Friday, February 18, 2011

Another grown-up exits the scene

Now it's Bill Monroe who has passed from this mortal coil, another media grown-up who hasn't been -- and can't be -- replaced.

Monroe died Thursday at age 90, leaving behind a legacy as the first news director of Channel 6 in New Orleans, and as Washington bureau chief and moderator of
Meet the Press for NBC television.

Times-Picayune's obituary tells the story of a career defined by integrity . . . and guts:

In 1950, The New Orleans Item, one of the city's two afternoon papers, hired him as an editorial writer. Mr. Monroe had had print experience as a New Orleans reporter for the United Press wire service before he went to war.

Four years later, when WDSU was looking for a news director, Mr. Monroe applied for the job -- and landed it. When he joined the NBC affiliate, it was six years old.

The news staff amounted to "three or four people who just read the news," he said in a 1998 interview. "Early television reporters were converted from newspaper reporters."

Mr. Monroe hired a fleet of seasoned journalists, including the reporters Alec Gifford, Ed Planer and Bill Slatter, and the photographers Mike Lala and Jim Tolhurst.

By that time, the station had already made a name for itself in 1951, when it covered U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver's organized-crime hearings in New Orleans. Five years later, after Earl K. Long was re-elected governor, Mr. Monroe sent Gifford and Lala to Baton Rouge to show what he felt would be an interesting legislative session.

This was long before open-meetings laws, but nobody said anything, Mr. Monroe said in the interview, because everyone seemed to believe that someone had given them permission.

"We were there a week and a half before we were challenged," he said.

Long tried to have them removed, but the New Orleans delegation resisted because they had become stars.

"That experiment "put people in touch with the Legislature in a way they hadn't seen before," Mr. Monroe said in the interview. "The Legislature came alive. We got more letters for that than any other thing we did."

During that period, the station started airing editorials that Mr. Monroe wrote and delivered. The station stirred up controversy when it called for calm during the civil-rights period, when New Orleans' public schools were facing desegregation.

There were about 50 editorials related to the civil-rights movement, Mr. Monroe said.

The station's call for calm "appealed to the common sense of a lot of people in New Orleans," he said, "but that mild message, in the context of the times generated a bit of hatred toward the station."

Mr. Monroe said he received death threats, and advertisers threatened the station with financial ruin if it didn't back off. But station owner Edgar Stern Jr. stood firm.

For the editorials, WDSU won a Peabody Award, broadcasting's most hallowed honor, and a national award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association.
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: First, picture a television station running regular editorials, thoughtfully delivered. In many markets -- despite the death of the "Fairness Doctrine" decades ago -- that's difficult enough right there.

Then picture a news director adamantly advocating for a wildly unpopular position . . . just because it's the right and responsible thing to do. Picture him doing this some half a hundred times over the course of a year or so, despite hate mail and death threats.

Now picture the station's (most likely) corporate owner stand behind the station's wildly unpopular editorial stance despite advertisers' threats of an economic Armageddon.

I lost you a step or two ago, didn't I?

That's because the grown-ups have left the building. The loss is all ours.

No comments: