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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.

By Marc Fisher |  March 8, 2007; 7:41 AM ET
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Comments

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I now live in Baltimore, so I was very happy when WETA (which I get on Comcast up there)started running Gordon Peterson's Inside Washington at 8:30 on Fridays. Peterson is the only guy I have ever seen who can get Charles Krauthammer to loosen up and kid around.

Smart, thoughtful local newspeople like Vance and Peterson are a disappearing breed. And in many cases, local news programs (at least in Baltimore) have been reduced to fires, crimes and recycling of national news--plus spectacular fires and crimes from around the country.

Posted by: Jack | March 8, 2007 8:27 AM

Many years ago, when he was renegotiating a contract with channel 9, Peterson came very close to joining Vance at channel 4. That would have been an unbeatable pairing.

Posted by: Cosmo | March 8, 2007 10:56 AM

Local video field reports only cover press conferences and "follow-the-ambulance." These alleged news outfits show a staggering lack of interest in investigative reporting.

One local station even gives their anchor an opinion segment to demonstrate that he is as ill-informed as his viewers.

Adding insult to injury, video crews stop random pedestrians and ask their opinions about news stories the stations aren't actually covering.

Posted by: Mike | March 8, 2007 12:20 PM

Funny, Peterson always seems to me to be a suit reading the news without comprehension. Just a guy getting by so he can collect the check and go do what he really wants. Vance is a good anchor and does his job convincingly. Peterson could have been a turnip, for all the spirit he brings to the job. Joe Krebs is the best anchor on local news - too bad he's stuck in the early morning slot with his ditzy friend who barely remembers her own name.

Posted by: juris | March 8, 2007 1:06 PM

From Marc's discussion on March 8 regarding Marion Barry neglecting to file his tax returns:

"He made decent enough money, but he managed to blow it"

"Blow?" Excellent, Marc.

Posted by: Josey | March 8, 2007 1:21 PM

It is a sad thing to watch the demise of NBC news. Jim Vance is super as an anchor. It was simply delightful to watch the chemistry between him, George Michael and Doreen. However, George is now gone because of cost cutting, and one might suspect Jim may be next. They knocked Arch Campbell out of the box as well. For that matter NBC News with Bryan Williams is fluff rather than news. Cuts like these are also showing up in Time and Newsweek. The Washington Post has turned the front page into analyses rather than news; the news is found in small paragraphs on the back pages of the A and Metro sections.

So where does one go to see the news. I like BBC world news at least for the present. That organization actually has reporters who report the news world wide. Contrary to the advice we get from all of these sources to go to their web sites, that is not how I enjoy spending an evening.

Posted by: scott | March 8, 2007 1:48 PM

All right, Marc, I am just reading your chat and feel the need to respond. I am a teacher. Normally when there is a two hour delay, by the time I go in, there is hardly any traffic. But today, apparently, many people felt the need to go to work later, because traffic was even heavier than it usually is on a regular day. There were icy conditions at 9:15 on Braddock Road--a heavily traveled commuter route. I go through Annandale to get from my house to work--and the school my children attend. There was heavy ice on the street this school is on (a public road). So don't give me this "only if major roads can't be cleared" business. Most schools aren't on major roads, and most children are using the sidewalks on neighborhood streets to get to school. And I'd far rather drive on snow than on ice. Yeah, I'm an animal lover also.

Posted by: off topic | March 8, 2007 2:27 PM

I'll never forget Jim Vance telling us about being in the woods with a shotgun in his mouth at my high school graduation in 1989. It was a very compelling and memorable speech to everyone who heard a celebrity like him be so open and honest about his troubles. He's a class act.

Posted by: Scott S. | March 8, 2007 6:49 PM

It's crazy how long Vance has been around, he spoke to my journalism class when I was 13, and I'm pushing 50 now.

Posted by: mike | March 8, 2007 7:46 PM

Judging by the interview, blog, and comments, news directors and station managers are right -- we don't want news, we want personalities. If stations get timely access to output from all those surveillance cameras, kiss the remaining reporters goodbye.

Posted by: Mike | March 9, 2007 2:43 AM

Interesting, somewhat. But Channel 4 (especially) and to a lesser degree channel 7 are to Fox 5 News what the Wash Post is to the DC Examiner: MUCH lighter on civic issues and real local news. Yes, Fox 5 and the DC Examiner quite openly display an anti-DC bias at times that can be kind of shocking. And readers must learn to recognize it when they read it. But I gotta ask - where else are you gonna get your local news? Because let's face it: Fox 5 and the Examiner more consistently, regularly and dependably cover neighborhood, city government and city issues than do the Post, Channel 4, and to a lesser extent Channel 7.

Posted by: walnuts | March 11, 2007 11:58 AM

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