Here is the kind of assignment Wes Sarginson, who returned to Washington television this week replacing David Schoumacher as a Channel 7 anchor, likes best:
In Atlanta a few years ago, while working on a story about the special forces camp of the Ku Klux Klan, he and the camera crew met a hooded party of Klansmen on a lonely road, were blindfolded and driven to the armed enclave in the menacing presence of loaded rifles.
"I had instructed the cameraman to keep the film rolling as long as we were in the back of the pickup truck. We got caught doing it and they blindfolded our camera. A man pointed an AR 15 at me and said, 'Don't do that again.' I said, 'I certainly will not,' " says Sarginson, a burgundy blush working its way up his rugged face.
"After the series ran, we got our fair share of threats," he remembers. "I always have the feeling when I am doing things that may get sticky that as long as you do nothing but tell the truth, and don't color it one way or another . . . The only thing I promised them was that I will report what I see . . . You let me see it and I own it. I believe when people see the extremes of life, they react just to the truth. They will do something about it and they will demand change."
The rewards may be small, but that's the kind of journalism that has made Sarginson, 42, carve a career as an activist anchor. During his 6 1/2 years in Atlanta he did 18 series and 11 different specials and averaged three or four news stories a week. When he worked in Washington at the old WMAL (also Channel 7) from 1972 to 1975, he followed the lives of fire department ambulance drivers and Lorton Reformatory inmates. And he wants to make time each day to report on local news at WJLA. Another Sarginson principle is to just tell the story: "I look at life and say there's an aberration that people ought to be able to study in their own living rooms and make up their own minds on this. I like to hand it over to them."
Sarginson joined Renee Poussaint last week on the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts, following Schoumacher, who is preparing a public affairs show for the station. If action is a Sarginson need, he didn't have to wait long to be born again in Washington street reporting. On Tuesday, his second day, he and Poussaint anchored a special report from Andrews Air Force Base on the homecoming of the hostages. "It was a great initiation," says Sarginson. "I tend to enjoy being in the street much more than I do anchoring."
Like many of his competitors, Sarginson has done his share of city hopscotching in his 23-year television career, having worked in seven cities. Still, early this week he looked nervous on the air, afraid to smile. He says he was a little uptight, a little keyed up.
For the first five minutes of the first show, he forgot to hook up his microphone. "Then I had a story that was complicated and I had four video sources that I had to keep up with and I stepped all over every one of them," he says. "I'm not nervous. It is too many years to get nervous. It is just stupidity, probably. I didn't think."
On the air, Sarginson has the look of the Broadcasting Golden Boy: blond hair, which he sometimes forgets to comb, never mind spray or blow dry; a 6-foot-2, hefty physique; friendly, straightforward blue eyes and a forehead of thinking-man's wrinkles. A graduate of the school of eyebrow emphasis, he is good at leaning his left shoulder into the camera and slowing an adjective or phrase with the softest touch of the South in his express-speed voice.
And he's candid about the hard-headed streak that has followed him as a juvenile runaway and a temperamental employe.
Sarginson was born in Carlinville, Ill., in the state's southern farm belt and the home of Taylor's Chili, a truckers' delight. His grandparents still live on 360 acres of farmland that produces corn, wheat and soybeans; his father is a meat cutter in Montgomery, Ala., and his mother was one of the first female bank vice presidents in Alabama. Sarginson and his two sisters were raised under their mother's strict hand, their father's free hand and the guidance of the Methodist Church.
When Wes was 16 and had saved enough money from bricklaying, he ran away from home. "I was not the easiest child to raise and I got into trouble," he says. After traveling through 19 states with a friend who had stolen the tires they put on their '49 Ford, the police found them in West Palm Beach, Fla.
A friend of the family, David Coay, who became one of the biggest influences in his life, took him under his wing, and Sarginson lived with Coay's family during his last year in high school. "I have talked about it in front of youth groups and I say, 'Okay, you are seeing what a lot of people consider success. I make good money, I have a good job, and I have respect in the community. But if some of you have been bad, let me tell you about bad and where it can get you,' " he says.
Looking back on his more than two decades in broadcasting, Sarginson can count off some historic on-the-job training. While he was 19 and working his way through Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., he got a job at a local television station during the times of the "Selma to Montgomery March, the Viola Liuzzo killing, the 21 bloody days of Birmingham."
Of this job at WKAB, an ABC affiliate, he says, "You really cut your teeth working for Cy Bahakel. I pushed cameras around on a rock show on Saturdays, I was the announcer on a country music show, and then I did Monday through Fridays all of the newscasts. I had no cameras. Governor George Wallace took pity on me and used to send state film of every legislative session. He would send it unedited and let me tear it apart. Bahakel was paying me $1.10 an hour and I was doing all those things and I left because he wouldn't give me a 15-cents raise. I was working a 54-hour week."
From the South, he went to Pittsburgh for three years, then Philadelphia for three, then back to Pittsburgh, then to Cleveland for one year, then back to Philadelphia, then worked in Washington for another three, followed by the same amount of time in Detroit. After he left WSB, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta last year, he worked for Westinghouse Broadcasting and Cable.
The WJLA anchor job and this city attracted him equally. He and his wife of 19 years, Ann, wanted to raise their two children in a familiar area. And Sarginson said he wanted to bring some balance back to his family life and end "the family abuse" that seven-day-a-week television obligations can bring. One of his prime considerations in moving to Washington was that Ann Sarginson had accumulated a year's worth of credits in English and art history at Kennesaw College in Marietta, Ga. She is planning to continue her education at George Mason University. Their son Todd, 14, endorsed the move only when he was assured that soccer is played in the area, and daughter Jennifer, 12, simply wanted enough outlets to match her enthusiasm for horses, piano, school and gymnastics.
Although he can talk about that early, dirt-poor period with rosy retrospection, he still carries the scars of a recent episode in Atlanta. In 1982 he wrote "Fast Eddie Watkins," a nonfiction book about a con artist that he now considers a mistake.
"I constantly had to alibi for the language in that book to every church group I spoke to. Whether you like it or not, when you are doing the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news you are in everybody's family. Ministers would stand up and say, 'You've got words in that book, and you represent something in this community and we have a hard time explaining to our children how you, representing this image, would be writing and printing words like that.'
"They were right and I was wrong. If I am going to be one thing, I can't be hypocritical and try to go out and make money on the fact that this is true but . . . it is not worthwhile. I don't think it is hypocritical to do it on televison. The writing side of it is something I will not step into again. If you are one thing in the community and you step totally out of phase and do something else, you are probably making a mistake."
Yet there's a flip side, the small satisfactions of the adventurous journalist.
In Georgia, for example, Sarginson delved into the world of cockfighting and dogfighting.
"It is a high-visibility, corrupt, small town politics, payoff-type situation," he says, with more than a little bit of relish. He watched his own feelings being tested. "It is a brutal sport and you can get caught up in it. I had one cameraman who was absolutely appalled. But the other cameraman and myself got caught up in the excitement of people reacting to violence. In terms of watching these people, it gets in your blood and you say, my goodness, are we all like this?" The Georgia legislature made dogfighting a felony and cockfighting was left a misdemeanor with stiffer fines, says Sarginson, but " the story hasn't stopped any of it. I don't think it has accomplished a thing."
On that story, a gambler Sarginson describes as a "great, big redneck of a guy" threatened him if he put his picture on television.
"So I quoted him and said if this man's face appeared on television, he was going to come after me. I stated it in a more gentlemanly fashion. And I said, 'So this is the only view you will get of him,' and I proceeded to show him with his rear end in the camera. My news director just about croaked. I said it doesn't really show anything great but it gives an impression of the kind of people I am dealing with. I fought for that shot. I admit it was borderline. It accomplished something -- it just showed a frame of mind. I didn't mention the word 'ass,' I just showed one."