September, 1960. A young political science professor at Cal State L.A. is offered a job at KCOP Channel 13 as a commentator on the news. He hesitates, wondering whether the duties will interfere with his efforts to earn a Ph.D.
September, 1985. The dissertation on “Colonial Administration in Three Pacific Dependencies” remains unfinished.
“I decided I could reach more people in one broadcast than I could teach in a lifetime,” recalls Hal Fishman, now co-anchor of the news at KTLA Channel 5. “From there, it just kept going. I have not been off the air in a quarter of a century.”
In a business where news anchors bounce from city to city like vagabond minstrels in search of an audience, their fates tied to the vagaries and caprice of a set of numbers known as the ratings, the 49-year-old Fishman is an oddity: He has spent his entire career in Los Angeles, and all of it has been on independent stations.
After four years of doing commentary and analysis for KCOP, Fishman joined KTLA as an anchor in 1965. He moved to KTTV Channel 11 in 1970, back to KTLA in 1971, to KHJ-TV Channel 9 in 1973 and back to KTLA again in 1975, where he has been ever since as anchor, commentator and managing editor of the weeknight newscasts at 10 p.m. Among the independents, it’s been the top-rated news program for more than six years.
Fishman is unusual in other respects too: He doesn’t employ an agent or an attorney to negotiate his contracts. He has co-authored two novels. He has amassed 3,000 flight hours since getting his pilot’s license in 1964 and at various times has held a total of nine speed and altitude records for small aircraft.
He even has managed to incorporate his longtime passion for flying into his job. He owns a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza B36TC and pilots it on assignments for the station, taking news crews up for aerial coverage of fires, landslides and other natural disasters, for example, or to sites in California and surrounding states for breaking news stories.
That’s one of the perks that he says has kept him working at independent stations, rather than trying to move to a more visible, potentially more lucrative job at a network or network affiliate.
“I have resisted that because of the tremendous freedom that I have,” he said in an interview. “It’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. There are things you can’t buy--a comfort factor, a creative factor. I don’t want my commentaries or my creativity stifled for a few more bucks.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added with a broad smile. “Money is important. You know why? It buys fuel.”
That’s yet another oddity: Even though his plane burns about $40 worth of fuel an hour, Fishman says KTLA does not directly reimburse him for expenses on a flight-by-flight basis. Instead, like pen and notebook, he considers the aircraft to be one of the tools of his trade and includes its use as part of his overall employment contract.
“I don’t want to be just a reader,” the Brooklyn-born newsman explains. “If you can fly over a site and show the audience what is happening, it makes you both an anchorman and a field reporter. It enables you to give a perspective to the news that you can’t if you’re just sitting behind a desk in front of a camera.”
Jeff Wald, news director at KTLA, says Fishman is much more than a news reader. “I call him the walking encyclopedia,” he laughs. “I’ve never had contact with an anchorman who had such an instant recall of current events.” Moreover, he notes, as managing editor, Fishman has responsibility for the structure and format of the newscast.
If ratings might ever have been a factor in motivating Fishman to jump ship to one of the network-owned stations, they aren’t now. There are many nights when the Channel 5 news draws larger audiences than one or more of the 11 p.m. newscasts on KCBS-TV Channel 2, KNBC Channel 4 or KABC-TV Channel 7.
Not surprisingly, as someone who has spent his career in their shadows, Fishman says he finds those occasions “very rewarding.”
KTLA’s competitiveness in news has come in part because of satellite technology, which now makes it possible for the station to obtain national and international reports on a timely basis, broadening the scope of the newscast beyond its local coverage. But Fishman believes another significant factor is his own credibility as an anchor, the result of his journalism experience, academic background and sheer longevity on the local TV scene.
“I must have seen 100 anchors here (in Los Angeles) over the years,” Fishman says. “They come and they go; they’re here and they’re gone. I think the major mistake that management at most stations makes is that they choose anchors they think the public may like, then they take them off if the ratings don’t improve immediately. KTLA has stuck with me.”
Fishman got his start in television accidentally. As an assistant political science professor at what is now California State University, Los Angeles, he was asked to teach a television course about the American political process on KCOP during the summer of 1960, when the Democrats were holding their presidential nominating convention here. He did so well that the station asked him to stay on as a political commentator on the news.
Fishman, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell and his master’s at UCLA, believes his study of political science and history have been of far more value to him as a newsman than any formal journalism training would have been. He says it certainly gave him a good perspective on the role that journalism plays in U.S. society.
“When I was a professor,” he explains, “I used to tell my students, ‘You can’t have a properly functioning democracy without an enlightened electorate.’ It’s our job as newscasters to enlighten the electorate. We are the conduits of information.”
While he deplores what he sees as a diminishing of professionalism among electronic journalists as the TV news business proliferates, Fishman nevertheless believes that television news generally is doing “a pretty good job” of providing an overview of the events of the day.
He considers it pointless to debate whether the public’s news appetite is better satisfied by television or newspapers.
“It’s not a matter of which does a better job; we do different kinds of jobs,” he contends. “People have called television a headline service. Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a headline service. If people want more details, they can get them from newspapers, radio, magazines, professional journals. That’s the beauty of our society: We have at our disposal all these tools of information.”