Old teachers never die, they just bring their chalk-and-blackboard mentality to the local news.
Lesson No. 1: In August, just after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, KTLA Channel 5 anchorman Hal Fishman dug up his Michelin road map of the Middle East desert to help illustrate the treacherous route that a convoy of buses filled with American and British women and children would have to navigate to escape Kuwait City. He set the map on an easel behind him on the news set, got out his pointer and explained: "They have to drive some 550 miles, up here on Highway 7, which cuts right here through the Tigris Euphrates Valley. It's a very difficult road; you can see here that there is broken pavement for much of the way. It's very hot, and they have to go all the way up here to Baghdad."
In a television age stuffed with fancy computer graphics and expensive Italian suits, Fishman retains the same professorial approach to communicating the day's events that he once employed as a political science teacher at Cal State Los Angeles. The same approach that has kept him on the air here for 30 years. The same approach that has made KTLA the dominant news force among the independent stations for more than a decade.
"I always describe him as a walking encyclopedia," said Jeff Wald, who served as Fishman's news director at KTLA for nine years before jumping to KCOP Channel 13 last spring. "He has an uncanny ability for remembering facts and a tremendous brain. Of all the anchor people in this town, he is probably most worthy of the job of anchorman. He knows the material better than what is written in his copy or what comes in on the wires. That's no slap to the writers, but he is so into his job, he can usually ad-lib better than what the writers can write for him."
Lesson No. 2: While reading copy about Iraqi troops entering the French Embassy in Kuwait, Fishman decided to improvise. He looked into the camera and explained to his audience the nature of an embassy under international law, reminding viewers of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"I've always looked at broadcasting as a continuation of my teaching," Fishman said in a recent interview. "Back when I started in 1960, people were intrigued just by the phenomenon of television, just by the picture coming into their house. But with the Vietnam War and Watergate, people became skeptical. They don't trust things so readily. And they want to get the news from people who know what they're talking about.
"When I think of the hundreds of anchors who have come and gone over the last 30 years, many of them better-looking and better-coiffed than I ever was . . . there was one area that they were not better and that is in being dedicated to being informed. And I think the audience perceives that. I am not a charismatic broadcaster or a dramatic guy, but I think I am a person that people can trust to give them a straightforward and accurate account of what's going on in the world. I think that's why I have lasted so long."
And he's not about to go away any time soon. Fishman recently signed an extension to his contract at KTLA, locking him up there for at least the next five years. While Channel 5 management has been eager to disavow recent reports that Fishman's new contract puts him in the $1 million-a-year club with KABC-TV Channel 7's Paul Moyer and KCAL Channel 9's Jerry Dunphy, sources say the contract at the very least is worth $750,000 annually.
Not bad for a guy who started his TV career making $100 a week, teaching a college course on the air about American politics in the summer of 1960. An executive at KCOP saw it, offered him a job as a news commentator, and he has been on the air in Los Angeles ever since--always on one of the four independent stations.
Since 1975, Fishman has been KTLA's anchor, commentator and managing editor, and for most of his tenure there, the station has dominated the 10 p.m. news ratings with a traditional, straightforward, no-nonsense approach. Even as rival independents KTTV Channel 11, KCAL and, most recently, KCOP have been beefing up their news operations and pledging to topple KTLA, Fishman's audience has remained steady and strong.
"I believe that if you have something very successful that has weathered the test of time and you don't change it, I don't think the competition has a chance of eating into your audience," said Steve Bell, KTLA's general manager. "They might be able to build their own audience, but not at your expense. The only way you lose is if you change something radically that irritates your audience. Since we're not intending to do that, I think we're pretty safe."