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If you hadn’t already noticed on social media or T.V., the face of WUSA9’s news operation has left the network to travel the globe—for a couple of months, that is.
Ex-investigative chief Russ Ptacek has parted ways with the local CBS affiliate after negotiations the newsman says ended on Thursday and took a year and a half to complete. Seeing a difference in where the station was headed and how he hopes to pursue investigative journalism, Ptacek, 52, tells City Desk in a phone interview on Friday that he’ll trek to Phuket, in Thailand—having already visited Bangkok and Hong Kong in recent days—as part of a project for a “national news organization.” (He won’t say which.) Also on Ptacek’s agenda: Some speaking engagements, an investigation into the case of a girl who went missing in Kansas City (where he once worked for KSHB), and finding a full-time media job.
“As far as the long-run, will I be in a traditional local news room? Will I be on a network show? A digital correspondent? No one has any idea,” he says. “Symbolically, I chose Phuket”—a tropical paradise—”as part of this project to kind of represent that I don’t have a plan other than this big project and having an opportunity to relax. My face is getting tan.”
In a statement provided earlier this week, WUSA9’s News Director Bill Lord said, “Russ and the station had a mutual parting of the ways. We appreciate his service over the time he was here and wish him well.” Ptacek clarifies that he was neither fired nor did he quit: After working at the station for four years, partly under new management, it was time to go.
“It’s not a divorce, but if it was a divorce it would be a very friendly divorce,” the investigative reporter says. “My goal is to retire in Washington and be the guy who can barely move with his microphone but people will go, ‘Oh yeah, remember when he did such and such?’ What I do is very, very specialized and in some organizations it’s not a good fit.”
Ptacek (the subject of 2013 City Paper cover story) is known for his sometimes-aggressive reporting on everything from racist cab drivers and rats in high-end establishments to corrupt lottery boards and violent police assaults. The first was one series he’s particularly proud of. “The most important thing is that I showed white people what black people have known forever, which is that cabs don’t pick up black people,” Ptacek recalls. “If we did the same test today the results would be very much the same. It is one of the most amazing [and] visible discriminatory things that happen in the city.”
WUSA9 brought the reporter on in 2012 to build an investigative team, which grew to four people. But towards the end of his tenure at the station, Ptacek says the job evolved under current management into something where the “synergy” just wasn’t there. (“It was never a miserable situation,” he explains.) According to him, WUSA9 is pivoting towards weather and more original news segments, instead of repeating old segments that had been broadcast before. “They’re making changes,” he goes on to note. “As a soldier, as any employee is, you go on with the way the general is leading the team.”
Overall, though, Ptacek says his time at the network was “the best professional point in [his] career,” and both parties don’t harbor any resentment: At WUSA9, he could bring injustices to light, even when it rubbed people the wrong way.
“I think anyone that knows me or watches me on T.V. knows that either you really like me or at best you’re ambivalent,” Ptacek confesses, chuckling. “Maybe I’m a little bit too much for you. I’ve got a very strong personality and am spirited.”
“I think a lot of people would say sometimes there’s a bit too much Russ in the story. And I think that often that’s a fair criticism. I’m aware of that but I’m using that and my personality as a way to push the story in a way where it will have higher impact, and hopefully with higher impact it’s more likely to create change.”
Though he aspires to stay in Washington, Ptacek says he may relocate to Denver, where his 85-year-old mother resides.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery