I watch local network news in a different manner than you do. I am a professional media observer. I therefore bring a level of "observation" to my news viewing that most humans are not capable of understanding. I am more discerning in my evaluation of reporters and anchors than many viewers because of my vast expertise in the media-watching field. If you were able to overhear my thoughts while I flipped between 10 p.m. newscasts, it might sound like so:
Oh, nice suit, dillweed. Yeah, a hundred-fifty-grand a year and you still can't buy good taste. [click] Oh, that was nice banter. Three hunnerd K a year and you can't make happy talk sound unforced? [click] How much do you make, missy? Oh, real tough story. You balm those lips before you kiss ass? Where's my cocktail!?
I am not often impressed, you may have guessed, with the quality of news gathering that takes place on TV. Some may say I also have a bit of salary-envy, and they are right. That doesn't mean that my analysis of TV news-gatherers is incorrect. Most of the stories you see on local television news are easily obtained. They come from sources who have done all the legwork for the reporter, or from PR representatives who hand-feed the TV folks the who, what, when and where. Forget about the why. They don't have time to concern themselves with explaining the images they flash before you for 22 minutes each night.
Even the TV reporters I admire--not just the high-profile investigative reporters like Robert Riggs at KTVT-TV Channel 11 and Brett Shipp at WFAA-TV Channel 8, but the workaday general-assignment types like Shaun Rabb at KDFW-TV Channel 4--don't awe me. I watch their reports, I nod in appreciation of their smart, diligent work, but never do I say to myself, "Wow, very few people could have done that story."
But, one reporter--sorry, former reporter--in town did consistently amaze me: Valeri Williams, a longtime reporter at Channel 8 who was let go last week after a bizarre series of events that has left television types around town shocked. Williams has won numerous awards over the years for a number of stories that I can't recall right now. I printed an archived list of them from wfaa.com before they erased her photo and stories from the site, but now I've lost that list. It's the sort of thing that Valeri Williams would never do, which is why she is better than I am.
Williams did the sort of stories that all kids with Bob Woodward in their eyes talk about doing once they get a journalism job, but somehow they never do. The sort of boring, complicated, document-based investigations that make news directors' eyes roll back in their heads because no one in an under-40, Collin County-based demographic could possibly care about them.
They were important, though; they earned the company respect, so the stories got on the air. The one I do recall is a piece on the shady management of the Dallas Can! Academy, the nonprofit organization whose public spokesman is Channel 8 sports director Dale Hansen. Taking on something associated with local ratings hero Hansen, the one person at the station who truly cannot be fired because he still delivers Nielsen numbers, took big brass ones. It would be the equivalent of me commenting on the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of New Times Inc., the Dallas Observer's parent company--and that ain't gonna happen. Daddy's got a mortgage.
"To let someone of Valeri Williams' caliber go," says a Channel 8 competitor, "is just shocking. It just shows that what people who are left there--Tracy [Rowlett] and [Robert] Riggs and those folks--have been saying about the place is true. Well, I don't know if it's true completely--they still do good work--but, damn, how do you keep letting talent like that leave and not feel it at some point? It's like the Cowboys of the early '90s, you know? Some day, you're going to go 5-11, and you'll be 5-11 for a long time if you're not careful."
How did this happen? Good question. I've talked to a half-dozen people or so who know some aspect of the story. Kathy Clements-Hill, general manager at Channel 8, was out of the office and didn't return calls to her mobile phone. Williams herself declined comment, as did her lawyer Steve Malouf. (Media geeks may know Malouf's name as the man who successfully defended Rowlett, Riggs and Channel 8 expatriate Kristine Kahanek in various actions against Channel 8 upon their departure. All now work at Channel 11. He is, how we say, not buddy-buddy with folks at the Belo Death Star.) Many of my Belo and Channel 8 sources wanted no part of this, because they know that someone of Williams' caliber being allowed to leave is indefensible.
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Here's what I've been able to piece together: Williams has been disgruntled for a long time with news management at Channel 8, feeling as though decisions were made for reasons that were not ethically sound. Meaning, advertiser concerns and the need to pander to more desirable demographics (read: don't take on those who pay us money, and while you're at it, dumb down the stories you are working on) were the driving force behind most decisions made that affected her. When management killed her latest investigation, she saw it as the last straw, giving her notice that she would not renew her contract when it expired at the end of this month.
Williams, though, wasn't done there. She is, according to friends, quite stubborn--pig-headed, if you listen to some other reporters. Regardless, she believes that a fundamental shift in the priorities of Channel 8 has taken place, and she wanted the top dog to know how she felt. She hand-delivered a letter to Belo chairman Robert Decherd's office that outlined her grievances. She charged numerous, serious ethical violations. This was on a Friday. On January 13, she was told to clean out her desk and get the hell out of the building.
"I can kind of argue both sides of this," says Hansen, calling from San Diego where he is covering the Super Bowl, once again proving that when things get messy, he's the only one who will call you back. "Valeri Williams is a helluva hard-hitting reporter, and damn I hate to see her leave. We've got so many people leaving, we're keeping the [going-away] cake place in business. However, given what she was saying about some of the people in management--and I think there are two sides to every story like that--I don't blame them for telling her to go ahead and go."
Well, I blame them for letting it get to that point. Now, perhaps I'm overreacting. Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on one reporter leaving. But to me this isn't an aberration. This is the culmination of a quality purge at the station, chasing away or getting rid of independent voices who don't say, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" when they're paddled. It's sad, because despite what some of the folks there say to me when they defend their station, the good ship WFAA no longer always sails a true course.