Reporter's dismissal causes bit of a stir

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Released: Execs hush about the sudden firing of WJZ's Kathy Fowler, who made strides at the station.

TV/Radio column

February 14, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

After more than four years in Baltimore, WJZ reporter Kathy Fowler was fired by the station earlier this month, to the surprise and dismay of colleagues. Fowler was one of the few journalists at the station who reveled in shaking loose new elements of stories that sparked strong public interest.

"I just was astounded that they would let her go," said Mindy Basara, a reporter at rival WBAL. "She's a great reporter, aggressive, with a hard-news take on stories. I was never happy to see her on a story I was covering, because that meant the competition was there."

Basara added, "She was on a roll, too."

In the month before her firing, for example, Fowler secured the sole television interview with Mayor Martin O'Malley profanely excoriating State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Fowler was also aggressive in reporting on a recent police corruption inquiry, informing viewers that FBI agents were administering polygraph tests to members of the Baltimore police internal affairs division.

Even so, during the first days of the month, Fowler was called into the office of news director Gail Bending and told that her contract, due to expire in April, would not be renewed. Fowler is no longer on the air. While Bending made the announcement, it was made at the behest of WJZ general manager Jay Newman. The newsroom was given no explanation.

Neither Fowler nor Newman would discuss the issue for this column. WJZ spokeswoman Liz Chuday said, "It's not appropriate to comment on personnel matters."

Colleagues say Fowler has been outspoken, on occasion, about philosophical disagreements with Newman over selection and presentation of her stories on the station's personality-driven newscast. Peers responded to her firing by covering her desk with flowers, cards, presents and bottles of liquor.

"Everyone was shocked - her co-workers as well as colleagues at other stations," said Mary Beth Marsden, an anchor at WMAR. "She always seemed to have, if not the lead story, then a good story, every night. It seemed to come at a time when she was producing some exclusive work for them."

Fowler, 32, first came to Baltimore in 1996 and freelanced with the station until she joined full-time in August 1997.

A real investigation?

This month marks a key sweeps period, when stations strive mightily to win the widest audience for their news and entertainment programs. The viewer can best measure how close a "sweeps" month is by how frequently she or he sees promotional spots for special reports.

The spots often set the tone for how the actual news segments will be received. For example, last Thursday, WBAL broadcast an "11 Investigates" piece that was narrated by reporter Julie Chapman.

Images float on screen, showing what appear to be a voting ballot and someone preparing to consume heroin. Over music suggesting a "hard news" flavor, a deep voice intones:

"They work for you. You pay their salaries. So 11 News calls them with questions you might have. Did the governor's office call us back? What about the lieutenant governor? Find out who called back - and who didn't."

The answer: Staffers for seven of 13 elected officials returned calls within a week, some within a few hours.

Now, as a principle, I'm all for making prominent politicians squirm a bit. That particularly holds if a story accomplishes a social good, such as a greater responsiveness to the average citizen. And this is the third year WBAL has embarked on this particular story, showing a willingness to follow through on a single topic.

But is this really an investigative piece? It did require Kathryn Seck, a freelance producer for the station, to place 13 calls, which shows an admirable command of the telephone. But one hopes investigative journalism would demand a bit more of its practitioners.

For instance, as news director Princell Hair pointed out yesterday, WBAL's Jayne Miller cast light just a week earlier into a corner of the corrections system that is ill understood - how inmates are awarded a reduction in their sentences from the moment they enter prison, unless they misbehave. That was a timely story, given the release of a convicted pedophile now accused of killing a boy in Frederick.

The telephone caper was not a terrible story, and it was not overly sensationalized. But what did we really learn? The office of Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was one of those cited for failing to return a call. I covered Mikulski for three years for this newspaper. Say what you will about her, the voters I interviewed almost invariably had someone close to them who had turned to Mikulski in the hopes of obtaining a delayed Social Security check, or resolving an immigration issue, or securing health care. Those hopes were generally well-founded, as her office had one of the best reputations on Capitol Hill for constituent service. Did that one failed phone call really reflect how well the senator tends to the state?

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