About This Blog

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On The Basis Of Race…

Eliot Kleinberg and I were friends at Miami’s WNWS Radio. He was a news editor; I was the chief board operator, assigned to the morning shift (which meant making sure everything ran smoothly for AM news anchors Prescott Robinson, Steve Daily, Dave Steele, Jack McCoy, Frank Lasko, and Shirley Peters). Kleinberg and I have not seen each other in 29 years, yet we have much in common. You might say that our paths have since crossed, even though it’s been nearly three decades since they actually have.

Kleinberg was one of the funniest guys at WNWS, but his greatest lines came while playing the straight man to our morning field reporters. One time Joe LaPorte filed a report about average folks’ New Years resolutions, one of which involved a guy who vowed to “stop buggering sheep”. It was Kleinberg who had to interrupt LaPorte, and ask him if he knew what buggering sheep meant. Thanks to Kleinberg, that off-color remark never made it to air. But for all of his off-air saves, Kleinberg managed to pile up a few adversaries at the station. One of them would later become a major figure at WCIX Channel 6.

(Joe LaPorte on the left; Eliot Kleinberg on the right. This photo was taken at the 1979 WNWS Christmas party, ironically at General Manager Dick Casper's home)

WNWS was a lot of things, but “diverse” wasn’t one of them. By the tail end of 1979, there were but two employees of Latin heritage working at the station: reporter Marianne Murciano, and Omnis Acebo, who I think worked in the traffic department (it’s been a long time). Murciano left to go to Channel 6, and after a while, Acebo left as well. You just don’t operate a radio station, or any business in Miami, without Latino employees. It made general manager Dick Casper nervous, and rightfully so.

Instead of addressing the problem through smart hiring and inclusive policies, Casper’s knee-jerk reaction came in the form of a mandate to Charles Kappes, our beleaguered news director: fire two Anglos, and replace them with Latinos. Plain and simple.

Now this isn’t mere hearsay. Kappes, a former WCIX news producer with scruples and integrity, was not happy about the mandate, especially when it was decided that the guys on the chopping block were me and Eliot Kleinberg. Kappes, who had always praised my work and had recently expanded my role, threatened to quit over it. No, DID quit over it, until Casper talked him out of it. I have the proof, thanks to an inside source who got their hands on a copy of Kappes’ resignation letter. I have never gone public with this until now.

(Click image to view full screen)

“Either I fire Jeff Lemlich on the basis of race, or I resign. Neither is a tolerable choice. Nevertheless it is one which must be made,” wrote Kappes. He went on to tell Casper, quote, “you suggested I find another ‘Anglo’ we could dismiss. That, of course, is precisely why I am so disturbed. The basic idea of either hiring or firing based on Race or Condition is an abomination to me.” The letter was dated March 17, 1980, the same day in which Kappes called me in, and fired me. And did the same to Eliot Kleinberg.

Now I could have sued – and won. This was a clear case of discrimination. But instead, I opted to move forward. Several WNWS co-workers put in a word for me around town, and in the next few days, I had job interviews at radio stations WKAT and WGBS, and television station WCIX. The latter was looking for a Chyron operator, and at the time I had no idea what a Chyron was. But I passed the typing test, and that--along with the recommendations of both Prescott Robinson and Larry Wallenstein--was good enough for Dick Descutner (WCIX news director), who told me I could start the following Monday. I did.

(Sadly, Charles Kappes died just two years later, at the age of 40. As a wheelchair-bound man who’d been in poor health for some time, he understood, and naturally loathed discrimination. I would encounter Dick Casper again, nearly a decade later, when he visited Channel 6 as Ralph Renick’s agent. He came up to me, and simply said, “It looks like you did well for yourself”. I did not thank him.)

(Click image to view full screen)

Eliot Kleinberg got an on-air reporter’s job in South Carolina, and in 1982 applied for a job at WCIX. Now remember, he had his detractors from his time at WNWS. One of them allegedly intercepted the tape, and in an effort to make sure Kleinberg was not hired, told news director Descutner to look, instead, at the anchorwoman on the tape--the person who introduced Kleinberg’s report. With his attention diverted, Descutner focused on the brief snippet of this pretty young anchor, and decided then and there that she, not Kleinberg, would be offered a job. That anchor’s name? Barbara Sloan.

But don’t weep for Eliot Kleinberg. He and I both have something else in common: we’re both authors. With nine books to his credit, a track record at the Palm Beach Post, and success on the lecture circuit, there’s no turning back for him. Sometimes getting knocked down just makes us stronger. Sometimes things, for whatever reason, just seem to work out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just found your site.Hard not to cry. William Kappes,32309, Charles brother. Thanks.