On Brains Turned to Oatmeal--The Local TV News Story
The deans of Washington TV news, Jim Vance and Gordon Peterson, sat down with Nathan's owner Carol Joynt the other day and the two anchormen were frank and funny about the decline of local TV news and their own extraordinary runs on the D.C. homescreen.
Both Vance and Peterson started out on TV here in 1969, in an era when, as Vance put it, "television stations used to spend money to go find news." When the crowd at the Georgetown lunch spot ooohed over Vance's slash at the costcutting frenzy in TV these days, Vance calmed them: "Y'all just be cool now."
Peterson spent most of his career at Channel 9 before the Gannett costcutters pushed him out and he landed at Channel 7, the refuge for the region's top-shelf discarded TV journalists. When Vance's current three-year contract ends, he will have put in 40 years at Channel 4, most of it comfortably atop the ratings. Both Peterson and Vance said they initially resisted the idea of giving up street reporting to become news anchors, reading scripts off a prompter. "You're going to turn my brain into oatmeal," Peterson recalled telling his bosses. But the offers were too good to turn down, and both men managed to find ways to stay connected with the city they cover.
The cuts that have come down, especially at 9 and 4 lately, are painful, the anchors said. "I can't tell you how hurtful it is to walk to my office every day past the door that used to be Arch's office and he's not there," Vance said of Arch Campbell, WRC's longtime movie and arts critic. Campbell, like Peterson, landed at 7 shortly after being forced out.
Both anchors seemed impressed by Mayor Adrian Fenty's early days in office, especially by his energy. Vance predicted that Fenty will win his campaign to take over the D.C. school system: "He'll get control; I don't know if he'll win the revolution."
Asked by Joynt to name the biggest local issue right now, Peterson said it's Iraq--a local story because of all the young people from Maryland, Virginia and the District who are dying in the war. And Vance said "The compelling issue is the deterioration of the family structure in this town."
Vance spoke movingly of his very public struggle with drug use in the 1980s. Although he went to Alcoholics Anonymous to pull himself out of the depths, "I was never afforded the luxury of anonymity" because everyone in town knows him on sight. But Vance, a class act through and through, told of the many boxes of cards and letters that he still keeps in storage, the voices of thousands of TV viewers who put him in their prayers.
You can see the entire interview at the Nathan's site.
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