SHE KNEW what was wrong with us:
Too much blood and gore and not enough thoughtful reporting.
Most newspaper folk have heard those complaints for years, but coming from Phyllis Kaniss, they took on added credence.
She was especially hard on us for the way we report on elections. You could tell that by the title of one of her books: The Media and the Mayor's Race: The Failure of Urban Political Reporting.
That was an analysis of how newspapers and TV reported on the 1991 mayoral race in Philadelphia. Apparently not very well.
But as a media critic, Phyllis Kaniss commanded high respect from those she criticized, mostly because she did so in an intelligent, yet understated, manner.
Phyllis Kaniss, former assistant dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, died Friday of complications of cancer. She was 59.
One of Kaniss' major achievements was encouraging young people to become interested in politics through the creation of the Student Voices Project. Its aim was to bring political candidates into high-school classrooms and get the students interested in local issues.
"We have kids start by thinking about what issues they care about in their neighborhoods," she told a reporter for Penn Current Online in 2003. "Then we show them how the things that they would like to see improved are tied to who is running in elections and that government can make a difference about the problems that they care about."
Student Voices began at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and has spread to high schools nationwide. Candidates are encouraged to go into classrooms and talk with the students.
The 1991 election, the focus of Kaniss' book, was one of the more interesting in the city's political history. It began with eight candidates, including former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who had become a Republican to make the race.
He and Democrat Ed Rendell were supposed to go head-to-head in the general election, but Rizzo died in the summer. That left Rendell with an easy win over Joseph Egan Jr., the fill-in Republican candidate.
Kaniss lamented that TV stations, which relished the acerbic comments of Rizzo in the primary, lost interest in the race after his death.
"Because their stations seem more concerned with entertaining than information, reporters are forced to substitute glitz and sensation for substance, even when reporting about governmental issues and campaigns for local office," she wrote.
Phyllis Kaniss was raised in Oxford Circle. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in regional science from Cornell University.
For nearly 30 years, she taught courses at Penn on the media and urban politics and policy.
Kaniss' other book, Making Local News, published in 1997, was described by the publisher, the University of Chicago Press, as "the first comprehensive look at how the economic motives of media owners, professional motives of journalists, and the strategies of media-wise politicians shape the news we see and hear, thereby influencing urban policy."
The American Academy of Political and Social Science wrote on its website that Kaniss "was always bubbling with enthusiasm and energy. . . . Through her vision and effort, the academy grew in stature and visibility"
She is survived by her husband, Paul Wheeling, and two sons, Joshua and Max.
Services: 1 p.m. Thursday at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael Sacks funeral home, 6420 N. Broad St. Friends may call at noon. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
Contributions may be made to the University of Pennsylvania, Undergraduate Financial Aid Development, 634B Franklin Building, 3451 Walnut St., Philadelphia 19104.