Duke University Alumni Magazine


Ready to rumble: ABC's williams, left, and CBS's rosenfield

Two television journalists--rivals in the country's largest market--discuss the burdens of reporting in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment.

t's a blistering summer Friday evening in New York City, and Jim Rosenfield '81 is telling us everything we need to know. Rosenfield, co-anchor of the noon and six p.m. newscasts on network affiliate WCBS, runs down the top stories of the day--from budget cuts in the city's school system to the effects of the current heat wave--with a gently authoritative on-air delivery reminiscent of Today host Matt Lauer.

Meanwhile, five channel-clicks away on competing channel WABC, Diana Williams '80 is reporting on the same stories, working tonight as a guest anchor five hours before her regularly scheduled eleven p.m. show. With a warm yet forceful demeanor, she adroitly follows hard-crime headlines with lighter, more upbeat stories.

You wouldn't know it from watching these studies in professionalism under pressure, but less than two decades ago both Rosenfield and Williams were wide-eyed interns at Durham television station WTVD. Today, they're popular anchors in the nation's number-one market, with a viewership of nearly 9 million in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut each day. How did two graduates of a university with no official journalism department rise in one of America's toughest fields to rank among New York's top town criers? They took two very different paths.

"CBS was always part of our family growing up," says Rosenfield, a Scarsdale, New York, native whose father, also named Jim, was a sales executive at the network. "I remember as a young kid I came over here to watch Captain Kangaroo in one of the studios right around the corner from the newsroom. I have a vague memory of being on the Evening News set." He also remembers watching two of his current colleagues, veteran WCBS sportsman Warner Wolf and entertainment editor Dennis Cunningham. "But," he's quick to add, "I don't tell them that."

Plugged in: Williams prepares to air

Because of changes in the Trinity College curriculum that took effect the summer before he transferred to Duke from Hamilton College in New York, Rosenfield, an English major, was forced to stay in Durham for summer school to fulfill his science requirement. On a whim, he took an internship at WTVD. "I began by writing voiceovers--not for air, but just for the producer to look at," he says. "Then, after a while, they would let me write voiceovers that did get on the air. That was a big thrill. I was hooked."

During his senior year, WTVD offered Rosenfield a slot as a weekend reporter; his big on-air debut was covering an overturned truck on Highway 15-501. "The anchor, who had taken me under her wing, said, 'If that truck is still out there, we need a live shot,' " he recalls. "She called the news director and said, 'Is it all right if Jim tries this?' He gave it the okay. We went over what I was going to say for hours. I guess I did all right, because they let me continue."

He began at WTVD full-time after graduation, but his career path soon took a short and unwanted detour. When the station's weatherman fell ill, Rosenfield was asked to fill in until a replacement was found. "I said, 'Sure--a month, whatever it takes.' Six months later, I was still doing weather at noon, six, and eleven. That was one of the more frustrating periods. I didn't want to be a weatherman; I wanted to be a reporter."

At one point, Rosenfield considered going back to school for a master's degree in journalism--but a quick conversation with CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather changed his mind. "He said, 'I wouldn't go. You're going to learn by doing.' And he was right." Soon Rosenfield had landed a job with ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston, where he met his wife, Dana, a TV news producer--and expanded his horizons. "Just getting to know the culture in Texas was a real kick," he says. "I covered the rodeo--things you'd never, ever think you would get a chance to learn about." After a few years, he picked up again and moved to Chicago, where he served as reporter and weekend anchor for ABC affiliate WLS.

Rosenfield's nine-year stint in the Windy City provided his most memorable on-the-job experiences--not the least of which was a two-week trip to Tel Aviv, where he covered the Gulf War. Unfortunately, the timing of the attack in 1991 meant he had to fly out of Chicago when his first child was only three weeks old. "That was a hard decision," he says. "I knew it was the right thing to do, but I felt conflicted. My wife was a real trooper. She was in the business, so she understood."

Once in Israel, he immediately felt the war's frightening effects. "You get off the plane and they give you a gas mask. And you don't really know how to use it. You don't know whether the SCUDs are going to hit or not, and they were missing their targets. One of the things I was impressed with was how calm the Israelis were and how they tried to go on with their routine. We got no sleep because of the time difference--we were filing stuff early in the morning for the late news--and then we would go out and get stories during the day."

His last night in Tel Aviv, he says, ended up being the most unforgettable, when a SCUD missile hit a nearby neighborhood. "It was just amazing to see the devastation. I interviewed a man who had survived the Holocaust and had had his house bombed by Saddam Hussein." Upon leaving Israel, he says he had two thoughts: "I was glad that I did it; I was glad to come home."

Rosenfield also flexed his sneaky-journalist muscles. When he covered the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, he surreptitiously gained access to the building with his cameraman. "We got in a side door that was unlocked, walked through the atrium, and found a stairwell door. There was so much commotion that no one was paying attention. We got down into the stairwell and we heard voices, and up came some firefighters. I thought, 'We're busted.' And they said, 'You wanna see something amazing? Follow us.' They brought us down two more levels into the sub-basement. There was this huge crater with cars in it and concrete that was all broken up and wires. It was incredible. At that point we knew this was a great 'get.' We shot as much as we could, got out of there quickly, called the station, and said, 'We have incredible stuff.' After that it was cordoned off; you couldn't get in the building."

As his contract with WLS was reaching its conclusion, Rosenfield was ready for a new challenge. "While reporting can be fun and exciting and your adrenaline always gets going the minute you get out there, there were days when I felt, 'I've covered this three-alarm fire.' " He had his agent put out feelers in larger markets--though his most valuable power broker turned out to be his own father, who bumped into WCBS general manager Steve Friedman, a business acquaintance, on an airplane. "His father comes up to me and says, 'Why don't you hire my son? He's an anchorman in Chicago and he's really good,' " recalls Friedman. "And I say, 'Jim, I'm sure he's great. Have his agent send me a tape.' Assuming, of course, that the guy was no good. So I look at the tape, and I thought the guy was great." Friedman then summoned Rosenfield to a secret Baltimore audition with the rest of the WCBS news team and offered him a job hosting the noon and six o'clock weekday broadcasts in the summer of 1998; his first broadcast was the following October. "I believe in being a natural on the air," Friedman says. "I think New Yorkers want to see a real person. And he's that."

In his current position, Rosenfield's workday begins at 9:30 a.m., when he arrives at the office and familiarizes himself with the day's events by reading wire reports. He then peruses the script for the noon broadcast, rewriting any copy he doesn't like. After the noon show, he says, "I might go right out on a story, I might be doing a story in-house that we get off the feeds and put together here, or I might work on something for a future day. That part of my day is still unpredictable." As the six o'clock newscast approaches, the cycle begins again.

Nothing but network: Rosenfield eyes the future

Although he is officially an anchor, "I still think of myself as a reporter," he says. As such, he says, some of his proudest moments come from leaving the anchor's chair and reporting longer stories during the all-important "sweeps" periods, when viewership ratings are most closely evaluated. "They've given me pretty free rein to come up with ideas," says Rosenfield, who's investigated such issues as the use of anesthesia in private doctors' offices, which is unregulated in New York; "sky rage," or cases of unruly airline passengers; and post-polio syndrome.

"I was very lucky," says Rosenfield, reflecting on his eighteen-year journey into broadcasting. "If I hadn't had to take those summer-school courses, who knows what would've happened?"

For one thing, he wouldn't have crossed paths with Diana Williams, who was ending her stint as a WTVD intern when Rosenfield was beginning his. A Fort Lauderdale native who followed in her father's footsteps by attending Duke, Williams, an economics major, found herself at an impasse halfway through her college career. "I'm thinking, 'business school or law school?'" she recalls. "That summer I worked doing legal research and hated it. So the beginning of my junior year, I'm like, 'What am I going to do?' " Through a friend, she became involved with Duke's campus radio station, WXDU. "I was initially going to be a DJ, and he said, 'I've got enough DJs--go do the news.' So I'd rip wires and read copy. Then I started interviewing people and doing more with it."

In her spare time, Williams worked in Duke's University Relations office for then-director William L. Green Jr., who suggested she intern for WTVD. "He said, 'Look, I'll just call over there and tell them you're coming.' So I showed up on their doorstep and they put me to work." Soon, she says, "They couldn't get rid of me. I started writing a lot of copy for the weekend anchor because she didn't want to come in until late. So I would work all morning and get everything ready for her. And if a story came along, she'd send me out with a photographer. By the last six months of my senior year, I was out reporting."

Williams' auspicious beginning on the air, in typical North Carolina news fashion, was covering a snowstorm. "Nobody could get into the newsroom, and I was there. The news director's looking around an empty newsroom, and there's no one there but me saying, 'I'll go!' " That assignment, she says, helped her land her first post-graduation position, at WSOC in Charlotte, where her relative inexperience made for a rocky start. "The first six months were brutal. Fortunately, I had a news director who just had faith in me." After a year and a half, she was plucked away by the top-rated station in Charlotte, WBTV. There, she says, "I was anchoring and producing. I did everything except run the teleprompter."

Her next stop was WHDH, the last-place station in Boston. "That was a station fumbling to find itself," she says. "The news director was experimenting. On the five o'clock show, he had us walking around the newsroom while we were on camera. But it was Boston, the number-six market in the country." Soon after she gave birth to her second child, Williams says she felt the strong pull of her family responsibilities. "I thought, 'Am I going to be a mom, or am I going to work?' " She then ran by her agent the idea of a one-year sabbatical leave. "He said, 'Go ahead--you're good enough, you'll find something. Call me in six months if you want to start looking again,' " she recalls. "Well, parenting is truly the hardest job on the planet. So, six months later I'm on the phone saying, 'Find me a job!'" Her criterion: "I don't care where it is, but just make sure it's a number-one station."

That station was WABC, the home of New York's longest-term newsman, Bill Beutel. Since joining the affiliate in 1991, Williams has covered such news events as President Clinton's inauguration, the Republican National Convention in San Diego, and Pope John Paul II's recent trip to Mexico. She is most passionate, however, about social issues germane to New York, specifically the state of the city's homeless shelters. "I would talk to homeless people and they would say the shelters are really bad. Then I'd go to the city and they'd say, 'No, they're wonderful places. We take good care of our homeless people.' I finally said, let's find out. So, we went in with undercover cameras and we found out, lo and behold, the homeless people are right!"

The result was the special Shelter of Shame; in 1991, the special earned her first-place honors for best documentary program from the broadcasting division of the New York Associated Press. "We spent a lot of nights out until two or three in the morning. That's when you get the rats scurrying across the floor and the guy in the bathroom smoking crack, and all of the things the city says don't happen." Williams' main frustration is that the special failed to effect any real change. "The administration then was not receptive to dealing with the problem, and the Giuliani administration has never been real receptive to dealing with the homeless situation either," she says in a matter-of-fact tone. "People care more about dogs than homeless people."

Reflecting on the preponderance of random crime stories on local newsbroadcasts in recent years, Williams says she believes it has had a strange psychological effect on the public. "People have become immune to 'Two people shot in Queens.' They don't care." Because it's such a pervasive theme, it no longer impinges on their thinking, she says.

For his part, Rosenfield says he's concerned about the violence-and-sensationalism fixation of local news. That doesn't mean he's inclined to ignore it, but rather to counterbalance it. "There is a lot of bad news that we have to report, and there are days when I think it's too much. And it's not what the viewer wants to know, necessarily. So, it's important to break it up, spread it out over the hour and a half. We're conscious of that, we talk about it. In Chicago, there was a period when I thought the emphasis on crime was way overboard and it was all we covered. I think the pendulum is swinging back a little bit. And I know that management here doesn't share the philosophy that if it bleeds, it leads."

It's precisely that philosophy that has governed local news in general for years, says Duke political science professor David L. Paletz, author of The Media and American Politics: Contents and Consequences. "But the tradition of sex and crime is waning," he says. "They've moved to a more benign kind of coverage."

Indeed, says WCBS-TV's Steve Friedman, "I don't want to do empty warehouse fires and mindless crimes. If you do the crime story, you've got to get to know the people. If a teenage girl disappears on her way home from the roller-skating rink and winds up murdered, we try to do who she was, what the effect is on the family, and how to protect yourself, as opposed to just another crime story."

But media critic Alex Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter formerly with The New York Times, isn't impressed with the shift away from "just another crime story." (Former U.S. News & World Report editor James Fallows, in his book Breaking the News, argues that the local broadcasts actually contribute to the undermining of reason in democratic society--scaring government officials into eliminating prisoner parole, for example, by focusing on the one parolee in thousands who commits a crime.) Local television is naturally conflict-driven, says Jones, "because TV is a medium of pictures and motion. Boring pictures of school-board meetings, with voiceover about what they voted on, are not 'good television.' And in a local ratings battle, no TV station is going to go for substance over pictures. A great car crash. A close-up of a distraught family member of a victim. Emotion. Drama. That's how you get on the local news, and national news, too, for that matter."

"It's television! It's pictures! It's what it is," Williams responds. "We're driven by pictures, yes, but we don't put pictures of nothing happening. We have to put pictures of something. And we make judgments as to whether that something is newsworthy or not."

"If we get good pictures on a legitimate story, we're going to run it," says Rosenfield. "But to say that a great car crash is going to get on before an issue that might be visually less interesting? To some extent, that's a shortsighted view."

Jones, who shares with his wife, Susan Tifft '73, the Patterson Chair in Communications and Journalism at Duke's Sanford Institute, is host and executive editor of National Public Radio's Media Matters. He points out that newspapers started as a medium of opinion and, later, news. "Television was always considered an entertainment medium from the get-go. Until the 1960s, even the 1970s, the networks and local stations carried news mostly to satisfy the public-service requirements that were then a part of securing and keeping a license."

Those days are gone--now, news is seen as a cheap commodity to produce, compared to entertainment shows. And since news draws a respectable audience, advertisers can be attracted. "News, in corporate-TV speak, went from being a public service to a profit center," says Jones. "Until then, the suits at the top didn't really care what was on the news. It was mostly there for prestige and to impress the government. But if money was involved, look out. All of a sudden, there was a huge rush to more news and quasi-news programming, and it went from stepchild to the kid who was supposed to win the U.S. Open."

The bad news about news-as-profit-center, as Jones sees it, was that the only real measurement that mattered was audience. The goal line has become, then, a ratings level. It's a short step, he says, to the notion that what draws a crowd should lead the news--even if it isn't particularly important. "And the values became very strongly focused on 'good television,' which means lots of crime, fires, wrecks, inspiring features, weather, and sports. These things are also very easy to report, usually. They aren't complicated. It's just-the-facts-ma'am stuff. As a result, ironically, local television news often comes up as the most credible news. That's because they seldom if ever step on anyone's toes and they are almost always right, which isn't that hard when you are talking about who died in the wreck and what the score was of the ball game."

Rosenfield sees a less bleak picture on his television screen, saying substantive issues do get a certain amount of coverage. He says viewers could "find examples here every week where we might tackle a visually challenging story but an important issue. We've covered [New York schools chancellor] Rudy Crew quite a bit, in terms of his battle with the mayor [Rudolph Giuliani], and those weren't exciting visual pictures."

And whether or not they're redefining good-television stories, the New York stations are becoming more service-oriented. "We do a lot of campaigns, like 'Protect Your Children,'" says Williams. "I'm very involved in our breast-cancer campaign. We're trying to show people that we care about the community we're in." Establishing that kind of community connection, of course, isn't bad for ratings.

Jones worries, though, that a strong service orientation is allowing for a growing and pernicious use of video press releases. "These are very highly produced news-ish press releases, ready to be put on the air, that are distributed by companies pushing products like some drug to help lower cholesterol. Stations, and even networks, are increasingly willing to build local stories around this stuff because it's 'good television,' which is inexpensive to produce. In other words, it's cheap and easy, which tend to be the watchwords at too many local television stations."

But not so cheap and easy that stations fall for them every time. Rosenfield says research and caution are the watchwords when such p.r. department-generated pieces come in. "We're very careful about finding out, 'Okay, who's behind this? Is this a blatant form of self-promotion on the part of a drug company?' We've killed stories because of it. We're always getting that onslaught--and we try to be careful how we present it, if we present it. We do ask those questions. We don't just throw it on the air, that's for sure."

When local stations do accept such material, it's in part because they're feeling pressure from the increasing popularity of twenty-four-hour cable-news stations like CNN and MSNBC. The cables have reached record viewership levels in the wake of such recent breaking-news events as the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. "When I got into this business," says Williams, "I had a fifty share: Half the people watching TV were watching our local station. We're lucky to get a ten share now. They're all watching cable."

Even as they're protective of their audience shares, both Rosenfield and Williams say they often feel the effects of a certain celebrity culture that has grown around news anchors, even on the local level. Last summer, Williams made an appearance at a New York Liberty women's basketball game, helping Gregory Hines orchestrate a fund-raising auction. And for a full month last spring, Rosenfield's face adorned the front of countless New York City buses as part of a major WCBS news ad campaign. "That was pretty wild," he says. "It's weird to be walking home and see yourself coming back at you on the bus. I had a lot of people say, 'You almost ran me over!'" It will only get worse as the two begin to eye positions on national news programs, a natural step after anchoring a New York broadcast for several years.

Still, Rosenfield and Williams balk at calling themselves celebrities. "You know what?" says Rosenfield. "Here in New York, there are a lot bigger celebrities than the people who are on the local news."

Karger '95 is a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly magazine in New York.

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