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A Line Is Drawn in TV Newsroom

Television: A veteran anchor unsettled by her station's direction quits after tabloid talk-show host Jerry Springer is hired for on-air commentary.

May 03, 1997|JUDY PASTERNAK and GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHICAGO — On Monday's newscast at 10 p.m. local time, syndicated talk- show host Jerry Springer will launch a monthlong stint as a commentator for the NBC station here--a management decision that so disgusted a respected veteran anchor that she has resigned.

Carol Marin, a WMAQ-TV anchor since 1985, said her on-air farewells Thursday night.

Marin already had been concerned about the direction local television news was taking before Springer's hiring. She was suspended for two days last year for refusing to read copy that she believed had no news value and was dictated by a commercial slated to follow immediately afterward. She also objected to tie-ins to NBC entertainment programs and so-called "civic" journalism that she felt was condescending.

When she heard that Springer might be joining the journalistic lineup, "this was a solid line in the highway that I could not cross," she said Friday.

Springer, former mayor of Cincinnati and once a respected anchorman and news commentator there, has for six seasons aired programs on his talk show with titles like "I Was a Breeder for the Klan," "The Family That Strips Together" and "I Had a Sex Change at 50."

"The Jerry Springer Show" is fourth-rated nationally among talk shows. It is taped at NBC Tower here, sharing an entrance with the local affiliate. It is shown in 150 U.S. markets, including Los Angeles.

Springer, who was in Los Angeles Friday for appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder," said he was bothered and bewildered by the proceedings.

"Obviously there is something else going on here," Springer said. "No one gives up their job because someone else is going to do a minute-and-a-half commentary once a week. And I am not happy that she chose to bring me into the middle of this. It's just a dramatic way to go out, and I just wish she had the dignity to tell the truth."

WMAQ is the No. 2 station in Chicago television news, behind the ABC affiliate, WLS, and ahead of the CBS affiliate, WBBM. In February, the NBC station hired Joel Cheatwood, a master of tabloid flash, as vice president for news in an attempt to break out of the No. 2 slot. Last week, as the controversy over Springer flared, WMAQ edged WLS in the ratings.

Marin's co-anchor, Ron Magers, also has harshly criticized the hiring of Springer. Magers has not said whether he will be staying or leaving, though he clearly had trouble keeping his emotions in check as he held Marin's hand while she closed her last show. His contract runs for three more years.

Marin said she has no quarrel with Springer's right to host a television program, but she believes he forfeited journalistic credibility when he took on his talk show.

"This is not about Jerry Springer," she said. "It's about the focus and direction of news. Not just local television. And not just television, but print."

Marin has a strong reputation among Chicago journalists. She defines herself as a reporter, and even had a clause in her contract requiring that she be allowed to continue to work on her own pieces. In recent years, she broke the story of a federal investigation into City Hall corruption and conducted a string of exclusive interviews with a woman on death row who wanted to halt further appeals of her pending execution.

"This is not my indictment of my profession," she said. "To my way of thinking, it's my celebration of my profession."

Springer said he has been doing news and commentary most of his career: "I was winning awards for my commentary before she learned how to read a TelePrompTer. I wasn't hired because I do a talk show."

He added: "This is part of the arrogance of television, that someone actually believes they have control of the airwaves, and feel they can decide who sits next to them and what opinions are going to be espoused. I mean, she's just an actor."

Even those who applauded Marin's stand labeled the resignation a defeat.

"I think they wanted to force Carol Marin out," said Chicago Tribune television critic Steve Johnson. "They wanted to go one way. She's fighting the good fight."

"It's terrible, a disaster," said Bill Kurtis, the documentary-maker who had a long career as a Chicago anchor as well as with "CBS Morning News." "Management has won. Jerry Springer has won. Devaluing a news operation has won."

Yet, Kurtis said, "finally, someone has taken a stand."

Marin "speaks for many," he said. "Many of us have spent years bouncing like monkeys on a string, doing things we don't want to do."

Kurtis left WBBM last November after that station flirted disastrously with the tabloid format, which was roundly rejected by viewers.

But he left quietly. "They bought out my contract," he said. "You say to yourself, 'Is it worth going public?' "

He said he'd talked with Marin about the joys and pitfalls of the documentary production business over the last week. "I want to offer her a job," Kurtis said.

If so, he is not the only one. Her attorney, Todd Musberger, said Marin has been inundated with offers, from newspapers, radio and broadcast outlets, from networks and syndicators. "She'll keep busy," he said.

Pasternak reported from Chicago and Braxton reported from Los Angeles.

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