursuit of journalistic advantage -- all the while maintaining a status among society's least respectable citizens (classic line from the film "Nothing Sacred:" "the hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn't elevate one of them to the depths of perdition.")

On the record, WGRZ News Director Ellen Crooke simply says that his aggressive style had nothing to do with his departure. Nor was that the only notable development from Channel 2 that had local tongues wagging last week. County Executive Giambra's decision to stop sending WGRZ invitations to his news conferences has been the subject of conversations all over town, on talk radio and elsewhere.

I talked to Crooke and county communications director Bob Koshinski and I found both genial about the other for obvious reasons: Both are scoring points they want to score.

The knee-jerk response from any journalist is a Howl of First Amendment Protest: You can't do that. Taxpayers pay for those events, so all news operations -- no matter how obnoxious to any administration -- have to be included as representatives of those taxpayers. When you do the people's business, you do it in the open. Etc. etc.

I've been on the business end of a disinvitation by NBC many years ago, which hated everything I wrote about their entire TV season -- and I know the absurdity of news sources trying to manage the press by pretending some outlets don't exist.

But when you talk to other Buffalo reporters and think about it, things are not quite that simple.

Channel 2 News has elevated itself to No. 2 ratings largely on Giambra's political corpse. There isn't a serious journalist in the world who can't -- with weariness and no small anger -- tell you stories about theatrical, megalomaniacal and obnoxious reporters kidnapping news conferences and making it virtually impossible for others to do their job.

Channel 2's anti-Giambra agenda isn't exactly news to anyone in the community, and other reporters tell you that it's not uncommon at all for "the people's business" to be held captive while Channel 2's ratings business takes precedence.

In an era of TV news downsizing, WGRZ's Red Jacket Theater has been a wildly successful -- and easy -- way to both beat Giambra black and blue and to elevate the station's popularity. The distinction between muck-raking and muck-making isn't always crystal clear.

And that's where Koshinski and the county executive's action has been -- I must admit -- more than a little artful. What they do, says Koshinski, is send Channel 2 news releases on all news conference topics and invite the station's follow-up questions. All they're excluded from is the news conference as theatrical ritual or social event or deadline fodder.

Do they also send Channel 2 transcripts of everything said -- or tapes of those news conferences? If so, you'd have to question the expenditure. If not, the county position has a major flaw in it.

Otherwise, what they've done hasn't been to cut Channel 2 off from information that is the people's business but rather blocked that station's access to deadline parity and to one of its highly successful stages for its Ratings Theater.


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