Did veteran TV reporter Wayne Satz report himself out of a job?
Satz claims that he was unjustly "terminated" by KABC-TV Channel 7 on July 24, less than two months after the broadcast of his mildly critical ombudsman segment noting alleged unfair ratings manipulation by the station.
The "firing," as Satz terms it, was a "powerfully obvious . . . consequence" of his June 5 "Second Look" segment reviewing the tactics and consequences of an eight-part series about ratings, he charged. The segment chronicled a controversial eight-part series on ratings that Channel 7 deployed during the important May ratings sweeps. The series featured a heavily advertised interview with a family that was formerly part of the viewer sample used by A. C. Nielsen Co. to measure local ratings.
"I feel shocked and disappointed and betrayed," said Satz, whose job at Channel 7 included preparing "Second Look" segments that reflected on the work of the media, including Channel 7. "After 13 years, I'm smashed, ground up and kicked out," he said.
Channel 7 General Manager John Severino denied that Satz was fired. "He left on his own," Severino said Monday. "All I can tell you is that the contract we had with Satz expired over a year ago and we have been attempting to negotiate a renewal ever since. We stand ready to do so now."
Satz said Monday that he would file suit today in Los Angeles Superior Court asking $5 million in punitive damages and compensation for loss of wages and other damages from Channel 7's corporate parent, Capital Cities/ABC.
Satz's exit from Channel 7 may speak directly to an ongoing issue: whether TV stations have the determination to be their own critics and police themselves. Although the TV industry is generally loath to be self-critical, Channel 7 has had a better record than most in this area through the years. But the Satz report extended beyond the usual self-examination that causes a few winces into the perilous mine fields of the fiscal bottom line.
"I was functioning as a journalist designated to hold my employer accountable for its news practices and its use of the airwaves," Satz said.
"I think what happened is that the story turned out to be far more embarrassing than they (Channel 7 management) anticipated," said Sanford M. Gage, an attorney representing Satz.
And far more costly, for Nielsen--after intense lobbying by KNBC Channel 4 and KCBS-TV Channel 2--later took the unprecedented step of deleting its ratings for the period in question, thereby hitting Channel 7 hard in the pocketbook.
Much of Channel 7's series--and especially the Nielsen family interview--appeared to be an attempt to artificially boost the ratings for Channel 7 by directly appealing to current Nielsen families to watch its 11 p.m. news. The station's unusually high ratings for the disputed period indicated that the strategy worked.
Satz's segment not only acknowledged that, but also included an interview with Severino in which the general manager appeared to admit intent to manipulate the ratings. In the interview, Satz asked Severino if it weren't true that more Nielsen families than usual were likely to watch a heavily promoted series about Nielsen ratings.
Satz: That's a moment of extreme candor . . . . The Nielsen families are watching because they are interested in themselves.
Severino: I think that probably happened.
Satz: Well, dammit, that's what you're being accused of . . . of making a blatant manipulation of Nielsen families.
The "Second Look" was followed by a June 8 "Nightline" program on ABC that increased Channel 7's chagrin by including a portion of the Severino interview in a segment about stations accused of manipulating ratings. What's more, the "Nightline" segment aired while ABC station executives were in Los Angeles for the network's annual affiliates' meeting.
"The timing was unfortunate from Severino's point of view because at that very moment he was preparing to play host to all the visiting brass and others from around the country," Satz said. "On his own airwaves, at the hand of his own ombudsman, Wayne Satz, he was seen basically admitting to the Nielsen manipulation."
Satz said his "Second Look" mandate was to do investigative reporting and "analyze news media, particularly our outlet (Channel 7)."
He said that Channel 7 news director Terry Crofoot had urged him to interview Severino for the segment on the Nielsen series and that Severino was cooperative and did not prescreen or interfere with preparation of the "Second Look" segment.
The segment was ready for airing on May 28, Satz said, when Crofoot told him that Severino wanted to hold it up. "Crofoot said that Severino had a mole (spy) inside Channel 4 who indicated that Channel 4 intended to videotape my broadcast off the air for possible use in a legal fight that would ensue," Satz said.
"That is absolutely false, as far as I'm concerned," Severino said about having an alleged "mole" at Channel 4. Crofoot was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Satz said that Severino finally released the segment for airing after Satz urged him to do so and reminded him that some members of the print media were aware of the segment's existence.
After the segment was broadcast, Satz said he felt a "cooling and aloofness" and even "hostility" from Crofoot that departed from their past cordial relationship.
Then, on July 24, Crofoot called him into his office, Satz said, and told him that "Second Look" was "dead" at Channel 7, Satz's production team was being disbanded and that "my roles as investigative reporter, ombudsman and analyst were all ended. He gave me no reason that I could fathom. In effect, I had been terminated."
Satz said Crofoot told him that he possibly could possibly return in "an entry-level reporting job at union scale wages" (less than half his salary). Satz said he didn't consider the offer a serious one. "There was no question in my mind that I had been axed."
Satz said he had not been under a written contract at Channel 7 since June, 1986. However, his attorney, Gage, contended that Satz had an "implied" contract and expected to stay at the station indefinitely. "He put himself on the line for the station, because in his role as ombudsman he obviously had to take on unpopular positions, and the only way he could do that was with support of the station," Gage said.
"Second Look" was inaugurated on Channel 7 nearly a year ago as the descendant of "Feedback," Satz's previous ombudsman segment on Channel 7 that was ended as a regular feature in 1981. Satz continued at the station as primarily an investigative reporter.
Satz said that "Second Look" had aired about three times a week and earned good reviews from management. He said that Crofoot called him from his sickbed, for example, to praise a segment questioning Ted Koppel's treatment of former Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis on an April episode of "Nightline" and that Severino told him the "Second Look" segment was "the best piece of analysis he had ever seen on television."
Satz's exit from Channel 7 is not the first controversial chapter in a career that has included coverage of the Hillside Strangler, McMartin pre-school molestation case and other sensational stories that have sometimes brought him under fire. He has been unsuccessfully sued a number of times. Two other suits against him are pending. (The suits, one brought by Superior Court Judge David Aisenson and the other by neurosurgeon Robert A. Grant, charge the station and Satz with defamation in connection with news stories.)
"I'm willing to accept the harassment and the threats and the lawsuits," Satz said. "But what I count on is my employer to stand behind me with legal and moral support and with continuing employment."
Instead, he charged, Channel 7 "compounded its original impropriety in the Nielsen scandal by firing the guy whose original mandate was to get to the bottom of it. There's something wrong with that."
Only recently, Channel 7 was airing promos proudly touting Satz and two of his colleagues at the station as award-winning investigative reporters who "mean business." Now, Satz is saying with his lawsuit that he means business again.