Ron, I appreciate your giving me time from your busy schedule to answer some
questions. What I would like to know more about is your leaving WMAQ and how
you got out of your contract.
Ron:We were able to convince them that the publicity might be more than they want. In the end, we came to a relatively pleasant parting over some circumstances that were generally unpleasant for everyone. Cooler heads prevailed.
Al: It seems that this whole debacle at WMAQ had to do with the role of the TV anchor and what the job description was to be beyond reading the news.
Ron:I think that was part of it, but it was more complicated than that. It was more of a subtext, but what really happened was we had a successful television station and a new general manager came along. In the corporate world, it was important that he put his personal stamp on the station. So rather than accept the successes that had been built previously and grow them, he wanted to do something dramatic. He believed putting Jerry Springer on the news would be dramatic. And what's difficult for people to understand is he genuinely believed that would be a good thing. Despite long backroom conversations with him, no one was able to dissuade him from that idea. The whole thing blew up, because of individual egos and the corporate structure, someone believing to be a big success in this company needed to do something really big and splashy-rather than maybe looking at the overall good.
Al: What were the ratings during this time?
Ron: I was told that the year prior to the Jerry Springer blowup, we had record revenue, record profit, and record percentage of profit. I don't see anything wrong with that picture.
Al: One would think that you wouldn't want to break up that team...it was like the Bulls of old.
Ron:The ratings were always competitive. During those years NBC and ABC always fought it out nose to nose. ABC won most of those years and was rated number one. NBC always made the argument that our demographics were better and at that time our audience was more upscale. We believed we had a better product to sell.
Al: The actual ratings aren't as important as the profit and bottom line.
Ron: That's what I thought. We thought we were producing a very good news product. You're right, there was a subtext that anchors are just supposed to do what they are told. They are supposed to read anything given to them and with anyone sitting beside them. I don't think you had to be around Chicago very long to know that neither Carol nor I were that sort of person. Neither Carol nor I believed at that time that we should run the station, but we did believe we shouldn't be made to look like buffoons in the process of doing our job. We thought they didn't have any right to make us look like clowns. That was the ultimate gut-wrenching question, and each of us was ready to quit pretty good jobs over that. Neither one of us had another job on the other end. It is a little scary to do that. It's a little scary to walk away from a job that you thought you might have for the rest of your life.
Hang on just one minute, I've been waiting for this call.
Al: How many years were you with WMAQ?
Ron: Nearly 17 years.
Al: How long had Carol Marin been there?
Ron: She had been there even a little longer than that, about twenty. Those numbers in themselves are rather unusual in broadcasting-to achieve that kind of longevity.
Al: Could you outline for me what you think the role of a TV anchor should be? You're more than a talking head, but you don't run the corporation. There is something in between those two; what is it?
Ron: I have always tried to answer that by saying that you might not win with a good anchor, but you won't win without one. We know having a good anchor is important to the structure. What's the anchor's job? The simplest answer that I can give you is that my job is to hold up the work of all the people in this newsroom and show it in the proper light. It's really not anymore complicated than that. Do you, as a viewer, accept me as a person, as a journalist, or as someone that you trust? Essentially that is what we do-we hold up the work and try to create an appropriate environment in which to show it. I think to be a good anchor you need to have been a good reporter and preferably still be a good reporter. You need to have been a reasonably good editor. You need to have a good knowledge of all the other things that go on around you: what do the tape editors do, what do the associate directors do, and so on. You need to know what all their jobs are so you can help give them what they need. If you are just a reader, just someone who read well, the rest of the professionals would make the anchor look pretty good. But it's a bit like someone who's a good amateur golfer being compared to someone who is a true professional. There is a world of difference in that last little bit when you go from a one handicap to a minus handicap. I think in every profession it's that way. When you get near the top, there is that last little bit that somehow distinguishes the best from the rest. The audience is usually able to discern that last little bit. They may not be able to quantify it, they may not be able to define it, but the audience is pretty perceptive in picking it out.
Al: What's going on with the rest of the newscast will feed into the audience's perception of the anchor.
Ron: Any good anchor would have a hard time working with someone who wasn't good and professional beside them. Fortunately, over the years and especially in Chicago, I have had the experience of working beside really good and professional people. What is hard to explain to people is, especially about the NBC blowup, I don't have any problem with Jerry Springer doing what he does. He can make a living and do any kind of show he wants to do. But when it comes to be introducing Jerry Springer as a commentator, that's where my credibility goes on the line. I'm not willing to share that with him.
Al: You certainly said that to management, didn't you? And what was their reaction?
Ron: Oh sure. I think management was so committed to their course that they didn't want to hear anything else we were trying to say.
Al: They knew that either one or both of you were going to quit over this issue?
Ron: They knew that clearly from early on in the game.
Al: Can you tell me how long the game was?
Ron: From the first time we heard the Jerry Springer rumor till the time it blew up might have been six months. Cooler heads never did prevail. Sad. Sad.
Al: Would that have been something that would have decided in New York at corporate?
Ron: I don't know what kind of corporate falderal got played, I really don't know whether they left the decision to the local general manager or whether someone had to sign off on it somewhere else. One never really knows. I really was prepared to retire at that time. I had a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't know how much I wanted to get in there and fight for local TV anymore based on my bad experience. I took some time off and there were other job offers in other parts of the country, but I didn't want to consider leaving Chicago. The general manager here at WLS called me and said there might be something that we could work out. While I was thinking about it, ironically, I went to a journalism event and John Drury happened to be there. Drury took me aside and said, "I keep hearing that you might work for us. I want you to know I think that would be a good idea." That sort of tipped the whole thing over for me, and it has worked out well.
Al: If the NBC thing with Springer wasn't workable, the WBBM alternative with Carol Marin didn't fly. There has to be something between those two.
Ron: I wouldn't look at the experiment that WBBM tried with Carol as the perfect model. I think there were many mistakes along the way. They presented themselves in saying that they were going to be the only people doing the real news and were going to do it right. They weren't the only people trying to do real news. There were a lot of people trying to do real news in different ways. The first mistake they made was forgetting to do television. They made the news pretty dull. They forgot about graphics, they forgot about pacing the newscast, and they forgot about pacing stories. You still have to work hard at doing a good newscast. You can't just say here's the news and you better like it. I don't view that as the model at the other end of the scale.
The model is still being worked out. We fight about the model every day. The wonderful thing about the business in which I work is that we try to figure it out everyday. We know we make mistakes everyday. We try and learn from mistakes and from the things we do well. We are always a work in progress. The best example of this is after September 11th. We had to again rethink what it was that we do and how we present it. That tragedy affected local news in a positive way. The next sweeps period had much better ratings. We haven't seen the goofy stories that tend to get done during sweeps periods. Local TV recognized that this is a slightly more serious time, and maybe we had better reexamine what we do. I hope we have reexamined it to the point that we won't go back. That is just an example of how the work is always changing. Sad that it took a disaster of that magnitude to get us to move a couple of inches, but I am encouraged by the inches and the movement.
Al: Did Springer ever contact you?
Ron: No. I have only talked to Jerry Springer maybe three times in my life. When he came and first started taping his show in our building at NBC. I passed him in the hall one day and he said, "Hi Ron, Jerry Springer." I said, "Hi, Mr. Springer, how are you?" He leaned over to me, and he said, "As a newsman, I just want you to know that I know I'm going to hell for this someday." And I laughed and walked away. Clearly, he even knew then that what he was doing was distasteful. He had been a newsman, and I guess he wanted to say that to another newsperson. I found it amusing. Never spoke to him again until he came in to present one of his first commentaries. At that time, I was fighting to get out of my contract, and he knew it. I had said I would not introduce him and wouldn't be on the set with him. The way they had it planned was that they would go to a commercial break, I would leave the set, he would come in, they would have Allison Rosatti introduce him, he would do a self-contained segment, and at the commercial, he would go away. Then I would come back. When he came into the newsroom before the newscast, he walked over to me and said, "I just want you to know I hope this will go OK." He held out his hand, I shook his hand. I said, "I just want you to know we can both be professional about this. I won't be here for your segment, but I'll be professional." I have only seen him one time since then, it was passing on the street. He said, "How are you?" I said that I was fine.
Some think that TV news has become too sensational and entertaining and not
When I first got into television and we interviewed someone, the sound byte that we used in a newscast typically was a minute or two minutes long, now sound bytes are fifteen seconds long-that is a pretty long sound byte. But we have learned to use sound bytes in the same way that a newspaper uses them. They don't go on forever, newspapers do exactly what we do. When the criticism comes of television just being sound bytes, most journalism is that way now. It is up to the reporter to do the feel of the story and that may be based on the sound byte or it may be amplified by a sound byte, but the story isn't the sound byte.
Al: Isn't the sound byte just the hook to make you stay with the newscast?
Ron: Sure and newsmakers and politicians know now that they can frame their message by giving it an appropriate headline and the headline is the sound byte. You will often see what we think of as the most important sound byte from the interview as being the headline of the piece or the lead story of a piece. Newsmakers know what they are doing in terms of getting their message out.
Al: There was a report
that management at CNN told its reporters and anchors to preface war reports by
reminding the viewer that the war was the result of 9/11. Has anyone at ABC
instructed you how to handle the news related to the war?
Al: If you knew where bin Laden was and he wanted to give you an interview, would you interview him?
Ron: I would say I would love to do the interview and so long as there are no preconditions, we won't submit questions, we won't agree as to what will go on the air, I would like to do the interview.
Al: Some in the media question whether we should give the enemies that kind of access.
Ron: I'll make the decision as to what he says is newsworthy, but I do want to do the interview. The best example of that for me is years ago in San Francisco when the famous Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, had been released from prison. He had written a best selling book called Soul on Ice. We did an interview with him in San Francisco for one of those Sunday morning interview shows. The interview lasted half an hour. We taped the interview on a Friday. In the course of the interview, Eldridge Cleaver said the FBI has a systematic plan to eliminate the Black Panther Party. Now, remember at that time the head of the FBI was J. Edgar Hoover, and there was a very popular show on TV called "The FBI" with Ephraim Zymbalist Jr. The FBI was a revered institution in the country, and we had to debate whether we were going to allow this statement from Eldridge Cleaver to go on the air. We debated long and hard...Friday and Saturday. Sunday morning came, and we decided to let it go on the air.
I am very proud that we did, because I do believe what Oliver Wendell Holmes said many years ago that truth is more likely to be found from a multitude of sources than from any authoritarian choice. I don't want to be the single person who decides what you get to hear or see-within the bounds of taste and decency. If I have information, I think it is probably ok for you to have it too. And then you can decide whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. You can reject it on your own. You don't want me deciding for you whether it is good for you to see or hear this or that. I likely would put part of Bin Laden on the air. As it turns out, what Eldridge Cleaver had to say was true. The FBI did have a plan to eliminate the Black Panther Party. I was stunned by that years later when it was confirmed. To this day, I am very proud that we did put that on the air. It's much more difficult to sit on stuff than it is to broadcast stuff. The hardest decision in this business is what are you not going to report, because I really believe more is better-the American public is better at making the choice. I think it is important that you have information and that it be part of your decision making process.
Al: That reaffirms our sense of democracy.
Ron: Al, what we are accused of most in the media is not that we lied, but that we somehow missed the point. The calls I get most frequently are that I missed the point on that story. In speeches, I give a little example. If we say, "The Chicago school board made a deal with teachers; there will be no strike this fall. Teachers are going to get a 2% pay increase." I'll get a call from a teacher saying that I missed the point of the story. Point of story is that the teachers are going to get a pay increase that won't keep pace with inflation, and that they have been underpaid for years. For the caller, that was the real point of the story. I'll get a call from a school board member who will say that I missed the point of the story, because teachers had asked for ten percent ended up getting only two. The board slashed their pay request by eighty percent. Again, I missed the point. Then I'll get a call from a homeowner who tells me that I missed the point of the story because his or her taxes are going up again. So what looked like a simple straightforward set of facts isn't, depending on your perspective. There is an old adage that goes, "the farther you are from a news story the more you will believe the news coverage, the closer you are to a news story, the less you will believe the news coverage." And that is a truism. If it is your ox getting gored, you notice it.
What a journalist is supposed to do in the best of all possible worlds is to report all those perspectives and let the viewers sort it out. If you can't do that, you try to give context to the battling perspectives-although you may not present them all. On a good day you do a story and you get calls from two or three different people who didn't like it for different reasons and then you're probably somewhere in the middle.
Al: Ron, now that the WMAQ blowup is behind you, and you have reestablished at WLS, what are your professional goals?
Ron: I just want to do the best newscast that we can do tonight. It is going to sound very simplistic, but the truth is from the first time that I had a job in television in Eugene, Oregon when I was 21 years old, I thought that I would stay there until the end of my career. I have worked several places since, but in each place, I thought the same thing. I really didn't want the next job. It happened, and they came along-things sort of evolved. I like my job; I enjoy doing it. As long as I enjoy doing it and I have fun with the people around me, I want to keep doing it.
Al: New York?
Ron: I had the great good fortune to be able to say no to ABC, NBC, and CBS before I was twenty-five-years-old. I didn't want to live in New York, and I didn't want to be a correspondent on the road. I really like this; I really do. I don't want to do this anywhere else. When I left NBC, my first thought was to retire rather than face the possibility of working in another town. I love Chicago, and I want to stay here.
Al: What insight about life have you discovered that you could share with my readers so that they don't have to reinvent the wheel for their life?
Ron: I really think that especially as a young man I didn't have an appreciation for the learning process in life. I thought by the time you got through school and by the time you got a job and had a family that was pretty much it. Now, I realize that you can learn every day-no matter how long you live. The scariest thing to me is I don't have to look back very far, usually only about a year, to be able to say, "You know, I didn't know as much as I thought I did." That is both enlightening and frightening to me, because, as I sit here now, I know I'm going to look back a year from now and say, "When I was talking to Al, there was a better way to express that." It is a little bit like that line about any picture you take of yourself today could potentially embarrass you in ten years. I am grateful to finally have reached a point in life that I realize that it is a process and that every day is an essential part of the process. I need to take everything I can out of this day. It will mean something tomorrow. It might not mean much to me today, but it will mean something tomorrow.
Al: Gene Siskell used
to ask those he interviewed what movie the person liked. His explanation was
that the question disarms the interviewee and is a very revealing insight into
that person. My favorite question is, "what do you want written on your
Al: My next question is one that I am also trying out for the first time: if you had been somebody else in another life, who would that have been?
Ron:A scullery maid.
Al: A scullery maid?!?
Ron: No, I'm serious, it has always been one of my pet peeves that when people get some insight to their past lives they were always a king or a prince or a philosopher. I have always said you know some of us were scullery maids. I have used that line for years.
Al: I know that you love and raise horses. Where did you acquire that avocation?
Ron: I grew up in an area in rural Washington so I was always around farms. When I was in high school, near Yakima, Washington, a thoroughbred racetrack came to Washington. Friends and I used to go to the races. In 1990 some circumstances came up where I knew some guys who were in a partnership who were going to buy a horse and it seemed a good way for me to be able to learn the business through a partnership and be involved with other people than be stuck on my own. I have done it ever since and loved it. I still race and I still breed and I still sell thoroughbreds. I am involved in all aspects of the industry, in a very small way, but I really love it.
Al: Will you tell my
readers about your wife and family?
Al: I really appreciate your giving me this interview. I would like to know why you were so willing to do this for me?
Ron: I'm the only guy you have talked to in years who would have known most of the words to the Wolverton Mountain song. I played records when I was a kid and could probably sing most of the songs. I was intrigued by your Internet address and web site and I wanted to find out what was going on.