Delores Handy used to be a TV personality. Now she is an issue. It happends especially in a news medium that beams its correspondents directly into the living room.
WJLA-TV News director Sam Zelman received "dozens" of letters and phone calls of complaint after firing Handy from her news anchor position at the station last month, but that was only the beginning. This week the D.C. City Council passed a resolution urging the station to re-hire its minority employment practices may be out of whack.
The sponsor of the resolution, Council woman Wilhelmina J. Rolark, compares the Handy issue to racial strife in South Africa and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, no less.
"It's a resolution; it just indicates our concerns on an issue," Rolark said of the Council's action. "The Council does things in a number of ways to express its views. We did it on South Africa and we did it on ERA, which we endorsed. So this was right along the line we have set for ourselves; that we must not remain on the sidelines but speak up on the issues."
Rolark said she was a fan of Handy's on the air, but hadn't heard from her on the matter of the resolution, which not only was speedily passed by the Council but endorsed by community groups, including the "paul Robeson Friendship Society."
The action was "not at all strange," Rolark said because WJLA's failure to renew Handy's contract with the station touched on the issue of unemployment, especially among blacks and women and particularly in the District of Columbia, and on the 'quite questionabl" area of WJLA's affirmative action policies for minority hiring and advancement.
"It's completely unprecedented," Zelman said yesterday of the Council's resolution. "How it can become the function of a city legislative body to intercede in the personnel matters of a private news, organization is beyond me. Weird, Weird. That's the word for it so far as I can see."
Handy came to WJLA in January 1976, preceded by a reputation for off-camera feistness but conveying on camera "a sense of presence and an air of authority," according to Zelman, who earlier had hired handy as a reporter when he was news director at the CBS-owned KNZT-TV in Los Angeles.
BUt WJLA expended much more promotional energy extolling Schoumacher, who'd worked for a network and who tended to get the splashier new stories on the air.
One of 14 children born to a Baptist minister in Little Rock, Ark, Handy got her first job as a reporter at KAAY radio there in 1969. "When I got the job," she recalled later," Daddy said, 'It's about time you got paid for doing what you do best - talking.'"
"The case of Delores Handy has become legenday," Rolark said yesteray. "She became extremely popular here because she did the kind of reporting on city matters that was long overdue."
Irwin Starr, director of broadcasting for WJLA-TV, said resolution "unfortunate" especially since it attempted to link the Handy dismissal with the station's minority hiring policies.
"We certainly support, and our record will behind that, the employment in the news media of blacks and women," Starr said. "It is unfortunate that a personal and a personnel matter was tied in with the Council's resolution."
Minority hiring policies are a ticklish subject at WJLA, particularly now that the ownership of the station is in the process of being transferred from Washington Star Communications Inc. to Combined Communications Corp. of Phoenix, Ariz.
The FCC approved the transfer, which involves the exchange of KOCO-TV in Atlantic City for WJLA, on Jan. 17, but a coalition of activist groups soon filed a petition with the Circuit Court of Appeals here to overturn the FCC ruling. The same groups also formally filed a stay-of-decision request with the FCC.
On Wednesday, Star Communications and Combined Communications filed oppositions to the opposition at the FCC and an FCC decision on all that is expected next week.
Could the Handy affair adversely affect the transfer deal? "I just don't know. I would hope not," Starr said.
Edward Coleman, layer for the Citizens Communications Center - one of the four opposing groups - said that minority hiring had not been an issue in objecting to the transfer of stations; instead the groups were concerned with "concentration of ownership questions" and cross-ownership in the media.
But Coleman did say of the Handy affair, "I think it's symptomatic, if you want to know the truth. It may show that employment practices at WJLA are not so good."
Why wasn't Handy's contract renewed? She was personable and competent on the air and was named Jounalist of the Year in December by the Capital Press Club. "She had problems," was all that zelman would say yesterday. Throughout, the station has referred only to backstage personality differences that result in Handy's departure.
Insiders at the station say there was repeated friction between Handy and fellow reporter Chris Curle and between Handy and fellow anchorman David Schoumacher. "Delores is not the easiest person to get along with," said one reporter, "but then, neither is David Schoumacher."
There reportedly were squabbles over star billing, time on the air, apportioning of stories (who got to report what) and salaries. Schoumacher, who as network experience behind him, is paid a reported $150,000 a year. Handy, 29, probably made less than a third of that amount, reliable sources say.
In television journalism, news business and show business regularly overlap; fits of tempereament and ego are hardly uncommon. At network levels, news personalities often have high-powered agents who are expected to negotiate fabulous deals.
Handy herself, meanwhile, had not commented publicly on the case nor on the the Council's resolution in her behalf, and could not be reached yesterday.
"We agreed with Delores that we wouldn't talk if she wouldn't talk," Zelman said. "She has a future in this business and I'm sure she will be very successful. To make her a cause celebre where she'd be out on the street and nobody would touch her doesn't make sense."
Councilwoman Rolark said there was no correlation between her sponsorship of the resolution and the fact that her husband, Calvin Rolark, is the head of an ad hoc committee to re-instate Delores Handy sponsored by the Coalition for More Responsive Media.
"I'm always met with this," Mrs. Rolark said. "I've been in the practice of law a long time, I'm an independent woman, I've been in the forefront of the women's rights movement right along, and so I don't dignify that type of accusation with a reply.
"Yes Calvin Rolark is my husband.I'm glad he is. He's a very fine man."
WJLA has not yet replaced Handy but a "minority" newspreson is being sought, a spokesman said.