Gary Reals, who has been covering crime and the courts for Channel 7 the past seven years, was fired late Tuesday ...

The highly regarded Reals had signed a new three-year contract last spring. But Tuesday night on his return from a late assignment, he met the station's new news director, Gary Wordlaw, at a nearby restaurant for what he thought was to be a get-acquainted drink ...

Instead, Wordlaw told him that management had decided to exercise an option in the contract to cancel the remainder of his pact, effective Dec. 31. Tuesday was the last day that the 60-day notice required by the contract was in force. (Ironically, Reals had considered, but then rejected, exercising his option to leave, standard in talent contracts, when a similar "window" in his favor came up in August) ...

Reals left Wordlaw, returned to the station and cleaned out his desk ...

News of Reals's departure stunned and angered the WJLA news staff, already battered by the loss of at least a dozen from the news unit since the station announced a 10 percent "across-the-board" personnel cut in July. Staff reductions and other budget cuts at the station were precipitated by the drop in advertising revenues that has affected most major broadcasters this year. Some 28 employees have now either left the station or are waiting for the end of their contracts before departing ...

On Friday, Maryland bureau chief David Paulson was notified his contract would not be renewed in mid-December ...

Reals surmised yesterday that his loyalty to former news director Bob Reichblum and the desire on the part of a new news director to assemble his own team were the main factors in his firing ...

Reichblum left last summer after he went public with his dismay at planned budget cuts at the station. He recently signed as news director of WPLG in Miami ...

Staffers, however, speculated yesterday that Reals's Labor Day report on the slumping area economy, in which he included interviews with two departing WJLA employees, contributed to his firing ...

Reals said yesterday, "I don't think the Labor Day story mattered. A couple of days after the broadcast, I was called in by {WJLA president} Mike Moore and {marketing vice president Bob} Casazza. They were unhappy but they seemed to get over it" ...

According to witnesses, however, Moore made an unusual appearance at the morning news staff meeting yesterday, where he fed the speculation by volunteering that the Labor Day report hadn't been the cause for the firing, while adding that with the report, "Gary shot himself and the company in the foot" ...

The official word at WJLA was that Reals was removed to make room for a new environmental reporter ...

Wordlaw was unavailable for comment yesterday, but Casazza said that "Gary {Wordlaw} decided he had an opportunity to make a change and that he'd like to develop an environmental beat. Given the limited number of reporters he has, after evaluating the staff, he decided the best chance came when the window {in Reals's contract} became available" ...

Casazza would not speculate on the identity of the new reporter but station sources indicate that Brad Bell, a reporter at WMAR in Baltimore, where Wordlaw previously served as news director, is in line for the environmental slot ...

Casazza, who has had a major role in the retructuring of the newsroom since Reichblum's departure -- he served as interim news director before Wordlaw was brought in Oct. 10 -- said the environmental beat would be of major importance ...

The firing of Reals baffled colleagues, already fearful of further cuts despite earlier assurances from management that the reductions were over. He has been considered one of the mainstays of the overworked News unit, along with Del Walters, Roberta Baskin, Kathleen Matthews and Jim Clarke, among others ...

Reals, for instance, turned in a first-class performance -- acknowledged freely by rivals at Channels 4, 5 and 9 -- during the recent drug and perjury trial of Mayor Barry, despite working with only a third of the production staff available to the competition. With Mike Buchanan on anchor duty at Nine, Reals was easily the top crime reporter in local television in the past year ...

Casazza said he was sure that "other people on the staff can do a decent job" reporting on crime ...

Yesterday, several could barely contain their anger, although none would speak for the record. Said one veteran: "Gary committed truth with his Labor Day report. This move casts serious doubt that management has the slightest respect for the public interest they pledged to serve in winning a broadcast license" ...

Said another: "Gary is so well respected among the people here but also among the cops themselves. It's the hardest beat there is and he's unflappable. I don't think management has a clue as to what this is doing to us" ...

Reals said yesterday that he had received "bad vibes from Gary Wordlaw from the first day. I think I was first and foremost perceived as a Reichblum loyalist, which in my book is a good solid journalist ...

"Secondly, in the wake of Bob's departure, all news directors have their pet reporters and producers, they have their own design. I understand that. He's clearly moving from hard news" ...

But, said Reals, "It's always disappointing to be told you're not wanted. But I'm not entirely unhappy to be extricated from that morass ...

"I don't want to sound self-serving. It's a bad time for the station. But it still has a core of good people. Management should be inspiring them to good journalism but instead they sent out a signal that's directly opposite" ...

Reals started as a copy boy at WMAL radio in 1970 and became a street reporter for the station in 1975, moving to TV at Channel 9 under his mentor, Buchanan, in 1980. He was hired by then-news director Dick Goldberg at Seven in 1983 ...

As for his future, Reals said, "I'd like to stay in town" ...

In Other NewsIt was a tough sell, considering the emotions that viewers can bring to the subject of abortion, but ABC had managed to book about 50 percent of available ad time on tonight's one-hour News special "Peter Jennings Reporting: The New Civil War" ...

A spokesman said "associations" and "several major advertisers" had made purchases so far on the primetime special (Channel 7 at 10) ...

"We never expected it would be fully sold, but it was such an important issue there was no question but that we would air it," said the spokesman ...

The network hasn't had as much success with the 90-minute "ABC News Forum" on abortion, also to be anchored by Jennings, that will follow local news at 11:30 tonight. One estimate has about one-third of the available ad time sold ...

C-SPAN today launches the first of three lengthy programs marking the 100th anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower's birth ...

Part I of "The Eisenhower Presidency Retrospective" will air from 2 until 6 p.m. and will include his address to the nation when he sent troops to Little Rock, Ark., in a civil rights dispute. Starting at 3:50 there will be a live international and national call-in with William Rogers, U.S. attorney general from 1957 to 1961 ...

C-SPAN had planned Part II, on Eisenhower and the media, for next Thursday but now that the Senate ethics committee has announced it will hold hearings on its savings and loan investigation that day, the schedule is up in the air ...

Part III, which will include Ike's only televised Cabinet meeting and his famed address on the "military-industrial complex," is slated for the following Thursday ...

A reminder -- the Arbitron ratings sweeps began last night. The Nielsen November ratings book kicks in tonight. Each survey lasts 28 days ...

It's good to see old Pernell Roberts back in the saddle again. The one-time "Bonanza" co-star'll mosey through the Nov. 17 episode of ABC's "The Young Riders" portraying a "legendary figure from the Old West," one Hezekiah Horn ...