By Michael Miner
On Monday Jerry Springer thundered against the "elitist snobbery" of the Channel Five anchor who quit her job after failing to keep him off the air. By the end of the week Springer himself was history, and history was being rewritten.
Channel Five moved boldly to redeem itself. "Given the level of angst and personal attacks, I really regret that Carol had to go through any of this," general manager Lyle Banks said on the air Thursday night--Carol Marin being the anchor he'd just driven from the station. Banks ordered the pro-Marin newsroom staff to stop talking to the media, but as consolation allowed it to gnaw on Springer's carcass.
Springer had intended to deliver a meditation on Dennis Rodman Thursday night. Instead he was on camera facing the two-fisted interrogation of reporter Mark Suppelsa.
Springer: "The point was, I came into a family fight and suddenly became the cause for all the--all the cliques that you have here. All of a sudden, I became--don't interrupt--I became an example, a possibility for people to say 'I'm going to leave' or 'Look what's happening to our news now.'"
Suppelsa: "On that commentary--that premier commentary, a Cincinnati newspaper accusing you of lying--"
Springer: "Oh, the story was absolutely incorrect."
Suppelsa: "But isn't it misleading that, quote, 'I knew my obligation as mayor, so what was I to do?' When telling your parents--'I had already decided that if they didn't want me I wouldn't let the Nazis march.'...But you didn't have the authorization to even sign that permit. The city manager did."
Springer: "Never in the commentary did I say I signed that permit. Never in my commentary did I say I signed that permit."
Suppelsa: "You said, 'I knew my obligation as Cincinnati mayor.'"
Springer: "My dad said--"
Suppelsa: "'So what was I to do?'"
Springer: "Right. What--should I resign or not? Should I resign or not?"
Suppelsa: "You said when telling your parents, 'I had already decided.'"
Springer: "That's right. That I would not--"
Suppelsa: "Ah! You never said 'we.' You never said 'city government.'"
Springer: "Let me answer your question..."
Like most television showdowns, this one added to the confusion. But it established that in the station's eyes Springer had become a life-form as low as a traffic judge caught fixing a case for a fiver.
Last Saturday evening political editor Dick Kay took to the air to deliver a commentary of his own. He was eloquent and unsparing. "Some 14 years ago, when Channel Five management asked me to do commentary, I was honored," he solemnly began. "Commentary has always had a special place here, having been originated by Len O'Connor and continued by Jim Ruddle. I was honored because I consider it a privilege and not a right. Aside from the rest of the controversy, Jerry Springer's assertion that he had a right to do commentary was inaccurate.
"We have human rights, civil rights, constitutional rights. But nowhere are we granted the right to the airwaves. The privilege of access, perhaps, but not the right. And those who believe they have a right to do commentary are the true elitists."
I'm less certain than Kay that Springer ever claimed that either God or the founding fathers had annointed him to speak at ten o'clock. What I did hear him say was that Channel Five management had offered him a platform Marin believed he didn't deserve and urged management to take away. And he felt that was unfair.
But the Channel Five counteroffensive rolled over details like tanks over daisies. When the juggernaut rests we're apt to remember the fiasco as that moment when a sleaze-mongering saboteur seized control of a great metropolitan news operation at pistol point, only to be repelled by a devoted staff who risked life and limb to preserve the station's honor. The single casualty of the invasion, martyred anchorwoman Carol Marin, will no doubt be remembered with a statue in the lobby.
Blast From the Past
A sudden wind blew open the shutters. "Who is it?" cried the man from London known as editor-sahib.
"The ghost of journalism past," intoned the shade looming at the foot of the bed. "Your editorial page invoked me."
Editor-sahib rubbed his eyes. "We did?"
"You wrote this," said the shade. He pulled a clipping from the pocket of his blazer. "'What would John Chancellor--the late stalwart of NBC News--have thought about the on-air posturing between Carol Marin and Jerry Springer? He must be turning in his grave.'"
"Well, listen, you. What about turning in your grave a little longer so I can get some sleep? Call me in the morning."
"I'm not just a 'late stalwart of NBC News,'" said the shade. "I'm also a late stalwart of the Sun-Times."
"I didn't know that."
"Of course you didn't," said the shade. "I began my career in your city room."
"Do you know what time it is?" yawned editor-sahib.
"All the same to me. I'm here with a small request. Next time you invoke my name in an editorial, try not to sound like such a blithering nincompoop."
London's man on the spot had no patience for this. "That was a splendid editorial. It rapped every palm that deserved a rapping. It spoke loud and clear."
"Clear? Your first editorial was bad enough, the one where you decreed, 'There is no room in television for elitism.' Everybody's been calling everybody else an elitist ever since. But that editorial was a model of intellectual coherence compared to this one. It says here, 'A case can be made that, since Marin started the argument--' Sorry, but I thought Channel Five management started the argument when it hired Springer."
Was this ghost two years old? "Management makes decisions," editor-sahib explained patiently. "Labor starts arguments when it questions those decisions."
"I can't argue with that," said the shade. And he couldn't. The statement was as impregnable as it was inane.
So he continued to read. "'--that, since Marin started the argument, and got away with a self-serving valedictory on her last appearance--' Do you happen to know what Marin said about Jerry Springer in her 'self-serving valedictory'? Nothing. Do you know what she said about Channel Five management? Nothing. She thanked her coworkers and audience and said, 'This 19 years has been a marvelous ride.'"
"Exactly!" said London's man. "Language cunningly shaped to sound dignified and restrained. What's more self-serving than that? I saw through it in an instant."
"We dead just aren't as quick as the rest of you," said the shade.
"You lose a step," editor-sahib agreed.
The shade returned to the text. "'--on her last appearance, Springer was entitled to use his first commentary for the right of reply. But things never should have been allowed to go so far. Personal problems among the hired hands should not replace real news.'
"Hired hands!" The shade whistled. "I bet that's your favorite sentence in the whole editorial. 'Vassals' would work too."
"But I hated to lose the alliteration," said editor-sahib.
The shade proceeded. "'That we and other news media give prominence to the ruckus is appropriate, however, when a once-respected news station publicly tears itself apart.' I get it. It's OK for you to go apeshit, because you're just doing your job."
"News is where you find it," said editor-sahib.
"Whoever had to write this drank straight from the bottle when he got home," the shade muttered to himself. Then he stared at his host. "You conclude on a curious note of contempt: 'Viewers are right to change channels on a station that dishonors itself, not so much by appointing a cheesy commentator as by allowing bickering personalities to run amok.'
"Here's where I feel something needs to be explained to a stranger to our shores. Hiring a cheesy commentator to jack your ratings is a pretty dishonorable thing to do. And quitting a million-dollar-a-year job to protest that commentator is a pretty honorable thing to do. But letting these 'bickering personalities' or hired hands--or whatever you want to call them--have their say when the time comes for them to say it is what Americans call freedom of speech. They didn't run amok. They spoke their mind. Nobody ran amok but your paper.
"Or is it your position that TV stations have a right to hire cheesy commentators and then an equal right to censor them? My way of thinking--and Thomas Jefferson says he agrees with me, by the way--is that once you hire a slab of Gorgonzola and put him in front of your camera, he has as much right to say what he thinks as Socrates.
"One turns in the grave," the shade informed editor-sahib. "And occasionally one weeps there. Not only did my old station humiliate itself by bringing in Jerry Springer, but for God knows what reason my old newspaper decided to sound like the village idiot. Next time, please leave me out of it."
The shutters clattered, and the room was empty. Editor-sahib was already fast asleep.
No one's more predictable than a fearless contrarian. Sure enough, Dennis Byrne could have phoned it in when he issued his verdict on the Marin-Springer set-to. "This will upset the multitudes who have canonized Marin," he wrote, "but Springer cleaned her clock."
Byrne favored Marin with advice. "I read that Marin fancies herself to be a real reporter, not a news reader. Fine. Then maybe she can see her way clear to take a job on some newspaper where, after she dumps her two full-time producers, she can be a real reporter. And take home a real reporter's paycheck."
Channel Five's jittery bosses have ordered their staff to say no more to the media, but when Dick Kay finished Byrne's column he couldn't restrain himself. "How elitist is that!" he told me. "That suggests she's not a reporter because she didn't take a pad and pencil and go out on the street and be a newspaper reporter. I think that's rather insulting. That insulted all of us. That's a prejudice we've had to fight for years."
Sensibilities were put to the test last week in the Sun-Times newsroom. Through the glass windows of editor-sahib's office, reporters noticed Nigel Wade at his ease, while a stooping black man shined his shoes.
Reporters by no means reacted in unison, nor did the division strictly follow racial lines. Some observers deemed Wade's behavior breathtakingly crass, while others calmly reasoned that dirty shoes do need to be shined and shoe shiners do need to make a living. Yes, said the first group, but there are plenty of less-public rooms in this building where Wade could have let the man make it.
If Wade got along terrifically with his staff the incident might have passed unremarked. But he doesn't and it didn't.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jerry Springer and Mark Suppelsa by Steven Arazmus.