An anchor in changing times
Monday, March 1, 2010; 12:00 PM
Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Monday, March 1, at Noon ET to discuss his Post Magazine cover story titled "An anchor in changing times," a profile of WJLA/Channel 7's Leon Harris who will join Farhi in the discussion.
Paul Farhi: Hi, everyone and welcome. Today our guest is Leon Harris, former anchorman at CNN, now leading the way at WJLA, channel, 7. I profiled Leon for the Post's magazine yesterday. He has a great personal story and a sterling professional resume. He's also a darn nice guy to boot.
Let's go to your questions...
Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Harris: I've watched you for years and you're excellent at what you do. My problem: Why so much crime reporting on the local news? It reeks of sensationalism. I know it's a story, but it's not THAT much of a story (the crime rate has been falling for years, a fact hardly ever mentioned by TV newscasts). Why do you cover this type of negative story so often?
Leon Harris: This may be the question I am asked the most. the sad facts are that those stories actually happen, AND if we ignore them and only report the GOOD stories, no one watches. The number don't lie.
Atlanta, Ga.: From your lowest paying job to where you are today what experiences have given you the most joy and satisfaction?
How does you faith play into your daily life and happiness?
Do you miss the people at CNN that were with you from early on including Barney, Junior, Chili D and Sikly B?
Ignore the last question and focus on the first two. Be good Leon.
Leon Harris: Frank Barnett, how dare you join this chat without talking to me first! Folks, the guy asking this question is someone who has been with me for much of the ride of my life, and he knows the answers already. That being said, my faith has always been sort of the operating system or control track of my life. It' always there and always keeping things oriented in the right direction. I'll call you later, dude!
Beantown: Is an anchorman really a journalist? Don't you just read what other people have written for you? How is that journalism?
Leon Harris: An anchor SHOULD be a journalist! I can't imagine a company in this business that would risk putting someone who wasn't in this position. We are the gatekeepers, the last check on whatever is going to go on the air in the name of the newsroom and the company. Plus, context is so important. It allows you, the consumer, to understand the "whys" of the world. You can't deliver that reliably - RELIABLY - without a journalistic conscience.
Washington, D.C.: Great story, Paul. Mr. Harris, I've enjoyed your anchoring for years. What did YOU think of the story? Did it capture you and the state of local news accurately? Any quibbles or complaints? No holding back now. I'm sure Paul won't mind!
Leon Harris: Paul won't mind, but my boss might! ;-) I think Paul was very fair and did a greta job of putting his finger on what drives me. I wish we could have talked more about the state of the business. the trajectory is not going where I'd like to see it go. I don't think I'd study for this field if I were in college today. That's what worries me - the brightest minds might find other avenues.
Metro-D.C.: I just wanted to say that I appreciate the news reporting that Leon Harris and all of the team does each day. While I am not a regular watcher I think that Leon does a tremendous job.
(And no he didn't pay me to say any of this and I do not work for him -- my wife and mother watch him more than I do.) He just always looks put together, relaxed, and just enjoying himself. There is such a strong stereotype of us African-American men as being one way, but I think he shows people that there is a spectrum.
I have not read the Post Magazine article yet, but intend to do so in the next few days. Thanks for the good work.
Leon Harris: Thanks for giving me a chance. Tell mom and the wife I love them!
Largo, Md.: Has anyone ever told Mr. Harris that he looks a lot like another local personality - Donnie Simpson?
Leon Harris: I have been told that I sound like Donnie, BUT I look like James Brown of CBS Sports! Both, by the way, are friends and mentors of mine.
Washington, D.C.: What's Maureen Bunyan really like?
Leon Harris: Maureen is really the best! I can't tell you ow much fun she has made this transition to the DC market for me. She's a LOT more fun off the air than anyone out there may think!
Laurel, Md.: With Bob Ryan leaving Channel 4, will Channel 7 be able to knock off News4 in the ratings? Is Channel 7 going to hire Bob?
Leon Harris: Ask Bob!
Former D.C. Resident: I left D.C. to attend college during the height of the "if it bleeds, it leads," D.C. is the murder capital of America, crack epidemic.
Never felt it was a fair stereotype of a city I still love, but have never lived in again.
I also have never been a customer of television news again. The snippets of TV news I do see while traveling or in friends homes never seem to capture the reality of the city I happen to be in.
Witness the recent wall to wall, reporter on the street saying the obvious about "snowpocalypes."
In addition, isn't t.v. news really just an re-framing of newspaper news anyway. I remember a study that showed that whatever was on the front page of the NY Times and the Post was what ended up on TV news anyway.
Why should any of us watch t.v. news when there are more serious sources all around us.
Thanks for reading such a long post! Sometimes brevity is the enemy of truth.
Leon Harris: Really good questions/points here. I'd say to you that if the station you're watching doesn't leave you with a true sense of your community, try another one! What kills me is seeing how people will watch what they've always watched, no matter the quality. People stick with what they are comfortable with, and that's not good.
TV news SHOULDN'T be a re-framing of the newspaper! We are charged with giving you what's important, what's happened AND what you can't get anyplace else. That's just my opinion....
Bethesda, Md.: As Washington is also a major center of national news, to what degree do you see it the duty of local news to cover local events with strong national overtones?
Leon Harris: The fact that international stories are also local stories in this town is the reason I came to DC. I love the fact that this city appreciates it's interconnection with the world. I think that ethos has influenced my kids, even. I love it. We have a duty to cover what people want and need, and you can't do that here without covering international news.
WJLA Viewer: Hi Paul and Leon, Your strategy worked!! I am now a Channel 7 news viewer because of your involvement in the community. Keep up supporting programs (like Brainfood) and you have a viewer for life.
Leon Harris: Thanks, and you can bet we'll keep it up. I think I did over 70 official and unofficial events last year and I think I learned something new about this area and myself at every one.
New Market, Va.: Viewership obviously increased tremendously during the recent "weather events." Give us your thoughts about local TV stations' roles during such times, as well as how it affected you personally/professionally.
Leon Harris: I think times like the blizzards are great opportunities to really bond with your community. Think about it - how often are we ALL affected by the same event these days? hen I was a kid and there only three networks, every evening at 6pm was like that. Not any more. These major events give us all a chance to connect. The thing is, though, we at the station have to be as responsible and accurate as possible because we could either win or lose you as viewer forever afterwards.
Harrisburg, Pa.: As another "Leon," I have always admired Leon Harris. I recently read Mika Brzezinski's book and heard her speech. She believes she was dropped from network news, on her 40th birthday, because networks prefer to showcase younger broadcasters. Do you believe there is age-ism in the network broadcast world?
Leon Harris: Simple answer - yes, I do. And unfortunately, it hits women the most often. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, however, I will concede that the stations are in the audience-building business, so the rules may be a little different. If the person you have fronting your product isn't attracting the most customers, you have to make a decision. Companies that produce tangible products do it all the time. I think it hurts our business when experience is sacrificed on the altar of youthfulness.
D.C.: As far as Bob Ryan leaving, is the weather really that different at Channel 7 as it is at Channel 4? I mean the stations aren't really that far apart, are they?
Leon Harris: Good question! I'll ask Doug Hill when I get to the station this afternoon!
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Harris,
Just a comment. After reading the article, I'm glad that you were able to overcome your early home enviroment to your current situation. It just shows that it can be done. Also as a result, I'll be watching Channel 7 a little more frequently now. Continued success to you.
Leon Harris: Thank you for the kind note I'd love to wake up one day and find that every kid in that kind of home understands what they're really wotrh.
Silver Spring, Md.: Leon/Paul: I switched to Channel 7 several years ago after having been a loyal 4 viewer for years and years. I think what I like best about the personalities on the news crew is that there is a mix of old and new, classics like Gordon Petersen and young blood like Alison Starling. Plus, the reporting is solid, the weather team is generally accurate, and everyone seems to really get along with each other. What more could you want?
Leon Harris: You're absolutely right! And here's the bonus - we all like each other!!! The fun we have with each other on-set is no act.
Fort Myers, Fla.: Hi Leon -- I think your comment about the best and brightest going into careers outside of journalism is dead on.
I'm a former WJLA intern who is now a producer in a mid-size market -- and the compromises to a normal life it takes to get ahead in this business are enough to drive most people away.
But, in the end if you love what you do -- it's worth it.. and hopefully will lead me back to working in D.C.! Keep up the great work
Leon Harris: Hey, there! Keep your head up and keep that thought in mind at all times - "if you love what you do...."
Snowmagedon: Many people objected to the non-stop coverage during the last two blizzards. I'm from the Midwest and have never seen anything like that before. I thought it was a bit overkill, especially when WJLA has a sister station that is all news all the time. What is your thought on the constant news coverage during weather events?
Leon Harris: You know, this market is really weather-driven. I have seen the ratings numbers during storms, and I can tell you, our attention to coverage is completely justified. I walked in waist-deep snow to get to school for years and I have never sen anything like the period we're going through now. It's NEWS!
Arlington, Va.: Leon Harris and the WJLA team are terrific (and if Bob Ryan joins the great Doug Hill, it will be an unbeatable combo!). But the crisis of local news is more than a business issue. If everyone gets their news from the Internet, they'll only get the news that confirms how they see the world already, and that's not good for democracy.
On the other hand, news radio in this town -- I'm thinking especially of WTOP -- seems to be thriving (and I admit, I listen to it a lot more than I watch local news on TV). Since Doug Hill already has a great gig on WTOP, are there any plans for more TV-radio crossover along that line? I bet there's an audience for that.
Leon Harris: Great observation. I think we'll be partnering with our friends at WTOP for the long haul, for sure. It makes sense for both of us, I think.
Anytown, USA: What's the transition from national TV (and big national stories) to local TV been like? You were covering events of international importance. Now you're covering fires and murders. Any thoughts?
Leon Harris: This may the one I am asked the second-most. I ams still making the adjustment, to be honest. I think what's been challenging is the fact that I didn't grow up here. If this was my hometown and I was intimately familiar with every nook and cranny, it would be easier to step away from the bigger stage. However, this area is so diverse and internationally aware that many newscasts feel like exactly what I was doing at CNN. DC and NYC are the only places I could go to after CNN.
London, Ont.: Does local news have a future? Will the Internet wreck your business just as it has the newspaper business?
Leon Harris: I can't say. I have nothing that works like a crystal ball. What I will say is that I think the various media will have to find a way to work with each other. I'm not convinced this is some kind of a zero-sum game, where one element wins and the others must therefore lose. I think we all win if we groom an audience of consumers who WANT variety.
Rockville, Md.: So when will Gordon Peterson, Maureen Bunyan, Jim Vance and all the old guard retire? If you're the future, they're the present. Time for them to go, no?
Leon Harris: I think they all should stick around as long as they can! They deserve to do what they want WHEN they want. I just love being around them and gleaning from the knowledge of the news giants. I think it's so cool to be able to get a daily lesson in why things are the way they are in this town and have that lesson steeped in context. I absouletly love working with Maureen and Gordon!
Paul Farhi: A question from over here, Leon: How has your family adjusted to the move from Atlanta to D.C.? Washington DOES take some getting used to...
Leon Harris: My family adjusted to the move a lot quicker than I did! My kids had lived in Atlanta all their lives, so I figured the move would be traumatic for them. They spent one afternoon at the pool here and the transition was over! The South is o different. "Diversity" there means there's a white kid on the basketball team, you know? Here, my kids got a taste of real community diversity and they love it. That made it easier for me an Dawn to put down roots.
Paul Farhi: How long will you stay here? Do you hope to be a Vance/Bunyan/Peterson type and go for 30-plus years on TV here? Or can you be seduced by the lure of network news again?
Leon Harris: I'd love to stay here forever. I will stay here on the air as long as the station and the audience wants me. One thing you should know after learning about my life is that I believe in learning from the signs and opportunities that arise when yo recognize them.
Paul Farhi: Thanks for spending the past hour with us, Leon. We'll be watching your career with interest. Best to you!
Media user:: Speaking of the interactivity of all news outlets, here we all are: Newspaper reporter, TV anchor, on the Internet chatting with users of all three media. Seems like it's working!
Leon Harris: It's a start! I love interactivity, but let's hope it's not interactivity for it's own sake. What gets transmitted should have a purpose and should make you feel like you didn't just waste an hour's worth of keystrokes, you know?
Leon Harris: I had no idea we'd used up an hour! Thanks for the questions, everybody, and thanks Paul Farhi for your interest and your fairness. You actually made me sound like somebody I'd have as a buddy! My mom will love this!
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