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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Axing 'the Best Reporter in Town' : Television: To the astonishment of his colleagues, John Marshall, senior member of KNBC's news staff, is let go. 'He's the symbol of this place.'

January 22, 1992|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It was a routine Friday afternoon.

Veteran reporter John Marshall had returned to the KNBC Channel 4 newsroom after working on a story in the field. The subject was unemployment in Southern California, and Marshall had interviewed a single parent so despondent over her year of joblessness that she broke down and cried.

Marshall was moved. He told a friend in the newsroom: "You don't know how lucky we are to have jobs."

An hour later, Marshall learned he had lost his.

He was informed that Channel 4 was not exercising its option on the second year of his three-year contract.

"Oh, man, it hit me like a sledgehammer," Marshall recalled several days later, still expressing shock and disbelief. "I was just doing this story, thinking I was immune, and it's me ! It's me !"

Although Marshall says he wasn't given a reason for being dropped, the reason supplied by KNBC insiders is simply absurd. To say nothing of depressing.

These reliable sources say that the station jettisoned blue-chip reporter Marshall to use his salary (approximately $165,000 a year) to hire a weatherman for the station's early-morning newscast.

You don't need a weathercaster to tell you that the sun is setting on Channel 4 news.

Under his contract, Marshall could remain on the air until Feb. 23, but he won't return, saying he just couldn't face viewers or concentrate on his work in his present frame of mind.

Many of his Channel 4 colleagues are astonished that he was let go. "He's the symbol of this place," said one. "We're all afraid now," said another. "If it has happened to him, it could happen to anyone. It makes you wonder about their (management's) priorities."

Indeed. Although not flashy, the 49-year-old Marshall is the epitome of solid , an honorable, highly capable, widely respected journalist whose two decades at Channel 4 made him the senior member of the news staff.

"He's the best reporter in town," said Warren Cereghino, news director at competing KTLA Channel 5 and a former assignment editor at KNBC. "He's the kind of reporter you can send out on anything. He'll get the story, and he'll do it right. He has great insight into what is and what isn't a story. He's a real pro."

So much so, said one of his Channel 4 colleagues, that when assigned a story, "he comes in with every conceivable angle on it."

"He can't be fooled," said Los Angeles attorney George Bane, whose clients include many TV news anchors and reporters, excluding Marshall. "He can smell a story, and he won't go for the press release."

Yes, well, you can't have a guy like that on your staff. He could contaminate everyone else.

In a weird twist, Marshall got praise Friday from the executive who decided to end his career at KNBC.

Marshall said that he was summoned to the office of L. Reed Manville, the station's president and general manager since November, and that news director Nancy Valenta arrived too.

Marshall on Manville: "He said, 'This is going to be tough.' He told me, 'I'm the new guy here and I'm putting together my own team. And I made the decision you don't fit on that team, so I'm going to cut you loose. You've been here for 20 years and done a good job. It's not personal, and it doesn't reflect on your abilities. But I've got to let you go."

So . . . dismissing Marshall was his reward for being good? "I don't know why it happened," Marshall said, "but I do know it was wrong."

Manville's office said that he was out of town this week. A call to Valenta was returned by KNBC public-relations representative Regina Miyamoto, who read a brief statement confirming that Marshall's option was not being picked up, but providing no further details. "We do wish John every success in the future," the statement concluded.

It's bizarre enough to replace a seasoned reporter with a weathercaster--if that indeed is what's happening--but even more so when that reporter is as good as Marshall.

"What you're seeing is a yuppie takeover of the newsroom," claimed one Channel 4 staffer, who believes that Manville and Valenta (both in their 30s) want to supplant older, experienced, higher-salaried news employees with younger ones who command less pay. "I'm convinced Valenta has wanted to get rid of Marshall for a long time, and I imagine anyone with a big salary is vulnerable."

If so, they and Marshall would hardly be the first valuable TV news employees sacrificed to budget butchery; KNBC and the rest of the broadcast industry for some time have been attempting to combat shrinking profits by shrinking their overheads. At each of the Big Three networks, news bureaus have been closed, staffs reduced and salaries slashed in response to the troubled economy.

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