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News Man: WJLA Channel 7 bet its future on Leon Harris. Signs are, it's beginning to pay off.

By Paul Farhi
Sunday, February 28, 2010; W14

Leon Harris is standing on a stage, his tie loosened and shirt sleeves peeled back, facing 300 restless high school students. Channel 7's anchorman is at Eleanor Roosevelt High School n Prince George's County, talking to an auditorium full of teenagers about safe driving.

It's as simple as saying, 'I will not speed,'" Harris tells the big room, his voice resonant and anchorman-smooth. "'I will not drink and drive. And I will not get into a car with someone who does.'"

The kids aren't quite sure what to make of the TV guy, but Harris presses on. "It's as simple as taking one extra second to think about what you're doing. There are consequences to every single decision you make out there."

Harris cues an assistant, and a series of videos roll on a big screen. Each one is about the tragic aftermath of a traffic accident, with regretful survivors and tearful relatives. By the end, the students have stopped fidgeting.

Harris goes into his windup. "Buckle up when you get in a vehicle. Deal?"

"Deal!" the teenagers respond enthusiastically.

"Don't drink and drive or get in a vehicle with someone who did. Deal?"

"Deal!" roar the students, who whoop and applaud as Harris waves and leaves the stage, a smile curling his caterpillar of a mustache.

It's a worthy message and a nice event, one of dozens organized by Harris's TV station in area schools. But it makes you wonder: What's Leon Harris -- a journalist who has reported stories from around the world, the man recruited from CNN a few years back to lead WJLA (Channel 7) to ratings glory -- doing here in the first place?

As it happens, one answer to the question has been standing just offstage during the event. A cameraman from WJLA has recorded the entire presentation. During Harris's 5 p.m. newscast, the station will air a short piece about his appearance at Roosevelt High. Teenagers don't really watch the local news, but the station figures the students' parents might, if only to catch a glimpse of the kids and the school. One of those families might even turn out to be one of the 560 local households monitored by the Nielsen Co., which could mean a small but critical boost for the station.

"You never know," Harris says in the parking lot afterward.

So, five or more times a week, Leon Harris gets in his shiny black BMW and motors off to do another driving assembly, charity fundraiser or pep talk for "at risk" kids. This kind of house-to-house campaigning is, in a way, what the local news has come to. These days, TV stations can't afford to take even a handful of potential viewers for granted.

After years of churning out enormous profits for stations such as WJLA, the local news is hurting. The ratings for the late news on Washington's four broadcast stations have fallen to new lows in four of the past five years, part of a national trend driven by the flight of viewers to the Internet and other news sources. The recession, meanwhile, has hammered sponsors, particularly car dealers, which typically account for about a third of a station's revenue. Layoffs and cutbacks have become semi-regular occurrences at every station in town.

Amid all the uncertainty, WJLA is counting on Harris to be its signature face, its news "brand." There's an old saying: People don't watch the news; they watch the people who bring them the news. When WJLA lured Harris from CNN in 2003 and made him anchor of WJLA's 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts, the station's executive saw just the right blend of gravitas, likability and camera-friendly looks. It didn't hurt, either, that Harris had network-news chops, honed after a dozen years of reporting issues including the 1992 Los Angeles riots and President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

"In some markets, the winner of the Miss So-and-So contest is fine for anchoring the news," says Fred Ryan, president of Allbritton Communications, the privately held company that owns WJLA, cable's Newschannel 8 and the Politico newspaper. "But people in Washington have high expectations. We needed a high-impact player. That's why Leon's here."

By several measures, Allbritton's faith in Harris is starting to pay off. Since his arrival, WJLA has moved from third in the news ratings to a solid second behind Jim Vance's WRC, Channel 4, the perpetual leader. Ryan and other company managers like to point out that time is on Harris's side, too; at 48, he's a few decades younger than Vance, 68, and WJLA's Gordon Peterson, 73, and Maureen Bunyan, 65, Washington's anchoring Mount Rushmore.

And so WJLA has started to position Harris as anchor of the next generation. In the station's print ads, Harris looks straight at the camera with an earnest expression, a single word of copy next to his image: "Trust." In a few years, Fred Ryan says, Harris could be without peer among local anchormen.

The question is, will the local news survive that long?

***

Everyone who knows Leon Harris says some variant of the same thing about him: What you see on the air is what you get off it. His friends say it. So do his bosses, colleagues and ex-colleagues.

So, too, does Dawn Harris, who has been married to him for 23 years and has known him for 30. "He is who you see," she says. "Sometimes you see people on the air, and they seem like someone who'd be cool to have over for dinner or to have a beer with. And they're not. But he's that guy."

This might be what makes Harris appealing as an anchorman. The job has never been just about reading the news. Viewers tend to regard their local anchors as neighbors and friends, says Bunyan, who has been on the air in Washington almost continuously since 1973 and calls herself Harris's "older sister." "When you place yourself in front of that camera, you'll die of a heart attack if you're not yourself," she says. "If you have to put on a show, it's not good for your blood pressure. People want to feel that you're a person who goes to the gas station and the supermarket just like they do."

Harris never set out to be on TV or even to be a journalist. In many respects, he's an accidental anchorman.

He grew up in Akron, Ohio's, scrappy west side, the second of five kids in a household headed by his mother, Lorrene. Harris's parents divorced when Leon was 5, and Harris spent much of his childhood being the man of the household, watching over his two closest siblings: Marcus, who is almost a year younger than him; and Jerry, two years Leon's junior. His mother worked as a clerk for an insurance company, and the family struggled. Many nights, the only thing they had for dinner was cornflakes and peaches, Harris recalls. Jerry Harris remembers his brother as serious and businesslike from an early age. "For me, he was a substitute father," he says.

Harris's father, Leon Sr., was an intermittent presence in his childhood and never a happy one. To his street cronies, Leon Sr. was known as "Bull," short for bully, and he could be as intimidating to his family as he was to the hustlers and petty criminals with whom he associated. Bull Harris was also familiar to Akron's police; he was arrested dozens of times on charges of assault, domestic violence or drug possession.

Harris remembers that his father once beat his mother so savagely that he broke her collarbone. But his memory of the incident is hazy. Wait, he says. And like a good newsman, he calls his mother to check his facts.

Lorrene, on the phone, fleshes out the story: a broken collarbone and three broken ribs, she says. She sustained the injuries while she was pregnant with Jerry and was so incapacitated that Harris's aunts (his father's sisters) and paternal grandmother cared for the boys for several months. Six months later, after another fight with her husband, Lorrene fled the house in her nightgown. The boys wound up with their paternal grandparents, where they stayed the next three years until their mother was able to get a divorce.

Bull Harris continued to haunt the boys' childhood. Once, apparently intoxicated, he threatened to kill his eldest son, Leon Jr. says. He also tried to recruit the boys into his drug-selling business, according to Jerry. But the boys, devoted members of their mother's Pentecostal church, refused.

Harris hasn't talked to his father in years and has seen him only four times since 1986, once unexpectedly. Dawn and Leon's two children, Darren, 18, and Lauren, 16, have never really known their grandfather; he's seen them only once, about 15 years ago.

Leon believes he drew a kind of negative inspiration from his father. "If there was anything I wanted to be," he says, "it was the exact opposite of him. Whenever I've come to a crossroads in my life, I would think to myself: What would he do? And then I would do the exact opposite."

Harris pauses to reflect on this. "You grow up with that, and you have two choices: You can man up, or you can be just like him. I did everything I could not to be him."

One more pause, and a bitter chuckle: "The killer is, I look just like him."

Harris's most profound male influence -- "the guy I wanted to be" -- was James Nash, his maternal grandfather. Nash was a four-sport star at historically black West Virginia State University and went on to become a chemist and civic leader in Akron. Nash and his wife, Marguerite, helped raise Harris and his brothers; they moved in with the Nashes for two years during Leon's childhood. He died when Leon was 12.

At night in the bedroom attic that he shared with his brothers in the Nashes' home, Leon imagined what he could become. He visualized the brick house he would live in as an adult, the cars in the driveway, the pool in the back, the trees just so. He wanted to carry a briefcase to work and wear a mustache. He was fascinated by Darrin Stephens, the ad man married to the pretty witch, Samantha, on "Bewitched." Darrin carried a briefcase, "and people respected him for what he knew."

What's remarkable about his boyhood imaginings is how close Harris has come to achieving them. He and Dawn live in a gracious brick near-mansion not far from Avenel Country Club in Potomac; there's a pool and a half-court basketball court in the back yard. Dawn has no apparent magical powers, but they did name their son, Darren, after the sitcom character.

Harris's other childhood goal was to become a star athlete, if only to erase his father's name, which sometimes appeared in the arrest blotter of the newspaper. Harris was strong (he began lifting weights at age 16 and hasn't stopped) and could dunk a basketball when he was just 5-foot-9. But a series of knee injuries during his sophomore and junior years of high school ruined any chances of football or basketball glory. Instead, he threw himself into intellectual and artistic pursuits; Harris played the trombone, read widely and captained his high school quiz-bowl team.

He eventually went to Ohio University on a National Merit Scholarship. There, Harris joined the school's speech and debate team. His friends were puzzled. "Black people don't speech," one of them told him. He did; Harris's team eventually finished fourth in a national tournament.

A professional turning point came in May 1982, when Harris attended a speech by Ted Turner, a loquacious entrepreneur who had recently launched a struggling cable network called CNN. Turner talked about how communications satellites were revolutionizing TV. Harris was transfixed. He wanted to be part of that.

After a school official arranged an internship for him in Atlanta, Harris became an apprentice researcher and novice editor (among his cubicle mates that fall was a young journalist named Katie Couric). When he graduated a few months later, CNN offered him a job as a camera operator. It paid $4.15 an hour.

Soon the ambitious kid landed a job in satellite operations. Harris eventually rose to No. 2 in the unit, handling special events such as Election Day coverage. At one point before the Persian Gulf War, he found himself negotiating with members of the Saudi royal family on the price to cut down trees that were blocking CNN's feed from Dhahran. He was learning sales, accounting, management. Harris could see himself becoming one of the top executives in Turner's empire.

But when Comsat, the Washington telecommunications company, made a run at hiring Harris away in 1991, his career took an unexpected turn. CNN's then-president, Tom Johnson, considered his options. "'We've got to find you a new job,'" Harris says Johnson told him.

The job was on the air, as a kind of junior anchorman. After months of preparation, Harris made his TV debut in early 1992 -- he remembers the date exactly, Feb. 8 -- doing one-minute "cut-ins," short updates on the progress of the war. He was a quick study. By May, he was promoted to morning anchor.

For the next dozen years, Harris was a fixture on CNN. He was the first anchor on the air, or among the first, for almost every major breaking event of the period: the first and second attacks on the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial and L.A. riots, school shootings, weather disasters, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment.

Harris was good under pressure -- cool, steady, capable. His experience on the college speech team came in handy, but he also prepared. "News is part performance," he says. "But you've got to know it, too. You can't go on the air and say 'Yitzhak ROB-bin.' No one should have to explain to you who the mujaheddin are."

As heady as the stories were, Harris began to grow restless as another American war loomed in the Middle East in 2002. Now an established anchor, Harris had been getting job feelers from stations around the country, including WJLA. He demurred, hoping that CNN would give him a choice reporting assignment during the coming conflict in Iraq. "It was a classic all-hands-on-deck situation, and I wanted to be one of the hands," Harris said. "I needed to know I wouldn't be doing cut-ins."

Except that's exactly what CNN had in mind. As the war started, Harris became the cut-in king, popping up for hours on end with one-minute progress reports. He began to keep count: At one point, he did cut-ins for 34 consecutive days.

Harris called his agent.

"It was clear to me that they didn't think I was as good as I thought I could be," he says. "I got frustrated. I just wanted to feel like a grown-up. The way I came up, maybe they didn't think I could be a real journalist. I think they thought I was a good guy, a team player, but I wasn't a real news grown-up. ... If I didn't leave, I knew I wouldn't feel like a grown-up."

***

It's a Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before Harris will co-anchor his first broadcast of the day. He's sitting in his modest glass office just off WJLA's newsroom, a serpentine of desks and cubicles, located in a tower a few blocks from the Potomac River in Rosslyn. The newsroom is in full swing as 5 p.m. approaches.

"If I hit the Lotto and I could buy Channel 7 away from the Allbrittons, I'd have four investigative units," says Harris, genial as usual. "We'd be digging in! We'd be doing what no one else is doing!"

This vision of journalistic enterprise gets Harris so excited he's pounding his desk. "People would say, 'Channel 7 is indispensable.' It would be great to see!"

But Harris knows it's just a daydream.

WJLA had an investigative unit, but it was disbanded in early 2009, when the station laid off 26 newsroom staffers to cut costs. The story was much the same elsewhere as WJLA's competitors (Channels 4, 5 and 9) not only chopped their news staffs but also formed cooperative newsgathering pools to cover routine events, such as news conferences and hearings.

Channels 4 and 9 also negotiated new union contracts that broke down formerly rigid work rules. Under the old regime, lines weren't crossed; photographers shot video and editors edited. These days, though, some employees have become "one-man bands," handling all of the jobs that used to be done by a crew. Channel 4 anchor Wendy Rieger, for example, now shoots her own feature stories with a handheld camera. "We're in the midst of a massive overhaul in the business," she says. "Doing more with less. ... And as a veteran in a collapsing industry, I've become quite Darwinian: Adapt or perish."

"Doing more with less" means covering fewer stories in depth, and filling airtime with crime, weather, health and entertainment stories -- all trusty ratings magnets and the least expensive stories to report. In the gilded, pre-recession world of TV news, before the Internet and 500 TV channels, a station could make plenty of money just by finishing third among three stations, says Fred Ryan, Allbritton's president. But the day is coming when there won't be room for a third or fourth news station, he says; it'll be a two-horse race: "The way it will play out is there will be a dominant station and then an alternative. The other stations will find it more profitable to run 'Seinfeld' [reruns] instead of news."

Some 222 stations across the country don't bother to produce their own news any more, according to Robert Papper, a Hofstra University professor who surveys TV newsrooms. Instead, the job is outsourced to another station across town, which supplies most or all of the news the station puts on at night.

Washington isn't there -- at least, not yet.

Allbritton has plans to beef up its local news coverage by merging the Web sites of its two television stations -- WJLA and Newschannel 8 -- and share some content. The company has hired Jim Brady, former washingtonpost.com editor, to head the venture and compete aggressively for local readers.

In Rosslyn, it's getting late as Harris prepares for the day's last newscast at 11 p.m. The newsroom is practically abandoned and as quiet as a library. Harris, his co-anchor Caroline Lyders, and producers Mike Friedrich and Brie Hall seem to be the only ones at the station.

Although Harris occasionally goes out on special assignment to report stories, anchors typically don't get deeply involved in the daily work of reporting, editing and producing what viewers see. As the newscast's central figure, Harris spends part of his day promoting the upcoming broadcasts, taping short teasers that will appear during the programs that precede the news.

The rest of the time, he prepares. Harris reads newspapers and scans the Internet for stories that might be part of the news. He meets with station manager and news director Bill Lord and producers such as Friedrich and Hall to familiarize himself with "the rundown," the station's budget of stories. Harris sometimes has to improvise on camera (and often ad-libs), but most of what he'll say is scripted.

This night, the rundown is fairly typical. The broadcast will lead with a weather story -- high winds have pulled down some power lines -- followed by a brief Doug Hill forecast (weather is a huge ratings-grabber, which is why Hill will appear twice in less than 30 minutes tonight).

The rest of the newscast is a mix of high and low. After the weather stories, Harris introduces Lyders, who reports on the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. There's a bit about the health-care debate in Congress, a new poll about attitudes toward swine-flu vaccinations. Harris then segues into a brief update about a father accused of drowning his children, followed by a report about the emergence of security tapes in a 12-year-old murder case.

Crime, like weather, is a big part of the TV news budget. Harris occasionally bristles at the trivialization of the news. He says he'll sometimes question the rundown, asking about the fluffier stories. "I'll say, 'You guys didn't bring me here to read stories about the dating habits of prime-time stars.' People will disrespect me for that."

Sometimes he thinks that if he had to do it all again, he wouldn't.

"There's going to be a lot of mediocrity in this business," he predicts. "Fewer people, more work. The chance of getting good at any one thing is difficult. The rewards are not the same. Where is the incentive to come and dedicate years of your life to this? I just don't see it."

What has changed, he believes, aren't just the economics of the business, but the definition of news. "Now it's blurred with entertainment. Who's CNN's No. 1 news figure? He's a guy who hosted 'The Mole.' We all do the same five stories over and over. Six minutes on a story? Forget it. Rwanda could happen today, and we wouldn't cover it.

"The newscast is just not as unique anymore. You're no longer the first thing for people with an appetite for information to turn to. You're no longer the tip of the spear. People in the Pentagon were watching us! People in the White House! We were doing something that you felt was important. I felt I better be good at this, because this is important.

"I feel lucky -- blessed -- to get on this train when I did. But in many ways, I represent the end of an era."

Back on the set, Caroline Lyders has the last "read," or news story, of the night before Tim Brant comes on to do sports and Doug Hill reappears with more weather. Her story is a staple of local news, a light piece to send people off to bed. This one is about potty-trained cat. As Harris looks on and Lyders goes into her read, Channel 7 begins broadcasting a grainy, homemade video clip.

It's of a cat squatting over a toilet.

When the November ratings for Washington's news stations came out just before Thanksgiving, there were few smiling faces. Channel 4 continued to lead, as always, and Harris and WJLA finished second. Channels 5 and 9 trailed.

But the bigger picture looked ominous. Overall viewing was down again, this time precipitously. Compared with the year before, one in five viewers had stopped watching. The total was the lowest in the four years since Nielsen began measuring audiences with new, more accurate electronic monitors.

The figures suggested that the scenario of a two-station news race was creeping inexorably closer to reality.

If the old saying is true -- people don't watch the news; they watch the people who deliver the news -- Leon Harris may still be sitting at an anchor desk 20 years from now. But Harris knows he won't just have to be good. In a profession that grows more troubled by the month, he'll have to be lucky, too.

Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Post's Style section. He can be reached at farhip@washpost.com.

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