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Star Wars

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 9/20/2000

Twelve years ago, I had major surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. So when Hopkins 24/7 began airing on ABC last month, I felt something more than civic pride. Strangely, the hospital I see on television looks very different from what I experienced. Sedated during surgery, I never got to see heroic surgeons in action. Instead of gazing upon patients bravely clinging to life, as the documentary does, I was a patient clinging to life. Most strikingly, the hospital I witnessed was a world of orderlies, techs, housekeepers, and nurses--especially nurses, who maintained all the tubes going in and out of me and who appeared in the blackest nights with morphine shots. Doctors fix you, but nurses heal you. In ABC's version of Hopkins, however, the latter are all but invisible.

As far as it goes, the series is outstanding, edifying television. I'll even provide this blurb, suitable for quoting: "An unblinking look at remarkable real people doing heroic work." That notwithstanding, ABC News was predictably selective in its choice of protagonists.

The series' one-sided coverage is jarringly at odds with the image-boosting "I'm a Hopkins nurse" ads that have run throughout 24/7. The spots, paid for by the hospital, are part of Hopkins' strategy for recruiting nurses amid a dire national shortage. A big factor in the scarcity of nurses (as detailed on National Public Radio in recent weeks) is the low prestige accorded the profession, a disregard now perpetuated by ABC.

"Nurses are the unsung heroes of health care--any patient knows that," hospital spokesperson Gary Stephenson says, explaining that Hopkins had "no role in shaping the message" delivered by ABC. "While we like the series very much, frankly . . . we are a little disappointed that they didn't focus more on the nurses," he says. "[Hopkins 24/7] certainly doesn't reflect an institutional view of nursing." The film crew "actually did follow some nurses around," Stephenson says; he ascribes the series' fixation on noble docs and patients to the medium's need for "expediency and drama."

But there's a consolation prize: Stephenson says that in January, the Discovery Channel will air a five-hour documentary series devoted to Hopkins nurses. Star WarsWho would you rather have as your next-door neighbor: Rosie O'Donnell or Dr. Laura? Who would you rather have as your mom? Your third-grade teacher? Your pal? So why would WMAR (channel 2) replace cuddly, warm-hearted O'Donnell with the new talk show starring that hysterical scold, Laura Schlessinger? To be sure, excessive exposure to O'Donnell can cause irritation--but Schlessinger is deliberately, elaborately irritating. Her popularity, methinks, springs from the same corner of the human psyche that finds highway wrecks and public hangings entertaining and informative. Schlessinger has made herself a name as America's leading gay-basher, but she is a proven ratings booster on radio. (Locally, her call-in advice show runs on WCBM [680 AM].) At the same time, however, Schlessinger's derision of homosexuality has cost her radio show some advertisers--most famously Procter and Gamble, which has in turn been excoriated by conservatives (such as WCBM's Tom Marr). The controversy came to WMAR's doorstep Sept. 11, when about 45 Baltimoreans picketed the station, denouncing Schlessinger's homophobia and challenging her credentials as a fount of advice.

O'Donnell's show, meanwhile, as been picked up by WJZ (channel 13). Promos for the talk show/personality cult feature a variety of smiley Baltimoreans telling the camera why they love Rosie, including two women who cry out, "She's family!" A colleague pointed out to this clueless columnist that the term "family" is commonly used as self-referential code in lesbian and gay circles. O'Donnell, although she has never addressed the matter publicly, is widely believed to be a lesbian, so my informant wondered: Is WJZ sending a coded message to attract gay and lesbian viewers, or was someone having a little coded fun with an ad producer? Neither, according to station spokesperson Liz Chuday, who reminded me that WJZ often refers to its audience as "the Eyewitness News family." "The viewers would be considered 'family' regardless of their lifestyle," Chuday says. "I'm really unaware of any double meaning." But, she adds, she'd ask around.Across the UniverseOver the last few days, City Paper has received a raft of calls and e-mails concerning The Sun's investigative bigfoot, Jim Haner. The missives came in response to the "Best Parallel Universe" designation accorded the reporter in last week's Best of Baltimore issue, and to an article titled "Favorite Son" in the October issue of the New York-based media magazine Brill's Content. Both the CP jibe and the Content story concern allegations that Haner has on several occasions fabricated or embellished incidents and quotations. "Favorite Son" writer Abigail Pogrebin quotes a number of sources (including a piece on Haner by Eileen Murphy, my predecessor in this column), but the article focuses on his most prominent accuser: David Simon, himself a former Sun bigfoot and now a nationally known author and TV writer/producer (Homicide, The Corner). Charges and countercharges fly, with Sun editors defending Haner and denouncing Simon (whom, they note, left the paper under unhappy circumstances in 1995). With the poop having just hit the fan and, as we go to press, still flying, there's no telling where it might stick. We'll have more to say on the matter in two weeks.

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