Wednesday, December 06, 2006

We Interrupt This Program...


I'm still trying to happily swim in a vast sea of self-imposed silence, but I feel obliged to stick my head up and comment briefly on something which has come to my attention over the past few days; it's something that can't be ignored, simply because it speaks volumes about the state of television news in general (God-awful) and local news in particular (unbelievably God-awful).

It quite simply demands that somebody say something.

A little background first.

I've worked in a number of newsrooms throughout my sometimes illustrious, more often notorious career; some were populated with bright people whom I liked, some were populated with idiots whom I loathed -- most were a workable combination of the two extremes. One however stood out and still does to this day for the simple reason that during the time that I was there, it was filled top-to-bottom with the finest, kindest, most professional and most dedicated staff I've ever had the honor of showing up to work with every day.

During the late 90s, the management and rank-and-file of WTVJ -- NBC's owned and operated station in South Florida -- seemed less to me like co-workers and more like family. The quality of the work we did was unsurpassed, and the bonds we forged while doing that work remain to this day. I've never been more proud to be able to count myself among those whose journalistic standards were so exactingly high, and I've missed working with that particular group during that particular time-period every day since making the decision to leave in 2000.

Occasionally though, even during those ascendant years, a decision would come down from on high which would be stunning in its apparent lack of foresight. A change would be made; someone would be hired or fired; a news story would be over-hyped or overlooked -- it was simply the nature of the business that, well, "dumb happens" from time to time. It was also the nature of the business that more often than not you picked your battles, kept quiet, and went on about your work.

Not this time.

As I haven't been an employee of WTVJ for some time, I'm under no obligation to keep my big mouth shut about a decision which has recently been made there that's so patently and unforgiveably stupid as to seem almost incomprehensible. I have to admit, it's empowering to realize that for the first time, I have both the means (a website which I happen to know is read by at least a small portion of the television news community) and the will (I couldn't be more furious about this) to voice my opinion about an injustice which hits me so close to home -- that home being the memories I carry with me about a Camelot-like vision of how good television news can truly be when it's practiced by someone like my friend and former co-worker Michael Williams.

Michael isn't simply a talented broadcaster, he is -- in the words of one of our mutual friends and colleagues -- "an MVP; a world-class journalist." He's the kind of thoughtful, tenacious, devoted, compassionate, singular mind that is sadly hard to come by in this age of painfully moronic media saturation. When he hasn't been traveling the world as a network correspondent, pursuing stories with a ruthless vigor and an unparalleled attention to detail and to his craft, he's been a staple of South Florida local news for years into decades -- first as a reporter, then on the anchor desk at WTVJ, his beloved home away from home and the place where I was fortunate enough to work in the shadow of his brilliance on a daily basis for three very good years.

Michael also happens to be one of the all-around nicest guys I know -- a humble family man with a great sense of humor and an easy manner which makes him a joy to allow into your home every night.

Put simply, Mike is one of the good ones.

So, needless to say -- he had to go.

If anyone ever dares question why I've come to despise what this industry has become -- it can be summed up in a simple, unfathomable fact: someone of Michael Williams's caliber can be unceremoniously shown the door.

Earlier this week, WTVJ's news director Yvette Miley -- an old friend and knowledgable newsperson -- made the announcement that Mike's contract would not be renewed, and that essentially he was being fired. Thankfully, he wasn't walked to the door and watched by security as he pulled out of the parking lot -- a brand of "standard operating procedure" in many newsrooms which has always seemed grotesquely undignified, and would have been particuarly so when dealing with someone with the class and grace of Michael Williams.

Word is that Yvette was crying when she broke the news of Mike's sacking to the staff.

The edict supposedly came from the top, from WTVJ's General Manager Ardy Diercks -- a woman I've never met face-to-face and who should probably hope that I don't at any point in the foreseeable future. Her masterplan apparently is to remove Michael Williams from his coveted seat on the anchor desk and hand the reins over solely to his co-anchor, Jackie Nespral -- a woman who, despite being generally harmless and mildly easy on the eyes, isn't journalistically sound enough on her best day to spit-shine Mike's wing-tips; and that's a kind assessment in the most liberal definition of the word. It's a decision that, although audacious in some regards, is a recipe for disaster -- one certain to plunge the once-mighty WTVJ further down the spiral into respectability and ratings oblivion.

When it comes to news judgment, it's difficult to make the stupidest decision imaginable in a town like Miami -- given that the competition for the title of "Most Inane Local News Product" is so fierce -- but WTVJ may have just done it.

May the station, and those so insouciantly willing to break up the final remnants of my old family, suffer accordingly.

Good luck Mike.

I have no doubt that you'll move on to bigger and better things.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!

sonotright said...

Michael was the only network-quality journalist in Miami. He'll be sorely missed, but he'll definitely be better off without WTVJ. It's not the same place you remember... trust me on that man.

Real-journalist said...

I'm not going to reveal my identity, but suffice it to say, I'm someone who works (or worked) closely with Mike.

The reaction of the newsroom has been palpable, and it's obvious that somebody at the top doesn't understand that you can only pummel a ship from the inside for so long before it finally sinks under the weight of horrible morale and incredible stupidity.

TVJ may finally be there. Be glad you're not here anymore to go down with it.

As for Mike, he'll be missed. Thanks for letting everyone know about this and keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

i've never met michael williams, but i've watched him for years. he brought a much needed dose of class and professionalism to south florida's generally worthless tv media. there's a reason everybody makes fun of the news down here.

i'm surprised he stayed around as long as he did, but i'm sure he'll move on to greener pastures.

Anonymous said...

Well said...my memories of when TV journalism in South Florida was respected by not only those in broadcast news but print media as well is even longer than yours. Michael began in that enviornment and continues that ethic and professionalism until today.

Dad

Chez said...

Aw, Dad finally stops by the comment page. You can't see it but I'm blushing.

You're right about Mike -- and I have no doubt that he'd appreciate those words coming from you.

spikeowen said...

GL Michael.

Chez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

I was surprised that Michael didn't follow his colleagues Kerry Sanders and the late David Bloom up the ladder to NBC Nightly News. This is the perfect opportunity for someone to vastly improve the talent of their newsroom. Good luck Michael.

Anonymous said...

WTVJ lost the best they had. And, as a close friend, I know that why Michael did not continue to move up the ladder has little to do with his skills or lack of offers but with his dedication to his family. Class guy all-around.

Chez said...

And that's one of the reasons why I respect him as much as I do: his priorities are straight.

Anonymous said...

I have had the unique and blessed opportunity to watch Mike from the very beginning of his career. From easier days as kids, to UF, to the more recent and mind-numbing contrast of a pink slip in one hand and a fresh Emmy (#7 I believe) in the other for his excellence in journalism. I have that perspective because I am his brother and "proud" is not a big enough word for how I feel about him and his work. I don't pretend to know all the nuances of TV news and the decision making process therein, but what's going on here? Well, a spin around the TV dial here in Washington D.C. (or anywhere else) tells the story, as Deus Ex Malcontent so eloquently told it. TV news continues the downward spiral of trying to appeal to the "Entertainment Tonight" and "Cops" crowd with a transparent backdrop of "hard-hitting news". For anyone in the decision making ladder that may be listening, wake up. The people you are trying to appeal to don't have the attention span to tune in to a 1/2 hour or hour newscast. Those of us who do appreciate an objective, thoughtful broadcast are tuning out precisely because of the sludge you continue to splash across the screen. Well Mike, you are clearly destined for bigger and better things so keep the faith and know there is a slice of this industry out there that appreciates your brand of journalism.

Scott

Chez said...

Wow.

I thank you --thank you -- for your comment, and of course for reading.

Years ago, your brother admired my father and the work that he once did in television news. Then of course, in a very nice twist, I came to idolize your brother for doing the same caliber of work. Please give him my best.

One of my fondest memories of Mike -- one of the times I realized that the veteran journalist and the idiot MTV kid had more in common than anyone would expect -- involved his reaction to a decision made by management toward the end of my tenure at WTVJ. We began doing something which is now common practice at newsrooms around the country: we sold our segments. Pollo Tropical sponsored our live tower shots, turning them into the "Pollo Tropical Tower-Cams," and weather into the "Maroone Chevrolet Doppler 6000 Weather Update." I remember plastering a big smile on my face and putting up little post-it notes all over my desk that read, "Chico's Bail Bonds Computer Monitor," and "Don's Naked-Guy Carpeting Stapler."

Mike was livid about the decision -- saying that it was selling-out our journalistic integrity. He was right. It might've been at that moment that I realized that for all my cynicism, I may be too idealistic to remain in TV news.

Course that was years ago, and I'm still doing this nonsense.

I'd like to say something far more eloquent, because I truly believe that Mike's level of class demands it, but my anger over this entire situation just keeps bringing me back to one phrase:

This business has become shit.

Anonymous said...

Actually, thank you Chez for posting such an insightful and complimentary commentary on Mike's influence in TV news. It makes me swell with pride all the more to hear these words from his colleagues. It is very much appreciated and I certainly will send him your best. Keep up the great work!

Scott