City Paper is not for tourists
Give the VHF dial a spin during prime evening-newscast time on any given weekday and you’ll run across a slew of Washington newsbabes.
First try WRC Channel 4: Here you have Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler. Poised, mature, attractive. But a bit frayed around the edges.
WJLA Channel 7: Anchors Leon Harris, Kathleen Matthews, and Maureen Bunyan look just fine. But not fine.
WUSA Channel 9: Anchor Gordon Peterson is a trustworthy, informed expert, but he’;s a few years past the hottie age bracket. His new early-evening deskmate, Tracey Neale, on the other hand, is pure fire, a genuine beauty. She seems out of place at an affiliate of CBS, a network known for bringing in the Murder, She Wrote crowd.
And wouldn’;t you know it: Neale came from the area’;s bastion of newsbabes, WTTG Channel 5, the local Fox affiliate. As they say in the trade, you can’t spell “foxy” without “F-O-X.”
The glamour is on the set no matter when you tune into the news. Early morning, afternoon, early evening, or late eveningall of WTTG’s newscasts are staffed by lookers. One former employee of the station describes the Fox 5 news team as “the best-looking locally.”
Here’s a partial lineup.
Gurvir Dhindsa: This stunner, who came to WTTG earlier this year after Channel 9 opted not to renew her contract, brings radiant, raven-haired good looks to the station’s early-morning broadcast. Her soothing voice and dark eyes make it easier to ingest the pre-dawn news.
Steve Chenevey: With a playful mole beside his right eye, Chenevey looks like a fun-loving frat boy all grown up. The man can hang a suit as well as fill out a pair of basketball shortsin a recent segment on the Washington Mystics, Chenevey showed off both his shitty jump shot and his shapely legs.
Allison Seymour: Ever-radiant throughout her recent pregnancy, Seymour is always a vision. Her sweet face and flawless maquillage make her the Halle Berry of the local news.
Brian Bolter: With his wavy hair, porcelain skin, and strong jaw, the stoic Bolter resembles a slightly less-chiseled Stone Phillips.
Shawn Yancy: The homecoming queen of Fox 5 anchors, Yancy dazzles with her bright smile and warm demeanor. She is impeccably dressed, expertly coiffed, and perfectly accessorized. Her penchant for shimmering, dangling earrings adds an extra element of sparkle to her glowing visage.
Will Thomas: The jury is still out on whether weekend anchor Thomas is hot or nothe is either smoldering or scary, depending on whom you ask. But his gift for contorting his face to fit the emotion of whatever story he’s reporting on is indisputable.
Fox 5’s teleprompter readers are so easy on the eyes that they’re starting to challenge the region’s pre-eminent newsbabeChannel 4’s Wendy Rieger.
One of the most lusted-after broadcast bombshells in Washington news history, Rieger has won numerous distinctions from the annual Washingtonian “Best & Worst” readership pollhonors include being voted “Local Celebrity I’d Most Like to Rub With Suntan Oil and Lie on a Beach With” and “Local Celebrity I’d Most Like to See in Thong Underwear.”
However! According to an informal poll conducted on the D.C. Radio and Television (DCRTV) Web site in April, Fox 5’s Laura Evans has ousted Rieger as the “sexiest TV newscaster” in the Baltimore-Washington area. Evans, reporter and weekend anchor for Fox 5’s 10 o’clock newscast, captured 36 percent of the votes while Rieger came in a distant secondand suffered the indignity of splitting the silver with Baltimore anchor Jennifer Gilbert. They each raked in 9 percent of the votes.
DCRTV site editor Dave Hughes is hesitant to draw any conclusions about WTTG’s win. “Laura Evans won way ahead,” says Hughes. “But it was a poll where anyone could submit multiple votesthere were reports of vote-fixing.”
Pity the poor FedEx man who arrives at WTTG’s Wisconsin Avenue NW building every January to pick up the station’s submissions to the local Emmys.
For the 2002-2003 Emmys, awarded in 2004, Fox 5 News sent out 90 submissions for consideration, which yielded 32 nominationsthat’s roughly one nod for every three dog-bite stories entered. In the previous year, the station also sent in 90 segments, but nabbed 40 nominations. For the 2000-2001 judging, it sent in 103 tapes, which garnered 54 nominations.
Although the volume of material the station submits is massive, its strategy of flooding the zone has paid off: This year alone, WTTG snagged 16 of the local awards, which are administered by the National Capital/Chesapeake Bay chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS). The second-most-decorated local station, Baltimore’s WBFF, snagged only six.
Channel 5’s Emmy hegemony reaches back to the 1995-1996 competition, when it submitted a whopping 106 entries for consideration. But the station only nabbed 11 awards that year. Its biggest statue take in recent years has been in the 2000-2001 race, when it took home 20 awards.
Fox 5 has also done well in regional Edward R. Murrow Award competitions, which the Radio-Television News Directors Association oversees. For the 2004 regional Murrows, WTTG-TV took home four out of nine awardsthe most of any one stationin the Television: Large Market division, including the coveted Overall Excellence prize.
And the execs over at WTTG are every bit as excited about their industry awards as, for example, that violent storm front heading up the coast. Tune into a 10 p.m. broadcast and you’re likely to hear the station’s creepy voice-over guy introduce a news segment with this statement: “You’re watching Fox 5 News at 10winner of the Edward R. Murrow and Emmy Award for most outstanding late newscast.” Just in case you don’t understand the importance of those distinctions, the announcement features faint images of a Murrow plaque and a globe-holding Emmy angel beneath the text.
WTTG Vice President/News Director Katherine Green says the number of prizes bestowed on her newsroom is evidence that the station is shaking its sensationalist reputation.
“Sometimes I’ve felt like we’ve sort of been the underdog station,” she says. “People have a tendency to sort of dismiss us. The truth of the matter is there are some really talented people that work here. Murrows and Emmys are recognition by our peers. These are people who would compete with us otherwise, and they’re sitting there saying, ‘Hey, you did a really good job on that.’”
But naysayers maintain that the only thing that the overstuffed Fox 5 News team trophy case proves is that Fox execs are good at basic maththe station wins only because it consistently submits more entries than any other station in the entire market. WRC, for instance, hasn’t submitted more than 90 entries in the past two years combined.
Not only do stations have to submit videotapes of clips for the awards, but entry fees range from $100 to $350. To submit a boatload of tapes, a station needs both a newsroom leader willing to make trophies a priority and substantial financial backing.
Many credit Green for bumping up the station’s participation in the Emmys. But Ivey Van Allen, spokesperson for Fox Television Stations, says WTTG “has a long history of entering Emmy competitions” that predates Green’s arrival. Van Allen does laud the news director for encouraging staff to submit Murrow entries.
And WTTG has plenty of financial support, from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which bought the station in 1986.
“They enter more than anybody elsethe company is willing to pay the entry fee,” says one former employee. “Fox sees it as a necessary cost of doing business. And when they win, they promote it.”
Morris Jones, who worked at WTTG from 1983 to 2001 and was the station’s longest-running anchor, says that boom times have enabled Fox 5 to participate in the Emmys in a major way.
“I was there during frustrating money times and when the spigot opened,” says Jones, who currently works as a national anchor for Sinclair Broadcast Group’s News Central. “I think, through certain economic times and luck, whoever happened to be there saw the spigots open. Saw them get new sets, expand, hire more people, and pay for and enter two to three to four times as many contests as two to three years prior.”
Fran Murphy, awards chair for NATAS, says that Fox 5’s winning streak has ruffled employees at other stations in the area. “It can create tension, shall we say,” she remarks.
Emmy submissions aren’t judged by competitors in one’s own marketthey’re shipped off to other parts of the country for review by more objective eyes. Murphy says it’s been rumored that Fox affiliates nationwide vote early and often for other Rupert Murdoch-owned stations. The rumor, she insists, is unfounded.
“I’ve actually had people come up to me and say it’s a conspiracythat Fox stations are voting for each other around the country,” Murphy says. “I said, ‘Oh, really?’ and started looking online at other markets. In some markets it’s truein three to four other markets, and ours, Fox wins a lot of awards. But it’s not true across the board.”
Murphy, another former WTTG employee, who currently freelances for the Pentagon Channel, cites WRC Channel 4 as the most consistent local stationshe notes that it has the team with the most longevity and seems immune to newsroom unrest. But as long as Fox 5 continues to submit the most entries, it will remain the station most likely to “receive recognition” (NATAS frowns upon the word “winner”) at every annual local Emmy ceremony.
“A lot of stations, for economic reasons and other reasons, don’t enter as much, and that decreases their chances, lessens their chances,” Murphy says. “You have to get up to bat to hit the ball.”
On Sept. 20, a fire on 30th Street NE was tentatively linked to the region’s evasive serial arsonist. So local media outlets pounced.
The graphics departments at several television stations and newspapers went to work. Many of them generated helpful, if bland, maps outlining the various properties the fire-starter has hit since March 2003.
But Fox 5 is never satisfied with just a simple map and a few dots. Sure, the station covered the basics: a chart of the area and markers to denote where fires had taken place. But just in case viewers forgot what “arson” meant, Fox 5 added bright-orange flames to its graphic. The fire rose from the base of the screen and licked the map’s bottom edge, subjecting homes already terrorized by the serial arsonist to smoke and char once again.
Such graphics touches are typical of Fox 5 newscasts, which are designed to hold the short attention spans of the post-MTV generation. “I think our newscasts may look more contemporary,” says Green. “I think we have great competitorsthis is a market where there are very good stations. But sometimes I watch our competitors and it’s sort of a feeling like you’re in your grandmother’s living rooma little dated, maybe a little dusty.”
It all boils down to this: maps. If Fox 5 has a story, it has a map. There’s no need to pull up MapQuest to figure out your home’s proximity to the latest carjacking, traffic accident, or stabbing. Fox 5 serves up those crime coordinates for youand in a way that no other station does.
A map pointing out the site of a hurricane-induced silo collapse in Ripley, Md. A map for the story on a police impersonatoreach of the two spots he hit is marked on a map of Prince William County, Va. A map pointing out the exact spot on Route 340 in Frederick County, Md., where a half-dressed motorcycle rider was killed trying to execute a video stunt”Fast, Furious, Fatal,” screamed the headline.
For the majority of stories, the graphics team over at Fox 5 News takes basic atlas entries and gives them a modern makeover.
“We try to use the graphics to be part of the story presentationwe’re not looking just to put ribbons and bows, so to speak, on a box,” says Green. “We’re actually trying to convey information in a way that might be a little more compelling to watch.”
The map may be a gimmick, it may be a cheap way to add interest to any story, but it is also undeniably a helpful tool. It may be overkill to work up a map showing us the longitude and latitude of places such as the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. But those looking to get to Ripley can use all the help they can get.
Check out a WRC Channel 4 newscast sometime. There in front of you are Vance, Gentzler, sportscaster George Michael, and other sundry talking heads lined up behind a long desk. They stretch their legs and stand to deliver information from elsewhere in the newsroom on occasion, but most of the time, they’re warming their seats.
Fox 5 would never stand for that! Put those guys in their own news centers!
WTTG takes a hub-and-spoke approach to organizing its newsroom. There is indeed a main news desk, but there are also an indeterminate number of “news centers” in the Fox 5 complexsome actual sets, others computer-generated.
•Looking for the latest on the big presidential election? That’s a job for the “Fox 5 Election Center.” This news hot spot is manned by one of the station’s on-duty anchors, who jumps from behind the main desk to “Center” stage. Before the camera cuts over to the election HQ, a huge, full-screen template that reads “You Decide 2004” appears. Then, through the magic of television, the anchor who was sitting at the desk minutes before magically reappears in the new location.
Weather coverage runs on a carefully calibrated hierarchy.
•The “Fox 5 Weather Center” deals with run-of-the-mill weather coveragerain, snow flurries, overcast days, and the like.
•More serious precipitation and winds are discussed in the “Fox 5 Storm Center.”
•The “Hurricane Tracking Center” is reserved for breezes of epic proportions. When this station is employed, you know that violent forces of nature are at work before weathercaster Sue Palka even opens her mouth.
•More baffling is the “Fox 5 Net Center.” News about the cutting-edge developments in the IT world is delivered from this location. The hi-tech backdrop is ideal for delivering viewers the very latest in computer news, such as the Sept. 21 morning piece on America Online’s trumped-up security features. For that one, anchor Michael Gargiulo stood in this exciting center, a computer screen at his side.
When Eastern High School students showed up on campus for the first day of school, Fox 5 broke the news to several teens and their parents: Class schedules were not ready, and the official start of the school year would be delayed. Over the next few days, WTTG was all over the story, managing to find many interesting characters to comment on the situation.
After classes resumed, Fox 5 cameras caught one black student as he stuck his head and arms out of a school windowexhibiting every typical “Hey, I’m on TV!” behavior save the shout-out to Mom.
Television news is often blamed for perpetuating horrible racial stereotypes. Reporters seem to a have a unique gift for wading through throngs of articulate, thoughtful people of color and selecting the one buffoon in the bunch for an interview.
If someone from outside of this region were to plunk down on a sofa and watch a few D.C.-area news broadcasts, he or she might come to the conclusion that most local blacks and Latinos, except for the ones delivering the news, are criminals and scofflaws, and people of the Caucasian persuasion fit only into the categories of expert, city official, flack, and plaintiff.
But the good folks over at WTTG are crusaders for equal-opportunity embarrassment. Yes, they managed to find and interview at least two toothless old black men in the past month. But they have also given voice to the concerns of many, many people who would have no problem blending in at Jeff Foxworthy’s family reunion.
The presence of white hillbilly folk on WTTG prime-time newscasts was given a huge lift thanks to the recent severe-weather stories that played out in remote parts of Maryland and Virginiaplaces where there are still $500-a-month apartments for the taking. The Crystal Lake Mobile Home Park in Stafford County, Va., featured prominently.
During one post-tornado segment, after reporter John Henrehan gave a detailed explanation of the crucial difference between the weather forces that uproot trees and the weather forces that snap them in half, a guy in a gray wife-beater and camo shorts was shown jumping atop a fallen tree. He even beckoned for his shaggy dog to join him in standing on the trunk and surveying his battered country kingdom. You won’t grab that sort of interactive story in Northwest D.C. If a tree were to fall in Palisades, neighborhood residents would be captured on camera bashing the Department of Public Works, not using a natural roadblock as an observation deck.
The inclement weather unearthed other, similarly interesting down-home folk. One Charles County woman told a reporter: “Scurriest thing I ever been through.”
And a young man at Crystal Lake gave this chilling account: “I look up and all a sudden, I see a tornado. I ain’t know what to do.”
The newscast included testimony from folks who thanked the “lawrd” for sparing clapboard homes, and there were more trucker hats on display than in a Justin Timberlake video, minus the irony.
During the Sept. 9 broadcast of Fox 5 News @ 10, Will Thomas treated viewers to a Fox 5 flashback. Courtesy of some stock footage, those watching were transported back in time to 2003, when businesses in Old Town Alexandria suffered extensive water damage courtesy of Hurricane Isabel. After the montage, Thomas noted that despite the imminent approach of Hurricane Ivan, “problems like that are unlikely tonight.”
No matter. Fox 5 still cut to a shot of reporter Matt Ackland live in Old Town.
In his on-the-scene report, Ackland noted that a few overly cautious business owners had put out sandbags, just in case the level of the nearby waterfront should rise. He also noted that, earlier in the day, volunteers in the city had embarked on a campaign to distribute packets full of emergency-preparedness materials to homes in the area. There was footage of people dropping “Be Ready, Alexandria!” bags on doorsteps.
The story wasn’t particularly newsworthy, but with six-and-a-half hours of news time to fill each day, you gotta cut Fox 5 News some slacknot every story is going to be a thriller.
But the next morning, Sept. 10, at around 5:15, Fox carried the same story. It could have used the bit as quick filler and had anchors Dhindsa and Seymour give a brief rundown of what had happened the previous day in historic Old Town. But nothe show went live again, this time to reporter Virg Jacques, who was on the scene, talking up the emergency-preparedness handouts. During his spiel, the station again screened the canned footage of the door-to-door delivery of disaster packages.
Again, the station’s fixation on the nonevent seemed strange, but covering a ho-hum story from the previous night’s late broadcast first thing in the morning isn’t such a big deal.
But then, in the 7 o’clock hour, the cameras were running yet again. Jacques was reporting live from Alexandria, the third time that Fox ran on-the-scene coverage of absolutely no news.
And for the third time, viewers witnessed the same tough woman, baggies in hand, ascend the same staircase of one of Alexandria’s finer homes and deposit that same goddamned package on a now-familiar doorstep.
They saw the same spokesperson sum up the science behind the program, and, this time, inadvertently shed light on the Fox 5 News philosophy of coverage, as well.
“We think that this is empowering to the public,” he said. “Oftentimes, folks get the information and don’t really take it. But what we think is the more we give it to them, that they’ll, you know, it’ll finally become part of their lives.”
This is just one example of how Fox 5 News brings new meaning to the term “continuing coverage.” WTTG sticks with a story even when all of the elements that glue viewers to the screen have evaporated. But there’s nothing like a “live” label to resuscitate a dead news scene.
On the night of Sept. 14, Marion Barry won the Democratic primary for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat. People were dancing in the street outside of the winner’s campaign headquarters. By dawn the next day, however, the scene wasn’t so lively. Everyone had gone home. Except Fox 5, that is.
There was Jacques, standing out on the desolate street in the wee hours of the morning, live in Southeast, still covering Barry’s win.
Green doesn’t see any excess in her team’s live coverage. “Fox 5 in Washington is actually very much a traditional news operation,” she says. “We do a lot of investigative work, a lot of continuous coverage, and we do a lot of follow-upwe look at a story and then we go back and see if the issue has been addressed, if the problem still exists.”
For a station with a reputation for focusing on the more sensational aspects of local news, the commitment to documenting ennui provides a nice balance. Fox reporters are often the first responders at a minor car wreck and flesh-wound stabbingand they’ll also make sure to stick around long enough to deliver new developments, however small, to the handful of people who still give a shit hours, days, and weeks later.
Fox 5 News likes to splash catchy labels on its stories. “Breaking news,” “continuing coverage,” and “team coverage” are favorites. But “exclusive” is perhaps the most prestigious qualifier that a story can carry. The station doesn’t use this stamp often, but when it does, viewers are in for something special.
For a story about police staffing shortages in the 7th District, anchor Brian Bolter announced that Laura Evans was the brains behind this “exclusive story.” No matter that the subject had been receiving play in the local media for years. Take one dash of a new development, sprinkle in some new interviews, and you’ve cooked up a story that holds just enough new information to earn the “exclusive” tag line.
On Sept. 6, Fox 5 News did a spot-news piece on the murder of elderly Southeast resident Martha Byrd. The coverage, by Fox reporter Karen Meyers, included an interview with neighbor Robert Pettus, who revealed that the woman had been old and needed help with chores.
On Sept. 10, police announced that the case was closed, following the arrest of Pettus.
Time to tee up the “exclusive” banner!
On Sept. 24, Fox’s exclusive on the case consisted essentially of a retrospective on the original Meyers story. Pettus had told Meyers he was “shocked” to learn of his next-door neighbor’s killing. He had even given her a line about seeing the woman struggling to take the trash out.
The exclusive picked the interview apart, saying that Pettus hadn’t come off as a murder suspect. When he’d spoken, they’d had no idea! When he’d blinked his eyes, they’d had no idea! When he’d walked to his front door, they’d still had no idea!
Careful planning goes into producing the glossiest newscast in town. Creating maps, pursuing awards, and securing the hottest anchors in town takes work. But the biggest coup that the crack team of newsies over at Fox 5 has delivered in recent years was born from happenstance.
Fox 5 hit the breaking-news jackpot on June 29. Cameraman Scott McCathran, who was in the neighborhood of the SunTrust Bank on the 5000 block of Connecticut Avenue NW, caught the latest caper of D.C.’s band of serial bank robbers on tape. He captured the heist in progressin all of its mask-and-machine-gun glorywhile in the area working on an unrelated story.
When other local media outlets got their hands on images from the footage, viewers, regardless of their preferred newscast, knew on that day that WTTG was at the top of its game.
Still, some argue that the robbery-in-progress tape was nothing but pure, unadulterated coincidence. “They happened to have a photographer standing there who noticed guys with guns,” says Web-site operator Hughes. “It was a great coup, but it was just plain luck.”
Green argues that there are no accidents in her newsroom. “[T]here’s a saying that great news coverage is one part instinct and nine parts luck,” she says via e-mail. “[I]n our case, great news coverage is a combination of instinct, knowledge, experience, talent and luck!”
The evidence supports Fox 5 on the matter. After all, this was not the first time the station had managed to nab such an amazing piece of tape. In 2000, it had upped the ante in the coverage of the city’s exploding-manhole cover phenomenon by recording one of the sewer tunnels blowing its lida moment the station ran ad nauseam in its broadcasts.
One such incident can be dismissed as a lucky break, but when it happens twice, other forces are at work.
“[W]e have very good people working at our station. [T]hey keep their eyes and ears open. [T]hat is how they captured the video of the exploding manhole cover and the bank robbery. [T]hey are smart, quick, and they have good instincts.” says Green, via e-mail.
Citing “competitive reasons,” Green declines to share the strategies at work that seem to give Fox 5 News crews an advantage in showing up in the right places at the right times. But she says that keeping them working like dogs doesn’t hurt.
“There’s never a point where our newsroom is empty,” says Green. “There are always people who are working, working, working to keep the news wheel going. For us, news is truly a 24-hour-a-day business.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Dean Haspiel.