Broadcasters Behaving Badly

Philadelphia’s KYW, the CBS owned station in town, has had more than its share of newsroom scandals over the last year, building from former anchor Alycia Lane’s firing in January over a scuffle with police to her former co-anchor Larry Mendte’s trial and conviction for hacking into her email accounts.

By the time Mendte was sentenced last week to six months of probation, KYW was covering the story almost like any other news organization in town. But while the story was developing, the station squirmed like many another news organization caught in the awkward position of having its own people become the news.

KYW isn’t even the only Philadelphia station with a current anchor scandal – at WCAU former anchor Vince DeMentri recently filed a complaint about being fired over allegations of having an affair with a colleague and subsequently vandalizing her car.

AsPhiladelphia Inquirer TV critic Jonathan Storm noted in a column, “TV newsies elsewhere have had their woes,” this was an active year for newsroom scandals in Boston, New York, California, and elsewhere including incidents of public drunkenness, police confrontations, sex, and violence.

Storm said his public relations contact at KYW typically tried to go beyond “no comment” and at least give him some general statement to the effect that management didn’t yet have all the facts but was investigating. On the other hand, when these stories were breaking in the newspapers, the station at first would not report on them in its own newscasts – and typically other stations in the same market wouldn’t report on the scandals, either. Eventually, that had to change, once the FBI confirmed it was investigating Mendte and dragged him into court.

Earlier, instead of making a “big production” out of being horrified over the alleged offense, the station “surgically removed” the problem personnel from the airwaves. “That’s always the first step,” Storm said. “There was never any explanation of why these people weren’t there anymore.”

But Storm doesn’t judge station management too harshly. In fact, he thinks other organizations might have been tempted to try to keep Mendte and Lane despite their bad behavior because they were bringing in good ratings. “I think the fact that the station saw this behavior was just toxic, and recognized that was more important than transitory rating games, is actually admirable behavior on their part.”

Edward Esposito, chairman of the Radio Television News Directors Association, said RTNDA’s Code of Ethics includes relevant provisions about integrity and accountability, but he admits figuring out how to apply them in the midst of a scandal can be tricky.

“On a personal level, every news director has to keep in mind what an odd position they’re putting themselves in if they say ‘no comment’ when they’re asking for answers from other people who want to say ‘no comment,’” said Esposito, as a former anchor and news director, currently serving as vice president for information media at Rubber City Radio Group.

The station does have to balance the demands of journalism with its role as an employer, he said, and not be too quick to condemn employees based on charges that could prove unfounded. “However, if they are proven guilty – and ‘if’ is a big word there – then you as a journalist have to be fair to your readers, or your listeners, or your viewers.” In the meantime, it’s fair to put the employee on either paid or unpaid leave while awaiting a resolution in court, he said.

While he has never had to deal with a scandal nearly as big as Mendte’s, Esposito has had to work with station personnel who have been indiscrete with, for example, postings to Internet message boards. One of the things that’s changed about the news business is how quickly scandals spread in the digital age, he said. “You see it in how a salacious case gets passed along by email, and the subject line always seems to be, ‘You won’t believe this one,’” Esposito said.

When a scandal hits, you have to balance the requirement to project “as much transparency as possible,” while protecting an employee’s right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, said Steve Ridge, president of the domestic TV practice at the consulting firm Magid & Associates. “If you're holding yourself out as objective journalists who report the facts, you kind of have to take your own medicine.”

 “The classic trap is that traditionally a lot of stations have tended to think of talent as being bigger than life, putting them up on a pedestal. And the problem with that is anchors are human beings, they're people,” Ridge said. For that reason, his firm advises stations to build their brands around the competency of the news operation as a whole rather than any individual, he said.