Wednesday, July 10, 1996
WJLA Pounds The Pavement For Its Owner
By Howard Kurtz
Corporate Tie Drove Penn. Ave. Stories
Washington Post Staff Writer
Top aides to Joe L. Allbritton, the owner of WJLA-TV, have repeatedly pressured the station to cover efforts to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue, whose closure has hurt another of Allbritton's properties, the most lucrative branch of Riggs Bank.
At least three senior corporate officials spoke to reporters and managers in the WJLA newsroom about the coverage, according to staffers familiar with the situation. Two of the officials work for Riggs Bank and one for Allbritton Communications, and their involvement startled WJLA employees accustomed to the common journalistic practice of insulating the newsroom from the parent company's interests.
The result has been a steady drumbeat of Channel 7 stories on the avenue's shutdown—more than a dozen in recent weeks. Riggs is the only commercial business whose sole entrance is on the two-block stretch of the avenue in front of the White House that was closed to vehicles by the Clinton administration last year to reduce the possibility of a terrorist attack. A top Riggs executive said in House testimony last month that the shutdown is having a "devastating" impact on the branch, costing the bank "several million dollars."
Frederick Ryan Jr., a former assistant to President Reagan who is now senior vice president of Allbritton, Communications, made some of the calls to the newsroom, according to Channel 7 staffers. They say Ryan suggested people to be interviewer on Pennsylvania Avenue stories—including former president Gerald Ford—and offered to put reporters in touch with them. Ford's opposition to the closing was cited in one report.
Gary Wordlaw, WJLA's vice president for news, said he was "kind of proud" of the coverage. "The people who own this station also own Riggs
Bank; that is a fact," he said. "Riggs Bank has a bank at 15th and Pennsylvania and is affected by the closing of the street, as are a lot of other businesses in the downtown area. We have thought as a community-oriented station it would be a neat issue to attack. It affects the life and times of a lot of people. Over-coverage? I don't think so."
Wordlaw added: "There are people inside of our company who are concerned about the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue, no question. Those people do not direct coverage at this station."
Ryan did not respond to a request for comment. Riggs spokesman Kevin Flemming said the bank made no attempt to influence the coverage and that he knew of only one executive, Riggs President Fred Bollerer, who spoke to the newsroom. Bollerer, he said, "was contacted by a reporter," Mike Hambrick, "for background information." WJLA staffers say Hambrick's superiors directed him to call Bollerer for guidance.
"There were people on the news staff who were embarrassed by our coverage," said one station veteran who, like several others interviewed, declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. "It felt like advocacy journalism predicated on who our employer was, Riggs Bank.... We were told to cover the story, who to interview, the best angles to take."
In separate interviews, some WJLA employees said Wordlaw told his staff several weeks ago that the Pennsylvania Avenue story would receive top priority and explained that "this is from downtown," a reference to the Allbritton Communications headquarters. They say that over time, however, Wordlaw grew uncomfortable with the situation and said repeatedly that he was "tired" of the corporate interference and, in some instances, that "this is not news."
Wordlaw disputed these accounts, saying that parent company officials "haven't said you will interview this person or that person.... I do not feel interfered with, any more so than I do about any other story." Wordlaw said he was "offended" by suggestions that the Riggs link should have been disclosed to viewers.
Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, said the situation "sounds like a really clear-cut violation to me." He said viewers should expect "that the news is portrayed ... as down the middle as can be. You really undercut that when you have someone doing a story that affects the financial interest of the parent company at the urging of the parent company. You have someone skewing the news with the public left in the dark."
In testimony before the House D.C. subcommittee last month, Riggs National Corp. President Timothy C. Coughlin said: "It would be difficult if not impossible to overstate the detrimental impact imposed upon Riggs by the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue" He called the 94-year-old building "Riggs Bank's most important branch, with several hundred million dollars in deposits," and said the shutdown "has taken new customers away from us" and put existing accounts "in jeopardy."
The closing of Pennsylvania Avenue is, by all accounts, a major local story that has been covered by all the city's news organizations, including The Washington Post. But some staffers at WJLA—the call letters include Allbritton's initials—say executives frequently pushed the station to do stories about the issue on the flimsiest rationales, to the point that it became a running newsroom joke.
Late last month, after authorities restricted pedestrian access to the Capitol's east plaza, Wordlaw called from his car and ordered up a story linking that report to the Pennsylvania Avenue situation, according to staffers. But the Capitol Police imposed the restrictions for traffic safety reasons, not security concerns.
"The mandate was clear," a staffer at the ABC affiliate said of the assignments.
On June 1, the Saturday show "Good Morning Washington" took the unusual step of devoting one hour to a live special moderated by Hambrick, an evening anchor and reporter at the station for nearly four years. Hambrick was assigned to many of the Pennsylvania Avenue stories while involved in negotiations over his expiring contract, and he was recently fired by the station. Wordlaw said Hambrick's departure had no connection to the story.
Staffers say Wordlaw directed that no expense be spared for the special, which required extra producers and crew members. Wordlaw said it was his decision to air the program.
The in-studio panels were balanced: D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton against the closing, for example, and former FBI director William Webster and Assistant Treasury Secretary Jim Johnson in favor. The live debate was interrupted by remote interviews with local critics of the shutdown.
A second panel included Dick Hauser, a former Reagan administration official who later headed the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. Staffers say Hauser was suggested by Ryan, the Allbritton, Communications executive.
Allbritton, Communications officials repeatedly called the station about the Hambrick special the following Monday morning, asking that a half-dozen copies of the tape be rushed to their office before top executives left for an ABC affiliates meeting in Orlando, WJLA staffers say.
Earlier that week, a three-part series by the station's '1-Team" focused primarily on the downside of the avenue's closing, emphasizing the "traffic nightmare" and interviewing such critics as Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.), sponsor of a successful Senate resolution urging that the street be reopened, and D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke. In the first segment, reporter Del Walters noted that past presidents had refused to accept shutdown recommendations, saying: "The I-Team teas learned President Clinton may have blinked in the face of danger when his predecessors did not."
In the second report, Walters said that "the Clinton administration is being accused of circumventing local laws." On the final night, a cameraman filmed Walters as he crawled through heavy traffic around the White House.
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