KCBS Commentator Bill Stout, Newscasting Pioneer, Dies at 62
Bill Stout, whose gravelly voice and acerbic manner proved both an endearing and enduring avenue of television news and commentary for nearly four decades, died Friday morning.
He had been admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Thursday night complaining of flu-like symptoms and died of cardiac arrest at 9:30 a.m.
Stout, who literally had lived with the news with both Associated Press and City News Service wire machines in his Beverly Hills home, was 62. He had suffered a major heart attack in 1987 that kept him away from his KCBS “Perspective” segment of the nightly news for six months.
What proved his final broadcast came Tuesday night on Channel 2’s “Action News at 6.”
At his death, the balding, rumpled newscaster and former anchorman, who disdained the makeup and toupees often found in his trade, had been on Los Angeles television and radio for 39 years, nearly all of them on Channel 2.
His stern, paternal countenance also was known to millions outside this area. He was a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild who had portrayed newscasters and reporters in several movies, including “Somewhere in Time,” “House,” “The Underground Man” and “The Phantom of Hollywood.”
His awards ranged from Emmys to those from state and national press associations to Golden Mikes to a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And he expressed mixed enthusiasm for them all, fearing that the accolades that came his way might be seen by his audiences as more important than the honesty and credibility he sought to bring to his craft.
‘Quicker and Better’
He talked early last year with The Times, one of dozens of interviews he granted over the years. He spoke of the heart attack he blamed on years of smoking, drinking and a love of highly seasoned food. And then he turned to his love-hate feelings for TV news.
He said the high-salaried anchormen of television always appalled him as did the inexperienced but photogenic reporters whose stories often were used to boost ratings rather than provide information.
But television news, he said, “in some ways is quicker and better than newspapers. The Symbionese Liberation Army shoot-out (in 1974, which followed by a few months the Patty Hearst kidnaping) in South L.A. was a good example. We covered it live. Newspapers covered it later in the day. They had great stuff, but not as good . . . not with the immediate wallop of TV.
“On the other hand,” he said, warming to a role he relished as television critic, “complicated stuff is difficult. Economics, government. We try with graphics, but newspapers are better.”
He traced the era of chatty anchors and TV “happy talk” to the profit factor when station managers in the early 1960s discovered that they could make money through news programs.
“When it was neutral or a slight loser,” he said of the days when he first appeared on the local TV scene in the 1950s, “they (the managers) didn’t give a damn. But when those who always considered the news departments to be harmless collections of Bolsheviks saw them making money, they suddenly said, ‘Hey! This is too important to leave to you guys.’ ”
William Stout was indeed one of those “guys” who were the Talking Heads of TV news in its infancy--before electronic innovations and videotape instantaneously brought the myriad corners of the world into the nation’s living rooms.
He said he and his colleagues of yesterday had tried to rise above what Edward R. Murrow once defined as local news: “A curious mixture of show business, carnival huckstering and journalism.”
“He was right, of course,” Stout would say. “But what used to keep it reasonable--especially at the CBS stations--was the extra ingredient of responsibility. That’s gone now,” he said as early as 1975. “The worst thing anybody can say about a TV newsman these days is that he’s ‘traditional.’ ”
A former newspaperman, Stout wrote news before he ever broadcast it.
Born in Los Angeles and an English major at UCLA, Stout became a reporter at the Minneapolis Times in the late 1940s and a correspondent for the Associated Press.
He moved into broadcasting in 1950 as a radio reporter for KNX, the CBS radio station in Los Angeles, and joined Channel 2 in 1953, first as researcher, writer and reporter for the investigative series “Special Assignment.”
After a few years at KTLA he joined the CBS network in 1963 as a Los Angeles correspondent and rejoined KCBS here in 1972 as a reporter and anchor.
His migrations in those years sometimes were traceable to his often abrasive treatment of executives and his penchant for argument with anyone within earshot.
Maturity had softened him some and many felt had heightened his credibility when he became a much-honored commentator in 1978.
He talked rather than preached to his audience as he wrote and then offered his “Perspective” on topics ranging from women’s rights to defense spending to press freedom. He approached this most recent work as a wise but curmudgeonly friend talking to other friends about how things are and how they could be.
Although his professional persona was saber-like, he was not without his personal amusements, and stories abound about his escapades in the watering holes of Hollywood.
A longtime friend, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, in a speech last April paying tribute to Stout, called him “a great friend and boon companion. For years he brought to an evening at the Cock ‘n Bull the same traits that he still brings to the Action News.”
‘One of the Best’
CBS anchorman Dan Rather, who was a correspondent in Vietnam with Stout and covered several presidential conventions with him, called Stout “one of the best broadcast journalists of his time.”
“He was a pioneer in the modern era of broadcast news, a pathfinder and standard-setter, whose best-known badge was his integrity,” Rather said in a statement from Malta, where he was covering the Bush-Gorbachev summit.
While Stout labored professionally on the airwaves he continued to return to touch his roots in the written word, contributing often to newspaper columns and book reviews.
He was much sought after as a banquet speaker for fund-raisers and as a eulogist of the dead, where his sentiments for the late departed sometimes were salted with personal stories of parties past.
Stout, who is survived by his wife, Margaret, and eight children, always refused to change the subject of his commentaries during sweeps periods, when TV stations introduce provocative or sensual topics to boost their ratings.
It was ironic, he noted wryly, that the February day in 1988 when his star was to be installed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame coincided with the opening of that year’s sweeps.
“No kidding? Ah, geez,” he groaned when told.
Yet at the ceremony itself, the normally stoic newscaster became emotional, saying, “It’s easy to be sophisticated and blase and say, ‘Who cares?’ but I am overwhelmed.”
Funeral services are pending.
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