Don’t Touch That Dial!

One TV news show doesn't cover car wrecks and 7-11 holdups, and, what's more, it's run by a woman.

March 1973By Comments

I ALWAYS NOTICE LOCAL newscasters’ hair. Nothing is out of place; it is long enough and short enough; it never moves. I have the impression that newscasters’ hair styles are molded in plastic and the poor guys pull them on like a football helmet before going on the air.

And who are these men who claim to tell us what’s going on locally? Where do they come from? Night after night they appear, flashy in double-knit suits and striped shirts, yet grim and concerned of expression, stentorian in vocal range. The beginnings of each broadcast are positive and incontrovertible: “Good evening, I’m Ruddy Dudd and this is the news.” Then follows a litany of freeway crack-ups, 7-11 stick-ups, and banquets given in honor of the mayor.

The management of commercial television stations, caught in the necessity to compete for both advertisers and viewers, learned long ago to treat their news show like any other show—as a product. If an anchor man’s ratings slip, they ship him out, shove in a replacement, and start promoting this new “personality” like crazy. We see him heralded in billboards along the streets, in large ads in the newspapers, and in commercial spots on the station which hired him. We see him typing frantically, jabbering on the telephone, leaping into mobile news units. Meanwhile, a voice-over tells us that this man spends his every waking hour in search of all the truth that can be found out there on the grimy streets of Metropolis.

On the air that night he appears once again as neat, clean, and shining as ever and with hair-helmet once again in place. Didn’t the awesome demands of daily truth-ferreting put one speck of dirt under a fingernail? Didn’t leaping into mobile van after mobile van put one crinkle in that stiff collar? And how many hours of dogged investigation did it take, how many powerful toes needed to be squashed, what burning sense of public mission was necessary, to bring us this film of a warehouse fire down on Third Avenue? If these men are telling us everything they know, do they know anything worth telling?

Aware what a drop in ratings can mean for his future, the local newscaster soon learns that his job is not so much to report the news as to sell it. And some news is easy to sell, some isn’t. In a recent broadcast on Channel 8 in Dallas (the station whose local news has the most viewers in that market) three of the first four stories concerned fires, two in Dallas and one in Pryor, Oklahoma, a small town only 335 miles away. The lead story that night gave the lowdown on a collision between a car and a truck.

But that same night a different local news program used a lead story about the Fort Worth Housing Authority, a subject which on the surface might seem unpromising in the extreme. In some ways it wasn’t even a story in the sense that a fire is a “story”. The Housing Authority’s funds had been cut in Washington, a decision covered long ago in the newspapers. Despite the cut, the Housing Authority was still obligated by law to provide housing for whomever qualifies for assistance. Again not a “story”.

The program, however, told viewers what the combination of those two bits of information meant. Since the demand for housing was increasing, a reduction in funds meant that the Authority had no money left in its budget for maintenance and repair. Tenants were left helplessly to watch their dwellings erode about them. Here was a significant story, one with considerably more importance to life in north Texas than a fire in Oklahoma. And it was a story the reporter hadn’t found by merely tailing a siren.

The reporter was Bob Ray Sanders. He works for Newsroom, a program carried on KERA, Channel 13 in Dallas, the local Public Broadcasting Service station.

A person seeing Newsroom for the first time may find himself a little confused if he is used to watching only local news shows of the garden variety. He will see no anchorman squeezed behind a tiny marquee. Instead there will be eight to ten reporters seated around a large six-sided grey table where they read their stories, not straight into the camera, but to one another. Most of them are young, looking to be just shy of 30, and they include a mixture of types that are noticeably different from the newscaster mold: a few sort-of-long hairs; two blacks; a Mexican-American; three women who, one discovers as the show progresses, are not paid to prance and pucker beside a weather map but to report the news.

In fact there is no weather report at all, no regular sports report, no stories on fires, robberies, or traffic accidents, no routine film clips of dignitaries arriving at the airport. Photographic coverage may be film or, when the situation warrants, a series of still photographs. Even the viewers can get into the act. During the show members of the audience may call in with whatever comments, questions, or vituperative tracts that night’s broadcast has provoked. As many as possible are read on the air at the end of the program.

This format has been essentially the same since Newsroom’s first broadcast on February 16, 1970. Its producer and editor at that time was Jim Lehrer, former city editor of The Dallas Times Herald. Lehrer was familiar with San Francisco’s Newsroom, public television’s first adventure in covering local news on a regular basis. That program, begun in September of 1968, was conceived with the idea of not competing with commercial news media but complementing them. Instead of police blotter reports, it offered broad, hard-hitting coverage of local events and issues. The reporters tired by the show, a strange combination of young, hip types and crusty city desk denizens of the nose-for-news-and-a-stomach-for-booze variety, suddenly found themselves not only on TV but also on a program that was encouraging them to snort and rip. They had a field day. They found that live interviews and spontaneous comments on television didn’t bring Western civilization crashing down about them. Their coverage of a drunk policeman who killed a black man caused such furor that a trial ensued, and their coverage of the student strike at San Francisco State was unmatched anywhere. San Francisco’s Newsroom became, if not the toast, at least the talk of the town.

Lehrer felt that a similar program was needed in Dallas. He wrote a proposal for the project, helped obtain a $500,000 dollar grant from the Ford Foundation to support the show for one year, and hired the original staff.

Dallas residents who bothered to catch that first broadcast saw Lehrer, dressed in a conservative business suit, sitting in the middle of a circle of desks, the style of which was later described by one of the reporters as “early loan shark.” Behind the desks sat the strange group of mavericks Lehrer had assembled. There were bearded men, long haired men, a Jewish man, a black man, and three women. Some of them had more than 20 years’ reporting experience and had won awards for their work; others had practically no experience at all. They hailed from Texas towns like Stephenville, Abernathy, and Henderson; from Fayetteville, Arkansas; from New York; from Rain, Louisiana; from Watts in Los Angeles; and, oddly enough, from Dallas.

Their lives were as disparate as their origins. One reporter had been a rural preacher, another a football coach. Bill Porterfield, whose beat was calmly announced as “The Human Condition,” is the son of an oil-field roughneck. Lee Clark, Newsroom’s present editor and producer and also a member of the original staff, is the daughter of a prominent Dallas family and her husband, James Clark, Jr., had been a member of the state legislature and is currently the president of Brook Hollow National Bank. Such certified connections in the midst of such hard-core hoi polloi made Lee seem, in her own way, something of a maverick, too.

Other than Lee Clark, only two members of the original Newsroom staff still appear on the program. One is Porterfield, really more writer and observer than reporter, who pops in from time to time with another of his literate, humorous essays on whatever has struck his fancy since the last time he appeared. The second is Patsy Swank, a woman with four children who combines an earthy vitality with matriarchal grace. Covering the environment and the arts, a beat which overlaps slightly with “The Human Condition,” she works indefatigably, oscillating between her roles as swank Pat whose eyes are on high culture and salty Patsy, the hard-boiled newspaper woman who would rather chew nails than get beaten to a story.

Although Bill Porterfield and Patsy Swank are something of anomalies on television, Lee Clark seems made for it. She is an attractive woman, always very precisely groomed, whose appearance is dominated by the tremendous sweep of her carefully styled, dark hair. She can look, from one angle, as cheerfully pretty as Mary Tyler Moore and, from another, as distant as Lauren Bacall standing at the foot of a long flight of stairs. She has at all times, whether seated or standing, whether speaking or silent, an urgent, controlled energy that seems as natural to her as double clutching is to a race driver. In fact she appears very much the same off the air as on it, directing her staff as she does the show, with pushes and nudges rather than quick kicks, although an otherwise stationary individual might be well advised not to bend over within her range.

The rest of the current staff, varying in strength between six and ten full-time reporters, is a more homogeneous group than the original staff. Like Lee, they are well-dressed, articulate, attractive. They are urban rather than rural, confident rather than wary; and they attack their work with startling enthusiasm. In addition to their skills as reporters, they seem very much at home on the tube, a feeling not every member of the original staff was able to project. “If we were as smooth then as we are now,” Patsy Swank said not long ago, “we all would have mistrusted the whole thing.”

When Newsroom began under Jim Lehrer’s guidance, no one who appeared on the show had had any extensive experience working in television and they all had to learn. But there were also problems in learning to work together. Newsroom was Lehrer’s creation, and on the air he ran the show with an iron hand. During the show he sat in the middle with his reporters in a circle around him, and any comment or question had to be directed toward him like spokes coming into a hub. So strong was his control that it caused irritation among the more experienced newsmen who felt that their opinions and comments were generally as valuable as Lehrer’s. The younger, less experienced reporters were a little frightened of him. He made them feel hemmed in on the air and not able to come off as naturally as they could.

Lehrer’s domination even caused several minor mutinies. Before the show, various staff members would work out plans of question and comment to one another that would exclude Lehrer for minutes at a time. Once, during one of these mutinies, a comment began with one reporter, went to the person next to him, then to the one next to him, and so on until the ball had been passed clear around the table. Lehrer, feeling his grasp on the show loosening, had turned his chair toward each successive speaker until, having turned full circle, he found himself in a panic. The turning had wrapped the microphone cord around his neck and he was choking.

In spite of these brief rebellions, Lehrer never permanently lost control and everyone there knew it. Lehrer, for his part, was fiercely loyal to his staff. He had given some young, inexperienced people a chance and he did not quickly condemn their mistakes. He also protected personal prerogatives. When the station management suggested that he speak to one of the reporters about her hair style, he refused to do so. And when a staff member asked to file a legal complaint against the Dallas County Commissioners, a move that would seldom be made with the blessing of other Dallas media, Lehrer agreed to go ahead.

The reporter Lehrer had assigned to cover the county courts was named Mike Ritchey. He came from Abernathy, Texas, and had worked for a while as a football coach in another small town. He had gotten his first job as a journalist by walking into the newspaper in San Angelo and asking to be hired. “I don’t have much experience,” he had said, “but I sure can type.”

Ritchey’s job on Newsroom gave him the opportunity to hang looser than he had before. His hair grew longer and his affinity for freaks of varied persuasions more apparent. At the same time there was a dark moodiness about him, a frequent quality among men who have been raised while pressed between the endless plains and low hanging, heavy sky of West Texas.

Strangely enough, Ritchey was a perfect choice to cover the County Commissioners Court. The commissioners are not a body of the most liberal mind in North America, but they tended to like Ritchey, long hair or no. He had, as a true son of West Texas, a decided country boy affability and charm. He spoke in accents that were familiar to them. “Why, hell,” they must have thought, “That boy’d come around if I just talk to him a little.” And talk to him they did. One night Lew Sterrett, the county judge, gave Ritchey a message for that “jigaboo” who worked on the show and went on to say that Ritchey could quote him. That night Ritchey did just that, giving the message exactly as the judge had given it to him. The judge was not upset. For once a reporter had quoted him right.

One night in the spring of 1970, while giving a routine report on the commissioners’ meeting, Ritchey mentioned that, following the regular session, the commissioners had gone into a closed session to discuss further business. The report intrigued Darwin Payne, another Newsroom reporter, as he watched a re-run of the program later that evening. Payne is both an experienced newsman and a scholar. He has taught journalism at SMU, has published monographs on the workings of the press, and is working on a dissertation on the late editor and author Frederick Lewis Allen. Payne felt that the closed session was in violation of the 1967 Open Meetings Law. After looking up the law, he was convinced that the meeting had been illegal. He checked with Lehrer, then went to the Dallas District Attorney’s office to file a complaint. The astonished officials shuffled him from one office to the next until a few days later, after several meetings and some consultations with a lawyer, it was determined that such charges had to be filed by someone actually excluded from the meeting. That meant Ritchey, who was ready and eager. On June 15, 1970, the complaint was filed in his name.

Spirits were running high on the Newsroom staff. Secret meetings were the kind of official shoddiness that other news media seldom covered, much less fought through a court battle. And Lehrer, when it really counted, had stood with them. Ritchey took to calling him “the Chief.”

Of course there was great furor over the whole thing. City Councilman Jesse Price was quoted accusing the Newsroom staff of being “a bunch of hippies—not just hippies, but yippies.” Both Dallas papers were watching the story and their mail became glutted with letters that, whether for or against Newsroom’s stand, all seemed to be angry.

Of the county commissioners, Lew Sterrett, was the most incensed. He announced that he would not answer the summons which Justice of the Peace Robert Cole, under whose jurisdiction the complaint had been filed, assured the press he would send. If Sterrett didn’t answer the summons, he would have to go to jail. Sterrett insisted jail was the alternative he would choose.

Whether this move was tactical genius on Sterrett’s part or pure belligerence is anybody’s guess; but it escalated the controversy beyond the point that Newsroom could reasonably go. It was no longer simply the issue of open meetings that was now at stake; what had started as an idealistic crusade was now forced into appearing a vendetta against one man. Also, there was a movement afoot to stop the station in its tracks. The letters and phone calls to members of the stations’ board of directors were getting more frequent and Lehrer began to feel that Newsroom might not survive if it pressed the complaint any farther. Lew Sterrett would seem pretty small fish if no more could ever be caught.

On July 3, a Friday, Lehrer announced in the staff meeting before the show that he had decided to drop the suit. The staff was stunned but no one was hit harder than Ritchey. His name was on the complaint and he was going to have to back down. He was going to have to face the reporters and hangers-on down at the court house, many of whom, to Ritchey’s vehement denials, had said all along that Newsroom wouldn’t carry through with the thing. It was a cataclysmic moment for the country football coach turned reporter. When the show went on the air, Ritchey, instead of joining the others around the set, sat in the room against a wall where the cameras, as they shifted from shot to shot, would inevitably catch him sitting there in the background, grim and staring coldly straight ahead.

Near the end of the show Lehrer made the announcement for the public. He said that Newsroom wanted no part of the carnival Sterrett was making of the judicial process, that the judge and some of his friends were trying to put Channel 13 out of business, and that the decision was his own and none of the station’s management had forced him into it. As the program ended, Ritchey, the hard-scrabble kid from Abernathy who was now in tears, burst through the double doors and disappeared. That Monday, after what must have been a desperate weekend, he returned to work, withdrew the complaint, and prepared to return to the courthouse where he would face any music that was going to be played.

The Sterrett affair was a watershed in the history of Newsroom. There is no doubt that it helped establish the program as a gutsy news outfit that needed to be taken seriously. But dropping the complaint also shattered the illusions of more people than just Mike Ritchey. Many of the reporters on the show at that time were determinedly idealistic in both their personal and professional beliefs. For them the promise of public broadcasting was that it was a place where, finally, the truth could be told without a station manager being worried about losing an advertiser or provoking negative viewer reactions. No stories would be killed, reporters would be encouraged to work on the controversial and the touchy, and would be expected to rock the boat. They rode the crest of the wave during the Sterrett affair until that night when they were told, in effect, rock the boat but don’t swamp it. That realization amounted to a loss of innocence for some of the reporters and that loss is part of the reason Newsroom’s personnel has changed almost completely since the end of the Sterrett affair.

Lehrer’s tenure as Newsroom’s editor and producer lasted until May, 1972. During that time, however rocky the road may have been, he had built the show from a half-hour, largely ignored, often technically flawed oddity to an hour-long production which had won awards for its reporting and filmmaking, was watched in over 25,000 households each week, and had achieved a technical smoothness that nonetheless avoided the obvious slickness of commercial stations. When he resigned from Newsroom to become Coordinator of Public Affairs for the Public Broadcasting Service, he named as his successor Darwin Payne, the man who had conceived the idea of filing the complaint against the county commissioners.

Payne’s tenure was short and unfortunate. Perhaps sensing some of his ensuing difficulties, he had not at first wanted to take the job. He is, by his own admission, “not a TV personality type,” but a softer spoken, more reflective kind of man whose strength lies in the depths of still pools rather than in the force of white water. When Lehrer offered him the job, Payne was appearing only occasionally on the show. He had taken a teaching job at SMU and was looking forward to finishing his dissertation during the summer. But Lehrer persisted, arrangements were made at SMU, and Payne was promised a six-week leave so that he could finish work on his book. He assumed the job on May 12, 1972 with the cards stacked against him.

Taking over in the shadow of Jim Lehrer, Darwin Payne was under tremendous pressure to live up to Lehrer’s achievement with Newsroom. That pressure was not lessened by the fact that he was short-handed. Several reporters had left the show or would leave soon, Bill Porterfield and Mike Ritchey, two mainstays, among them. Payne’s replacements were disappointing. He was determined that reporting skill should take precedence over skill in appearing on television. That had always been the order of priorities during Lehrer’s tenure, too; but Payne’s new reporters seemed particularly inept on the air.

Newsroom’s ratings fell and continued to fall. The show itself sagged, too, its spirit deflated; there were personality clashes between a new reporter and several of the old ones and those feelings were not always concealed even on the air. The smooth-running, spirited competence Lehrer had worked so hard to develop seemed to be hanging by increasingly slender threads. When the station management began grumbling, Payne defended his staff, thinking that it was not the management’s prerogative to tell him who was a good reporter and who was not.

Later Payne said, “I wanted to get as large an audience as I possibly could within my framework.” But the question was just how narrow would that framework would become. The management decided not to wait much longer to find out.

Near the end of the summer, as the situation was growing more difficult, Payne took two weeks of the six-week leave he had been promised. During that time he was contacted by Robert Wilson, the station manager, who wanted some changes made in the program, among them taking one reporter off the air. Payne, still unwilling to take that step, wanted to discuss the subject when he returned. A few days later, while he was still on leave, he received a letter saying that he had been fired. It was announced to the press that he had resigned to work on his dissertation. Payne, whatever his shortcomings as Newsroom’s producer may or may not have been, deserved better treatment.

Lee Clark had been substituting for Payne as moderator during his leave. When he was fired she inherited the mantle, being officially named editor and executive producer on September 1, 1972. She was the first woman to be named head of a major American news program. If Darwin Payne’s sudden firing or Lee’s sex created any doubts about the future of the program, they have long been dispelled. Both Bill Porterfield and John Merwin, a young reporter hired by Lee and formerly with The Dallas Morning News, claim, “This is the best news outfit I’ve ever worked for.” Merwin added, after a moment of wistful speculation, “It’s probably the best place I ever will work. I just can’t imagine another place as free as this one doing the kind of work we do.”

That freedom is partly due to the fact that Lee Clark, in spite of her title as editor, is not an editor in the usual sense of the word. She does not, for instance, check her reporters’ final copy. There is a staff meeting every afternoon at four when the reporters describe the stories they have for that evening’s show. The other staff members add comments and ask questions much the way they will do on the air; Lee decides the order in which to run the stories and how long to give to each one; but the copy read during the meeting may or may not be the copy read on the air. Bob Ray Sanders, whose beat is Fort Worth, says that he doesn’t even write his stories until after the meeting is over. “Discussing it around the table, trying to tell the others what the story is about, gives me a chance to organize my thoughts. But nobody knows exactly what I’m going to say until they hear me read it on the air.”

An equally important aspect of the freedom Newsroom allows its reporters is that they are encouraged, in fact expected, to seek out stories beyond the range of their regular assignments. And they are given great latitude in choice of subjects. As a result Newsroom has run filmed documentaries on the life of homosexuals in Dallas, on a day in the life of an ambulance driver in Fort Worth, and on the life inside a prison which holds both male and female prisoners.

Newsroom’s different approach to the news is quite apparent even in its most ordinary broadcasts. The program which began with the story about the Fort Worth Housing Authority’s problems, referred to earlier, continued with a long filmed documentary about the problems of unwed mothers in these blissful post-sexual-revolution days. Then followed a live interview with Sarah Weddington, a legislator from Travis County, who argued the suit which caused the Supreme Court to rule the Texas abortion statutes unconstitutional. She was given enough time to explain the grounds of the suit, why she thought it was necessary, and what she thought the effects of the decision, which at that time was still pending, would be for both Texas and the rest of the country.

Following her, somewhat anti-climactically, John Merwin reported that the Dallas Community Action Committee had cancelled its meeting for that evening. Merwin, however, had done some digging into the matter and had discovered that the DCAC contained two opposing factions. The meeting that night had been called to elect a new chairman, but the present chairman, according to Merwin, had determined that his sympathizers would be outnumbered in the meeting and would therefore lose control of the chairmanship. Hardly the highlight of the show, the story nonetheless indicated the kind of resoluteness and imagination which flourishes in the Newsroom staff.

A second guest was then introduced. He was an A.L. Miner, a hog farmer in the city of Fort Worth who has been fighting the city for the right to continue raising hogs within the corporate limits. The rest of the show, about 15 minutes, was given to reading comments and answering questions phoned in by viewers.

Newsroom is now entering its third year. How much longer it can survive is problematical. It is currently financed by the Ford Foundation grant, by supplementary grants from the Wyly Foundation and the Fikes Foundation, and by donations from private citizens. The Ford grant, under the terms of the original agreement, is being reduced year by year and unless more foundation support comes along, the show will be increasingly dependent on the general public to stay on the air. Although the audience is increasing, Newsroom still has to contend with a certain boredom on the part of the public with local news and also the suspicion in certain quarters that they are a bunch of weirdos up to no good. When I asked the lady behind the desk of my motel if she ever watched Newsroom she checked up and down the lobby for interlopers before leaning closer to answer. “I try to watch it,” she said, “but if my husband catches me, he makes me turn it off.”

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