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Morton Dean's Escape Act : Ex-cbs Newscaster Sitting Pretty

July 14, 1987|MICHAEL E. HILL | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — If you were in Morton Dean's position, you might take on a certain air, develop a bit of an attitude.

You might practice looking all-wise. Downright prescient, perhaps. You would work hard at suppressing a grin or a smirk.

You might expect people to come up to you, especially old friends from your major-network days, and ask for advice. They might want to touch your coat sleeve and hope some of the magic rubs off. At the very least, they would compliment you on your timing, maybe put the arm on you for a job lead.

But if you were Morton Dean, you would simply take in stride the fact that you're working while a number of your old pals are not, and that you've even managed to win the title news anchor with another national news organization, granted a much smaller one than CBS. But hey, an anchor's an anchor.

It's been 2 1/2 years since Dean left CBS to become the anchor of the Independent Network News' "USA Tonight" newscast. CBS handed him his 20-year watch as he walked out the door. "I joked with (a CBS executive). I said, 'Do I still get the watch?' "

In the months since, a new economic climate has frosted the television industry. Amid the chill, a number of network newsmen and women have been pushed out the door Dean walked through on his own. Many of them were veterans like Dean, and few of them have found as comfortable an alternative as his.

"I had drinks last night with some other former CBS people," he said during a recent stop in Washington. "One is with NBC; the other two are looking around."

Dean's departure from CBS came well before others got the ax. "For a year after I left, people were asking me why I left," he said. "No one does that now."

The same people who thought he was maybe crazy when he left CBS must wonder now, what did he know then that we didn't, and when did he know it?

Not only did he seem to foresee that the news force would shrink at the major networks, but he also seemed to know that scaled-down news operations, with high tech closer to their hearts than six-figure newspeople, would begin to steal the thunder from the big three when it came to delivering the news.

Dean claims no great insights into industry trends. He paints himself as a working newsman who went looking for a new turn to his career.

The upshot is that he has become point man for "USA Tonight," a half-hour news program that enables independent stations to become players in the national news game right along with the networks and the various cable-television news services.

Dean, who is six months from the end of his three-year contract with INN, sees the program's debut in Washington last week as a significant move from a corporate standpoint.

"I think it's a signpost for our company," he said. "It's a time to grow and to cover more news. There's a market for it."

He also hopes it will serve as incentive for INN to expand its operation. "With a few more people . . . " he said, considering the possibilities. "This is very important."

While INN in part symbolizes the fragmentation of the television news business away from the major networks, it has not had a trouble-free existence. "We shrunk when everybody else shrunk," said Dean.

And he acknowledges the shortcomings of his organization while also pointing out strengths. "We don't have the bench strength and the bureaus the major networks have," he said.

"We try to devote more time to each story than the networks do. I think that's a major difference. I think that's important when you're seen later in the evening, by and large. Everybody's already heard the headlines.

"We're moving toward more interviews--I like to do them, and it gives more dimension to the story."

Whatever the shortcomings in resources, Dean's solid presence gives validity and authority to the "USA Tonight" news presentation.

Dean hopes the show's prime-time airing in the Washington market will prompt its producers to originate more material from the nation's capital. "I've always wanted to spend more on remotes from Washington," he said. "I hope this puts more pressure on INN to do more now from Washington."

Not that the show should become Washington-centered, "but this should be a convenient excuse to do more from here."

INN was begun in 1980 by WPIX Inc., which also operates WPIX in New York. WPIX Inc. is a division of Tribune Broadcasting, part of the Tribune Co.

Until this year the INN newscast was known as "INN: The Independent News." Before Dean signed on, the telecast was co-anchored by the troika of Pat Harper, Steve Bosh and Bill Jorgensen.

When INN went on the air in June 1980, the same week Cable News Network made its debut, INN was seen on 26 independent stations. Fortunately for INN, independent television has been a growth industry.

Each of the member stations can serve as a regional bureau, and INN, which employs 150 people, has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Miami.

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