Morning Glory

Dude calls me from an entertainment industry trade publication, wanting information on KTVT-TV (Channel 11) anchor Rene Syler. You may have heard that Syler was just named one of the four (!) co-anchors of the revamped CBS morning chat-fest The Early Show, which places a distant third in the ratings to competitors The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (ABC). The other three co-anchors--solid newsman Harry Smith, former NBC sportscaster Hannah Storm and newsreader/Big Brother host Julie Chen--are well-known to the coastal media. Syler is not. So the dude wanted info on her.

I gave him my take, which is that I'm surprised Syler, 39, was chosen for this position only because I'm surprised CBS is capable of making a smart decision. Rene Syler is, to me, everything you could want in a national morning-show host: She is funny, self-deprecating and has great on-camera presence. The dude's response was, basically, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but, you know, what about her journalistic chops?"

OK, big red flag. I see the angle here. Because she's an "unknown" (if you don't lunch with the East/West Coast media types who write about you, you are officially an "unknown"), then we need to show what a reach CBS made by hiring this person. Obviously, she was chosen not for her journalism background but for her ability to fill out the network's demographic check sheet. (Old white dude, check. Youngish white gal with sports background and big bright smile, check. Asian-American who can read news stories, check. African-American from the heartland, check.) In fact, station officials acknowledged they needed someone who fit just that description to fill out the cast. So, from the media's perspective, now it's time to question the hire. The headline: "Desperate network makes weird hire from Texas, confirming desperation."

Don't believe me? Read The Washington Post's story that ran this past Tuesday. In it, the reporter gave everyone the lowdown on each anchor hired. Here is that reporter's take on Syler:

...Rene Syler, 39, who's never done network TV before. Syler has anchored the noon and 6 p.m. newscasts for the CBS-owned station in Dallas. She says she's in the TV news business because she "loves speaking to people" but, she adds, "my first love is talking to children because they listen with such wide-eyed wonder and ask the best questions, like 'how much money do you make?'"

If you read the entire piece, the reporter is clearly mocking Syler, who sounds like a wishy-washy hausfrau with this quote. The problem? The reporter isn't honest. Syler did not say that. That quote is taken directly from Syler's bio on the KTVT Web site, Yes, Syler probably wrote that (she was in New York doing PR stuff, and was unavailable), but taking that sort of PR-fluff Web site crap out of context and pretending that this is really Syler's take on why she is in the news business is done only to manufacture a characterization of her that fits into that reporter's predetermined thesis. It goes on all the time in this biz, but it's still fundamentally dishonest. It's as unfair as--oh, I don't know--dissecting one paragraph of one story from a Washington Post reporter and making sweeping generalizations about that person's journalistic integrity.

So I told the dude from the trade paper that I thought Syler's journalistic chops were irrelevant, because, let's face it, it isn't like they're going to be anchoring live from Baghdad. Even if they did, that ain't really journalism. Journalism is sitting through board meetings, poring over pages of government documents, sifting through sources and their mixed motives. Whipping up a paella with Emeril or tapping your foot while Bruce Springsteen plays live on set isn't hard-core journalism.

That doesn't keep professional speculators from speculating, of course. "I think the new format is a publicity stunt," network-news analyst Andrew Tyndall told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I don't know Rene's work, but Chen hasn't done much heavy lifting. I'm unsure she'll be up to the task."

Heavy lifting?

Fact is, no one knows how Syler will do, or how the show will do. Tracy Rowlett, her co-anchor at Channel 11 and a man with huge j-chops himself, says, for what it's worth, that it's the perfect gig for Syler. "Very few people can step outside the anchor mold and be successful," he says. "But she is one who can. She is witty, glib and she has full command of the situation around her. I think she'll do very well."

More doings at Channel 11: Robert Riggs, arguably the best investigative reporter in this city's television history, has joined KTVT. Riggs, you'll recall, left WFAA-TV (Channel 8) in a bitter dispute following the fallout from the Dan Peavy tape-airing scandal. (I say "you'll recall" because I'm not going through the whole damn story that we've reported on for years and years. Here's the super-short version: Belo's lawyers told Riggs he could run tapes of Peavy saying bad things, they were wrong, Peavy sued, Belo paid Peavy $5 mill and told Riggs, sorry, but even though our lawyers gave you bad advice, you ain't their client, so you can't do anything about it.) Since then, Riggs had been in PR.

Riggs is obviously excited to be back in the news game. "Some of the biggest stories of the past decade are going on right now," Riggs says. "It was hard to be sitting on the sidelines and not reporting on it. And call me old-fashioned, but I've always believed that, in this job, you can shed light on subjects that need light and help make improvements or help people in need."

Riggs, who follows many other Channel 8 expatriates (including the recently hired weather predictor Kristine Kahanek) to the former ratings cellar dweller, is understandably fired up about the big-time lineup Channel 11 is putting together. (Station managers suggest some out-of-town talent will be arriving in the coming months.) But he's also jazzed about a recent court victory in his ongoing malpractice lawsuit against Belo's lawyers.

Belo and the law firm Jenkens & Gilchrist had argued to the state court of appeals that Riggs' suit shouldn't go to a jury but instead be settled by an arbitrator. Their reasoning was alluded to earlier: They said that Riggs couldn't sue for malpractice since Belo, and not Riggs as Belo's employee, was their client. In other words, they argued that they regularly have meetings and dole out advice to people who aren't technically clients. In a unanimous decision, the court of appeals rejected this argument and said the suit should continue moving toward a jury trial.

"The lead judge seemed to be offended by their argument," a buoyed Riggs says. "As was I. And I think this is a great victory for reporters and freedom of the press."

Not that Riggs pretends he doesn't get personal satisfaction from this. To call the man "resentful" would, in my opinion, be insufficient. "I mean, I was the lone voice saying their opinion [that Channel 8 could air the Peavy phone tapes] was incorrect. And I was right. And if they had just listened to me, we wouldn't have these problems today."

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste