John Lippman, who was fired Friday from his news director job at KCBS-TV after more than a year of controversy about his aggressive management style and approach to breaking news, said Saturday his regime was undercut by publicity generated by "a minority" of malcontent staffers who complained about him and his "Action News" format to other news organizations.
Lippman, 42, who was terminated after a furor over his handling of the coverage of the federal trial in the Rodney G. King beating case, said in an interview that although ratings improved and demographics broadened during his 15-month tenure, the positives were overshadowed by negative publicity from "lazy journalists" in other organizations who were more interested in "the attack du jour" than in finding out the facts.
He cited the Los Angeles Times as one of the news organizations that repeatedly criticized him.
"I was turned into a symbol that was used to attack 'Action News,' " Lippman said in explaining why Steven J. Gigliotti, the station's vice president and general manager, fired him.
"It had become clear to Steve and me that I had become a target and it was affecting the perception of our production," he said. "We had taken giant steps to get where we are, but to take the next giant step, the scapegoat had to be out of the way."
Though station management gave no official reason for the firing, sources inside and outside the newsroom said deteriorating newsroom morale, decreasing ratings and declining credibility in the community, as well as Lippman's manner, were behind the decision.
Lippman, who couldn't be reached for comment immediately after his dismissal Friday, denied accounts by staffers that he was insensitive to their feelings, constantly breached journalistic ethics and was consumed with sensationalizing news stories. He said he took command of a newsroom that had seen seven news directors come and go in the past 10 years, and that had been compared to "a dysfunctional family.
"When I arrived, reporters were asked to do things they had never done before," Lippman said. "They were asked to do two stories a day instead of one. They were also told to suggest stories. People had to start thinking. This made some of them uncomfortable. Some of the reporters responded brilliantly, but others didn't get it, didn't like it and didn't want it. But the majority of the staff supported me."
Lippman's statements contradicted the sentiments of numerous current and former KCBS-TV news staffers who cheered his dismissal. When his firing was announced Friday morning, cheering erupted in the newsroom. Dozens gathered for a victory celebration after work.
Lippman said he was aware of the vehement sentiments against him: "It's clear that I have inspired passions, on one side or the other. It kills me, it hurts me that people think those things. It's the kind of thing I have trouble sleeping over. And I'm hurt that some people find this a cause to celebrate."
Since Lippman arrived at the station in January of 1992, he and the "Action News" format has been clouded by criticism. He made several cost-cutting moves that included eliminating overtime, shifting personnel and changing shifts. Many staffers left voluntarily or were let go.
Lippman was accused of using sensationalism to pump up the ratings, including incorporating constant "live" remote reports and encouraging banter between anchors and reporters. He once mandated that the 5 p.m. newscast have a direct tie-in every day with the syndicated Geraldo Rivera talk show, which led into the news. He and anchor Michael Tuck had to be separated during a highly publicized shoving match in January that broke out after Tuck refused to ad-lib an update of a bank robbery and hostage incident, saying he was unfamiliar with the story.
Of the criticisms, Lippman said, "Am I controversial? Yes. The critics may not like the 'Action News' format, but a lot of viewers do. Those are the ones we serve. We don't do shows for the staff. We told the news in an exciting way. We had moving camera shots. Our graphics were bold."
The most recent controversies revolved around how "Action News" covered the King civil rights trial. KCBS reporter Bob Jimenez had his press credentials temporarily removed by U.S. District Judge John G. Davies after the judge's voice was heard during one of Jimenez's live updates from the pressroom of the Roybal Building. Under federal law, the courtroom proceedings, which were relayed to the pressroom via an audio monitor, could not be taped or broadcast.
However, in an April 6 memo from Lippman to his staff concerning coverage of the verdicts in the case, Lippman ordered reporters stationed in the pressroom at the Roybal Building to get "on the air first" with verdicts for the four defendants accused of beating King even if it meant "holding the phone up to (the) speaker and patching it down the phone line to air."
Officials at KCBS said the memo was not an official directive and was just a compilation of notes. However, the courtroom proceedings could be heard over the air on the day of the verdict, though officials said it was unintentional.
Almost immediately after being notified Friday morning of his termination by Gigliotti, Lippman began calling local television newsrooms asking for a job. Just days before his firing, Lippman's wife, Julie Neff, quit her job as director of the Center for Writing and Learning at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and is moving to Los Angeles.
"I love Los Angeles and I want to stay here any way I can," Lippman said. "I feel I can still make a contribution."