Gordon Peterson, the venerable dean of local news anchors, was relaxing in his surpisingly small office in WDMV's headquarters on Brandywine Street. Did he, he was asked, have any advice for young aspiring news anchors?
"No," he snapped. "None. I don't have much use for them and I don't want to talk to them."
Then in a much softer tone with a little smile breaking across his face, he adds, "I have a lot of advice for a young reporter. You want to be a journalist and a good reporter? Do your homework. Lots of it. Read until your eyeballs are ready to pop out. The business is communicating. Get out on the street and talk to poeple. Then when the light comes on, just be yourself."
Good reporting that earns the trust of viewers is what Peterson talks about most when the topic of TV news is raised. All the glitz and notoriety that come with sitting at the hub of the desk on news shows is not what lights up Peterson. Reporting, getting a good story and presenting it properly, does.
Peterson, 48, Channel 9's anchor for 15 years, developed his appetite for reporting long ago, not just in recent years after his shows swept up all those whopping rating points and bushels of awards. It goes back at least to the mid-'60s when he was working for radio station WEEI in Boston.
He did the "A.M. Report," three hours of local, state, national and international news. He'd drive to work about 4:30 a.m. and stop for a little breakfast at an all-night lunchroom near Symphony Hall.
"At that hour it seemed that all the people in there were either policeman or hookers. They talked freely and I learned a lot and broke a lot of good stories. I couldn't wait until I was off the air so I could hit the streets and follow up on the leads I got from the police and hookers."
Peterson simply does not enjoy talking about his anchor position the way he loves recalling his reporting. His job on a 1980 documentary: "The Cambodian People: No Place to Call Home" won him an Emmy and a first place in the Chicago International Film Festival. Another Emmy came for "Triana, Alabama: A Bad case of the DDT's." It also won Triana residents a $5 million trust fund for medical treatments and studies. He has excelled in reporting many political conventions and the elections of two popes as well as a series called the "Faces of Israel" and another titled "Innocence Drowned: The children of Belfast."
Juggling the anchor spot at 6 and 11 p.m. is what Peterson has to do, he says. ("I have some children to educate.") But hitting the streets on stories and special events is "the main event as far as I'm concerned," said the former U.S. Marine officier who spent 15 months of his lifestudying for the priesthood with the Dominican order. "That's what I love to do. Even if you have to stand in the rain."
Peterson wore out two pairs of Marine combat boots on the streets during the 1969 and 1970 demonstrations.
"Sometimes when I'm out on the street I stop and say to myself, 'They pay me to do this?. It's so much fun.'"
Just being himself has worked well for Peterson. While anchors came and went at other stations, Peterson, as naturally as possible, led the Channel 9 news team to all-time numbers, which peaked out to still another record for this marketplace again several weeks ago.
Other stations switched lineups frequently, trying to snag a better share of the audience. Peterson sees the ratings, moreso than one's talent, as the biggest reason this area has seen so many anchors. "It's those ratings," he said. "And, management. They find themselves on thin ice when the numbers are down and they find changing the lineup is the easiest thing to do. But, it's a mistake. You need a master blueprint and you have to follow it."
Jim Snyder, who hired Peterson in 1969 and headed up the station's news operation until it changed ownership, and Jim Lynagh, the general manager at the time, had that blueprint and long-term commitment to their belief, Peterson pointed out.
Over the years the viewers have become comfortable with the Channel 9 team and turn to the station for the information they want with confidence and comfort. The new management stands proud for building upon its veteran force. The station has won five Peabody Awards, former vice president and general manager Edwin Pfeiffer pointed out, four of them in the last seven years. "The station's news programs are the strongest they've ever been," added Pfeiffer, who recently left the station.
One day late in February the overnight figures on a snowy Monday showed that the top four news shows in the market were Channel 9's 6 p.m. show followed by it's 11 p.m. spot, then the 5 p.m. spot and the WDVM noon news. All other local news shows fell in behind. Some far behind.
Snyder, now vice president of Post Newsweek Stations, hired Peterson for WTOP radio news. Within a year he had Peterson doing reports for TV. Before another year ran out Peterson was anchoring the 11 p.m. news .
Snyder decided the Tom Braden/Frank Mankiewicz lineup had run its course. "I have no idea how I wound up in this position. Jim Snyder had to try something new and he told me to sit in one chair and Max Robinson in the other," Peterson recalled.
Snyder said, "I felt and appreciated the fact that Gordon had strong leadership qualities. People associated with the show trusted him and felt at ease with him. He was easy to work with and brought out the best in people. He deserves a lot of credit for the development of (sportscaster) Warner Wolf. The same with Glenn Brenner. I've always said he's the glue that holds that team together.
"It's just so rare for an anchorman to deliver the kind of acceptance that Gordon has in this city. People are very comfortable getting their news from Gordon Peterson," Snyder said.
Maureen Bunyon, who co-anchors the 6 p.m. news with Peterson and often sits in for him at 11 when he's away, says her cohort has "substance and style. If you have only substance you're boring. If you have only style, you're shallow. Gordon has both and that's a winning combination.
"He doesn't deliver the news to his audience, he shares it. He has a level of confidence and experience which enables him to be very relaxed about what he does and how he does it."
Pfeiffer, who fought to keep Peterson in 1979 when he had to go to court to squash his anchorman's pitch to switch to Channel 4, is just as high on Peterson. "He has the ability to respond to the humor of Glenn or the human tragedy in a story. He doesn't threaten people. When he and Brenner get going, it's the original one plus one equals three."
Peterson's long-term contract expires on the last day of this year. Most people say there is no doubt that it will be renewed with some hefty new numbers. Peterson won't discuss how much he makes. Guesses range between $300,000 and $455,000 a year in what was called one of the nation's very best local news shops in a recent issue of Washington Journalism Review, which also honored Peterson as the best local anchorman.
About a year ago there were several stories written about Peterson feuding with incoming news director David Pearce. Their philosophies on news presentation collided at times. "That's all a thing of the past,"says Pearce. Peterson agrees, adding that both sides have moved closer together and that different views are resolved with nothing more than "the usual give and take. No problem. We both get along fine."
Pearce said of Peterson, "I'm delighted with the work he does. I think he's terrific and he has such a wide acceptance in the market."
Pearce said he feels his job includes a mandate to push for the unheralded staffers who work behind the scenes. He feels this should not diminish the up-front folks, but it didn't always comes out that way. It wasn't easy for him to come in and handle such a veteran cast. He still works hard at pitching the "team" concept, but is confident the bumpy part of the road is behind him.
Peterson is also free with his praise for the staffers. "This is not just Gordon Peterson. There's an organization here that's been together for a long time. I often go out on stories with ten and 15-year veterans and they argue with me to do this or not to do that. We trust and support each other. There's a strong friendship involved that comes from long association."
Bob Dalton, noon news anchor who has been with the station for 35 years, feels that Peterson comes across with a human touch and father image that served Walter Cronkite so well. "Gordon has a human chemistry that prompts his viewers to feel they like the guy. He doesn't ever have his nose in the air. One guy can do a news item one way and the viewers will snicker. Gordon does the same thing and the viewers say 'Isn't that great?'"
Oddly enough when asked to rattle off a few names that had the greatest influence in his career, Peterson who reads almost indefatigably, responded, "How deep do you want to go? Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Paul White, Jim Snyder."
As for how the business has changed since he started, Peterson noted that the biggest change has come in the rapid advancement of technology. "We're now competing with each other technologically rather than journalistically. It bothers me. I'd rather see an extra $20,000 spent for a reporter on the street who knows what a story is than spend $100,000 for new equipment, although I'll admit that you need new equipment.
"I'm a competitive guy. I love to compete and getting a story does come down to an individual, and we've done more with less for a long time."
The station's news gathering operation is spending about six times as much as the $2 million budget it had ten years ago and the staff has doubled to 120 people in the last eight years.
All the big numbers of today's television economy still cause Peterson to shake his head and say he knows little about them. He's much more comfortable going back to when he was growing up in Worcester, Mass., the son of a WASP (actually Swedish) dentist who moved from Minnesota and married his Irish Catholic mother, a Moore.
Peterson, a devout catholic, notes that his father did convert, but became a Bostonian only to the extent of enjoying Red Sox baseball at Fenway Park, a form of recreation Peterson still misses.
He was graduated from St. John's High School and worked on a truck delivering soda pop ("Best job I ever had"). He attended Georgetown University for a year, but switched back to Holy Cross in his home town where he got a degree in English Literature.
After college he spent 15 months mostly in Somerset, Ohio, as a novice in the Dominican order, a surprising choice considering his Jesuit training. Then came four years in the Marines, where he became an officier and spent two years in Beaufort, S.C., and the end of his hitch in Japan and the Far East.
His first job in journalism was with the radio station in Worcester. Up to that point everyone called Gordon William Peterson "Bill." The person hiring him for the job looked over his application and asked, "What is this Gordon business? You're not going to go on the air with Gordon, are you?"
Peterson's Irish surfaced quickly and he blurted back, "Damn right I am. That's my name." And it's been Gordon ever since. Funny thing, Peterson says, "I like Bill. Actually I prefer it." although only his wife Ellen calls him Bill these days.
After two years he switched to WEEI in Boston and his morning show and the "cop and hooker" beat via the all night lunchroom. Then after two more years his good friend and former news director Dominic Quinn, who had moved on to CBS in New York, called and told him there was a guy in Washington he ought to meet. That guy was the Washington Producer of the Walter Cronkite show and was headed for Channel 9. That was Jim Snyder.
They met, and Peterson agreed to work for him even though it meant a cut in pay. When asked how much, Peterson, who still wouldn't talk money, slipped his fingers across the keys of a nearby calculator, and quipped, "Wow, more than 30 percent. I was really stupid."
He has since more than made up the difference. He lives comfortably in a spacous house near Georgetown Prep, just north of Bethesda, with his wife, who grew up just a mile and a half away from "Bill" Peterson in Worcester, daughter Molly, 16, and son Billy, 15. He likes to run, "about 45 minutes when all's going well," lifts weights and is getting back to playing some golf. "Even though I really don't have the patience for the game."
What would he do differently if he had it to do over? "Maybe only one thing. I would have liked to have done some reporting from Vietnam. I would have fought harder to get over there. I covered a lot of the anti-war movement from here. To have done the other side would have given me a better perspective."
After talking with Peterson in his office, it isn't hard to get the feeling that he's happier there than running or golfing. When he mentions sportscasters Brenner or Wolf, you'd think he was talking about sons or brothers. "Warner and I were friends -- we're still great friends," said Peterson. "It's a wonderful thing to go to work everyday and be close to the people with whom you work."