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Cbs Firings: Toll In Personal Lives

March 10, 1987|DAVID CROOK and DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writers

CBS' Central America correspondent Mike O'Connor expected to learn on Friday whether he still had a job.

Phones in Managua are none too reliable, and he had made plans to use the NBC bureau if those at his CBS office weren't working. But the call from his Miami-based boss did make it through.

O'Connor was fired from the job he had held for nearly four years.

"Will I get any severance pay?" O'Connor, 41, asked.

On Monday, he still didn't know.

Neither did scores of other CBS staffers who didn't survive the network news division's latest round of layoffs and cutbacks--215 people and $30 million.

The network that virtually invented broadcast journalism is coping with what veterans say is its worst period of financial austerity ever--news bureaus closing in Seattle, Bangkok, Warsaw and elsewhere--and a toll on personal lives that, until now, has been practically unknown in the television world.

The Los Angeles bureau, which had jurisdiction over Seattle as well as bureaus in Denver and San Francisco, lost nearly a quarter of its staff. Sources said nine of its 43 employees were given pink slips Friday. The four Los Angeles-based on-air reporters--Terry Drinkwater, Jerry Bowen, David Dow and Victoria Corderi--were not among those laid off.

"I can't find out when I'll get paid or why they fired me," O'Connor said in an interview from the capital of war-torn Nicaragua. He said he has some money in a checking account and some cash left over from an advance.

"There's probably a logic here," he said. "But I can't figure it out. And it hasn't been explained to me."

Both those who were fired and those who survived were reluctant to speak publicly. Surviving staff fear for their jobs, and those laid off believe that vindictive managers will withhold their severence pay or turn them down if they ask to free-lance for the network.

"In a way, I'm thankful. I won't be around to witness the dismantling of CBS News," said one former producer. "It's like being in a nuclear war: The survivors are going to envy the dead."

Paris correspondent David Andelman, 42, was in much the same funk.

"I'd love to know who fired me," he said Monday, "but I really don't think it much matters. We found out on Friday that CBS News has virtually ceased to exist as a news organization. So I don't think it matters."

Staff morale has been battered for nearly a year. Now, for some, the layoffs and cutbacks announced Friday offer an odd kind of freedom from the uncertainty and fear.

"I feel liberated, emancipated," said 23-year veteran Ike Pappas, who was in New York Monday meeting with his agent.

"I feel very poorly for the people who have to get up and pretend to work for CBS News," Pappas said. "It's not CBS News anymore."

Rome-based correspondent Bert Quint flew home from Damascus to find that he would no longer have a CBS office and staff in Warsaw. He, at least, still has a job.

"I am terribly saddened and disappointed that men I have known and (who) risked their lives with me and are still capable of good work and still do good work have been fired," Quint said. "I find it shameful."

Domestic news bureaus were equally devastated.

The entire Seattle bureau was shut down. Correspondent Dick Wagner had been transferred to London in December and a secretary for the two-year-old bureau lost her job in a much less severe round of layoffs last October. The bureau's last official day of operation, ironically, will be Friday the 13th.

"I guess it's not disappointing because this business teaches you to set yourself up for disappointment," said one former employee. "Anybody in the business for any time at all knows that it's thankless.

"Whether it's really sad is something that we won't know for a while. If you approach it from a practical standpoint instead of saying 'This is the house Ed Murrow built,' I think that the first problem this will cause will be the weakness that will develop when there is a need to grab somebody off the bench when something big breaks. They're going to look around and there won't be anybody there."

The San Francisco bureau still has correspondent John Blackstone, a producer and a secretary on staff, but no staff camera crew.

Denver, which used to answer to Los Angeles bureau chief Jennifer Sibens, is under the authority of the Dallas bureau now. Correspondent Bob MacNamara and a producer operate from Denver with a free-lance camera crew.

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