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Friday, June 12, 2009

Trading Barbs

If there’s anybody who ought to master the art of plain talk, and expressing oneself clearly without bias or double speak, it should be a television broadcaster. If anyone should be able to deliver facts without prejudice, code, or sleight of hand, it should be the folks whose job it is to serve the public good, especially the higher-ups that determine who will gather and deliver the news that affects each and every one of us.

Ha ha ha! I make myself laugh!

I had one general manager who said he’d rather see us report a malfunctioning traffic light in Opa-Locka than ANYTHING pertaining to Africa. Yes, a total ban on Africa, a place that he claimed “nobody cared about”. Idi Amin’s reign of terror? Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid? Not for us! Libya’s leader is threatening to kill Americans, a promise he would keep? Sorry, but hey, I hear there’s an abandoned warehouse on fire somewhere in Hialeah!

(The running joke was “how many starving children have to die in Ethiopia before it makes the news?” Our guess was at least two million.)

One news director loved to point out that “only Cubans” cared about many of the stories we suggested. She would refer to Spanish-speaking as “locka locka locka”, and didn’t seem to grasp why big local sports stories sometimes became the top story of the day. All I can say to that is “locka locka locka, locka locka locka, locka locka locka…”

Double speak sometimes reigned behind the scenes, in the comings-and-goings of the station. Case in point: the departure of Barbara Sloan, one of the classiest people in the business. The 13-year veteran of WCIX and WFOR left for vacation, a few weeks before Christmas 1995. While away, she suddenly decided to pursue other opportunities – or at least that’s what everyone was told. Pay close attention to the date on this memo from general manager Allen Shaklan.

Click images to view them full screen

So in the days leading up to December 13, 1995, this “tireless worker who truly cared for the people in her stories” supposedly decided to move on. That means she would have informed the station of her intentions, and they would then have to search for a replacement anchor, negotiate with that replacement, draft a contract, and officially bring her aboard. Could Shaklan have been overly optimistic when he wrote “a replacement will be named shortly”?

Now fast forward 24 hours. Just one day later – ONE DAY! – came this memo from news director Neil Goldstein.

That was fast! A replacement anchor was found and contacted. Terms were negotiated, and agreed to. She accepted the job, and told her station in Denver she was leaving. What a difference a day makes!

Clearly, the official version of events, and the reality of the situation were two different things. Everybody knew it – especially after a Miami Herald columnist spoke to several of Sloan’s “colleagues” (no, I wasn’t one of them). The station wanted a faster-paced, “sexier” newscast, so her contract wasn’t renewed. It’s a tough business for women in their 40s. A good investigative reporter can stick around for a long time, but a lead anchor has to fit some preconceived, superficial mold. Things have only gotten worse in the 13-plus years since Sloan “left to pursue other opportunities”.

This is not a knock in any way on Anne Roberts. She did a fine job as Sloan’s replacement, and I enjoyed working with her. It’s also not meant as a knock on Allen Shaklan, who held that ship together through some very difficult times. The knock is on the game that managers play. It’s an insult to any intelligent person, yet I understand that’s the way it goes in business. And yes, news is a business. It’s not about reality. It’s all about illusions.

Congratulations to Barbara Sloan and Don Cox for raising two children, both now college-age. Kudos to Sloan for continuing to do production work, while also teaching high school English. For much more on Barbara Sloan’s thirteen years behind the anchor desk, please check out this link.

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