Viviano, Ch. 11 score NFL coup, leaving acrimony in the air

Media Watch

November 13, 1995|By Milton Kent

There was probably no single person in Baltimore happier to hear Gov. Parris Glendening welcome the Cleveland Browns to town last week than Channel 11's Mark Viviano, who staked a great deal of his journalistic reputation on reporting that the team was, in fact, relocating to Charm City.

"There were a lot of nights that I did not sleep. I did think, 'What if this isn't going to happen?' " said Viviano yesterday. "I didn't feel totally relieved until Glendening held up that contract."

Viviano, Channel 11's weekend sportscaster, broke the biggest story in Baltimore sports since the Colts pulled up stakes 11 years ago, with grit, resourcefulness, perseverance and a little luck.

In the process, Viviano's scoop has touched off a battle of retorts between the city's three VHF stations, two of which sought to downplay the story, drawing the ire of the news director of the third.

The saga began just after Viviano had been host of a radio talk show on WBAL (1090 AM), the sister station of Channel 11. He said he received an anonymous tip from a well-informed caller saying the Cleveland Browns were negotiating to move to Baltimore.

Viviano, who worked in Dayton, Ohio, for five years before coming to Baltimore 17 months ago, began to check out the tip, which, on its face, seemed admittedly far-fetched, given the long history of the Browns in Cleveland.

"I used to cover the Browns, and I'm well aware of who they are in NFL history and the outrageous nature of them leaving," said Viviano.

But as he made more calls, Viviano discovered, with the help of his weeknight colleague Gerry Sandusky, and David Roberts, Channel 11's news director, that there was substance to the story.

Over the next eight days, Viviano, Sandusky and Roberts made a series of calls to pin the matter down, and when they drew up a joint list of confirmations that totaled two pages, they knew it was time to go on the air, which Viviano did on the 11 p.m. broadcast on Nov. 1.

"I don't see the general manager [Phil Stolz of Channel 11] that often, but I saw him twice that week. I knew we had something," said Viviano.

Said Roberts: "It was a well-researched story. The homework was done by the team of Viviano and Gerry Sandusky. They did a great job of doing their homework, asking the right questions and keeping me informed on what they had so that whenever possible, I could be helpful."

Over the next few days, Viviano continued to add more elements to his story, but he still had to wait five long days to see if his gambit would pay off.

In the interim, however, Viviano's reporting was coming under attack from his competitors at channels 2 and 13, playing on the city's wariness with NFL relocation rumors.

For instance, Channel 13's John Buren called reports of an agreement in principle between the Browns and the Maryland Stadium Authority "whistling past the graveyard," and Channel 2, in a bizarre twist, began running a promo, advising viewers not to believe "the hype." Even after Viviano's story was proved correct, Channel 2 produced a second promo, proclaiming that it had reported the facts, not the hype.

Oddly enough, Viviano said he used the words of his competitors to further nail down the story.

"I suggested [to his sources] that not everybody in town was believing my story," said Viviano. "They would say, 'Oh yeah? Well, tell them this, too.' "

Roberts chided Channel 2 for saying they waited until the announcement of the move was made "which is the last thing real reporters want to do. That's a shallow approach to journalism. For them to run a promo like that was classless. We hope that they continue to take that weak approach to doing their job."

Joe Lewin, Channel 2's general manager, said of Channel 11's scoop, "Maybe they got lucky," and defended the promos, saying, "When we report something on the air, we know it's true as opposed to some other stations. When you watch us, it's going to be true. You can depend on us."

When asked if the promos could be seen as "sour grapes," Lewin said, "You're probably right. Someone could perceive that. But it's not the case."

Roberts also fired a blast at Buren, saying, "When he says 'whistling past the graveyard,' what would you expect from someone who has no ability to go out and cover a story or no interest in reporting journalistically on a story? What else would you expect him to say? He has to fill time by saying something."

Buren, who won a local Emmy this year, took the high road, saying, "I have a policy. I never speak badly of anyone in the market. I don't do it in private, I don't speak behind people's backs and I have no intention of speaking badly of anyone in the market in a public forum. I've been in this business 21 years and my record and my accomplishments speak for themselves."

Gail Bending, Channel 13's news director, gave Viviano credit for breaking the story, but noted that last Monday, when the official announcement was made, her station's coverage of the event won at every time slot, and pointed out that Channel 11's 6 p.m. news that night finished fourth, behind channels 13 and 2, and behind a "Simpsons" rerun on Channel 45.

"It would not occur to me to start trashing the No. 1 sports guy in town [Buren]," said Bending. "I guess it's flattering, but it's puzzling. I don't know how you have the time to watch what other people are doing when you're doing your own show."

We just want everyone to play nice, even during sweeps month.

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