Gordon Peterson, one of the deans of local television news in Washington, says he plans to leave his station, WJLA (Channel 7), at the end of the year. But he insists he isn’t going away.
“It’s not a retirement statement,” Peterson, a fixture on Washington’s airwaves for 45 years, said Friday. Chuckling, he added, “There’s still some mileage in this Chevy.”
Peterson, 76, isn’t saying where he’s headed next, but he’s clearly done with Channel 7, where he has anchored the news for the past 10 years.
In an e-mail to “friends and colleagues” on Friday, Peterson wrote: “My current contract expires at the end of the year and I have decided that after ten terrific years here, it is time to leave Channel 7. I did not want you to hear this from anyone else.”
Peterson’s departure has been rumored since WJLA was sold this summer to Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Baltimore-area broadcast giant that has rapidly made over the station in its more conservative image.
The company paid $985 million for stations owned by WJLA’s former parent, Arlington-based Allbritton Communications, including NewsChannel 8, the all-news cable channel covering Washington.
Peterson declined to say whether the sale, and subsequent departure of the station’s general manager and news director, Bill Lord, had influenced his decision. “I’ve been planning to leave for some time,” he said in an interview. “My contract is up. It was time.”
But he also noted that he had had “a great run” under Lord and Frederick J. Ryan Jr., Allbritton’s president and chief operating officer until last year. Ryan was named publisher of The Washington Post in September.
Lord was named station manager and executive news director at WUSA (Channel 9) last month. Peterson spent 35 years at WUSA before being lured to WJLA in 2003 by Ryan and Lord. At WJLA, he was reunited with co-anchor Maureen Bunyan and weather forecaster Doug Hill, with whom he had teamed at WUSA.
Lord said Friday that he was not aware of Peterson’s plans. He added, “I think Gordon is the greatest guy in the world, as many people in Washington do.”
Ryan called Peterson “Washington’s Walter Cronkite. He’s the most trusted man in town.” Ryan said that when he was trying to lure Peterson to WJLA more than a decade ago, Peterson told him, “I’m a team player here at WUSA.” Ryan said he responded, “Gordon, your team is now at WJLA,” meaning Bunyan and Hill.
Peterson joined WUSA, then known as WTOP-TV, in 1969, the same year he and Jim Vance, his longtime rival at WRC (Channel 4), arrived in town. His career, he noted in his e-mail, spans eight presidential administrations and “many of the great issues of our time beginning with the struggle for civil rights and the huge anti-war rallies of the late ’60s and early ’70s.” Peterson anchors WJLA’s 6 p.m. broadcast with Bunyan.
Although he is most familiar to viewers in Washington, Peterson — known to friends as “Gordo” — was the host of a nationally syndicated public-affairs program, “Inside Washington.” The program aired for more than 40 years, the last 25 with Peterson. It went off the air at the end of last year.
Asked again about his next step, Peterson, a veteran of the Marines, was blunt: “Speculate all you want, but I’m not going to say anything beyond what I’ve already said.”