The year is 1972. The Rolling Stones are on tour across America. “American Pie” is the top hit on the music charts. Richard Nixon makes an unprecedented journey to China and 5 burglars are caught breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. In Seattle, my new home (having moved from the Washington, D.C. area) for about a year, 3 television stations dominate the area’s television marketplace, affiliates of the nation’s ‘Big Three’ networks: KING (NBC), KOMO (ABC) and KIRO (CBS). But KING was truly king, the most successful, thriving and influential television station in the Pacific Northwest, privately owned by the Bullitt family and presided over by the irreplaceable and unforgettable Dorothy Bullitt.
I was hired (with no previous broadcast experience but an infinite amount of curiousity and willingness to learn) into a newsroom filled with characters and fearless groundbreakers. Jean Enersen was about to become the first fulltime female news anchor in the country; John Raye the first African-American anchor of the weekend newscast; several other remarkable women who would become, by dint of gender association, my dearest friends. Robin Groth and Kathy Wynstra made up the entire roster of women reporters in a roomful of some 60 male reporters, assignment editors, photographers and assorted other managers. Almost everyone smoked and those, as we now know, likely smoked as well by their proximity to the rest of us. And the saltiest of the veterans – Don McGaffin – kept a stash of cheap bourbon in his old wooden desk in an impressively cluttered sty of an office. How he every found anything was a mystery then and remains one to this day.
The entire room was a classic picture of what most old newsrooms looked like: Old metal desks with old chairs clustered together…some facing each other, some in groups of four...all teeming with newspapers, piled high with old scripts, pens and pencils strewn around, old coffee cups, empty and half-filled soda cans, loose change, family photographs peeking through all of it. The entire room – probably no bigger than a couple of large classrooms – cast in a glow of green and beige under the glare of fluorescent lights hovering overhead and over an industrial strength greenish-gray carpet, already stained by years of use, impossible to clean.
But the prevailing identity of the KING 5 Newsroom and likely every television news operation in the United States was the ‘maleness’ of it all. Forget the furniture, the dirty carpet, the stub-filled ashtrays everywhere and the rickety chairs…ninety percent of the employees were men. It was very much a profession owned by, run by and staffed with men. With the exception, mentioned above, of a few female reporters who were at the beginning of this changing profession, all of the other women in the room were either secretaries to the managers or the one lone female librarian (who catalogued all of the news stories). I believe, remarkable as it seems, that the wonderful Linda Schmidt (the librarian when I arrived in 1972) is still doing that job to this day. Amazing. This was very, very much a man’s world and had been since the dawning of the television news era. As with the medical and legal professions and as with the ranks of Wall Street financeers, women in television news were rare indeed and not always welcomed into the ‘men’s club.’
Some other things that come to mind. On every desk was a typewriter…some electric, most not. Computers and cell phones were not yet part of the professional or personal landscape. We knew the word ‘computer’, but there were none in use in any newsroom in Seattle to the best of my knowledge. There were portable, large clunky ‘remote’ phones weighing at least 20 pounds, only to be used in the most dire circumstances. Most of us communicated from the news cars via 2-way radio and if we were out of range, in some remote spot covering a news story, we would resort to finding a pay phone along a road somewhere.
And oh yes….the teletype machine…the ever-present rings and constant sound of typing from the teletype room. It seems so antiquated now…and I suppose that it is. But it was a world of constant noise: the teletype (which would, in 1974, print out the terse: “Nixon resigns.”) the typewriters, the loud phones always ringing at someone’s desk, the shuffle of 6-ply paper being yanked out of typewriters, the yelling from one desk to another, the constant noise from the police and fire scanners…alerting us to the latest crisis. A sense of drama, excitement…a sense of being at the center of your city’s life. Noise. Noise. Noise. Incredible.
A world without cell phones, without computers, without Google, without instant access to information, without HD television, without plasma TV, without videotape cameras, without video screens, without digital editing, without TELEPrompters ! Reporters and anchors had to actually read from scripts in the early 1970’s. I wonder in hindsight how we did what we did. It wasn’t always pretty. But we did it.
To expand somewhat on the gender make-up of the television newsrooms of the 1970’s. It is in this particular area where, by comparison and the use of perfect hindsight, the biggest change of all in the profession of broadcast journalism can be analyzed. And it is remarkable to imagine what the gender landscape looked like less than 40 years ago. Some 60 men compared to perhaps half a dozen women, 2 of whom held the traditional positions of secretaries to the male managers.
To the best of my knowledge, there were no women serving as managers, no women news directors, very few women station owners (KING’s own Dorothy Bullitt being on of the few), no women anchors at any local station in the country until KING broke that tradition by naming Jean Enersen as the very first. There were no women camera operators, very few women directors or floor directors (KING again had one of the first directors and film editors), no women commentators or pundits as they’re now called. It was amusing to me and is still somewhat amazing to me that there was even a women’s bathroom in the old KING newsroom. There were no women in the radio division of KING back in the early 70’s. Robin Groth, Kathy Wynstra (who passed away in 2008), Jean Enersen and I all became friends and mutual supporters of one another by necessity. I don’t recall the atmosphere as ‘us against them’, but there was some tension in some quarters of this very male-dominated environment.
Assignment editor John Komen, once with the Tacoma News Tribune and Al Wallace were clearly not thrilled at having women in the room as reporters. And I recall that Robin, Kathy and I had to fight sometimes to cover the more serious stories that arose on a daily basis. I remember John Komen once remarking that we should all be home ‘making babies and breakfast’. These resistances and often unsubtle forms of discrimination, considered just bad form back then, are today considered illegal. But the words of sexual harassment and ‘hostile work environment’ were not part of the vernacular 30+ years ago.
1972 KING TV Staff
Some names left to right:
1st row: Julie Blacklow, Joe Witte, Don McGaffin, Jean Enerson, Jim Harriot, Charles Royer, John Raye, news director Norm Heffron
2nd: Kathy Wynstra, Martin Wyatt, Andy Reynolds, Robin Groth, producer Ron Holden
3rd: Bob Royer, Mike James
4th: Staff photographers
We – among the first generation of women in television news – were just thrilled to be there…whatever the price we had to pay. We largely ignored sexual innuendo…as long as were given a fair and equal amount of serious news to cover. Today, of course, the nation’s – and world’s – television news stations are replete with women owners, managers, news directors, photographers, reporters, commentators and editors. It is a profession more than balanced in terms of gender hiring.
Additionally, the racial make-up on a local and national scale is far more balanced. KING, in the 70’s had 2 African-American on-air employees, John Raye and Martin Wyatt and 2 African-American news photographers. We were considered radically ahead of national trends in hiring of non-white employees back then. Today, television newsrooms are acutely aware of the importance of hiring people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Discrimination laws, not even imagined back ‘in the old days’, are very much on the books and minds of employees and human resource experts.
But the KING of the early 1970’s was setting trends and making history in all of those areas. We were a room of men and women, black and white, not all of us from the Pacific Northwest and we even employed a couple of gay men. No one talked about it, but they were, indeed, part of the KING family. Discrimination was not tolerated by the amazing Dorothy Bullitt, not in any part of her life and certainly not in her newsroom. The only thing she had no tolerance for was small-mindedness, lack of fairness and an unwillingness to learn and push boundaries.
Twenty years earlier, the reporters would have been wearing hats with a ‘Press” card tucked inside. The place felt ‘old’, but it was alive with a new-found sense of purpose as television news was becoming as much a part of the local landscape as the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Jim Harriott (and soon Jean Enersen) were becoming nightly guests in homes throughout the Puget Sound region. And a group of reporters were already both awards and respect from the communities they were bound to serve. I walked into a room filled with accomplished men: Don McGaffin, Charles Royer, Bob Royer, Al Kaul, Mike James, Al Wallace, John Komen. And filled with comers: John Raye, Martin Wyatt, Robin Groth, Kathy Wynstra, John Lippman, Andy Reynolds, Joe Witte and me. I am looking now at a photo of that KING newsroom of 1972 (reproduced here). And the smiling faces of the news cameramen (all men at the time) guided by the unseen face here of the irrepressible and legendary Phil Sturholm, the standard-bearer of excellence in television news photography.
Phil, with his ever-present Mickey Mouse ears on his head, hovering over the editors in the cramped editing rooms, yelling, prodding, supervising and extolling his ‘wards’ (all of us) to do better, be better and to make sure the glue used to splice together the film did not break during the newscast. It was not until the early 1980’s that KING abandoned film cameras for the new technology of ENG equipment…videotape.
Phil – and KING – were among the very last holdouts nationally to adopt video cameras in lieu of the old CP 16R film cameras. Each day – for Phil – and for us was an opportunity to create a dozen little movies and he never much took to the ENG ‘idea’…a bellweather change for the direction in which TV news was about to head. Sturholm was a titan in all ways…big in stature, big in talent, big in his managerial style of tough love. To my great, good luck, he ‘took charge’ of me for my first full month on the air as a reporter…making me do well and do right and look good. His standards of excellence were tattooed into the minds and hearts of every single person in the newsroom … standards that would help set KING apart from its local competition and help establish it as one of the best and most reliable and award-winning news stations in the country…an accomplishment still in place today, despite the enormous changes in the world of broadcast news. Other ‘chief’ photographers have followed him of course…at KING and KIRO and KOMO…but none will every surpass his talent or the standards he required from everyone who worked under him.
Anyone who lived in the Pacific Northwest in the 70’s and 80’s must recall, with no small amount of nostalgia, the great, responsible, informative and highly respected KING 5 Newservice (as it was once known). Those were, indeed, remarkable days of serious news reporting, real investigations…responsible, committed journalism. When TV Newscasts truly delivered news. We who were privileged to be part of KING Newservice in those amazing times were imbued with a very real sense of obligation to the community in which we lived. The words and meaning of the First Amendment – the Freedom of the Press – were taken with great seriousness by all who worked at KING, all who worked for the indefatigable Dorothy Bullitt. It was her strong sense of duty to our community and her belief that it was not our job to be liked, but to serve the people that informed everything we did.
My memories of Mrs. ‘B’…as we called her…are most likely tempered somewhat by time and distance, but I recall her snow white hair pulled back neatly on top of her head, her tailored wool suits and her strong and tough demeanor. I think we were all a little bit scared, but also awed by her. Here was one of the first, if not THE first, woman in the country to own her own television station…and one of the first people of any gender to own a station and begin broadcasting a daily newscast.
Her office was on the top floor of the old, blue (KING blue she would say) building that occupied (and still does in a new iteration) an entire block adjacent to Aurora Avenue with Dexter Street on the other side. With so few women in the newsroom in the early 1970’s, Mrs. ‘B’ would make it a practice to trek from the top floor down to the KING newsroom to check up on everybody, but would always make a special effort to see how her ‘girls’ were doing. I recall on many occasions she would invite me and Robin Groth over to her big house across from St. Mark’s Cathedral and have dinner with us in the ‘tv’ room…a den whose walls were covered with the dozens of influential people she knew and had known in her remarkable life. Pictures with presidents, kings, prime ministers, celebrities, national news anchors and the like. She drink her white wine with abandon…and encouraged Robin and me to ‘have another sip.’ She always asked how the ‘boy’s were treating us…and I must say we were often less than completely honest about the disdain in which the women were held by men who could not understand what women were doing in a television newsroom.
Those stories are for another time.
I do recall on one occasion when Mrs. B came down to the news department and the venerable, inimitable Don McGaffin (the greatest investigative reporter ever to occupy a Seattle newsroom) had me pinned down on the floor and was straddling me. Mrs. B saw this…and it was too late for McGaffin to pretend he was not being overtly and inappropriately sexual…approached us, stepped over both of us, saying as she passed: “Ah…children!”
I also recall a story which may be just folklore, but I remember hearing it from Charles Royer or Don McGaffin. When new employees were hired at KING, legend has it that people were told they were ‘not supposed to live in Broadmoor. Rumor – likely fact – had it that there was a ‘covenant’ in place not allowing blacks or Jews to live there and Mrs. B did not want anyone associated with her station to be part of such a community. Whatever covenant may have existed disappeared by the 80’s…as my Jewish doctor and my Jewish ex-husband were both living inside that gated community. But such an opinion would have been consistent with who Mrs. Bullitt was, how she was raised, how she lived her life and how she guided her television station: With an unerring eye towards fairness, equality, decency and a deep sense of service to community.
The 70’s were the days of the ‘Boeing bust’, Richard Nixon’s resignation and the city of Seattle in its last gasps of being a ‘small town’. The highest buildings were the Smith Tower, the Space Needle and the old Seafirst Building…known with some affection as ‘the box the Space Needle came in.’ The television news stations – all of us – covered the issues and events with great and deliberate seriousness and commitment.
A deep sense of duty permeated every aspect of every day in the KING Television Newsroom of the 70’s and early 80’s. It was a sense of duty rarely discussed openly, but somehow known by all of us. There was a ‘beat’ system of reporting in effect…with almost every reporter assigned a particular area of responsibility: Bob Royer, Olympia and politics in general; McGaffin presided over the first of its kind consumer investigative unit “KING Call for Action” and he headed up most of the investigations focused on all manner of scandals in local politics and police corruption; Charlie Royer did commentary every weekday, a lost art and a sorely missed one as television stations, I think, have an obligation to offer opinions on every aspect of national and local interest; I covered local and state education issues for five years; Paul Boyd did additional political coverage; Lou Dobbs (yes, he WAS here in the early 80’s) covered business and economic issues before leaving Seattle to launch CNN with his friend Ted Turner. Others were assigned to issues north, south and east of Seattle and we covered the legislative sessions out of a deep sense of duty to our own constituents…our viewers. And another area of civic interest was born in the early 1970’s…crime reporting.
Seattle, in 1972, would gain some infamy as the site of one of the country’s most notorious serial killings in American history. This was the year of Ted Bundy. Both Robin Groth and I gained unwanted experience covering his murderous trail, interviewing the parents of a dozen dead young women…a story we would cover for years until his execution in Florida so many years later. Bundy, the handsome, bright law student, the man with the arm in a fake cast, the little brown Volkswagen, the slaughter near the University of Washington…Lake Sammamish…Tiger Mountain…all in memory now.
From Bundy to Green River 10 years later. I suspect I did more than 100 stories on the elusive Gary Ridgeway…a man whose name was in the lexicon of suspected killers, but caught too late to save what is believed to be more than 80 young girls and women. It was about the time of the arrival of the Green River killer that KING TV finally moved into the technological future of television news both locally and nationally. Finally…from film to videotape. I know we were one of the last stations in the country to make that switch. Phil Sturholm, our indefatigable chief photographer and the scion of all northwest and national television news photographers, had clung desperately to the use of 16mm film…and his old, reliable CP16 cameras. Phil held out for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was his deeply held belief that film had more of a ‘feel’ to it…was more authentic. He also believed that the time it took to develop film in the lab (KING had its own lab just north across the street from the newsroom entrance on Harrison Street) gave reporters and photographers and editors more ‘think time’…more time to be thoughtful about what elements were most important to that particular news story. He liked the time and discipline it took to ‘wait’ for the lab to develop the film and the time it took to actually splice together the story in the cramped and dark editing rooms. That said, there was almost nothing worse that hearing the nightmarish sound of a splice breaking apart from the reel during the newscast. Either the editor didn’t do a good enough job or the glue was old and didn’t adhere the film. Whatever it was, you could see your days’ work fall apart literally on the air. Phil and the editors would then scramble to the control room, grab the film and attempt to piece it back together before the end of the 5:00 news hour. KING, by the way, was among the first stations in the country to go to an hour broadcast and back in the 70’s and 80s, that hour – as was the 11:00 p.m. newscast – was filled with serious and accomplished news and information.
From the cumbersome and heavy old ENG cameras and recording units ultimately replaced all of the old film cameras though Sturholm never surrendered his CP16 or his smaller Bolex…and would continue to use them to film his hugely respected body of work done with the irrepressible Al Wallace. They were an amazing team, contributing stories not only to the KING 5 Newscasts but creating the hugely successful weekly show, “How Come?”…which ran for years.
But back to the transition from film to videotape. I cannot overstate the huge impact this move would have on the entire industry locally, nationally and internationally. While KING was the ‘new kid on the block’ in terms of using videotape and other new technologies to expedite the daily grind of covering news, KIRO stood alone and led the way into the future. Let me mention with no small amount of awe and a similar amount of skepticism the arrival of ‘CHOPPER 7’… the first news helicopter in the Northwest and so extolled by KIRO and its hated and loved news director – John Lippman – that it became an anthropomorphized member of the KIRO news team. Its presence was in every advertisement and every news promotion and every lead-in to every newscast at KIRO. It was, for all intents and purposes, a ‘member’ of the news team…a real personality. Chopper 7 actually ‘brought’ you the news and ‘covered’ the news and while it was flown by the amazing Clark Stahl for so many years…Chopper 7 was an extension of Clark and the entire KIRO news gathering team. If memory serves, it was one catalyst that helped launch KIRO as a serious competitor to the once and future KING. KOMO was already becoming a challenge to the dominance of KING. But with the arrival of Chopper 7…there were now – no doubt about it – 3 major local news stations in the Seattle market, the 12th largest (ranking 12th still to this day I believe) television market in the United States.
KIRO had also led the way in its use of ENG equipment as well…the acronym standing for Electronic News Gathering. The arrival of ENG and the departure of film cameras and the use of 16mm film to cover news stories happened at all of the local stations in the early 1980’s…KING being, as mentioned, the last holdout. The change catalyzed by this transition would, in effect, be like a 9-point earthquake on the Richter scale. It changed the landscape dramatically, decidedly and changed it forever. It only stood to reason that if news corporations are spending millions of dollars on all of this new equipment – the cameras, the tapes, the satellite trucks, the helicopters – they are going to use them to justify this enormous investment. Events could not be covered quickly, fed back to the stations instantly and broadcast, depending on the significance of the story, immediately into homes and offices throughout the region.
Stations did not have to be particularly selective any longer about the resources they were using. Film was expensive. Videotape was not. The blending of instantaneous satellite technology with video cameras and trucks to take reporters and photographers everywhere meant immediacy would replace some of the thoughtfulness that was part of the news gathering process in the previous decades. The early 80’s was, in my opinion and in the opinions of many other journalists and citizens, the beginning of what I once called ‘road kill’ reporting. Fires, shootings, explosions, any sort of chaos, traffic jams, traffic accidents, drownings, avalanches, missing people…all became fodder for the efficiency and expediency of the new age of television news. Additionally, computers are now critical to all of the news operations, replacing the old manual and selectric typewriters (I still own mine) and allowing for scripts to be written in the fields and sent back to the news stations. The real ‘communications age’ had arrived…and with it a series of small deaths of excellence in the quality of television reporting. The industry became a triumph of quantity over quality to some degree.
The purchase of those expensive, huge, cumbersone satellite trucks (which you see parked during any national or local news crisis throughout the world) meant that they had to be used as much as possible. Gas was cheap years ago and those trucks launched the beginning of the sometimes useful and often useless and notorious ‘Live Shots’.
These are the phenomena where you see the reporter standing alongside the latest crisis, fire, shooting, traffic accident, sports event and – occasional – important happening where a live shot is actually a good idea. The masterminds – the ‘news consultants’ of the 80’s and 90’s – convinced news directors that it was important for reporters to be at the particular location of a story, that viewers would be impressed and consider it timely to see journalists on location. Perhaps they were right. We were never able to really question these decisions. We just went where we were told to go. And did our stand-up opens and closes with a videotaped report in the middle.
It became absurd, of course, when reporters would be standing in the dark and telling us the event was going on behind them…even though it was impossible to see anything. No matter. We were there. In avalanches, flood waters, shootings, fires, accidents…whatever. The technology now seemed to be setting the agenda for the news coverage of the day. We covered what was ‘visual’…not necessarily what was relevant to the larger segments of the Northwest population. Did a fire in Burlington matter to the victims of fraud around the area? Did a shooting in Maltby mean anything to the people of Seattle? Did a mountain rescue in the Cascades matter to anyone but the worried family of the hikers? Doubtful. But it made ‘good tv’. The deeply important and material stories dealing with school policies, the legislative agenda, political or police corruption, white collar crime, city council agendas often took a back seat – and still often do – to the stories with good visuals. It is not easy to get ‘good pictures’ or intense emotion from the stories which required intense investigation and – more importantly – a lot of time to develop.
Another massive change to the television news landscape was the addition of several more hours every day of news programming. All of the local stations began adding morning news programs, noon news, another half-hour in the evening in addition to the traditional 11:00 newscast and weekend morning and evening newscasts. This, of course, meant a ‘bigger mouth’ to feed and it was easier to fill it with the quick and easier hits of daily fires, shootings, traffic and the like. The new technologies made it easier to shoot, feed back and go on to the next thing.
Additionally, because of the satellite technology and the ease of connecting one station’s daily chaos to another, local stations would feed their stories to CNN or the networks and affiliates could then choose from a daily smorgasboard of national news and plug it into their own newscasts to fill the daily newscasts. Why we needed to know about a small plane crash in Ohio or a fire in Texas or a carjacking in Illinois was immaterial, but it helped fill the hours of local news that needed filling. Viewers kept watching or at least their television sets were on and these changes went largely unremarked by the public the stations were supposed to be serving. Everyone had families and other things to consider. It was the responsibility of journalists to protest these changes and to argue for more and better news coverage, but we too had families to support. The 80’s turned into the 90’s and the stations still ‘looked the same’…much as they do to the present day.
One observation I recall distinctly back in 1995. OJ Simpson was acquitted of murder, but prior to the trial, I recall watching the infamous shot of him in his car, traveling the L.A. freeways with Al Cowlings in the car. I was sitting in my bedroom watching television. I remember seeing the television screen with 3 screens on it: One was Tom Brokaw talking about OJ’s travels, another corner had the NBA playoff game and the other showed OJ in his infamous white van. I remember thinking to myself, where are our priorities? What is this telling me? Crime. Sports. News. All at once, lest we miss something. I knew things in the television news landscape would never be the same. The ultimate ‘live shots’. It was a journalistic earthquake. The land never looked the same again.
Some thoughts about the good people who were part – and many still are – of the television newsrooms of the Pacific Northwest, in particular the stations I know best, KING, KIRO and KOMO. The Seattle television market is remarkable in so many ways, not the least of which is the remarkable staying power of some of the stations most familiar and long-serving reporters and anchor people. Jean Enersen is, of course, a novel unto herself. I have nothing by complete admiration for her intelligence, commitment and skills as a journalist. No one, arguable, has better served the people of the Pacific Northwest than Jean. She is as nice in person as she seems on television. That, incredibly, is a characteristic of most of the people we all watch and have come to know over these many years. Kathi Goertzen, now going through a difficult medical journey as she faces brain surgery for a fourth time, is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. Gracious, intelligent, committed. Likewise Dan Lewis and Dennis Bounds. And having worked closely with Steve Raible, there are not enough positive adjectives to describe this man, a devoted husband and devoted journalist and friend to all who know him. The incredible Joyce Taylor is a good friend of mine…and this amazing mother of two of the most beautiful children you will ever see is as sweet and funny and kind as she appears every morning. Always chipper, always happy to be there for all of us.
All of these people have been around a very long time and this is an amazing and altogether unique thing in the world of television news. Throughout the nation’s television markets, anchors and reporters come and go with regularity. But sometime about Seattle is different. It cannot be the weather that keeps these people here…though their presence in our lives makes our grays skies brighter indeed. These are our good and reliable ‘friends’. And you could sit down for a cup of coffee with any of them…and they would be as interested in your life as you might be in theirs.
Similarly many of the reporters themselves have spent decades bringing the news to all of us…another wonderful thing that has been somewhat consistent…and somewhat unchanged over these decades. Most of the main anchor people, as mentioned above, remain in place despite the massive technological changes around them. Reporters Linda Brill, Linda Byron, the intrepid Jim Forman are still at KING. Bryan Johnson, Keith Eldridge, Ken Schram, Molly Shen are still at KOMO. Karen O’Leary, Michele Millman, Bob Branom…just some of the stalwarts still at KIRO. There is, indeed, something comforting about the things and people that have not changed over the years. And there are still serious journalistic efforts being made by the reporters and anchors at all of the local stations. They are not as lengthy as they used to be…and local politics and the state legislature and local city council agendas remain largely unattended and go grievously under-reported.
Still…television is where most citizens get most of their news as the newspaper industry struggles. Television stations all over the country are trimming back their staffs on a weekly basis and I suppose the good news here is that the local reporting staffs remain mostly untouched by the deteriorating economy. My former colleagues are being told they are not getting raises, but at least they are not getting laid off for the most part. Once money-printing entities, television stations continue to earn money…just not to the capacity they once did.
Another enormous change in the industry is the stations ownership. KIRO, once owned and managed by the Mormon Church, was sold years ago to Cox Broadcasting, based in Atlanta. KING, originally owned and operated privately by the Bullitt family, was sold to the Providence Journal Corporation in 1990 I believe and the sold to the Belo Corporation some years later and is still owned by that Texas-based company. I believe KOMO remains the only privately owned station in the region, owned by Fisher Communications…the Fisher family. I do not know the exact data on the subject, but assume that perhaps no more than a dozen major corporations now own most of the local television stations in the United States. While profitability was always a necessity no matter who owned the television stations, it became a more significant driving force once the stations slipped out of local hands and once the stations had stockholders to answer to. And the loss of local ownership, I believe, had a resounding effect on the sense of accountability and ‘connectedness’ to the local communities where the stations were located. Local stations still cover local news, but with – I am certain – somewhat less passion that once infused all the local television newsrooms.
What has also been lost, even with the remaining familiar faces at the local television stations, is a sense of the remarkable history of the Pacific Northwest. There is very little institutional memory remaining as new and younger people come and go from KING, KOMO, KIRO and KCPQ. Most of the ‘elders’ are now gone, replaced inevitably by younger, brighter and less expensive ‘talent’. How could they know about Mrs. ‘B’, or the great Don McGaffin, or the former mayors, other elected officials, artists and great characters who are as much a part of this area’s history as the Space Needle, Boeing, Mt. Rainier or JP Patches. They do not know that Washington State had two of the most powerful senators in Congress simultaneously: the legendary Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson. Or about the Boeing Bust or Dixy Lee Ray. They may not even know that the Grunge movement was born here or that Heart…one of the first rocker girl groups on the planet are hometown girls. Or that the Smith Tower was once the tallest building west of Chicago. So much history…somewhat severed from the present by the influx of new faces, new technologies and a lot more time to fill.
Looking back over almost 4 decades of change in the world of television news, the changes in the broadcasting landscape are reflective and proportional to the changes in the literal landscape of the Northwest and in the city of Seattle itself. Almost forty years ago, the sign greeting travelers westbound on Interstate 90 read: “Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” And while we are all on unsteady ground with the uncertainty of the economy, the lights in Seattle have never been brighter and some would say they are much too bright. The Smith Tower, once the tallest building in the city less than 100 years ago, is now dwarfed by dozens of high-rise condominiums and office buildings. Cranes are everywhere putting up new and bigger buildings seemingly by the week. There is more of everything. More people, more traffic, more stores, more cars and – yes – more television stations and many, many more hours of news.
I do not have the answers to the problems these new realities create. But I do have a lot of questions about the profession in which I worked for more than three decades. With the quantitative increase in time allotted to television news, are we getting the quality of news we deserve and need? With so much more at stake, are we better informed than we were 40 years ago? Are we better served by the practitioners of the First Amendment both nationally and locally? Are we getting the information we need to make the important decisions we must all make? One of the questions I am often asked when the subject of the changes in television news arises is this: Who is at ‘fault’ for the deterioration in quality and substance in the world of television news? Why do ‘they’ put so much junk on the news? This is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ dilemmas. Which came first? Are the broadcasters creating the menu being served? Or is this what viewers want to digest? Great questions. What do you think?