Remembering a bright light from the dawn of TV news


TO A GENERATION that tuned in for the dawning of local TV programming, Rolf Hertsgaard will be remembered as the first of the great Baltimore news anchors, when local news anchors still mattered. He was Jerry Turner before Jerry arrived and changed the business. Hertsgaard was the first big newsman as Master of Ceremonies, ushering in a bright new electronic day that seemed as if it might glisten forever.

Three decades after he was ushered off-screen because he was deemed not amusing enough, Hertsgaard died last week, at 81. That he was still vividly remembered is a testament to his earnest efforts over a 15-year career on WBAL-TV, and to the promise that television news once seemed to hold.

It was supposed to be the future. Who needed to strain the brain, slogging through all those columns of words in an inky newspaper, when the nice folks on television would do all the work for us? Except, of course, that was the one piece of the equation never worked out: TV didn't exactly do the work. It mostly went through a charade, hoping that if its handful of reporters danced fast enough, and showed enough dramatic pictures, nobody would notice how little news the program actually delivered.

Rolf Hertsgaard understood this. We talked one day, not long after he'd left the air, at the old Cy Bloom's Place in the Alley. He'd spent 15 years as WBAL's anchor, 1958 to 1973, and done some very nice work. He reported John Kennedy's assassination and Spiro Agnew's forced resignation.

It wasn't that Hertsgaard did any original reporting. Like every other anchor, both then and now, he'd sit in front of a camera and read copy reported by the wire services. But it was TV's immediacy, and its human element, that captivated us. And it was Hertsgaard's sense of seriousness, and his innate decency, that lent it a patina of legitimacy.

He won the Albert Lasker Medical Journalism Award one year for "The Dark Corner," a documentary on mental retardation that he researched, wrote, produced, directed and narrated. What few people knew was that neither he nor his cameraman took a cent of the $2,500 prize money. They donated it to the Maryland Association for Retarded Children.

But here he was, that day at Cy Bloom's, ready to put broadcasting behind him. First he'd been dumped by WBAL. Then, after a fling with WITH radio, he'd decided to turn off his microphone. He was opening a Polock Johnny's hot dog franchise at Greenmount Avenue and 33rd Street.

The mind boggled at the thought: Would Walter Cronkite sling hash for a living? Would David Brinkley serve up all-beef patties on a sesame seed bun? That's the effect Herstgaard had on his generation: He was our version of one of those network anchors, gathering the nation around the community campfire.

But now he was putting it into perspective.

"I was a performer," he said, smiling slightly. "It was show business. I was never trained as a journalist. TV wants faces. In my case, they decided they wanted a younger face."

He was 53 then. It was 1976, and TV news had made the fateful decision about its future. Would it build a business on a foundation of news, or make news programs a branch office of show business? Whatever Hertsgaard's shortcomings, his removal for a younger face, and a sunnier disposition, was one of the first tip-offs.

"There are some good people in TV," he said that day. He mentioned Jerry Turner, who was beginning to become an earth force at WJZ. "Jerry's good because he's believable - but, also, because he's got a sense of show business. And that's the real nature of TV news."

Hertsgaard sat there now, with strangers stopping occasionally to wish him well. Then he said, rather wistfully, "Over the years, people said to me, `Go to New York, you're great. I guess I must not have been that great. I was sincere and compassionate. That was my image. I guess there must be more people who like Jerry, with his sense of humor."

It was an era when Happy Talk, the little chit-chat between on-air people, was beginning to blossom. It was television's way of sending a signal: We're kidding around now. The nightly seriousness is done, and we're ready to be entertaining. Turner was comfortable with it, and Hertsgaard wasn't.

In another lifetime, when I worked at WJZ, Turner offered a primary piece of advice: "Always be yourself. If you try to fake it, viewers can see through it, and they resent it."

Hertsgaard was himself, and was deemed not amusing enough to carry a show. Today, the anchors have moved back to a more serious mode. Their personalities have been removed, in order for them to appear more authoritative. No single anchor carries a show anymore. Today, the anchors not only read wire copy - they do voice-overs for overseas packages, as though they've been to Baghdad and done the actual reporting themselves.

Sometimes, though, they seem a few wars behind. The other night, one of our local anchors reported the opening of the new World War II memorial, in Washington. She mentioned a few of the war's battles. She mispronounced one of them, among the war's bloodiest. Just for the record, Corregidor is pronounced Cor-REG-idor. Not COR-rej-idor.

Rolf Hertsgaard was self-effacing enough to note his own shortcomings. But he cared enough to learn pronunciations.

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