TV news desks have a certain racial makeup

Anchors: The pattern at local stations is to pair black men with white women. WMAR has found a novel way to maintain diversity.

TV/Radio Column

March 06, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

In Baltimore, anchor teams for the local newscasts of record - weekday evenings and nights - are almost uniformly composed of black men teamed with white women.

Shrug off this practice if you want. But people who switch on WJZ in the afternoon will see Kai Jackson and Sally Thorner. Later, you'll encounter Vic Carter and Denise Koch. Carter and Jackson are both black; Thorner and Koch are both white.

Turn to WBAL-TV (Channel 11), and you'll find Jeff Pegues and Donna Hamilton or Rod Daniels with Marianne Bannister. Same pattern. Watch WMAR's Vernon Shaw and Jo Ann Bauer in the afternoon. Or try WBFF (Channel 45), where Jennifer Gilbert, who is white, teams up with Tony Harris, who is black.

I'm not saying this is a good thing or bad thing; I'm just saying it's definitely a thing. The rule holds true at all of the city's commercial stations, for six out of seven anchor teams. And the seventh case, which I'll detail in a bit, was an unconventional scheme cobbled together on the fly.

As expected, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. named Gilbert last week to fill Deborah Weiner's spot as the primary female anchor for WBFF and its sister station, WNUV (Channel 54). The appointment has been well received internally at the station, as it's seen as a deserved reward for Gilbert's loyalty and talent over the past nine years. Yet it's not unreasonable to note the WBFF anchor demographics selection follows a predictable pattern: white woman, black man.

Insiders at WBFF say Gilbert was the obvious choice. "In all the positions she's held for us, she's done an outstanding job," says William Fanshawe, general manager for WBFF and WNUV. "We do interview candidates to find the best that are out there."

Nonetheless, Fanshawe acknowledged, "We try to keep the station so it is in line with the mix for the marketplace. In our key positions, you want African-American representation."

The greater Baltimore region is roughly 28 percent black; to ignore those potential viewers would not only be racist, but folly. According to the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation, the percentage of television news professionals who are African-American dipped to 9.9 percent in 2001 from 11 percent a year earlier. Yet, the common appearance of black anchors on the airwaves is a welcome step in the right direction, according to some observers inside and outside the industry.

"Both the black community and the overall community have come of age," says University of North Carolina communications professor Chuck Stone, a former Philadelphia Daily News columnist. "The black community has matured to the point where it's producing anchors, and the audiences have accepted them."

Conscious of these dynamics, WMAR is following an unusual path to resurrect its ratings. As news director Staci Feger-Childers settled into her job, Bauer and Shaw became WMAR's early evening anchors.

In the meantime, WMAR has jettisoned a few of its experienced reporters and off-the-air employees, including Stovall, an African-American who was its most prominent anchor. But, according to station staffers, WMAR did not find a suitable black male anchor who was available for the right price. By his account, Stovall had been asked to take a 60 percent pay cut to stay - this after taking a significant cut in salary several years earlier.

Stovall's involvement with the station remains so ingrained that just last week, weather forecaster Norm Lewis ended a report by saying, "Back to you, Stan." Stovall hasn't appeared on the air since December.

Instead, the station hired Brian Wood, a former Seattle weekend anchor whose contract had expired, to become the primary late-night male anchor. But he, like co-anchor Mary Beth Marsden, is white. So WMAR's executives found themselves facing a dilemma: do they field an all-white anchor team at 6 p.m. and at 11 p.m., or do they dump the sole familiar face appearing behind the anchor desk after twilight?

WMAR's problematic answer: Neither. Although Feger-Childers and general manager Drew Berry are tight-lipped about their plans, which include a new studio set and greater use of the partnership with The Sun, they confirm that they have hired Denise Dory, an African-American anchor from the CBS affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., to appear on the 11 p.m. newscasts. As will Marsden. As will Wood.

With three anchors on a half-hour show, that's a lot of people for not so much news. "There just isn't enough airtime for each anchor once you take out your ad time, your sports time, your weather time," Stovall says. "That's only two or three stories per anchor."

Here's a question for the solons of local television: Why black men and white women? Why not black women and white men - or two women, or two African-Americans, or, heaven forbid, an Asian-American or Latino anchor?

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