Saturday, December 1

Some of the People...Some of the Time

It was the early nineties, and I had just arrived (from Miami) to take over as News Director for WEWS-TV in Cleveland—my hometown.

I’m not sure you can imagine the thrill of landing a top job at the station you grew up watching. WEWS (the call letters stand for “E.W. Scripps”) was the dominant station when I was growing up in the early fifties. Its slogan was “First in Cleveland,” but it was really the first TV station in the state, and if I’m not mistaken the first TV station between New York and Chicago when it signed on sixty years ago this month, on December 17, 1947. I was eleven months old at the time!

Dorothy Fuldheim did news commentary. A local utility sponsored a 15-minute nightly local newscast, and put its name on it (so I grew up watching Tom Field and the East Ohio Gas Report!). Gene Carroll had a Sunday afternoon talent show that was a fixture in Cleveland for decades. Another Sunday favorite was Polka Varieties. Paige Palmer aired a weekday exercise program. Later Don Webster hosted an American Bandstand-type show that was syndicated nationwide, Upbeat (how big a treat do you think it was for me to later work with Don Webster, who became Channel 5’s lead weathercaster?). Later The Morning Exchange became the blueprint when ABC remade its morning news into the easygoing Good Morning America.

And, of course, for years there was Captain Penny. He was a “railroad engineer” who showed "Three Stooges" and "Little Rascals" shorts on his noontime show (because that’s when the kids walked home for lunch every day). Life was simpler then.

How simple? Captain Penny signed off the same way every day:
“Remember…you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…but you can’t fool Mom! She’s pretty nice and she’s pretty smart. You do what Mom says and you won’t go far wrong.”
Listening to Captain Penny didn’t quite prepare me for my first big problem at “NewsChannel 5.”

I had been on the job only a couple of weeks when one of the news staff came to me to complain that someone had been messing with objects on her desk. I sat her down to find out what was going on. Nothing was missing, she said, but she had a stack of head-shots on her desk ready to send out to autograph seekers, and a couple had been torn in half. Serious business. I knew she wasn’t particularly well-liked by some of the staff—she was said to be a bit of a diva—but one’s personal property is still sacrosanct. I was asking her if she had an idea who might be behind it when she dropped her bombshell. She said she thought it had something to do with her religion!

I’ll admit to total naiveté. I asked—because I honestly didn’t know—what her religion was. She told me she was Jewish. And I told her that I’d be talking to station General Manager Gary Robinson as soon as possible and that we’d get back to her.

If I ever worked for a more genial, non-confrontational, easy-going man than Gary Robinson, I don’t recall. He was taken aback—and instantly made several sound decisions. After contacting Scripps Howard corporate officials he sought out the station’s local law firm and asked for help in finding the best private investigation firm in the city. We then met with the employee and promised swift action.

Within 48 hours Gary and I were having the first of several meetings with two former FBI agents: two trim, crew-cut, no-nonsense men in white shirts and dark suits who laid out a number of scenarios. First, as a team, we talked to the employee, who suddenly seemed a little less sure of herself, and seemed anxious to drop the matter. In light of the seriousness of the original charges, Gary and I were reluctant to let the issue go. The investigators were talking about how to get access to the newsroom in off hours (Off hours in a newsroom?????) to install hidden cameras—asking for lists of anyone who passed by her cubicle on any given day (Anyone? Try everyone!)—and preparing for more thorough background checks of employees than they were given at hiring.

It was, in a way, heartbreaking to think that our co-workers—some of whom had been part of the Channel Five “family” for years—were suspects. But the slightest hint of anti-Semitism is not something to be handled in a casual way. And when pressed by the investigators for the name of possible suspects, the employee had one at hand: a respected long-time news photographer. She said she had rejected his romantic advances, and he continued to press the issue.

What that had to do with religion I didn't know, but I quietly had schedules rearranged to try to keep the two from working together, and the investigation moved forward.

It didn’t last long. The woman came to me just days later and said she had been offered a job anchoring in a much larger market, and if we would let her out of her contract it might be the best thing for all concerned.

I personally think that contracts are binding and shouldn’t be broken: don't sign it if you can't honor it. But at the same time I’ve always been reluctant to stand in the way of a someone accepting a wonderful opportunity, and this was just that. More than that—with the cloud of possible anti-Semitic harassment still hanging over the newsroom (although less than a half-dozen people knew about it, counting the photographer who had been brought in for questioning) this might work out to everyone’s advantage. Gary and the corporate honchos agreed and the contract was torn up.

So it was that on a Friday night a few weeks later most of the news staff gathered in a popular Cleveland pizza joint to bid bon voyage to our soon-to-be alumna, on her way to the big-time as an anchor. When I got there, late, I was surprised to see our suspect news photographer’s personal van—a fancy conversion job—in the parking lot. “What’s he doing here?” I wondered.

Inside the party was well underway. I’m not much for parties, but I was determined to pay my respects and wish the woman well. Strangely, she was nowhere to be found. Everyone said she was there, but I never saw her. After about ninety minutes I was pretty much partied out, decided it was time to go and made my farewells.

In the parking lot I was getting into my car when I saw, across the way, the side doors of the photographer’s van open. He got out—and helped the now-former employee out. She had that look—what do they say at the racetrack? She’d pretty obviously been ridden hard and put away wet.

So that question was answered. But even this many years later I still have a dozen more questions. They all lead to one major puzzle: WAS THERE AN INCIDENT IN THE FIRST PLACE, OR WAS THIS ENTIRELY A PLOY TO GET OUT OF A CONTRACT?

So, boys and girls, it turns out that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…and you can certainly fool me!

And no, I won’t tell you her name.

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