On a recent episode of "Max Headroom," muckraking television reporter Edison Carter, complaining about a sensationalistic story assignment and his network's never-ending quest for higher ratings, asked his news director, "Since when has the news been entertainment?" "Since it was invented?" his jaded boss replied.
Jess Marlow, the veteran Los Angeles newsman, has heard many variations of that caustic joke about a business that is often guilty of hiring Miss Americas over journalists. But, he says, the fact that a local television station is still eager to let him anchor a supper-time newscast suggests a move away from the trivialization of television news.
"When somebody is willing to hire me, I see a trend," Marlow said recently about his return to news anchoring at KNBC-TV Channel 4 last month. "Both Bill Stout (the veteran KCBS commentator) and I have made a living at it for a long time, and nobody accuses either of us of being a pretty face."
Hoping that his recognizability after more than two decades on local TV would help it overtake KABC-TV's top-rated "Eyewitness News," KNBC promoted the 57-year-old Marlow, who had been doing commentary at the station since last November, into the 5 p.m. anchor chair that he had occupied from 1968 until 1980, when he moved to KCBS-TV Channel 2. (Marlow replaced Keith Morrison, who continues as co-anchor of Channel 4's 11 p.m. newscast.)
"Jess is a fine anchor and people find him credible," says Tom Capra, KNBC news director. "We have an embarrassment of riches in anchor people at KNBC, and we figure the more we get on the air, the better off we are."
So far Marlow hasn't had much effect on the L.A. news wars. KNBC's Nielsen ratings for the 5 p.m. newscast are up slightly since he began anchoring again, but so are the numbers for KABC and KCBS.
Capra denied that substituting Marlow for Morrison--a man more inclined to josh around with co-anchor Kelly Lange, weatherman/comedian Fritz Coleman and comic-minded sports reporter Fred Roggin--represents an attempt to bring a more serious tone to KNBC's early evening news program. But if there's one thing Marlow hopes to bring to a newscast, it's a sense that he cares deeply about the news.
"I would like to see local news hardened, see it get more serious. There is nothing wrong with indicating that you're amused by Fritz. But I think all the happy talk surely has been exhausted by now."
Though Marlow does miss writing his daily commentaries--denouncing Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork, for example, and supporting the National Assn. of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians in its strike against NBC--he also missed anchoring, which he hadn't done since leaving KCBS-TV in August, 1986. And he is convinced that sitting in the anchor chair for the entire newscast affords him the opportunity to exert more influence on the amount of substantive news KNBC presents.
That tireless commitment to hard news over fluff has kept Marlow in the business for 30 years.
"I was a writer and my initial bout with anchoring was terrifying," he recalls. "But I suppose I was seduced by public response. It was flattering to your ego--and then, years later, when salaries became what they are for anchoring, you really got seduced."
Marlow makes no apologies for the astronomical salaries that anchors in Los Angeles command. It is no secret that his departure last year from KCBS was prompted at least in part by the station's attempt to chop his salary--a reported $700,000 a year--in half.
Marlow realizes that the average person in his audience probably resents his complaining about an annual salary that still would have been in the hefty six-figure bracket, but he justifies his position by likening anchorpeople to sports stars, whose high-paying careers are often short and hazardous.
"We've all learned that we serve at the pleasure of the general manager and the general public and they can decide tomorrow that they don't want to use us," Marlow says.
It's been that way a long time. When Marlow began his career in 1958 at a small station in Rock Island, Ill., his 8-year-old daughter was so embarrassed by all the teasing she received from her classmates about "the guy on television" that when her teacher asked what her father did, his daughter said he was a carpenter.
"But she eventually came around," Marlow says. "I won a local Emmy for commentary last year, and she called me and said she was very proud of me.""
During his last few months at KCBS, through his bitter contract dispute and his protests about the station's ill-fated "revolving-wheel" newscast that emphasized life-style features over hard news, there were times when Marlow wished he had become a carpenter.
Since returning to KNBC where he began his news tenure in Los Angeles as a street reporter in August, 1966, Marlow has renewed his belief that television and Jess Marlow can still make a serious contribution to the news business.
"It's like the newspaper. I've never been bothered by reading the serious stories on the front page and then turning and finding Peanuts. We all join in the criticism of television for its overconcentration on the sensational. But today I think we have a far better informed public than ever before. I still get great satisfaction in bringing light to important subjects and being perceived as a welcome visitor in people's homes."