Jess Marlow dies at 84; L.A. news anchor was no-nonsense journalist

Jess Marlow (1929-2014) -- A Los Angeles news anchor whose no-nonsense delivery reflected a passion for facts over fluff.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Jess Marlow, a former Los Angeles news anchor whose no-nonsense delivery reflected a passion for facts over fluff, died Sunday in a Denver-area nursing home. He was 84.

His death from complications of Alzheimer’s disease was confirmed by his nephew Bill Marlow.

Working at KCBS-TV and KNBC-TV for 31 years and then coming out of retirement to co-host a public affairs show on KCET-TV, Marlow was among Southern California’s most respected newscasters.

In 1997, Variety described him as “one of the last of a vanishing breed of classy, insightful anchormen.”

On Monday, former KNBC colleague Tom Brokaw called Marlow “a first-rate journalist and a beloved figure in the newsroom.”


“He also had a wicked sense of humor,” Brokaw recalled in a statement. “After one of Evel Knievel’s many crashes, Jess said, ‘Evel rides fast and thinks slow.’”

Marlow, who got his start in communications as a railroad telegrapher, spoke in the flat, Midwestern tones of his native Illinois. An advocate of meat-and-potatoes hard news, he criticized the waves of car chases, titillating celebrity items and demographically inspired lifestyle features that surged through TV newsrooms.

But when departing KNBC news anchor Keith Morrison said the station’s newscasts were so grimy he felt like taking a shower afterward, Marlow struck a softer note.

“I told our general manager, ‘I never felt like taking a shower — a sponge bath, maybe.’”

“I don’t mind if we bring them into the tent with cotton candy,” Marlow told The Times in 1992, “but once they’re there, we have to give them some substance.”

Marlow’s awards included eight local Emmys, a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Press Club and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Born in Salem, Ill., on Nov. 29, 1929, Myron Jess Marlow worked his way through the University of Illinois by working nights for the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad.

On a 90-day post-college leave from the railroad, he tried out for a TV job with WHBF-TV, a station in Rock Island, Ill.

“I honestly considered crawling under the desk,” he told the Associated Press in 1974. “It was the most terrifying experience I’d ever known. I thought, I’ve prepared for this for years and I’ve made an awful mistake.”

He stayed for several years and was virtually a one-man band, anchoring, reporting, writing, shooting and editing the news. After a stint as news director at KNTV-TV in San Jose, he signed on in 1966 as a reporter at KNBC, and two years later became an anchor.

He joined KCBS in 1980 but left when the station cut his salary — reported to be about $700,000 — by about half.

“They made me an offer I couldn’t accept,” he told The Times.

He also was frustrated by a changing format that emphasized lighter fare — an ongoing complaint from Marlow and other TV veterans.

“In the early years of television news, we were not expected to turn a profit,” he said, “and we didn’t disappoint.…They allowed us to experiment, to go long form, to fail.”

In 1986, he returned to KNBC, a familiar face and voice who continued to chronicle the biggest stories of the day. Covering the infamous McMartin child molestation case, he was one of the few journalists who asked skeptical questions, David Shaw, The Times’ media critic, wrote in 1990.

“He asked why, over the years, none of the children had told anyone what had happened before the McMartin case broke. He also asked if it was unusual for women to be involved in child molestation — as indeed it is,” Shaw wrote.

Marlow, however, faulted himself for not being skeptical enough, especially about medical evidence that later proved insupportable. Of the 208 charges in the McMartin case, none produced a guilty verdict.

Marlow retired from KNBC in 1998 but even then kept his Sunday morning news interview show. It aired at 5:30 a.m.

In 2001, he joined KCET’s Val Zavala in the twice-weekly “Life & Times Tonight.”

“He never, ever let his ego get in front of the news, which is a rare trait these days,” Zavala said.

In 2003, Marlow retired in earnest, moving with his wife, Phyllis, to Santa Fe, N.M. They later relocated to Loveland, Colo.

In addition to his wife, Marlow’s survivors include a daughter, Susan; two grandchildren, and seven brothers and sisters.

Twitter: @schawkins