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Gail Shister

Sam Champion on DirecTV Spat: ‘You Should Give People the TV they Want’

ChampionWeatherAfter years of moving at the speed of “a giant cruise ship,” Sam Champion has become a sprinter.

“This is the most fun in the world, but I’ve never run so fast,” he says. “Information changes moment to moment. This organization is like a sprinter – it can change, bob and weave, and respond immediately.”

“This organization” is The Weather Channel, which Champion joined last month as managing editor and anchor. The “giant cruise ship” is ABC, where he was ‘Good Morning America’s’ popular weatherguy for seven years.

Labeled as “our No. 1 draft pick” by TWC chief David Clark, Champion will host a 7-to-10 a.m.  morning show, beginning in March. His on-air debut occurred far sooner, however, thanks to Winter Storm Janus last week.

“I knew there would be storms to cover,” Champion, 52, says. “While we’re building this [new] show, I would do work in the field. When this storm turned into more than a foot of snow during commuter rush times, it became a public emergency. We went around the clock.”

Had he been back at ABC, or at any major network, for that matter, Champion says he would have had to fight for airtime.

“I’d go to the News division and say, ‘I need to talk about this storm. I need resources.’ There’s a lot of other news that needs resources, too. That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it works. … Then the story would be put in a lineup of other news, and I’d have to wait for the show [‘World News.’]”

At Atlanta-based TWC, “I’ve got 220 meteorologists and scientists watching that storm. We had crews covering it right away.”

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‘There Will Be a Time When Coming Out is Not a Big Story’

RobertsChampionWolfe

By any measure, 2013 was the Year of the Queer, especially for network anchors.

In addition to the death of DOMA, the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, and the Boy Scouts of America’s pledge of allegiance to sexual diversity, ABC’s Robin Roberts and Sam Champion and NBC’s Jenna Wolfe joined the growing pantheon of openly-gay anchors.

All three of their revelations were greeted with virtually unanimous support, which leads me to wonder: Have we reached a societal tipping point for acceptance of homosexual news personalities? Or does the culture of celebrity require that such disclosures launch blazing headlines?

Yes and yes.

“As long as we keep progressing, there will be a time when coming out is not a big story,” says CNN’s Don Lemon, 47, who disclosed his sexuality in his 2011 memoir. “… Maybe not in the near future; maybe over the course of a decade. I’m not an authority on when that will be. I’m not Nostradamus. I can’t predict things.”

To MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts, we’re already at that point. Out since 2006, his September 2012 wedding to Patrick Abner was featured in the Sunday New York Times ’‘Vows” section.

“Times have changed,” Roberts, 41, says. “We have a President who believes in marriage equality, and a Supreme Court that believes in marriage equality, and more and more states that are enacting laws to recognize marriage equality. I think it’s fantastic.”

The momentum from this cultural sea change has enabled “great, wonderful people” such as Robin Roberts et. al “to step up and claim their rightful spots,” Roberts adds. “They’re showing that a successful personal life and a successful professional life can live within the same sphere.”

Roberts and Lemon point out that such exposure is crucial in the face of raging homophobes like ‘Duck Dynasty’ star Phil Robertson. Robertson is “free to cast aspersions,” Roberts says. “He throws gay people on the fire and uses the Bible as an excuse.”

Amen. Got a match?

Robin Roberts’ and Sam Champion’s approaches to acknowledging their sexuality publicly represent another cultural tipping point. Eschewing methods of the past — declarations on national magazine covers, for example — both chose a subtle, understated approach.

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The 10 Biggest TV News Stories of 2013

Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 11.51.18 PM

How to describe a year in which TV news had more turnovers than Pepperidge Farm? Business as usual.

The dramatic departures and arrivals of A-List talent weren’t the only big story of 2013, of course. Two new networks launched. Fox News made some major changes in its prime-time lineup. Serious health issues affected at least three anchors. And CBS’s venerable ‘Sunday Morning’ continued to kick ass on the Sabbath.

Herewith my choices for TV news’ Top 10, in no particular order:

Open mouth, insert foot.

Hosts Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin both left MSNBC after making what could charitably be called offensive comments.

On his November 15 broadcast, Bashir suggested that someone should defecate in the mouth of ex-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin because of remarks she had made about slavery. Instead, it was Bashir who was forced to eat doo-doo. He resigned Dec. 4.

Actor-activist Baldwin hit the bricks Nov. 26, two weeks after he was caught on video calling a paparazzi a ‘cocksucking fag.’ His weekly show, ‘Up Late,’ lasted exactly five episodes. Maybe replacing ‘Lockup’ was bad karma.

Lara’s theme.

Ace ’60 Minutes’ correspondent Lara Logan was forced to take a leave of absence after her October 27 piece on the Benghazi attack was discredited. Politico says she’ll return early next month. CBS isn’t talking.

A CBS internal inquiry labeled Logan’s report ‘deficient in several respects.’ Among them: Over a full year’s reporting, she and her team somehow missed the fact that her major source, security contractor Dylan Davies, was a liar. Oops.

In a dubious distinction, Logan’s story led to ‘60’ winning Poynter’s Error of the Year award. If you call that winning.

A pair of newbies.

While other networks endured layoffs, two new cable channels debuted — Al Jazeera America on August 20 and Fusion on October 28.

AJA hired hundreds of journalists and staff – including many from U.S. networks. Among them: CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi, its first big-name hire; CNN International’s Joie Chen; MSNBC exile David Shuster and NBC’s John Seigenthaler.

AJA, whose corporate parent is based in Qatar, boasts 12 domestic bureaus and three broadcast centers. It reaches about 48 million homes.

Fusion, a joint production of Disney-ABC and Univision, features news and pop-culture fare targeted at English-speaking millenials. Based outside of Miami, it represents Univision’s first major foray into English-language programming.

Would you like your anchors scrambled or poached?

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Brian Stelter: CNN’s offer was ‘Irresistible’

BrianStelter“I would not leave the Times for a television job” doesn’t occupy the same pantheon as “Read my lips, no new taxes” or “I never had sex with that woman,” but it still presents a bit of sticky wicket for Brian Stelter, who debuts Sunday as host of CNN’s ‘Reliable Sources.’

In late July, Stelter told The Washington Post that he wouldn’t quit his day job as media reporter for The New York Times if he were chosen to succeed longtime ‘Reliable Sources’ host Howard Kurtz, now with Fox News. During his CNN tenure, Kurtz had juggled full-time jobs elsewhere with his ‘Reliable Sources’ gig.

So what prompted Stelter’s change of heart?

“I meant it when I said it,” he says. “Everyone at CNN imagined that the next host would be part-time.“ After Stelter’s third stint as guest host, however, “a part-time job became a full-time job. I had never imagined what CNN sketched out, and it was very appealing.”

In addition to hosting the weekly ‘Reliable Sources,’ senior media correspondent Stelter files daily for cnn.com and does live hits on other CNN shows. Had it been a full-time anchor job, he wouldn’t have been as interested.

“I’m a writer and reporter at heart,” says Stelter, 28, who as a college freshman created the site that became tvnewser. “I think I can become more of an expert in the field by writing and reporting than I can by anchoring. It’s how I’ve grown up. I fell in love with print.”

As luck would have it, two big media stories broke on Stelter’s first day on the job last week — Lara Logan’s forced leave of absence from CBS and Alec Baldwin’s dismissal from MSNBC. Stelter did four live hits and wrote a story for the website.

He hasn’t stopped since. Stelter left for L.A. late yesterday to tape an interview today with ubiquitous TV/radio host-producer Ryan Seacrest. Stelter labels him as “a king of media” and “one of the highest-profile media makers in the world.” He hopes to run the piece Sunday.

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Sorry is Easy. In the Case of Martin Bashir, Suspension Seems to be the Hardest Word

Martin Bashir 304Judging strictly by precedent at MSNBC, if Martin Bashir had called Sarah Palin a ‘cocksucking fag,’ ‘right wing slut,’ ‘dick,’ ‘pimp,’ or ‘nappy headed ho,’ he would be on suspension, at the very least.

Instead, Bashir is a free man. All he said about Palin on Nov. 15 was that she should be forced to have someone defecate in her mouth and urinate in her eyes as punishment for her remarks on slavery.

What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty, if one considers MSNBC’s long history of Foot in Mouth disease. In every case, the commentator was either suspended or fired. In every case, the perps have been men, and in every case but one, the broadcast slurs have been aimed at women.

Ten days ago, actor Alec Baldwin was benched for two weeks after he was caught on video calling a paparazzi a ‘cocksucking fag.’ He may not return.

In 2011, Ed Schultz and Mark Halperin were both suspended — Schultz for labelling conservative commentator Laura Ingraham a ‘right wing slut,’ and Halperin for describing President Obama as a ‘dick.’ (Sidebar: If it had been Nixon, Halperin would have been technically correct.)

In ’08, David Shuster served two weeks for saying that Chelsea Clinton was being pimped out to support her mother’s campaign. And in ’07, Don Imus’ description of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as ‘nappy headed hos’ got him fired.

Like all his predecessors, Bashir apologized – the latest to join the celebrity culture of contrition. In a statement Friday, MSNBC said Bashir had also apologized to the Palin family, that he’s “committed to elevating the discourse” and that the network was handling the matter internally.

Still, many critics argue that Bashir deserves harsher punishment.

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Dan Rather: CBS ‘Trying To Airbrush Me Out Of Their History’

Rather1963Dan Rather to CBS: Get over it.

Despite the scorched earth he left behind, Rather insists he’s baffled as to why his alma mater of 44 years did not invite him to participate in its 50th anniversary coverage of the Kennedy assassination.

“Was I surprised? Let the record show I paused,” says Rather, 82, who as a young CBS reporter covering JFK’s visit to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, broke the news that the President was dead. “Yes, I was surprised.”

“I am an optimist…. In my optimism, I thought that maybe, just maybe, what was developing as I left CBS would fade and be past. Looking back on it, they were trying to airbrush me out of their history, like the Kremlin. I didn’t understand it while it was happening…

“I had hoped that whatever animus was there, as time goes by, would fade, and maybe they would change their minds. What’s next – I’m airbrushed out of Watergate coverage? Vietnam? Tiananmen Square? 9/11? Where does this lead?”

In fact, archival footage of Rather will be included in CBS’s special on Saturday, as will some of his previously-aired reminiscences. He will anchor his own retrospective Monday on AXS-TV, where he hosts ‘Dan Rather Reports.’ Also, he’ll appear with NBC’s Tom Brokaw on ‘Today’ Nov. 22.

CBS and Rather are not exactly on speaking terms. Since Memogate in 2004, he’s been a virtual persona non grata. Forced out as anchor after 24 years, he bitterly left the network in 2006 and later filed a $70 million suit. It was dismissed in 2009 by New York State’s highest court.

Though the suit cost him millions of dollars personally, he has no regrets. “It was about trying to save a body of work,” he says. “…There was no line at CBS running from Murrow to Cronkite to Rather. Rather, in effect, never existed…. Anybody in my position would have done what they could to preserve 44 years of work.”

Rather refuses to comment on the ongoing scandal at CBS’s “60 Minutes” involving Lara Logan’s report on Benghazi. She apologized on the air Sunday for having been “misled” by a security contractor who told inconsistent stories about being an eyewitness to the attack.

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‘Hard-Nosed’ Sports Reporter, Still Hit On in the Locker Room, Gets CNN Back in the Game

nicholsWomen in sports journalism have come a long way, says CNN’s Rachel Nichols, but they have a long way to go.

“The very fact I’m allowed to go into the locker room after the game, with no one questioning it, shows significant progress,” says Nichols, 40, whose new weekly program, “Unguarded,” debuts Friday at 10:30 p.m. on CNN and CNN International.

On the other hand, athletes’ “attitudes and prejudices still need some work,” Nichols says. “When I meet players for the first time, they can be a bit guarded. Right off the bat, they assume you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s harder to get the story sometimes.”

“Unguarded” will feature a long-form interview with an athlete as well as a panel discussion that will include entertainment stars in addition to jocks. For the opener, Nichols accompanied NBA star Lebron James in August on his annual promotional trip to China.

Sports have been a long time coming to CNN. The network has not had a dedicated sports show since “Sports Tonight,” a traditional daily roundup that began with CNN’s launch in 1980. Pre-empted by 9/11 coverage, it never returned.

Under CNN Worldwide chief Jeff Zucker, “there’s a broadening of what CNN can be,” says Nichols, a veteran of ESPN and The Washington Post. “We’re moving to focus on more than just politics. When you pick up a newspaper, you want to be able to leaf through other sections. My show is part of that.”

Nichols joined CNN in January after a nine-year run at ESPN. Also a reporter for Turner Sports, she covers a wide variety of assignments, from major league baseball to the NBA to the Super Bowl. Also, she will be part of Turner’s Olympics team.

When it comes to football, Nichols acknowledges that women generally report from the sidelines while men occupy the more glamorous booth. (At ESPN, she did the former for “Monday Night Football.”) It’s an underrated gig, she insists.

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Review: ‘Up Late with Alec Baldwin’

AlecBaldwinThe debut of MSNBC’s “Up Late With Alec Baldwin” last night made for compelling television – if you happened to be a New Yorker obsessed with the city’s mayoral race.

Everything about the show was New York-centric. The open: black-and-white photographs of the city, backed by cool jazz. The set: an intimate, wood-paneled faux diner with spectacular views of the skyline. The host: a Long Island native who beats up New York paparazzi.

Given Baldwin’s star power and the amount of hype for “Up Late,” however, I hardly expected the guest for the premiere to be a New York City politico. But there he was, Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, front and center for the next hour.

The presumptive mayor, while charismatic, holds little interest for viewers outside the five boroughs. Regardless, Baldwin, a self-proclaimed de Blasio man, practically tossed rose petals at the candidate’s feet.

What transpired could hardly be called an interview. Baldwin’s softball questions were setups for de Blasio’s long, uninterrupted stump speeches, disguised as responses. Job creation, affordable housing, economic inequality, early childhood education. All that was missing were the balloons.

As the show went on, some of the topics got more interesting – stop-and-frisk, for example. There were moments, but only moments, when Baldwin acted (no pun intended) more like a news network host and less like de Blasio’s campaign manager.

Then there’s the issue of Baldwin’s hair.

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‘When You’re a Reporter, it’s Somebody Else’s Drama. Now it’s My Drama.’

HattieKauffmanFor Hattie Kauffman, finding God was easier than publicizing the book she wrote about the experience.

A former CBS and ABC correspondent, Kauffman has hopped onto the promotional treadmill for ‘Falling into Place: A Memoir of Overcoming,’ her deeply-personal first book. The PR parade is not her definition of a religious experience.

“It’s uncomfortable to think you have to quote, unquote, sell your writing, but it’s a necessary part of it,” Kauffman, 58, says. “Writing a book is so much easier than launching one. I can see why somebody would want to fly to New Zealand for six months.”

Kauffman put in 20 years at CBS, beginning in 1990 as a correspondent and substitute anchor for “CBS This Morning.” She reported for a variety of broadcasts, including “48 Hours,” “Sunday Morning” and “Evening News.” A member of the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho, she was the first Native American to report on a network evening newscast.

In ‘Falling into Place,’ Kauffman turns an unblinking reporter’s eye to her own life, including growing up in searing poverty with abusive, alcoholic parents. It was during a year-long, nightmare divorce from her second husband that she found God.

“My relationship with Christ is a very personal thing,” says Kauffman, now remarried — to a Christian man she met in church — and living in Seattle. “The word ‘religion’ can be so heavy. It can connote so many different things. It’s very important in my life.”

The themes for ‘Falling into Place’ are more universal than just Christianity, she says, acknowledging that such an emphasis “might be off-putting to segments of the population.”

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Turning Down the Volume for ‘Crossfire’ 2.0


New “Crossfire” hosts (l-r) Stephanie Cutter, Van Jones, S.E. Cupp and Newt Gingrich.

When last we saw CNN’s “Crossfire,” it resembled a scene from “Animal House,” minus the togas.

Eight years later, “Crossfire” has learned its manners, according to CNN. Hosts will use their indoor voices, and will allow each other to finish sentences. The experiment begins at 6:30 tonight, with Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter on set with two guests.

“You have to wait for someone to finish, then make your point,” says CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, who began his CNN career as a “Crossfire” intern in 1989. “We get that. Obviously, it’s something to be mindful of. At the same time, we want to have passionate conversations.”

Even with what’s being billed as a kinder, gentler “Crossfire,” the question remains as to whether the conservative-vs.-liberal roundtable, launched in 1982, matters anymore in a radically altered cable topography.

Given that Fox News and MSNBC have become so polarized, a political program with both sides equally represented is more important than ever, says Charles Bierbauer, Dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and a CNN correspondent for 20 years.

“Whatever happened to the guy in the middle?” he opines.  “I, as a viewer, like more than one point of view on issues. We’ve evolved, or devolved, to the notion that tuning into Fox gives you a right wing, conservative perspective and tuning into MSNBC gives you a left wing, liberal perspective.”

Going a step further, Feist says CNN “is the only cable-news channel that is capable of hosting “Crossfire” in an authentic way…. We’re bipartisan. Our job is to represent all points of view. It’s hard to imagine viewers would trust other channels to offer a debate program with equally balanced hosts and guests.”

“Balance” often leads to a deafening decibel level. Toward the end, this was “Crossfire’s” hallmark, fueled even more by a vocal studio audience. In his infamous 2004 appearance, Jon Stewart decried the cacophony, which led, in part, to ex-CNN chief Jonathan Klein’s decision to euthanize the show.

“Crossfire’s” approach was emblematic of the time’s ‘argument culture,’ says Amy S. Mitchell, new director of Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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