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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Too True To Be Good

This cartoon is from the 90s, but I think it's just as relevant today as it was back then. Click on the image to view it full size.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Say Seven?

Talk about going from one extreme to another! Before becoming the vanguard in slash-and-trash, if-it-bleeds-it-leads TV (ahem) “journalism”, WSVN (Channel 7 in Miami) was the tortoise/caboose/horse and buggy of local TV news. It was the old-fashioned, slower-paced, no-need-to-shout voice in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market. It was, to today’s “standards”, boring at times, but refreshing in several more important ways.

The Great Channel Swap of January 1, 1989 changed all that. With the station losing its NBC affiliation to WTVJ Channel 4 (which lost its CBS affiliation to our beloved WCIX Channel 6), long-time owner Ed Ansin had a choice: show old movies and tons of reruns, and go further back into the past… or reinvent the station as a sleazy mini-CNN, pushing the envelope at every opportunity to do so. We all know which path he chose.

Ansin had already hired general manager Joel Cheatwood a year or so earlier, so he had the right man to lead the charge. Cheatwood and news director Mark Toney turned Sally Fitz and Penny Daniels from even-keeled anchors into hyperbolic Chicken Littles; they turned the news area into the larger-than-life Newsplex; they turned every mundane police perimeter into some scary, better-lock-your-doors clarion call of doom (with Rick Sanchez proving the perfect person to spread hype and hysteria, through his amazing Crime Check segments). It was a freak show that every other news operation in town looked upon with equal amounts of scorn and envy. Scorn, because it violated every journalistic instinct. Envy, because all TV news people want to report stories that are larger-than-life… and every story that came out of the Newsplex was made to seem that way. And damn if the viewing audience didn’t eat it up. Oh my God, there’s a robber on the loose! And he’s heading this way!

(Breathless Sally and Frenetic Rick)

The videos that follow are from that moment in time before WSVN’s transition. They had started to loosen up a bit, but the Freak Show had not yet begun. Several past and future WCIX employees can be seen in this blooper reel, including Bob Soper, Jill Beach, Susan Candiotti (who didn’t even work for Channel 7!), and Mike Mason. There’s even a spoof of former Channel 6 Night Owl Movies host Big Wilson… plus then-Governor Bob Graham’s comedy debut. Don’t quit your day job, Senator! This is a rare glimpse into a time when the Three Stooges weren’t named Rick, Sally, and Penny. I hope this brings a big smile to your face.

(Look for Steve Rondinaro, Sally Fitz, Mark Wolin, Dave Willingham, Bob Soper, Bob Gilmartin, Stephanie Stahl, Steve Dawson, Denise White, Jill Beach, Wayne Fariss, Rick Sanchez, Susan Candiotti, Tom Brokaw, George Waldroup, Mike Mason, and others.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Devastation... And Celebration

(Click images to view them full screen)

My life changed on May 11, 1996.

One day I will talk at length about the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades. I will tell you about the way WFOR handled this horrible tragedy, and my role in that coverage. I will tell you what went through my mind, our reporters’ minds, and our bosses' minds. I will tell you why I was compelled to visit the ValuJet memorial in the Everglades, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. One day I will, but right now I’m not ready. This one still hurts, in more ways than one.

I do want to mention the remarkable dichotomy that was South Florida thirteen years ago today. On one side of town – the Everglades – family members gathered to ask how an airplane can simply disappear.
Disintegrate… into nothing. They asked police, reporters, cameramen, ANYONE, for information that just wasn’t there. And all around was this feeling of HELPLESSNESS. Nothing we could say, or do, could ease anyone’s minds. Nothing could change a thing. Flight 592 was lost, and out in the swamps that day, so was everybody. It was horrible, to say the least.

Twenty miles away, at what was then known as Joe Robbie Stadium, lefty Al Leiter was making history. After seven innings… make that eight innings… he was pitching a no hitter. One of our sports anchors (either Jim Berry or Joe Zagacki) made us aware of that fact, and as cool as the team’s first no hitter would be, we were secretly hoping he’d blow it. After all, how would we report it, without seeming insensitive to 110 lost souls? One out in the ninth! The crowd is on its feet, cheering. Two outs! While in the Everglades, pitch darkness. No news. No hope. Three outs! He did it! Al Leiter has pitched a no hitter for the Florida Marlins! Celebrate good times, come on! Ya-hoo!

In Joe Robbie Stadium, EUPHORIA! Out in the Everglades… desolation. Devastation.

(Click images to view them full screen)

If Al Leiter showed us anything that night, it’s that life goes on. It always does. But what a contrast.

There were hundreds of compelling stories in South Florida that day, that week. One of them was playing out, behind the scenes, at WFOR. On this, the anniversary of the ValuJet crash, I’m not going to dwell on the newsroom melodrama, or the many mistakes we made. I’ll get to that some day. Today I want to remember the 110 people who never made it to Atlanta that day. I want to remember the good folks that worked for ValuJet, oblivious to the practices of the airline (and its maintenance contractor) that resulted in combustible oxygen generators being placed in the cargo hold that day. I want to remember the face of one boy who lost his mother, and wondered aloud, ten years later, how different his life could have been. I want to recall the rescuer who broke down in tears, still traumatized by the helplessness he felt. And I want to invite you to join the Facebook group “Remembering ValuJet Flight 592” that I started a few months ago, not just for the loved ones of the victims, but for my own healing as well.

If you get a chance, visit the Flight 592 Memorial, off the Tamiami Trail. Be sure to bring some tissues.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dave's Not Here!

Dave Levine was a presence in the WCIX newsroom.

The words “Levine wrap” would bring trepidation to videotape editors. Chyron operators shuddered, when Dave would mention that he needed “pre-pro”. Apparently Dave didn’t get the memo that this was Channel 6, a place where reporters sometimes mailed it in. “Levine wraps” were production numbers, the way good reporter packages ought to be. Yeah, they were a pain in the ass to produce, but they were thorough. It was never spoken or officially pointed out, but everyone knew Dave Levine was our number one reporter. It was a distinction that he earned.

Few people remember this, but for two weeks in 1984, Levine was part of our first-ever co-anchor team. Barbara Sloan was on vacation, and Solon Gray had yet to be hired. With everyone else in town having gone to co-anchor teams, then-news director Larry Lyle decided to experiment, pairing Levine with Amanda Moss. The experiment went well, and a few months later, Gray was hired to share the anchor desk with Barbara Sloan. But it was the Levine-Moss team, together for just ten nights, which set the groundwork.

Dave Levine (right), with future wife Kathy Sciere (center), and former WNWS reporter Cori Zywotow (left). Click photo to enlarge it.

When Dave bolted for New York in 1985, it was big news at the station, and in the entire South Florida news market. Several members of the news department volunteered their time to produce the following farewell video, shown just once at Levine’s going-away party. While some of these outtakes had been seen in earlier news blooper reels, many others were created just for the occasion. Mixed in with the Channel 6 employees are a few friends (and well-chosen strangers) from the, ahem, competition. The video is more than twelve minutes long, which is why it’s in two parts. I feel it is well worth watching for all the old faces you’ll see, along with South Florida landmarks from 25 years ago.

Watch for Gail Anderson, Mike Medrano, Joyce Evans, John Turchin, Rod Meloni, Bill Retherford, Jay Burton, Jill Lovell, Solon Gray, George Buigas, Jay Held, Ralph Renick, Mark Jones (WTVJ), Barbara Sloan, Ed O’Dell (WTVJ), Marianne Murciano, Mike Mason, Jim Hutton (Miami-Dade police spokesman), Glo MacDonald, Ron Laffin, Renee Hagen, Dave Game, Andy Leopold, Fess Major, Dan Slade, Tim Woodberry, Mike Bradley, Nelson Milton, Gilberto Sarmiento, Carlos Lima, Elliott Troshinsky, Tere Halls, Maria Hernandez, Liz Moore, and lots more old faces. I’m on there too, spoofing Levine’s “Viva Cuba Libre” routine from an earlier skit reel. Fun times.

WARNING: There are sexual situations, brief nudity, and many four-letter words on here. If you’re easily offended, keep on reading, but don’t click the magic arrows.