Television Is Only Entertainment, Says New Post-Dispatch Critic

Article excerpt

When the St. Louis Journalism Review first asked Gail Pennington if she would be available for an interview, she laughed.

"I'm not a deep thinker," she said. "I don't sit around contemplating the navel of television."

In a way, that is what makes her interesting.

Most television critics believe that television is a vast wasteland. Some even see it as a cancer on the American soul. Pennington does not. She sees it as vastly energetic, amusing, informative, fascinating and often satisfying.

Last July, Pennington was named the full-time television critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For a year before that she did the job on a part-time basis while the Post searched for Eric Mink's replacement.

To some people's surprise, Pennington's light touch and amusing prose were well-received. Her stubborn insistence that television was nothing more than entertainment -- and should be judged on its own terms -- seemed to endear her to the Post's readers. She wasn't highbrow; she took television seriously but in a way the average viewer could appreciate. Finally, her editors gave her the job.

Pennington, 45, is a graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. She worked briefly for the Miami Herald, the Clearwater Sun and the Suburban Journals before joining the Post in 1974 as a copy editor. She rose to the position of assistant features editor and, in 1985, she became the editor of the Sunday television magazine.

Pennington grew up in a small town in southern Arkansas. "We ate fried bologna, all that stuff," she says. In college, she thought of becoming an intellectual. But she wasn't comfortable with foreign movies and deep, meaningful stuff, she says. You get the sense that she decided to go back to her roots, to honor the culture in which she grew up. Today she calls people who look down their noses at television "snobs." But she says it with a smile and the remnants of a soft southern accent.

SJR: What are the differences and the similarities between you and Eric Mink?

PENNINGTON: Eric is one of my best friends -- I miss him every day. I thought he did a fabulous job, but we couldn't be any more different. Eric is a very deep thinker. He likes to do analysis. He likes to do interpretation. I see television as an entertainment medium and I like to write entertainingly about it. I think the thing most people want to know from me is what's good and what's bad.

SJR: What are the similarities?

PENNINGTON: I don't know that there are any similarities. The only similarity that I can think of is that we both watch television. But I love television and I'm not sure Eric loved it to the same degree I do. If I weren't writing about television, I'd still watch a lot of TV. I've always watched a lot of television.

SJR: How difficult was it to replace Mink?

PENNINGTON: Well, you know, I didn't get the job when Eric left. The paper advertised for a media critic and they received a lot of applications. But there was a hiring freeze that worked to my advantage. I said: "Let me try it, let me do it my way, that is, write about television as entertainment." And they said: "Go ahead and start and let's see." At first, I was doing all the watching on my own time, which the Guild wouldn't have approved, but I saw it as a kind of try-out. And, almost immediately, I started getting favorable responses from the public. You know people are a lot more likely to write or call when they dislike something -- all my letters were favorable. I got almost no negative mail or calls. And then my bosses started hearing that people like what I do.

SJR: Why do you think the public response was so positive?

PENNINGTON: I think I connected with them on a level that was interesting to them. They want to know what's good; they want to know what to watch. There are a lot of channels out there. It's difficult for them to sort it out and they appreciated that I told them briefly what was good and what was bad. …