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Monday, November 23, 2009

J.D.'s Power

He looks so confident, reporting for Fox News, with the world watching and listening to his every word. But that’s not the John Roberts that I knew. In fact, the guy I used to work with at WCIX wasn’t “John Roberts” at all. He was J.D. Roberts, formerly of Canada’s version of MTV. When CBS brought him in to anchor the news in Miami in April 1989, he was in a position of having to prove himself. Of having to show that the once long-haired Rick Springfield look-a-like could write, deliver, and understand hard news. It would not be easy.

(J.D. Roberts, rock 'n roller, in a video from 1987)

Critics liked to point out his youthful appearance. One even stated that Barbara Sloan looked more like his mother than his co-anchor, a statement that was both cruel and unfair. CBS had high hopes for the new hire, who was promoted incessantly on-air in a way that his predecessor, Jim Dyer, never was. It was clear this was a new age, and behind the scenes there was some kind of master plan for the young, upstart anchor. He just needed to get some experience, and learn what it takes to convince the public that behind the looks was someone who could be trusted to deliver important information. To deliver the truth. And to deliver good Arbitron numbers, of course.

Roberts had two huge things going for him: he both looked and sounded good. There were times he’d slip into Canada-speak, a la Peter Jennings. (It was Roberts’ misfortune that a turret explosion onboard the Navy battleship U.S.S. Iowa happened right after his arrival. His pronunciation – “Iowaww” – would have surely gained the approval of SCTV’s fictitious Canadian Corner hosts Bob and Doug McKenzie.) But if Jennings could say “shed-jule” instead of “schedule” and the public didn’t care, why should we humble 6’ers mind? Take off, eh.

We found out immediately that Roberts was smart, and not afraid to work. He was also a very fast learner. Hey, maybe this is going to pay off, after all! Unfortunately, he and his wife fell into a trap that awaits many newbies in Miami. The couple bought a house in Southwest Miami-Dade County, either in or very close to Richmond Heights. It was an area that looked real good, especially for the money, from the route that the realtor chose to take. What the couple didn’t see were the pockets of poverty very close to that enticing neighborhood. They did not see the blight and the street crime that most would feel was way too close for comfort. After falling victim to Miami’s mean streets, Roberts’ wife quickly soured on South Florida, putting a strain on the couple’s marriage. By the end of 1989, Roberts was seeing another woman – a Channel 6 employee – and the pair emerged from the shadows for that year’s Emmy Awards ceremony. To say it was a tough time in the young anchorman’s life would be putting it mildly.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I have a vague recollection of Roberts having to visit the emergency room of a local hospital, while we were working on the news series Heart Disease: Beating The Odds (which also featured reports by Healthwatch reporter Dr. Steve Greenberg). At one point I had the choice of postponing some interviews for the series, or going out and doing them myself – which is what I wound up doing (considering our time constraints). Roberts felt bad that his involvement in the series was less than what he had hoped. After the final installment of the series aired on Channel 6 Action News, Roberts read his on-camera tag, without thanking his hard-working producer (me), which was standard operating procedure at the conclusion of a news series. He later realized the oversight, and wrote me a note, which I’m about to share. It was a classy gesture. I let him know that I wasn’t angry. I got all the thanks I needed when the series won a Suncoast Regional Emmy Award, one year later, in December 1990.

A personal note from John "J.D." Roberts. Click image to view it full size.

Emmy award for the news series "Heart Disease: Beating The Odds". Roberts was not there to collect his award, having left the station a few months earlier. Click image to view it full size.

J.D. announces that he's leaving. Click image to view it full size.

Having reconciled with his wife, and understanding her concerns, J.D. Roberts put in his notice in July 1990. By September he was back in Toronto, and it seemed the network’s master plan had been foiled – or had it? After anchoring CTV’s morning newscast for a couple of years, it was off to CBS’ crown jewel – WCBS – and then on to the network’s evening newscast, serving as a medical reporter, chief White House correspondent, and—it was believed—the heir apparent to Dan Rather. OK, so that never happened, but Roberts was the back-up anchor of choice for several years, heading up the network’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the death of Pope John Paul II, and many other historic moments. Interviews with three presidents and live reports from all over the globe highlighted his time with the network. He’d come a long way from our little series about heart attacks that had caused so much trepidation nearly two decades earlier.

Roberts exited CBS, and joined CNN in February 2006, before finally landing at Fox News in 2011 as the network's senior national correspondent.  Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of network news knows the name John Roberts. But for those of us who lived and worked in Miami, there will always be a soft spot for the guy we came to know as J.D. I’ll always remember his reports from Hurricane Hugo, especially the “here I am blowing in the wind” shot that must have aired 100 or more times. Roberts is a bona fide Channel 6 success story, and I’d like to think that the experience and knowledge he gained while working in Miami has played a role in that success. If I helped him get there, even a little, then the hard work was definitely worth it.

November 1989: Roberts introduces a segment from our town hall meeting, “Abortion: The Bitter Controversy”, live from the auditorium at FIU. Click the button to play.