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Scarry Larry

Larry Medte and the Uses of Sensationalism

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By Cate Plys

Imagine a world without Larry Mendte.

"Yes," some readers are saying. "I'd like that." But proceed with caution. There's a reason the Enterprise crew shouldn't fool around with anything when they go back in time: unintended consequences. With Mendte eradicated from Channel Two News, for instance, would sweeps months disappear? No, we'd be left with Channel Five revealing the shocking news that some massage parlors sell more than massages, and Fox News promos would still promise viewers advice on getting Dennis Rodman into bed.

But we'd miss diabolically entertaining Mendte reports like last November's "Burning Down the House," a three-part series explaining how to escape a home fire. Chicago Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson picked "Burning Down the House" for special ridicule in a November sweeps article, calling it "Mendte's Beavis and Butt-head-worthy sweeps stunt." Mendte persuaded a developer to let him incinerate a house scheduled for demolition, enlisting the Frankfort Fire Department to set the fire. It's diabolical because it makes us cringe at its sensational approach. But, as if exposed to journalistic kryptonite, we're helplessly drawn in when Mendte ambles out the front door and says, "C'mon in. Take a look around--before we torch this place."

"Burning Down the House" starts with music, a controversial Mendte trademark. In this case, it can only be the Talking Heads song of the same name, with a quick-cut montage of fire and firefighters timed to the beat. Mendte sits in a living-room recliner, the planned origin for the fire. "Within minutes after the first flames, the rooms will fill up with a thick, black, blinding smoke," he says, as deep scary chords sound. Flames are superimposed over the chair, giving the unsettling impression that Mendte is burning alive as he calmly explains that the smoke is "a toxic gas that will rob oxygen from your brain and fill your lungs. You will become disoriented quickly. Within minutes you'll pass out, and if the firefighters don't get here in time . . . you'll die."

Part two opens with scenes of a raging fire and music that sounds like it was lifted from the Backdraft sound track. Mendte intones, "The flames dance in a macabre celebration of destruction, and sometimes death. . . . There isn't a firefighter alive who at a scene like this one didn't pray that she or he could turn back time." A great time-lapse shot of the burning ranch house runs backward, fire and smoke sucked magically back inside. "In this one case, we can. In this case, the firefighters and even our cameras can get there before the destruction, before the mocking flames, before the fire even starts. All in an effort to show you how to survive." He ends with a promise: "Tomorrow night, we burn the house to the ground."

Part three finishes with Mendte standing in front of the house's smoking ruins. "Do you have a smoke detector?" he demands. "Do you have an exit plan? Have you talked to your kids? Are you prepared--for that?" He points back sadly at the house, and the scene switches to an aerial view of a tiny Mendte walking dejectedly away down what was once the front walk.

Over the top? Sure. Yet even Johnson admits he learned some good pointers about surviving a fire. "It was totally excessive, but it did catch your eye and catch your attention and make you pay attention to stuff that might otherwise slip by, I suppose, if you just had McGruff the firedog come out," he says.

If the spectre of a Mendte-less sweeps month doesn't bother you, take pity on Chicago writers. What would happen if the name "Larry Mendte" was stricken from their vocabularies? Since Mendte's splashy arrival at WBBM in late '91, his name has become a colloquialism, a figure of speech, an all-purpose epithet. Here's an example of the term's traditional usage, from a Sun-Times article describing Channel Two sports anchor Howard Sudberry trying to sneak onto the Bulls' bus during the '93 NBA Championship celebration: "Come on, Howard, isn't that stuff better left to Larry Mendte?"

And in a local variation of the celebrity phenomenon that allows people like Cher and Madonna to get by with first names only, Mendte can just be "Mendte." Here's Tribune columnist Eric Zorn during the dramatic custody battle for Baby Richard: "The best strategy for Baby Richard's adoptive parents to pursue right now is to invite a media circus--a full blown, front-lawn festival of mini-cams and Mendte, of interviews and intrusions, of stakeouts and stand-ups."

As Cher and Madonna can testify, such familiarity comes at a price. Mendte has been pilloried by nearly every writer in town. A sampling:

Richard Roeper, commenting on a Mendte report about dreams: "One can only wonder what a Larry Mendte dreams about. Becoming a journalist, perhaps."

The Tribune's "Inc." column, reporting the exit of Channel Two general manager Bill Applegate, the architect of that station's tabloid style in the early 90s: "Now, is there any chance that Applegate might have a suitcase large enough for Larry Mendte?"

James Warren, who began a "Mendte Watch" as part of his Tribune media column, commenting on the advent of the Channel Two tabloid format: "The new tabloid style at CBS-owned WBBM-Ch. 2 will probably succeed, but can someone nudge new reporter Larry Mendte to a basic journalism class?"

Mendte reads it all. "Inc.," he recalls, once called Channel Five's Phil Walters "the thinking man's Larry Mendte."

"You know, I ran into [Walters] a couple of weeks later," says Mendte, "and I said, 'Do you know what that meant?' And he said, 'No, but I think we're probably both insulted.'"

A 1993 Tribune article by Cheryl Lavin recounted slang used by local TV newsies, and Mendte had the distinction of several aliases: Scary Larry, Crazy Larry, and Larry Mental. "Scary Larry' was from James Warren," Mendte explains, unfazed. "Crazy Larry' I never heard, at least to my face. "Larry Mental' I've been getting since I was seven, so she did some good research. I also get "Larry Demendted,' and unfortunately my middle initial is D. So I was cursed with that 'Dr. Demendto' too."

In a city blessed with Walter Jacobson as its own journalistic Lon Chaney, how and why have Chicago's critics found time to string up Mendte too? Timing played a big part. Mendte arrived in December '91, just as Bill Applegate was beginning to hoist Channel Two News out of third place with a brash, loud tabloid format. The new Channel Two came to be known for an announcer whose voice, Mendte admits, scared young children.

But Mendte fit right in. "And he did it with such relish, such enthusiasm," recalls Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder. "You could tell some of the people in that era were going through the motions with their teeth gritted or winking figuratively at the audience. He embraced it. . . . That's another reason he stood out."

Chicago critics, says Mendte, are "like a flock of seagulls. They pick on the weakest, the one with the broken wing or the one they perceive as being the new one. They eat their young here, much like the market. I don't know if it's the critics leading the marketplace or the marketplace leading the critics. But there's a hazing process here that you have to go through, especially if you are put up in the forefront."

John Callaway, host of WTTW's Chicago Tonight, says Mendte's a victim of both the new-guy-in-town syndrome and his association with the TV tabloid format. "When Larry Mendte is seen by critics . . . he is seen as a brash newcomer, particularly when he was a newcomer," Callaway says. "So he is easy prey for those who see him make a pronouncement mistake on a street address, plus any real journalistic sins. So it's easy [to criticize], particularly because of the format he came in with. You can't separate Mendte from the format he was hired for--so he becomes the fall guy for the format. By that he's not entirely innocent--you choose who you work for. . . . I think there are some specific criticisms which even he would acknowledge are fair. But the larger context is the management of the station. So he becomes a fall guy in a town that reveres veteran reporters more than brash newcomers."

Richard Roeper reasons, "There's always a reporter in town who's a lightning rod for the jokes. For better or worse he's the one right now. I think he's got a different idea of what the news and journalism is. No doubt he thinks his ideas are better. I think he's entertaining as hell. I want to party with Larry Mendte someday. I want to see Mendte at night in action in the city."

But why Mendte?

"Nothing personal, but when you're flipping around he's usually the one who provokes you to fall off the couch in gales of laughter," says Roeper. "It's not as if Carol Marin is going to give you a lot of chuckles."

The Mendte style is also cited by those who consider it an asset. Applegate, who recently resigned (or was forced out) as general manager of the CBS station in Los Angeles, says, "If [Mendte] has genuine critics, those are people whose view of television news is so elitist and so tradition bound that they don't understand that a good storyteller is worth his weight in gold in any medium, and that's what Larry is. They can't look past the fact that he uses his physical being to tell a story because in the narrow view of some critics, the only good story is one that's told in a boring, traditional manner."

John Lansing, the former Channel Two news director who came in after the Applegate era and introduced the station's family-friendly "Chicago's News" era last year, doesn't consider Mendte representative of tabloid TV. Now the station manager at Detroit's ABC affiliate, Lansing reflects, "I think what he's really good at is breaking through, communicating an idea in a way that's unique and memorable, and I think that's a quality of a good TV communicator and journalist. The long and short, I think he was unfairly boxed because of his unique style by some print writers who were quick to jump to conclusions about what TV ought to look like. And I think TV evolves, and he's one of those people who helps evolve the medium because he looks for new ground to break."

"When you see a Larry Mendte story, you don't turn the dial," says Feder. "He's a compelling character, he comes through the screen. He's always presenting information in an interesting way. It's not always the most journalistically pure, and on those occasions he needs to be reigned in." Feder cites a 1992 story on a fatal south-side shooting involving the alleged accidental discharge of a police gun. Mendte staged a gun firing for the report's opening scene, without identifying it as a dramatization. "Clearly that was a violation, that was inexcusable. But he copped to it and apologized, said it was wrong. He's trying things. I don't make excuses for that. I'm just pointing out there are times he deserves to be watched closely, but that shouldn't take away from his talent.

"Another thing he became famous for is laying his hands on the right music," Feder continues. "Especially when that News Extra unit they had was thriving--he would be the guy on a moment's notice, he'd know the perfect music, go across the street to his apartment, bring back the CD, and it was always right on."

But Mendte's use of music, Feder points out, "isn't an entirely good thing." For years, he says, CBS stations have followed standards in the network's so-called Blue Book, "setting forth in detail what was and wasn't acceptable. I don't think he ever saw it, or if he did, he used it to prop up a wobbly chair. The whole issue of music is specifically forbidden in the Blue Book, just as you're not supposed to reenact events. He operated outside the bounds of any of that. So I'm a little torn. On the one hand I consider myself a journalistic purist, but I understand that he's dealing as a TV guy. He's making good television."

Good television? That's exactly what Mendte says he's doing. "As I go and speak to journalism classes now," he says, "the who, what, why, where, and how, that kind of stuff, is pretty basic, I think. I mean, that's the foundation. That's easy. Doing the television part is what people haven't grasped yet. And I think people are still trying to experiment with how far you can go, how far you're allowed to go, what affects a story, what doesn't affect a story.

"And that's my entire argument about print critics," says Mendte. "I don't think they understand the television end. I don't think we completely understand it, but certainly there's no grasp when a television critic starts to write about what we do. They're criticizing TV for not being print. . . . They believe you should stand there and talk into the camera, that you shouldn't use the medium the way it can be used, because they think that's wrong. That's somehow taking away from the purity of the words. But to ignore the medium is to not do your job if you're on television. It would be like just showing pictures in print and not using words."

Applegate, not surprisingly, agrees. "Those of us in television a long time are accustomed to this criticism from print brethren, but no place is it more severe than Chicago," he says. "It has to do with the old, in many cases misguided, sense of news and newspapering legacy that's part of the journalistic mythology of Chicago that says, 'Wait a minute, this is the last bastion of pure journalism, and how dare you do anything like that?'"

Most Mendte critics admit varying degrees of truth to those arguments. "I think there is an element to that," says James Warren, who's now the Tribune's Washington bureau chief. His move to Washington meant an end to the "Mendte Watch," though he still manages to bring up Mendte whenever he sees a Washington TV reporter who reminds him of Mendte. Warren says the Tribune's Washington bureau now contributes to Tribune television news. "I have a much, I think, more sophisticated view of TV than I did back then, just by working with these guys every day. There is an element of truth, an element of truth to that. But having said that, having said that those folks face time pressures and time constraints in their pieces and a need to summarize even complex matters that a lot of newspaper folks don't appreciate, having said all that, I still think it would be fair to say that local television news around the country daily gets by with a level of reporting that just would not be countenanced at a major daily newspaper.

"I think the standards are lower. And I think it's something important to deal with, that with all these obsessions of most big-time media critics with the big guys, the networks, most people get their local news from the Larry Mendtes of the world and not Dan Rather. It's a local newscast they're wedded to, so to the extent that the standards of local newscasts are suspect, I mean, that's something to be worried about."

Callaway is more sympathetic, even agreeing with Mendte "to the extent that there are performance requirements in TV which even those of us in TV don't want to acknowledge. And to the extent that there are visual and live requirements. If one doesn't want to take those into account, one can come at any TV reporter with some disdain. So it is important to step back and take that into account. It's like you're asking a caricaturist to be faithful to the actual eyebrows and nose of the person he's distorting.

"There's a larger bias again," Callaway adds. "TV is the only art form, if you view it as an art form or craft, in which the TV critic can be gainfully employed and hate the art form which he or she is criticizing. We assume film, book critics may hate what they've seen or read or heard, but love the medium. TV is the only art form where you can say that, almost as a qualification, you must come into it with disdain for the medium. That's not a uniform saying, but there's enough of it around to make it a valid point of discussion. So we have a bias going in against the Larry Mendtes. . . . Because it's visual it therefore must be superficial; because it's live, it must be contrived because events have long since passed and you don't need to be at the courthouse at 10:05. All those lead the purist to say this is hogwash and sleazy. But for the audience, they don't turn it off. We can complain, as I have, all we want, but it's still being watched."

"You do sort of tend to forget sometimes that there is a different mandate for a TV reporter," allows the Tribune's Johnson, though he doesn't think he himself is guilty of that sin. "I think [Mendte's 'Burning Down the House'] had its problems, and they weren't problems of me not understanding that he needed to use visuals, but the problem of the thing dragging on and on and being overdramatized and corny when it didn't need to be. And at the same time I will grant that those visuals got me to pay a little more attention to a safety aspect that perhaps I hadn't thought of myself. One night could've told the story, I believe. But what the hell, it looked like fun."

Feder says TV has to be judged on its own terms. "I think that you have to first understand what their mission is, and then evaluate on whether they're achieving it," he says. "I don't think it's fair to create an artificial standard or impose a print standard when those aren't the rules they're playing by.

"I'll tell you something else, more general. It's very easy to take cheap shots at people. You can write a lot of interesting columns by making fun of people . . . a lot of interesting columns, but not necessarily fair or contributing to the reader's understanding of why things are being done. So I choose not to--maybe sometimes at the expense of being boring--but I choose not to take cheap shots at people, and Larry was a very convenient target. . . . Unlike many of the people who've written negative things about him, I've made the effort to call him and talk to him. Many times it wasn't his fault, or there were explanations. Most of the shots were without the benefit of him being able to respond."

Roeper isn't buying it. "I don't understand that argument," he says. "I don't know what that means. Print critics don't understand TV? I work in TV, so I don't think that's a legitimate criticism of me. I'm pretty familiar with how it works. Obviously there are differences between print and TV--the pictures come first in TV. It doesn't mean responsibility and a sense of fairness and all the other basics go out the window just because you want to take another shot of a fire because it looks good on TV." Roeper refers to a Mendte sweeps report on strip joints as an example of TV news opting for titillation instead of responsible reporting. "If [Mendte] doesn't understand that, maybe it's too complicated for me. Maybe he's right. When he did his sweeps special on UFOs among us--you're right. I don't understand that. I can't find room for that here. We don't have a fantasy page."

Mendte Story: "Springfield Speeders"

(Scene: Opens with quick drum solo over kaleidoscopic effect using Springfield capitol dome. Music: "I Can't Drive 55" by Sammy Hagar)

Mendte voice-over: "It's Friday afternoon at the state capitol in Springfield. This week's legislative session has just come to an end . . . "

(Scene: Legislative assembly floor, then cars pulling out of parking lot)

"And the race begins."

(Scene: Man waving flag at a car race; voice on a loudspeaker: "Gentlemen, start your engines")

"Call it the Springfield 500. State legislators hit Highway 55 like the Unser family for the fast ride home."

(Song swells on the word "55" as camera focuses on a speed limit sign)

"Forget the 55 and even the 65 mile per hour speed limit. These are state legislators with special legislative plates that act as Vulcan shields to keep away state troopers."

Mendte explains that a camera crew camped out on I-55 with a radar gun on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend. "And in one hour's time, we saw the state legislature moving faster than it has in years."

Legislators caught speeding include state representative Al Salvi, who clocked in at 85 miles per hour and then, when Channel Two attempted to catch up, apparently accelerated to 100 miles per hour.

Cut to Salvi, interviewed later: "I shouldn't go a hundred miles an hour, if-if that's what I was doing. But ah, ya know, sometimes I break minor traffic laws. . . . Hopefully, ah hopefully I'll slow down in the future."

Mendte voice-over: "And Representative Patricia Lindner of Aurora sped by us at 87 miles per hour."

Cut to Lindner, interviewed later: "I usually don't speed. I try not to speed. I'm not saying I've never gone over the speed limit certainly, because sometimes I do catch myself going over and then I try to slow down."

Mendte: "Yeah, you were going 87 in a 65."

Lindner: "I doubt that I was going that fast."

Mendte, deadpan: "Well that's just what the radar said."

Cut to Commander Cody song: "My daddy said, "Son, you're gonna drive me to drinkin' if you don't stop drivin' that hot rod Lincoln."'

(Scene: A Lincoln Continental speeding away on the expressway)

Mendte voice-over: "A-a-a-and there goes William Brady from Bloomington in his hot rod Lincoln. The radar said he was doing 83 miles per hour."

Mendte is unapologetic about his work and also defends Channel Two's much-reviled tabloid years under Bill Applegate. "The dirty little secret is, it worked," says Mendte.

It did work--for a while. Applegate arrived in 1990 with Channel Two in a dismal third place. By February '93, the three major stations were tied for the crucial 10 PM newscast. But by that May, just before Applegate's departure to Los Angeles, Channel Two was trailing again in a distant third place. Channel Two may have been a victim of its own success, resorting to tricks that were excessive even by its standards at that time. Its notorious "Satellite Control," for instance, drew special condemnation in April '93. Satellite Control was a little-used control room passed off as a high-tech center, where a reporter supposedly monitored live satellite feeds on breaking stories. Yet the footage being shown on the monitors was usually on tape. Applegate insisted at the time there was no "intention to be deceptive."

During the tabloid years, says Mendte, "We'd watch Channel Five, and when we were getting blasted for being sensational they were doing the exact same thing. I'd do an explainer on Bosnia in front of the chroma key [which allows location footage and maps to be shown behind a reporter in the studio], that night they'd do an explainer on Bosnia. I'd do a live shot walking down through a flooded building and showing all the problems and all the damage, the next night they'd do it."

Mendte admits that Channel Two began "doing things that were over the line," though as he remembers it, that began only after Applegate left. Still, he uses Satellite Control as a prime example, calling it "a lie."

"Once you get to the point where you're not just being compelling but you're lying, you lose the audience," says Mendte. "You lose all credibility and everything you do is seen as a gimmick. If you're doing stuff and you're not lying and it works and you're actually showing people something, they can see past the critics. Soon as they get the impression you're lying to them or giving them information just because you want to shock them, they're smart enough to turn off."

So Mendte isn't a strict disciple of former news director John Lansing's "Chicago News" approach, which began last year with a special newscast denouncing Channel Two's tabloid past and promising more community-oriented stories. Since then, ratings haven't budged. As of mid-February, Feder says, "There's no indication it's showing any signs of success at all." He does note, however, that 10 PM news ratings owe much to their prime-time lead-ins, and CBS's faltering programs aren't much help. Even taking that into account, Channel Two trails badly. At last count, it drew in only 14 percent of viewers at 10 PM while Channel Five had 23 percent and Channel Seven had 25 percent.

"What we did with Chicago's News was probably important, it was a cleansing," says Mendte. "I don't know if we had to announce it like that, but it was important. But what people tell you in focus groups isn't necessarily what they're going to watch. Everybody likes that there's a nice guy, but nobody wants to date him. You know, that's what we were for a while. And I think somewhere in between the two, what we were and what we are, is where we need to be."

Perhaps what he really means is that Channel Two should return to the Applegate formula?

"No, there were some excesses," says Mendte. "Promotion was excessive, I thought. Promotions sometimes lied. But yeah, I think we should be closer to that. Because what we did--not only did we have the blaring graphics and the satanic announcer that scared young children--we were also so aggressive. We were all over everything. Any story in town we'd have four or five reporters out there. So we covered the news probably better than anybody in the city for a long long time. And that's what was lost with the packaging. Underneath it was pretty good content, and there were some pretty good people. But with the packaging it was all disregarded."

For those who remember Channel Two's tabloid years with less nostalgia, it may be surprising that people like Feder and Callaway give some credence to Mendte's view.

"In their most horrendous tabloid days, they still had the capacity to go out and beat your buns out on a breaking story," says Callaway. "Larry is a master at that. And Jay Levine. These are big-time breaking-news reporters. If you have to go up against them, they'll beat your butt off. No matter how sensationalistic you may view them.

"They were better on spot news than the format permitted them," he adds. "The overall sleazebucket promos that they did did them in on their credibility, so when they did a good job they weren't given credit for it because of the tone and framing of it. We now know the National Enquirer has some superb reporters that can beat the New York Times on certain O.J. stories--so a tabloid we perceive as sleazy may have some super-duper reporters. So paranoids can be followed. Tabloid reporters, and that's what Channel Two reporters were, can be damn good reporters. . . . With some stuff, Applegate had people doing some stuff that was excessive. But I can remember in the days when I'd stopped watching Channel Two I'd watch them for a big breaking story. Because I knew what Applegate valued."

Feder says, "There is no question that during the time that Applegate was in town, he set the pace for the market. His two principal competitors couldn't catch up with him, couldn't do enough to catch up. He would throw something up there, try something new, and within a week they'd follow. It was the most amazing thing, considering the fact he was in third place. He had nothing to lose; they had everything to lose. And yet they couldn't imitate him fast enough.

"I reached the personal conclusion that it didn't have to appeal to me personally. I personally didn't have to approve of what they were doing. But I was willing to judge them on their mission, and that was why you didn't see from me the kinds of attacks on them and their character and integrity you may have seen elsewhere. I really made an effort to see what they were doing. Deeply in third place, going nowhere, no hope for what they're doing now.

"At least in the short run it was successful--[Applegate] pulled it to a virtual three-way tie. In an interesting way--by appealing to people who had stopped watching the news. They weren't getting new viewers from the other stations, but people watching M*A*S*H or sitcoms. That was very significant. Because that meant that even if it wasn't a product that appealed to me or crossed the lines of journalistic standards that I would've wanted, it was appealing to an audience and getting them to look at a newscast that they had otherwise found didn't engage them or was irrelevant to their lives."

Steve Johnson, however, doesn't believe Channel Two's news coverage can be separated from its promotions and packaging. "The scary announcer is your newscast," he says. "If you're telling people all night long during the program you'll have lots of violence coming up on the newscast, it colors the newscast. These are not two different ships."

Was there nothing worth salvaging from the Applegate years?

"Offhand," he says, "I cannot think of anything."

Local mythology pegs Mendte as a former weatherman, or, as James Warren likes to identify him, an "aspiring stand-up comic" and "aspiring game-show host." The weatherman part is true.

Mendte was born in Philadelphia in 1957, apparently ready for a TV career. His sister swears that as a child Mendte would purposely get lost at shopping malls to hear his name called over the loudspeaker. "My mom swears that's true too," says Mendte. "I must've been really young. I do remember calling radio stations, even if I had nothing to say, just so I could hear my name and my voice over the radio."

Mendte started out in radio, after majoring in speech communications at Pennsylvania State University and Westchester State College. He says he "learned the journalism end of the business" mainly in Philadelphia radio jobs before landing a series of anchor spots in California, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio. Next Mendte moved to New York to become the weekend anchor at WABC in the late 80s.

At WABC he met Bill Applegate, then news director. After a year, says Mendte, Applegate told him he was "too young for the job." Mendte says he was sent out on the street "to get a few rough edges."

"They threw me on the streets of New York," he recalls. "And to me that was like--did you ever see A Clockwork Orange where they made him watch the scenes where they kept his eyes open? That's what it was like to me. I was staring at violent scenes constantly and I thought, you know, I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. This is not what I want to do."

Mendte sent a tape to San Diego looking for a sports job, and became the weatherman instead. "And I thought, well, it's a way to get out of news," he says. Mendte's new boss told him San Diego didn't have any weather, so all he had to do was entertain.

The media critic for the Los Angeles Times San Diego edition, Kevin Brass, greeted Mendte's arrival with this: "New KFMB-TV (Channel 8) weatherman Larry Mendte is clearly a demented egotist, a bizarre and crazed individual, a television lifer with no knowledge of meteorology. And it sure is good to have him in town." According to Brass, Mendte was using up about eight minutes a night for the weather, usually finding a "man on the street" to read the actual forecast and spending "the rest of his time ranting about whatever comes to mind."

The station conducted polls asking viewers whether they loved Mendte or hated him. He lost the first poll by a mere 30 votes out of 17,000, and then lost the second by 1,377 votes out of 114,000. Mendte told Brass he considered the second loss a moral victory because he hadn't lost out to "I don't care" votes, though that category wasn't included the second time around.

Meanwhile, Mendte was branching out. He had a short run on Hard Copy doing a segment called "How Come?" before getting kicked off the show. "They stopped running it after two months because they objected to one of the pieces I did," says Mendte. "And so I might be the first person fired from Hard Copy for poor editorial judgment."

"How Come?" was a look at unanswerable questions, says Mendte. "The one they objected to was on babies, how come babies do certain things. I borrowed a friend of mine's baby boy, and the last line was "How come little baby boys have such a powerful thrust behind such a little cannon?' And I was changing the baby, and we used a turkey baster and we shot and hit me in the face. And then I turned and said, "Honey, I think he's getting too much salt."'

The "How Come?" segments got Mendte calls from HBO's Not Necessarily the News, Disney, and Fox. Nothing ultimately came of those calls, except the seeds for Mendte's reputation as a stand-up comic. The Not Necessarily the News producer advised him to work on his performance through stand-up comedy. Mendte studied stand-up, hung out at clubs, and finally tried it himself. "It was such ego gratification you cannot believe it," he says. "It was a hobby more than anything else. . . . I wasn't looking at that as a career. So when Jim Warren used to say "aspiring stand-up comic,' it wasn't true. And when he said I was an aspiring game-show host, it wasn't true." In fact, Mendte insists, the reason he made no headway at Disney was because he refused to do a game show.

Next stop, Chicago. At this point Mendte separated from his wife. She "didn't like moving around the country," he says. "So when I came to Chicago she went back to Philadelphia." Mendte's two children, ages 11 and 12, live in Philadelphia with their mother. "I go home almost every weekend," he says, to visit them.

Mendte had been here all of two months before Warren suggested the basic journalism class, instituting the Mendte Watch within weeks. "After awhile, it was kind of fun," says Mendte. "Now, with Cokie Roberts taking my place, I feel in elite company."

He sent Warren a note. "I said, "Dear Jimmy, I'm just sitting here contemplating your obsession with me. If you were a viewer, not a columnist, I'd be calling the police by now."' After Warren's promotion to Washington bureau chief, Mendte sent him a note of congratulations, mistakenly thinking Warren wouldn't be covering the media anymore. "I said, 'No one's happier about your promotion than I.' And the third note was when he said he missed me when he was in Washington. I sent him a picture saying 'I miss you too. Love, Larry.'

"Now he writes about people he sees that remind him of me. Isn't that kinda strange? Isn't there a point where I should be worried about him?"

Warren hung Mendte's picture above his desk, but a recent office move sent it back into a box. "I think I'm going to have to put it back up," Warren says. "I thought it might be an absolutely surrealistic juxtaposition to have Larry Mendte next to a picture of Elie Wiesel. I'm seriously thinking of doing that."

Undeterred, Mendte started churning out stories and collecting criticism. During the Loop flood in the spring of '92, Mendte explained the disaster with a huge model of the river and tunnels, including a tiny diver. It prompted Warren to recommend Mendte's "induction into the Papier Mache Hall of Fame," but it also won Mendte his first local Emmy, and the model was later exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry with Mendte's report.

And he kept winning Emmys. Mendte's 4 local Emmys last year gave him a total of 11 in his time here. Many dismiss the local Emmys, as the Tribune's Steve Johnson wrote in November, "since they don't mean much anyway, Larry Mendte, because WMAQ-Ch. 5 and WLS-Ch. 7 don't enter." It's true that channels Five and Seven no longer participate officially in the Emmys, though Channel Five staffers can enter on their own. Judging rules have also changed in recent years, from allowing one winner per category to honoring all entries that meet certain requirements, which means that an award can go to a pack of winners or to no one. And the local Emmys are now regional, including TV stations in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Mendte's criticism by print writers here doesn't impact his Emmy chances, since the awards are judged by television people in other cities.

"I would not assess anybody's career on the number of local Emmy awards," says Warren. "I think they ship those things out to like Honduras and Taiwan for judging or something. I have no idea. I mean, so what? It's not like winning a Nobel or Pulitzer."

Feder concedes that Emmy winners may not be the best in town: "With [Channel] Seven out and [Channel] Five virtually out, who's competing with them?" But, he says, "I don't want to negate the fact that [Mendte] did win those, and it suggests the fact that the way he does his job strikes a chord. The Emmys are judged by out-of-town chapters. They don't have the other baggage, columns about people--they're looking strictly at it as television stuff. So I don't want to completely overlook the fact that the guy has won an extraordinary number and for various things, which speaks to the versatility issue. He wins for features, hard news, all these things."

And often Mendte wins Emmys for the very pieces that drive his critics insane, such as his eve-of-execution report on John Wayne Gacy. No one at the prison would talk to him, says Mendte, so he did a tour of the Stateville holding cells for prisoners awaiting execution, the waiting room outside the execution chamber, and the execution chamber itself. The camera follows Mendte around the prison, settling first in the cell that Gacy was slated to stay in just before the execution.

"It hasn't been determined yet just how long Gacy will be at Stateville before the execution," says Mendte, sitting on the cell's cot. Camera angles switch as he speaks. Mendte gets up and walks toward the camera, which is positioned outside the cell. He closes the cell door as he speaks, so the camera's view is through the bars. "But for those days, those hours, those minutes, it is in this 6-by-11 cell that John Wayne Gacy," he pauses for a beat, "will wait to die."

Later, the camera pans in a circle around Mendte in the execution chamber's waiting room. Then it's on to the execution chamber, where he sits on the gurney for condemned prisoners and fingers the IV for the lethal injection. He calls it a "killing machine." A camera in the attached witness gallery shoots Mendte opening the curtains of the floor-to-ceiling window that separates the gallery and execution chamber. "Seconds before the poisons are released this curtain will be opened so that a packed viewing room can witness the execution," says Mendte, moving back to the gurney briefly. "The warden will stand over Gacy, ask him if he has any last words. After his response, the execution begins." Mendte steps back to the curtain and begins to close it. "It's only expected to take a few seconds. The coroner will check the body, pronounce Gacy dead, and then the curtain will be closed on the life and saga of John Wayne Gacy."

Feder wrote that the Gacy report was shot in a "dizzying cinema verite style," the charge that, unlikely as it may seem, bothered Mendte most. "My problem was, that because I'm so much into the production of pieces that I took offense to that. . . . People say it's inappropriate sometimes, the production, but nobody's ever called it dizzying. And I took offense at that because I thought, "You know what, we didn't make it dizzying, I shot it three or four times to make sure it wasn't dizzying.' And [Feder] got a kick out of the fact that I was calling about that rather than calling about him critiquing it as not even being appropriate or not journalistically sound. That part he can argue all he wants, but I know it wasn't dizzying."

Mendte's Emmy credits also include more serious stories, such as a 1994 investigation of school bus drivers that found 38 percent of drivers in a random sample of 140 had felony convictions, including one driver who'd been convicted two years earlier of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. That led to a state law requiring fingerprint checks of all drivers, signed into law by Governor Edgar just seven months after the report aired.

Mendte says he's proud of changing the law, giving much of the credit to Channel Two producer Jim Edwards. When Lansing took Mendte off on-the-spot news and put him to work in the investigative News Extra unit, says Mendte, "I'd get to do longer-form pieces which allowed me to use my production skills and performing skills. And [Edwards], on the other hand, had ideas and sources and connections that I could never have in three years in this market. So the two of us together were a tremendous team. . . . Much of the credit for my renewed credibility and much of the credit for the laws and the stories I've done recently go to him, so I won't boast."

Mendte's done well enough lately that he was promoted to noon news anchor last November, passing up job offers in Philadelphia and New York.

No other story has brought Mendte the quantity or depth of criticism he received for last year's report on exotic animal hunting ranches and the animal sale policy of Lincoln Park Zoo. "If you've lived right and been lucky, you've probably never seen or heard of Larry Mendte, a hypester who passes as a reporter on Channel 2's TV News," wrote Sun-Times columnist Ray Coffey in a piece headlined "Channel 2's Zoo "Expose' Monkeyed With the Truth." A few weeks later, the Tribune ran an in-depth article by free-lance media writer Jean Davidson, picking the report apart and comparing it unfavorably to an earlier, similar report on Fox News by reporter Larry Yellen.

Mendte's hunting ranch report ran in two parts, with a follow-up segment a week later with Lincoln Park Zoo director Kevin Bell. The first part profiled a Wisconsin animal sanctuary run by a husband and wife who take in lions, tigers, and other animals that otherwise would have been sold at auction to dealers who in turn sell the animals to hunting ranches. At the ranches, hunters pay steep prices to bag exotic animals conveniently trapped in fenced areas. This part of the report also showed unquestionably sensational footage of the auctions and animals being hunted on ranches. It ended with shots of baby animals at zoos, and Mendte's voice-over: "Every spring the nation's zoos proudly show off their baby animals. The cute little faces bring in TV cameras and big crowds. But when they grow up, there's not enough room, or enough money, for the zoos to keep them. . . . Many of the animals end up at auction, sold for a few hundred dollars to men who can turn a quick profit." Though the segment points a finger at zoos that sell baby animals at auction, Lincoln Park Zoo is never mentioned.

Steve Johnson, however, doesn't believe Channel Two's news coverage can be separated from its promotions and packaging. "The scary announcer is your newscast," he says. "If you're telling people all night long during the program you'll have lots of violence coming up on the newscast, it colors the newscast. These are not two different ships."

Was there nothing worth salvaging from the Applegate years?

"Offhand," he says, "I cannot think of anything."

Local mythology pegs Mendte as a former weatherman, or, as James Warren likes to identify him, an "aspiring stand-up comic" and "aspiring game-show host." The weatherman part is true.

Mendte was born in Philadelphia in 1957, apparently ready for a TV career. His sister swears that as a child Mendte would purposely get lost at shopping malls to hear his name called over the loudspeaker. "My mom swears that's true too," says Mendte. "I must've been really young. I do remember calling radio stations, even if I had nothing to say, just so I could hear my name and my voice over the radio."

Mendte started out in radio, after majoring in speech communications at Pennsylvania State University and Westchester State College. He says he "learned the journalism end of the business" mainly in Philadelphia radio jobs before landing a series of anchor spots in California, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio. Next Mendte moved to New York to become the weekend anchor at WABC in the late 80s.

At WABC he met Bill Applegate, then news director. After a year, says Mendte, Applegate told him he was "too young for the job." Mendte says he was sent out on the street "to get a few rough edges."

"They threw me on the streets of New York," he recalls. "And to me that was like--did you ever see A Clockwork Orange where they made him watch the scenes where they kept his eyes open? That's what it was like to me. I was staring at violent scenes constantly and I thought, you know, I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. This is not what I want to do."

Mendte sent a tape to San Diego looking for a sports job, and became the weatherman instead. "And I thought, well, it's a way to get out of news," he says. Mendte's new boss told him San Diego didn't have any weather, so all he had to do was entertain.

The media critic for the Los Angeles Times San Diego edition, Kevin Brass, greeted Mendte's arrival with this: "New KFMB-TV (Channel 8) weatherman Larry Mendte is clearly a demented egotist, a bizarre and crazed individual, a television lifer with no knowledge of meteorology. And it sure is good to have him in town." According to Brass, Mendte was using up about eight minutes a night for the weather, usually finding a "man on the street" to read the actual forecast and spending "the rest of his time ranting about whatever comes to mind."

The station conducted polls asking viewers whether they loved Mendte or hated him. He lost the first poll by a mere 30 votes out of 17,000, and then lost the second by 1,377 votes out of 114,000. Mendte told Brass he considered the second loss a moral victory because he hadn't lost out to "I don't care" votes, though that category wasn't included the second time around.

Meanwhile, Mendte was branching out. He had a short run on Hard Copy doing a segment called "How Come?" before getting kicked off the show. "They stopped running it after two months because they objected to one of the pieces I did," says Mendte. "And so I might be the first person fired from Hard Copy for poor editorial judgment."

"How Come?" was a look at unanswerable questions, says Mendte. "The one they objected to was on babies, how come babies do certain things. I borrowed a friend of mine's baby boy, and the last line was 'How come little baby boys 'have such a powerful thrust behind such a little cannon?' And I was changing the baby, and we used a turkey baster and we shot and hit me in the face. And then I turned and said, 'Honey, I think he's getting too much salt.'"

The "How Come?" segments got Mendte calls from HBO's Not Necessarily the News, Disney, and Fox. Nothing ultimately came of those calls, except the seeds for Mendte's reputation as a stand-up comic. The Not Necessarily the News producer advised him to work on his performance through stand-up comedy. Mendte studied stand-up, hung out at clubs, and finally tried it himself. "It was such ego gratification you cannot believe it," he says. "It was a hobby more than anything else. . . . I wasn't looking at that as a career. So when Jim Warren used to say "aspiring stand-up comic,' it wasn't true. And when he said I was an aspiring game-show host, it wasn't true." In fact, Mendte insists, the reason he made no headway at Disney was because he refused to do a game show.

Next stop, Chicago. At this point Mendte separated from his wife. She "didn't like moving around the country," he says. "So when I came to Chicago she went back to Philadelphia." Mendte's two children, ages 11 and 12, live in Philadelphia with their mother. "I go home almost every weekend," he says, to visit them.

Mendte had been here all of two months before Warren suggested the basic journalism class, instituting the Mendte Watch within weeks. "After awhile, it was kind of fun," says Mendte. "Now, with Cokie Roberts taking my place, I feel in elite company."

He sent Warren a note. "I said, "Dear Jimmy, I'm just sitting here contemplating your obsession with me. If you were a viewer, not a columnist, I'd be calling the police by now."' After Warren's promotion to Washington bureau chief, Mendte sent him a note of congratulations, mistakenly thinking Warren wouldn't be covering the media anymore. "I said, 'No one's happier about your promotion than I.' And the third note was when he said he missed me when he was in Washington. I sent him a picture saying 'I miss you too. Love, Larry.'

"Now he writes about people he sees that remind him of me. Isn't that kinda strange? Isn't there a point where I should be worried about him?"

Warren hung Mendte's picture above his desk, but a recent office move sent it back into a box. "I think I'm going to have to put it back up," Warren says. "I thought it might be an absolutely surrealistic juxtaposition to have Larry Mendte next to a picture of Elie Wiesel. I'm seriously thinking of doing that."

Undeterred, Mendte started churning out stories and collecting criticism. During the Loop flood in the spring of '92, Mendte explained the disaster with a huge model of the river and tunnels, including a tiny diver. It prompted Warren to recommend Mendte's "induction into the Papier Mache Hall of Fame," but it also won Mendte his first local Emmy, and the model was later exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry with Mendte's report.

And he kept winning Emmys. Mendte's 4 local Emmys last year gave him a total of 11 in his time here. Many dismiss the local Emmys, as the Tribune's Steve Johnson wrote in November, "since they don't mean much anyway, Larry Mendte, because WMAQ-Ch. 5 and WLS-Ch. 7 don't enter." It's true that channels Five and Seven no longer participate officially in the Emmys, though Channel Five staffers can enter on their own. Judging rules have also changed in recent years, from allowing one winner per category to honoring all entries that meet certain requirements, which means that an award can go to a pack of winners or to no one. And the local Emmys are now regional, including TV stations in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Mendte's criticism by print writers here doesn't impact his Emmy chances, since the awards are judged by television people in other cities.

"I would not assess anybody's career on the number of local Emmy awards," says Warren. "I think they ship those things out to like Honduras and Taiwan for judging or something. I have no idea. I mean, so what? It's not like winning a Nobel or Pulitzer."

Feder concedes that Emmy winners may not be the best in town: "With [Channel] Seven out and [Channel] Five virtually out, who's competing with them?" But, he says, "I don't want to negate the fact that [Mendte] did win those, and it suggests the fact that the way he does his job strikes a chord. The Emmys are judged by out-of-town chapters. They don't have the other baggage, columns about people--they're looking strictly at it as television stuff. So I don't want to completely overlook the fact that the guy has won an extraordinary number and for various things, which speaks to the versatility issue. He wins for features, hard news, all these things."

And often Mendte wins Emmys for the very pieces that drive his critics insane, such as his eve-of-execution report on John Wayne Gacy. No one at the prison would talk to him, says Mendte, so he did a tour of the Stateville holding cells for prisoners awaiting execution, the waiting room outside the execution chamber, and the execution chamber itself. The camera follows Mendte around the prison, settling first in the cell that Gacy was slated to stay in just before the execution.

"It hasn't been determined yet just how long Gacy will be at Stateville before the execution," says Mendte, sitting on the cell's cot. Camera angles switch as he speaks. Mendte gets up and walks toward the camera, which is positioned outside the cell. He closes the cell door as he speaks, so the camera's view is through the bars. "But for those days, those hours, those minutes, it is in this 6-by-11 cell that John Wayne Gacy," he pauses for a beat, "will wait to die."

Later, the camera pans in a circle around Mendte in the execution chamber's waiting room. Then it's on to the execution chamber, where he sits on the gurney for condemned prisoners and fingers the IV for the lethal injection. He calls it a "killing machine." A camera in the attached witness gallery shoots Mendte opening the curtains of the floor-to-ceiling window that separates the gallery and execution chamber. "Seconds before the poisons are released this curtain will be opened so that a packed viewing room can witness the execution," says Mendte, moving back to the gurney briefly. "The warden will stand over Gacy, ask him if he has any last words. After his response, the execution begins." Mendte steps back to the curtain and begins to close it. "It's only expected to take a few seconds. The coroner will check the body, pronounce Gacy dead, and then the curtain will be closed on the life and saga of John Wayne Gacy."

Feder wrote that the Gacy report was shot in a "dizzying cinema verite style," the charge that, unlikely as it may seem, bothered Mendte most. "My problem was, that because I'm so much into the production of pieces that I took offense to that. . . . People say it's inappropriate sometimes, the production, but nobody's ever called it dizzying. And I took offense at that because I thought, "You know what, we didn't make it dizzying, I shot it three or four times to make sure it wasn't dizzying.' And [Feder] got a kick out of the fact that I was calling about that rather than calling about him critiquing it as not even being appropriate or not journalistically sound. That part he can argue all he wants, but I know it wasn't dizzying."

Mendte's Emmy credits also include more serious stories, such as a 1994 investigation of school bus drivers that found 38 percent of drivers in a random sample of 140 had felony convictions, including one driver who'd been convicted two years earlier of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. That led to a state law requiring fingerprint checks of all drivers, signed into law by Governor Edgar just seven months after the report aired.

Mendte says he's proud of changing the law, giving much of the credit to Channel Two producer Jim Edwards. When Lansing took Mendte off on-the-spot news and put him to work in the investigative News Extra unit, says Mendte, "I'd get to do longer-form pieces which allowed me to use my production skills and performing skills. And [Edwards], on the other hand, had ideas and sources and connections that I could never have in three years in this market. So the two of us together were a tremendous team. . . . Much of the credit for my renewed credibility and much of the credit for the laws and the stories I've done recently go to him, so I won't boast."

Mendte's done well enough lately that he was promoted to noon news anchor last November, passing up job offers in Philadelphia and New York.

No other story has brought Mendte the quantity or depth of criticism he received for last year's report on exotic animal hunting ranches and the animal sale policy of Lincoln Park Zoo. "If you've lived right and been lucky, you've probably never seen or heard of Larry Mendte, a hypester who passes as a reporter on Channel 2's TV News," wrote Sun-Times columnist Ray Coffey in a piece headlined "Channel 2's Zoo "Expose' Monkeyed With the Truth." A few weeks later, the Tribune ran an in-depth article by free-lance media writer Jean Davidson, picking the report apart and comparing it unfavorably to an earlier, similar report on Fox News by reporter Larry Yellen.

Mendte's hunting ranch report ran in two parts, with a follow-up segment a week later with Lincoln Park Zoo director Kevin Bell. The first part profiled a Wisconsin animal sanctuary run by a husband and wife who take in lions, tigers, and other animals that otherwise would have been sold at auction to dealers who in turn sell the animals to hunting ranches. At the ranches, hunters pay steep prices to bag exotic animals conveniently trapped in fenced areas. This part of the report also showed unquestionably sensational footage of the auctions and animals being hunted on ranches. It ended with shots of baby animals at zoos, and Mendte's voice-over: "Every spring the nation's zoos proudly show off their baby animals. The cute little faces bring in TV cameras and big crowds. But when they grow up, there's not enough room, or enough money, for the zoos to keep them. . . . Many of the animals end up at auction, sold for a few hundred dollars to men who can turn a quick profit." Though the segment points a finger at zoos that sell baby animals at auction, Lincoln Park Zoo is never mentioned.

Part two opens with more sensational footage of ranch hunts, and an interview with Richard Farinato of the Humane Society of the United States. Farinato estimates a $100 million trade in exotic animals alone.

"But where do the animals come from?" asks Mendte. "Where do you get an old tame tiger for a rich man's fantasy?"

"The answer has got to be, and can only be, a zoo," says Farinato.

Mendte explains again that zoos sometimes sell excess animals. "When that happens, Earl Tatum from Arkansas shows up with a checkbook and a trailer," he says. "The problem is, Tatum is one of the top suppliers of animals to hunting farms. News Extra has obtained documents proving that the Lincoln Park Zoo has sold animals to Earl Tatum." This is the first mention of Lincoln Park Zoo.

Cut to an interview with Lincoln Park Zoo collections chief Dennis Meritt Jr., who has since retired. "He defends his relationship with Earl Tatum," says Mendte's voice-over. "He is the premier animal transporter in North America," says Meritt.

Mendte's voice-over: "High praise for a man who was a subject of a 60 Minutes investigation in 1990 where he was shown selling zoo animals at a Missouri auction. After the report, Tatum was convicted and fined for illegally transporting animals. He lost his professional accreditation, and several zoos stopped doing business with him. But as late as September of 1993, the Lincoln Park Zoo sold Tatum several animals, including two Grant's gazelles, very popular targets at hunting farms." Mendte's voice-over informs us that he showed Meritt documents "proving Earl Tatum sells directly to hunting ranches."

Meritt: "That is not enough of an impropriety [to stop dealing with Tatum] until it is demonstrated in a court of law."

Mendte: "He's not going to be convicted in a court of law of selling animals to a hunting farm because it's perfectly legal to do so. The ethical question for a zoo to sell to him if he can be proved to sell to a hunting farm is a completely different question. We're not talking about the legalities, we're talking about the ethics."

Meritt: "We have no reason to doubt either the word or the bond that we have with individuals like Earl Tatum."

Mendte's voice-over explains that the zoo's contract with dealers states that zoo animals cannot be resold for hunting purposes. But the Humane Society's Farinato says zoos take Tatum at his word that he'll honor the contract. "If I were a zoo director, I would not do that," he adds.

Mendte's voice-over says that Farinato also would not sell to dealer Jurgen Schulz, known for raising animals for sale to hunting ranches. Lincoln Park Zoo, says Mendte, sold Schulz two Arabian oryx in 1992. "And so far the oryx are fine," says Mendte. "But they had babies. What about them?"

Cut to Meritt: "We have assurances by way of the contract that we have that the animals that we send, and by inference their offspring, will be treated in the same manner--"

Mendte: "By inference?"

Meritt: "--in the same manner, and they are bound by that contract."

Mendte: "I've never heard the word inference used as binding in a legal contract."

Mendte voice-over: "The truth is, the Lincoln Park Zoo contract says nothing about the offspring."

(Scene cuts to family looking at zebras in a zoo)

"Soon it will be spring, and the Lincoln Park Zoo will once again proudly display its baby animals. But when they grow up, what will become of them?"

Back in the studio, anchor Bill Kurtis added that the zoo told Channel Two that two gazelles it sold to Earl Tatum had gone to Miami MetroZoo. "We called officials at the MetroZoo," said Kurtis. "They could not confirm that for us."

The Lincoln Park Zoo, of course, was deluged with calls and complaints. A major fund-raising mailing had gone out that very week, and several days after the report aired zoo director Bell called Mendte, asking for a follow-up. "In the future we will not deal with anyone that has any connection to any organization that does not have the same moral and ethical standards for the treatment of animals that we do," said Bell. "We will not deal with anyone that deals with hunting farms." He added that he's confident no Lincoln Park Zoo animals have gone to hunting ranches, but to make sure it never happens, he said the contracts will be amended to include the animals' offspring.

Mendte and Channel Two were blasted like never before. But how much was justified? True, hunting ranches and footage of the actual hunts are sensational. And, as pointed out in Davidson's Tribune article, the story was initiated because the Humane Society was on a nationwide campaign, sending hunt footage to stations around the country. But that in itself brought no criticism for Yellen's hunting ranch report on Fox, done during the previous November sweeps period. Yellen's report, however, didn't include the documents Channel Two obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, showing the zoo's sales to Tatum, or explore the question of including animals' offspring in protective contract language. Instead, Yellen ended on an upbeat note, stating that the Humane Society's Farinato said that Lincoln Park Zoo has a good overall track record in selling its animals.

The hunting ranch story, says Feder, "was where [Mendte's] prior reputation worked against him. The fact that it was Larry Mendte who did the story automatically prompted some people, viewers as well as critics, to assume that it was tainted. That there was something wrong with it. His mere association with it, given his bad press in the past and some of his excesses that maybe he even would acknowledge. Whereas if you'd substituted another reporter's name, people wouldn't have been so eager to jump on it and condemn it. And that's because his name has become shorthand for--I'll say it, but I don't agree--irresponsible, sensationalistic journalism. The same identical story, reported by a Pam Zekman or Carol Marin, I think people would not have been as quick to condemn."

Mendte and Lansing still stand behind the story. Lansing spoke specifically about the Coffey column: "In 20 years I haven't seen a more deliberate and malicious and unfair attack, and I remember reading it thinking first off all the charges were untrue. But second of all the characterization of Larry Mendte as a journalist seemed to be a generalization drawn from the ether of past criticisms, and wasn't based on anything, just a mean-spirited smear piece. And I think that's the worst part for Larry having received other criticism along the way. A writer like Ray Coffey can wake up one morning and decide to say what he wants and nobody's going to call him on it. I thought that was a low mark for TV criticism."

Davidson's article was the most comprehensive critique, covering--and agreeing with--the three most common charges. The biggest complaint, perhaps, was that viewers had been deliberately confused into believing that footage of rare animals being hunted on ranches showed animals from Lincoln Park Zoo. The Coffey column stated that "as Mendte aired sinister possibilities, the screen was showing video footage of a black leopard and a tiger being hunted down on a ranch. The less-than-subtle implication was that they were Lincoln Park animals."

As the summary above shows, however, the report's first part didn't even mention Lincoln Park Zoo. The second part opened with a description of hunting ranches illustrated with hunts, then switched to a discussion of Earl Tatum before ever mentioning the zoo. Viewers who were confused must have been very inattentive indeed. They couldn't have drawn their conclusions from the report's voice-over or even its tone.

A second issue was the fact that the zoo established a screening policy in 1994 stating that it would not sell to dealers suspected of selling to hunting ranches. So the zoo's last sale to Tatum in '93 had predated the policy, and the policy had since blocked one questionable sale. However, in the course of Mendte's one-hour interview with Meritt, the zoo's collections chief never mentioned the policy or the blocked sale and instead defended the zoo's right to deal with Tatum and Schulz. The zoo didn't tell Mendte about the policy until his follow-up interview with Bell, after the first reports had aired. At that point, Mendte admits he should have included mention of the policy, and says he simply missed it.

Davidson said Mendte gave the story a "negative spin," instead of emphasizing that there had been no sales since 1993. But Mendte's point, and a valid one, was that Tatum had been nationally revealed as a dealer with hunting ranches in 1990 on 60 Minutes, and the zoo was still selling to him three years later.

Lastly, Bill Kurtis's statement about the whereabouts of the two Lincoln Park Zoo gazelles sold to Tatum was attacked. In this case, the comment definitely does leave the viewer with the impression that something bad may have happened to the gazelles. Mendte says the zoo called him the day the report aired and told him the gazelles were at Miami MetroZoo. "We called down and couldn't confirm it. Because I was so distrustful [of the zoo] at that point, I wrote that for Bill. . . . I thought it was important because [the zoo] made it important, they made a special phone call to say those gazelles were OK. But we checked and couldn't confirm that. I don't think that was inappropriate. . . . I don't think that necessarily makes it sound like they were lying. It just means we couldn't confirm if it was true or not. If it did, that wasn't the intent."

As it turned out, one of the gazelles had gone to Miami, and the other had gone to Baton Rouge. The gazelle in Miami had already been killed, Davidson reported, "being chased by a dog that somehow entered its pen." The zoo spokeswoman at the time insisted the question could have been cleared up if Mendte had called the zoo back, and Davidson pointed out that Mendte didn't report on the gazelles' status even after Bell told him during the follow-up interview.

Mendte defends that omission. "In the [follow-up], which was supposed to be this coming together and fixing of the problem, we didn't report ever that they didn't realize that one of the gazelles was eaten by dogs at the other zoo. If we wanted to be snide, if I was really going after that, I could have played the part where Kevin Bell said the gazelles were fine, and then I could've gone down to the zoo in Miami and had them say, 'No, the one gazelle's dead.'"

Zoo spokeswoman Kelly McGrath admits that the zoo should have been aware that the gazelle was dead. But, she says, "I don't think it's [Mendte's] position as a journalist to decide what's best for the zoo in his report. To not report a fact because he thinks it's in the zoo's best interest is really a little beyond I think what a reporter should be doing. I think zoo officials know best what's best for the zoo."

Mendte says he called Ray Coffey after his column appeared in the Sun-Times. "And I said, 'Did you see the piece?' He said, "No, I saw the teasers though.'" A recent call to Coffey confirmed that he did not see the entire report. "I had seen the promos and I don't know how much of the piece. I guess it was edited or something, but I had seen takes of it," he said.

The promos have not survived, so it's not possible to confirm whether they may have been responsible for some viewer confusion. Both Mendte and Lansing say they can't recall them. But, says Mendte, "that truthfully is a problem in most TV stations, that the promo department and the news work separately. You go over the scripts and make sure there's no factual errors, but you have no say over the final product. But I'm not blaming it on the promos because I don't know. That's certainly a possibility."

"My clearest memory is that the promos were the weakest link," says the Tribune's Steve Johnson, who thinks promos are significant. "I know if there's headline A on one of my pieces, people read it in a totally different way. I think the promotions can shape the way pieces are viewed and the way people view it. Larry might think it's just what the promotions department did and [it's] not my responsibility, but to the viewer at home this is all Channel Two news telling you about the zoo sacrifices."

Mendte Story: "Caught in the Act."

(Scene: Opens with the haunting Bruce Springsteen song "Mr. State Trooper" over nighttime scenes of headlights passing on an expressway. Bruce's wavering voice sings, "Mr. State Trooper, please don't stop me . . . please don't stop me . . . ")

Mendte voice-over: "If you drive, chances are sooner or later, it's going to happen."

Cut to scene of state trooper pulling someone over.

Mendte voice-over: "And when you get a ticket, chances are you're going to have to spend much of your day and many of your dollars at Traffic Court."

Mendte interviews a woman outside traffic court who's just been convicted of running a stop sign, though she claims she was innocent.

Mendte voice-over: "Doesn't it make you wonder about these traffic court judges, when they get off the bench and get behind the wheel? How do they drive?"

Woman: "Yes, I do wonder. I betcha they drive just like us normal people."

Mendte voice-over: "Maybe worse. Maybe somebody should do a story on how traffic court judges do in traffic."

Cut to a stop sign on the road leading out of the Cook County courthouse parking lot in Maywood. Mendte, leaning against the stop sign, explains that cameras have been set up here to observe the judges.

Mendte voice-over: "Let's start with Judge Gamberdino in his tan Mercedes. Whoops, that's a stop sign your honor. And here comes Judge James Zafiratos. He didn't even think about it. Judge Daniel Weber? Nope, I guess he didn't see it. I know justice is supposed to be blind, but this is ridiculous."

Cut to a judge in a red sports car racing through the stop sign.

In all, Channel Two cameras catch 13 judges breaking traffic laws.

Mendte: "None of the judges agreed to talk with us on camera about their driving habits, so we waited outside the courthouse at another stop sign hoping to get an interview."

(Several quick scenes of Mendte running up to cars with mike in hand and the cars pulling away from him)

"We forgot one thing: the judges don't stop for stop signs."

The report closes on the eerie strains of Bruce Springsteen: "Please don't stop me . . ."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Mike Tappin.

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