One thing about Davey Marlin-Jones is you knew he was there. You knew who it was who was reviewing a film and you knew that you were listening to somebody who had a pretty good notion of what he was talking about -- a specialist, if you will -- and somebody who loved his work. These days, that's a rare combination.
He was a presence on Channel 9, and he was entertaining and opinionated. He also seemed -- and that word is used advisedly because I've never met him -- like an eccentric, warm human being. His movie reviews were never mean-spirited. He seemed to appreciate the effort that went into making a movie or putting on a play and if it didn't work, it didn't work, but that by no means gave him license to destroy the creative spirit of another person. There was a decency about his reviews that set him apart from critics who bring a sharp tongue and a high brow and very little empathy to their work. Davey Marlin-Jones was an established theater director, and his credentials as a critic were thoroughly in order.
Now, Channel 9 (or WUSA as it has been known since the Gannett Co. took it over) has terminated its contract with Marlin-Jones, which is one of the current euphemisms used for firing someone. You don't renew the contract. Ron Townsend, Gannett's man in charge of WUSA, told The Washington Post that the station is "moving away from specialties. We will replace Davey in that slot, probably with somebody with a broader range of reportorial expertise."
Davey Marlin-Jones knows what that means and in an interview with The Washington Times he put it this way: "Moving away from specialities? What that comment means to me is that they want more faceless people.
"The thinking is . . . 'If we fire him, we can get somebody else to say the same thing. Who needs specialists? We need people who are interchangeable.' "
The Post story put Marlin-Jones' annual salary in the "reportedly" $75,000 range. The story said that Townsend was talking to Post- Newsweek Stations about using a film review feature it produces. You don't have to be a media expert to know that buying a feature will cost less than producing your own specialist.
Marlin-Jones started out as part of a trend toward distinction and he is ending up as part of a trend towards homogenization. When he started at Channel 9, it was in the vanguard of efforts by some local television stations to put distinguished, local news programs on the air. Nearly two decades later, the prevailing trend in business, and the media is no exception, is to cut costs and to make money.
Whether Marlin-Jones is replaced by a syndicated feature or by somebody who also covers fires, he will be part of a trend toward replacing highly skilled labor with an inferior product that costs less. He is part of a continuum that began in 1981 when President Reagan fired 11,000 highly skilled air traffic controllers and replaced them with inexperienced strikebreakers. If the president could put the quality of air safety on the line, quality in just about any other product was negotiable from then on.
Organized labor has taken a beating but so have individuals. One of the most outrageous instances occurred on the sitcom "Valerie," which starred Valerie Harper. She got into a contract dispute with NBC, which is owned by General Electric. NBC killed her out of the series, hired actress Sandy Duncan to play her sister, and renamed the homogenized series "Valerie's Family." Harper, who was the only reason to watch the original show, didn't even walk away with her name. The show's ratings improved after she left. She and NBC are headed for court, but it would be infinitely more fitting if she had headed for another network and done a show about a TV star who had gotten fired from her own program. She could have called it "Valerie's Revenge," and the network could have aired it opposite "Valerie's Family."
Then there was the National Fooball League strike last fall. The owners replaced big league players with strikebreakers who hadn't made it in the big leagues and declared business as usual. Now, the Redskins are using interchangeable quarterbacks. Perhaps whichever one isn't starting could kick.
Highly skilled and talented people are getting replaced like interchangeable parts in machines. Specialists no longer need apply. A homogenized society will work, just like an assembly-line machine does. One newscast will look like another and companies will make money on inferior products. But that special level of collective excellence that is achieved when individual excellence is treasured will be beyond reach.