Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 11, 2002; Noon EDT
"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon EDT. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.
Today, Bob’s guest is Gordon Peterson, anchor of the WUSA-TV evening news in Washington, D.C.
Peterson has been covering news in the nation’s capital for 33 years. He has anchored WUSA’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news broadcasts since 1971. Peterson has served as moderator and producer of the nationally syndicated news analysis program "Inside Washington" since 1988.
Peterson is also an award-winning reporter, writer and producer whose documentary work has taken him across the globe to Northern Ireland, Israel, South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, France, Rome, Cambodia, Kuwait and elsewhere. He has won several Emmy awards in the News Anchor category, as well as Emmys for writing and producing documentaries. He has also covered each of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, as well as the major presidential primaries since 1972.
Before joining WUSA, Peterson covered news and sports for then CBS-owned WEEI radio in Boston, Massachusetts and for CBS radio. Prior to that he was News Director of CBS affiliate WNEB radio in Worcester, Massachusetts, his hometown. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and attended Georgetown University.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Gordon, and thanks very much for joining us today. Let's begin with a bit of shameless sentimentality, if we can. Way back when, Eyewitness News with Max Robinson, Gordon Peterson, Warner Wolf and Louie Allen was the best local news show under the tent--bar none. Would it be today? And do you miss those three guys?
Gordon Peterson: The answer is, We're getting there. I miss them, but of course Warner is still around -- I see him in New York and I hear him on the Imus program in the morning -- I miss Max, of course, and you didn't mention him but I miss Glenn Brenner terribly.
Bob Levey: You've been quoted as saying that "Inside Washington" (your weekly chat show) keeps you sane. Can you ever imagine doing that show and only that show?
Gordon Peterson: I suppose I can imagine it, but the fact that I am working with the news product on a daily basis keeps me current for that program. So I'm afraid that if I did that program and only that, there would be a tendency for me to grow a bit stale. Having said that, the reason Inside Washington keeps me sane is that it's so much fun. The panelists are so irreverent, and so humorous, that it's something I look forward to all week long. The best stuff happens in the breaks, which of course you will never see.
Springfield, Va.: Much is made of the perceived ideological biases of the press which allegedly slant the news in ways that bring objectivity into question. As a reporter, anchor, and host of a political commentary show, how sensitive do you believe the media industry is to sincerely striving for objectivity in their reporting, and how sensitive are you personally in striving for accuracy and fairness in reporting, even on issues that you may personally hold strong opinions on?
Gordon Peterson: We always strive for fairness and balance, because we, of course, are human beings and we bring our own prejudices and political affections to these subjects. So, in many cases, a person in my position is in danger of overcompensating, of pushing too hard in the opposite direction, in an effort to be fair. I don't think objectivity is possible, although we strive for it.
Bob Levey: In a 1998 Washington Post interview, you were quoted as saying: "I've been here for 30 years and people have been bitching for 30 years." Did you mean people who work at Channel 9, or viewers, or critics in the print media--or all three?
Gordon Peterson: All three. In the Marine Corps, the gunny (gunnery sergeant) used to say, If the troops ain't bitching, the troops ain't happy. So if they all had happy faces on, I'd have to find another place to work.
Bob Levey: Dan Rather likes to say that he has a big, big voice in the CBS Evening News. He even appears in the credits as "Managing Editor." Does Gordon Peterson ever want to be managing editor of WUSA News? Has he ever asked to be?
Gordon Peterson: I'm not much interested in titles, but I will say that, under the current leadership at Channel 9 -- Dave Roberts is our news director -- I have as much say as I can stand. I think probably it would be a mistake to put a lunatic like me in charge of the asylum.
Reston, Va.: Given that you have a long history covering both local and national news, which would you prefer to do if you could only do one?
Gordon Peterson: One of the joys of covering news in Washington is the fact that the line between local and national news is often blurred or simply isn't there. The attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11 was a local news story, and of course a national news story. I just returned from Capitol Hill, where I was talking to the Chief of the Capitol Police about his recruiting problems. I guess that's a local story, but you're dealing with the nation's capitol, so it certainly has national repercussions.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Peterson:
I've been watching you for so many years that I remember when your TV station ran commercials in the '70s suggesting that you and Max Robinson commuted to work together every day in a big ol' white convertible.
Robinson was such a rising star with seemingly abundant potential. What do you think led to his sad downfall?
Thank you for all your contributions to our community.
A longtime viewer and admirer
Gordon Peterson: I don't remember such a commercial. What I do remember is pictures of Max and me on the back of the buses in town. On one occasion, a nephew of mine was in Washington -- he was quite young at the time -- and he kept saying to his mother, Mom, Uncle Pete is on the bus! And she would keep saying, No, don't be silly, he's not on the bus. Max's line about that was, I don't like riding on the back of the bus, even if it's only my picture.
Max's story is heart-breaking. I often wish that he had stayed with us, and perhaps we could have helped him work out some of his problems. We were a family, and we were sad when he left us.
Silver Spring, Md.: Gordon, whose decision was it to bring Charles Krauthammer on your Saturday night talk show? He/she certainly did the right move here. Charles is an excellent panelist, and, I think, one of the most intelligent persons you have ever had on your program. The others -- Jack, Nina, and Evan -- would do wise to listen to him a little more instead of trying to cut him off all of the time.
Gordon Peterson: The decision to bring Charles aboard permanently was a joint one made by the then-executive producer, the late Jim Snyder, and myself. It was, I agree, a wise move. But I beg to disagree with you. Nobody succeeds in cutting Charles off. Although you're right -- the others often do try. But I assure you, Jack, Nina and Evan -- and I, for that matter -- listen to every word Charles says.
Bob Levey: When you're on the air, you never seem as if you're On The Air. You seem relaxed, at ease, yourself. How do you relax so totally when the red light goes on?
Gordon Peterson: The best advice anybody ever gave me about our business came from a high school classmate of mine named Buddy Carrigan, who was in radio in my hometown of Worcester, Mass., when I got into the news business. I asked him, Buddy, how do you do this? He said, Just be yourself. They will try to change you, but don't let them do it. Thank you, Buddy.
Bob Levey: In 1998, WUSA switched away from a Tennessee-Arkansas football game during the final minute to air "Inside Washington," starring Gordon Peterson. WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU, MAN????? don't you know that football is king??????
Gordon Peterson: I am always terribly frustrated during college football season when the CBS games run over and we don't get on on time. Especially when there are important issues to discuss. That decision was mine, and I will say in retrospect that it was a huge mistake. The former President of the United States, Bill Clinton, who I believe was watching that night, would, I am sure, agree with me.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Peterson:
The Boston Red Sox lead the American League! Is this finally the year for the Bosox?
Cheers for Nomar & Co.!
Gordon Peterson: "Pennant fever grips Hub." Yes, they are Number One. Of course, it's early yet. The fold seldom comes before late August or September. Perhaps this year, dear friends, our faith will at long last be rewarded.
Gambrills, Md: Mr. Peterson-
No question, just a comment. I have been a fan of yours for longer than you'd probably want me to say. Of course, I think your reporting and Inside Washington are major reasons you are so well respected.
However, now that you mention Glenn Brenner, I vaguely remember the old Redskins show with Glenn and Sonny, and on one occasion, the station was apparently snowed in. None of the guests could arrive, and you came out and pretended to be a hockey player. If memory serves me right, that was the funniest show of the season. You and Mr. Brenner had such a great chemistry. You are right - he is sorely missed.
Gordon Peterson: The storm was so bad that night that nobody could leave the station. The program was called "Redskins Sidelines," hosted by Glenn Brenner and Sonny Jurgensen. The producer's name was Brian Fischer, who now runs a liquor store across the street from the State Department. Glenn and Sonny were waiting for the Caps, the hockey team. And of course, they were having trouble getting there because of the snow. The audience consisted entirely of Channel 9 staffers. Brian came to me and said, They're dying out there! What am I going to do? And I said, I used to do a pretty fair French-Canadian hockey player, let's try it. So Glenn, after the commercial, introduced me as "Guy La Guy." I told him that I was currently playing in Guatemala, where the rusting of skates was a big problem because the ice was constantly melting. But I told him we speeded up the game by using a clear puck. When the Caps finally arrived, Glenn thanked me for my service, but I refused to get off. I told them, I have all the time in the world for you. That was many years ago. And to this day, passers-by on the street often greet me by shouting, "Hey! Guy La Guy!" Thanks for the memories.
Somewhere, USA: You Mentioned Glenn Brenner a few minutes ago. I still remember watching the 11 p.m. newscast on the day that he died. It was one of the few times in my life that I have seen my dad cry. You, however, managed to give a wonderful mini-eulogy on Brenner without shedding a tear, though it was clear you were very emotional about his death. My dad was very impressed by your ability to remain calm. Do you remember how you were able to do that? Was it difficult for you?
Gordon Peterson: Yes, it was difficult. But I knew that if I broke down, when we eventually met again in the hereafter, he would trash me unmercifully.
Rockville, Md.: Hello Bob, Hi Gordon.
The recent news of the large turnover in WUSA's sports department brought back memories of the magical and fabulous Glenn Brenner. What is one of your fondest memories of Glenn, and do you think there will ever be anyone else who can make Washington sports as enjoyable as he did? Thanks for your comments, and keep up the good work.
Gordon Peterson: There will never be another Glenn Brenner. But there are a lot of good people out there doing sports. Let me tell you a story about the time of his last illness. He was lying in George Washington University Hospital, after the doctors had learned that he had an inoperable brain tumor. He was in a coma, and many of his friends were at his bedside around the clock. I ran home for a quick shower in the wee hours of the morning one day, and as I returned, I noticed a homeless woman sitting on a wall outside the hospital. She had a small portable radio, and as she walked by, she said, I'm praying for your buddy. I broke down on that one. Thank you.
Frederick, Md.: You always seem to have a good rapport with your other colleagues. Are you still able to stay friends with Doug Hill and Maureen Bunyon now that they are your direct competition?
Gordon Peterson: Yes. Doug Hill and I speak on the phone frequently -- often the discussion is not suitable for broadcast -- and I see Maureen often. Maureen grows more beautiful and charming with the passing of each year. Whatever her secret is, I wish I could bottle it, and we would all retire as billionaires.
Bob Levey: When you began, it was Channels 4, 7 and 9--period. Now, there are a zillion cable channels, many of which do some sort of news or information. Has cable cut into your audience and drawing power? If so, how much?
Gordon Peterson: There's no question that cable has cut into the local station audience, as well as the network audience. But I think some of the audience loss has to do with bad programming decisions. The audience, I believe, is much more serious and intelligent than some of our local and national executives give them credit for. They do not want to have their intelligence insulted, and when they do, they go away.
Annandale, Va.: So where were you on Sept. 11 at 9 a.m.? Since the news coverage for that whole week was almost entirely national and not local, did you have on air time?
Gordon Peterson: On Sept. 11, I had just returned from Cape Cod, a day ahead of schedule. I received a call from our news desk that a plane had gone into the World Trade Center. Could I be ready to leave for New York in a matter of minutes? I always keep a bag packed, so I said, sure. A second call came through. A second plane had gone into the World Trade Center. It will be hopeless to try to fly, we'll have to drive -- we'll pick you up in 10 minutes. As I was heading down the stairs with my bag, with the crew in the driveway, my wife said, you're not going anywhere. A plane just flew into the Pentagon. So, the photographer and I headed for Arlington, and somehow managed to get across the river, where I began reporting immediately. At mid-afternoon, the station management asked me to come back to anchor the day's broadcasts, so I had to find a way back across the river. I started walking, and, miracle of miracles, a young woman who worked at Headquarters Marine Corps picked me up and drove me across Chain Bridge. And I was on the air for the rest of the day.
Washington, D.C.: In the late 80s, as a Fairfax County high school student with an interest in television, I visited your offices to watch a newscast. You, Glenn Brenner and J.C. Hayward could not have been more generous in indulging my questions. Fifteen years later, I work in the business and have learned just how rare that kind of graciousness is. Thanks for setting a great example.
Gordon Peterson: Thank you very much. I'll pass the word along to J.C.
Bob Levey: In the TV biz, there's always a lot of talk about lead-ins to TV news shows. How significant a factor is this in the great ratings wars?
Gordon Peterson: The lead-in is a significant factor. Even with remote in hand, the audience tends to stick around after a favorite entertainment program. And just to keep us all humble, I always recall that in the days when Walter Cronkite owned the airwaves, Andy Griffith's show in black and white was beating him in Washington.
Bob Levey: What would you have done if the TV thing hadn't worked out? Been a career Marine officer? Gone into (gasp) the newspaper business?
Gordon Peterson: I don't know how to answer that. All I know is, when I left the employment of the U.S. government, I knew I didn't want a real job. It's been almost 40 years now, and I've never had a real job. With any luck, I can run out this string all the way to the end. If it hadn't been television, yes, it would have been newspapers. Anything that kept me from sitting behind a desk and doing grownups' work. There's the secret of what we do. We do what we do because it's fun.
Bob Levey: So there I was, freezing to death in Derby, N.H., in early 1996, waiting for Bob Dole to give a campaign speech--and suddenly, with a crew trailing him, there was Gordon Peterson. Who was colder that night--Peterson, Dole or Levey?
Gordon Peterson: I'll tell you a story about the New Hampshire primary as it relates to Inside Washington. We tape Inside Washington from the fabled Wayfarer Hotel in Bedford, N.H., every four years. The camera operator and the producer are inside, shooting out. Jack Germond and I are outside, on the balcony, with the famous waterfall in the background. One of these days, I suspect, the audience will see us expire from hypothermia before the last commercial break. The New Hampshire? I don't care how cold it is up there, I wouldn't miss it for the world.
Bob Levey: Why so much crime news on your show (and others), night after night, when TV bosses know darn well that crime rates are way down in D.C., and that murder very rarely takes place among strangers?
Gordon Peterson: There is a saying in local television news, that "if it bleeds, it leads." The audience has been telling news operations like ours for some time now that they do not wish to be inundated with crime coverage. Stacking up the unidentified bodies merely irritates people. It doesn't inform them. Consequently, we are doing much less crime reporting than we used to, and I suspect other successful stations around the country are following suit.
Bob Levey: Some pundit once suggested that you'd be a great candidate for Congress. It isn't too late to declare your candidacy, right here, today........
Gordon Peterson: I have a Peterson For Congress poster outside my workspace at Channel 9. That's as close as I will ever come to holding public office. Although I've always said I would love to work, just once, for a candidate for national office in whom I believed. Just once. I think it would be a great experience. And while I'm at it, it disturbs me when people in my profession downgrade politicians. I can't think of a more noble profession in a society that is the world's leading democracy.
Laurel, Md.: How did you get selected to replace Martin Agronsky? Isn't it unusual for a reporter, who has to be apolitical, to host a pundit show?
Gordon Peterson: The afore-mentioned Jim Snyder, who brought me to Washington many years ago, took me to lunch one day and informed me that Martin was retiring, and asked if I would be interested in taking over the show. After I said yes, he said, we are going to make some changes, but they will be so slow and so gradual that they will not disturb the audience. And that's what we did. I try to remain neutral in these discussions, but sometimes, if I sense that we are putting people to sleep, I will pose a provocative question. Those questions do not necessarily reflect my own point of view. Once again, we strive for fairness and objectivity.
Bob Levey: Chris Matthews interrupts people all the time. Al Hunt and Bob Novak shout at one another. Seems as if the "food fight" mentality is what drives TV talk shows. And then there's "Inside Washington"--not exactly a sea of tranquility, but FAR more calm than the others. Is this intentional? Is it a matter of Peterson's style?
Gordon Peterson: What I strive for on Inside Washington is something analogous to a spirited after dinner conversation. We don't mind a little shouting, but we prefer not to have the guests breaking plates over each other's heads. We hope to shed a bit of light each week, and while it is important for us to air our disagreements, we prefer not to be disagreeable.
Bob Levey: This is a VERY early-rising city -- and because of rush hour traffic, it's likely to get even more so. Will that ever spell the end of the 11 p.m. local news?
Gordon Peterson: I don't believe so. I think, especially in Washington, people will always want to know that it's safe to go to bed. Stick with us, we'll give you the last word.
Annandale, Va.: Was the movie "Broadcast News" with William Hurt and Holly Hunter filmed at WUSA? If so, would we see you in the background as an extra? Also, was that an accurate movie with respect to daily life at WUSA?
Gordon Peterson: I believe it was filmed in and around the CBS bureau downtown, and the Holly Hunter character was inspired by a CBS Washington bureau staff person. As for the William Hurt character, I'm sure there are folks like him in Washington, but I don't know any. I do know a few Albert Brooks characters, and some of them are even more fun than he was.
Bob Levey: The biggest change in local TV news is the considerable audience at 5 a.m. WUSA's anchor team of Mike Buchanan and Andrea Roane is packing 'em in at that ungodly hour. What would Gordon Peterson say if The Great Powers ever told him he would have to work that shift? (Keep it clean, please....).
Gordon Peterson: Gordon Peterson would say, Good-bye, have a nice day.
Washington, .D.C: Gordon:
One thing I've noticed about the news recently is the repetition of produced pieces throughout the week. A story may appear on Sunday morning and then reappear during a weekday evening newscast. Why is this done? It can't be because of a lack of things to report. Heck, give a few extra minutes to sports if you need to fill the time. (I realize you're not the person in charge of these things, but you represent Channel 9 and this is my opportunity to vent, especially since we're losing Jess).
Gordon Peterson: You make an interesting point. I will pass on to management your objection to recycled stories. I wouldn't mind seeing more extensive sports coverage myself. Thanks for the comment.
Bob Levey: Many thanks to Gordon Peterson. Be sure to join us next week, same time, when our guest will be Ed Henry, Capitol Hill columnist for Roll Call. That visit will begin on Tuesday, June 18, at noon Eastern time.
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