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Sunday, March 22, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Airing Dirty Laundry -- Julie Blacklow Resigns With An Attitude

This just in: Julie Blacklow, a KING-5 television reporter, has resigned, saying she can no longer work for a station that has sold its soul. Blacklow, 45, says she refuses to do more mindless reports on car wrecks, violence and other "road kill" stories.

"There's something superficial permeating every story. Nothing goes deep. It's gloss. You could walk by a newspaper stand and get as much information as you're going to get in the first 15 minutes of a news segment," says Blacklow, a 20-year veteran who specialized in occasional investigations and heart-warming features. She once aired a story about a dog that adopted a duck. Or was it the other way around?

Blacklow does not have another job lined up, but says she would like to work in talk radio: "I've got a big mouth, I'm a good interviewer and, believe it or not, I can listen."

In other news ...

LIFE AS SOUND BITE. THAT'S THE state of television news today and, by her own accounts, the reason behind Julie Blacklow's sudden departure from KING-5 news Jan. 27. Television reporters come and go, but Blacklow's resignation has hit a nerve. Not because she is the most popular personality at KING, but because she is the most outspoken in a long line of veteran reporters to leave the station in recent months and years. Finally, someone from the inside is openly saying what many on the outside have been whispering for years: The venerable KING has stumbled from its throne.

"I was being asked to do work that insulted me and the viewers. I was doing work I didn't want to do and wouldn't want to see. It was insubstantial and meaningless. It was body counts with no humanity," she says, speaking in the sound bites of her trade - sound bites that have attracted considerable media attention on talk TV, talk radio and media columns regionwide.

She is the first to admit she has a big mouth and is the first to use it so damningly against the profession that employed her for 20 years. If that seems like a betrayal, so be it. Blacklow argues that you can't stay committed to something that has sold out, and to change things, you have to be critical and get the public to be critical, too. With that in mind, she refused to sign a lucrative but restrictive gag order offered by the company when she resigned, and has instead urged viewers to boycott KING so ratings would fall and managers would sit up and take notice.

"Ten to 15 years ago, KING-5 would never have shown a picture of a suicide victim hanging from a tree," she says, noting that such pictures not only shock and offend, but disturb young viewers who might also be considering suicide. "It would never have happened. It happens with impunity now."

Sure enough, last July, viewers blinked against the image of a dead man dangling by the neck from a tree in an arboretum at the University of Idaho. To make matters worse, the reporter described the death as a possible lynching - an explosive word in a region crawling with white supremacists. As it turned out, a suicide note was found in the man's dormitory room.

Blacklow flinches at the memory. Behind her trademark glasses, blue eyes close in recollection. Broadcast news, she says, is an oxymoron. "It's a lie, not news," she complains. "It's an illusion." "Irresponsible." "Dangerous."

It's also full of hype, which is what some people think about Blacklow's comments.

Most people at the station agree that KING's overall quality has declined. And there seems to be universal frustration with the gratuitous violence on news, as it flickers from murders to rapes to dead men dangling from trees. But calling it dangerous is like saying "Geraldo!" is dangerous; it may be dreadful, but it's not going to maim anybody who watches.

Television is different than in the days when Blacklow started 20 years ago - and viewers are a big part of the reason why. Like it or not, their expectations have changed dramatically since then, as they flip between an increasing selection of television and cable programming. According to a new generation of media consultants, viewers don't want 10 minutes of footage from the steps of the state Capitol, a la the old, responsible KING. They want snappy news, or aggressive news, or funny news or heart-breaking news or startling news, but they don't want stodgy, responsible news for news' sake.

Sorry. But that's what they've been signaling for years.

It's kind of like Frederick & Nelson. Nobody wanted to see the venerable old store sag and close; but then again, nobody was shopping there, either. Stagnation killed Frederick & Nelson, just as it would kill KING if the station had frozen itself in time. So here, in a startlingly long story that no viewer would ever sit through were it on television, is a look at some of the highs and lows of Blacklow's career at KING over 20 interesting years.

"Oh sh--, I messed up."

"Oh sh--, let's do it again."

So sayeth Blacklow on the air one night, about four months after she was hired in 1972. It was a mistake, of course. A big, fat, humiliating mistake that reminded everyone of Blacklow's rank inexperience. As with many television reporters hired in those days, she had no broadcasting background, and it would prove to be both a blessing and a burden. She was refreshingly creative, but her mistakes were as outrageous as she herself was in landing the job.

Blacklow had moved to Seattle from Washington, D.C., with her attorney (and now former) husband, Richard Blacklow. They had been here about a year when she met a KING television reporter at a cocktail party. She needled him for the station manager's name and then went to the manager's office, dropping the name of her "close, longtime" friend, the reporter she had just met a few nights before. Her foot in the door, she begged for an audition, wrote a script and got the job. Blacklow, at 24, was one of the first female reporters at KING.

The men there would not let her forget it.

She encountered a newsroom something like this: a ribald, fraternity-style office with dozens of men yelling, laughing and swearing at one another over the din of typewriters, phones and television sets. While the outside world saw a polished and sophisticated newscast every night, Blacklow saw the same players by the revealing light of day. There was Charles Royer (before he became mayor) and his brother Bob, commentator Don McGaffin and chief photographer Phil Sturholm, to name but a few. Television's cult of personality hadn't quite prepared her for newsroom realities.

"I endured incredible sexist comments; things you would win lawsuits with today. ... It was a locker room."

But Blacklow persevered: "While they were making fun of women, I was learning everything about the craft from them. They could yell and scream as long as I got to take their scripts home and study their writing and wit and intelligence. I figured I was the winner, not a victim."

She also was a quick learner.

"Picture this," says McGaffin, one of Blacklow's closest friends. "A woman sitting at a typewriter (there were no computers then) who would raise her eyes but not her face, and very calmly say, `You dirty, Nazi brownshirt ----------- son of a -----, leave me alone and get away from me.' "

He got the message. Blacklow was not easily intimidated, nor would she be outdone. When she was still learning the ropes and struggling for respect, she landed an exclusive interview with Warren Beatty.

The handsome movie star was in Seattle filming "The Parallax View," and refusing interviews all over town. Frustrated, Blacklow shadowed him and, when she saw him behind a glass window, held up a large note: "I went to your high school."

Beatty, intrigued, stopped and responded with a note of his own: "Oh yeah, where?"

"Washington Lee High School" in Arlington, Va.

Beatty was unconvinced. Anybody could know that. What, he wanted to know, were the school colors?

Blacklow grinned and scribbled "blue and gray" and, to clinch things, added the school mascot, The Generals. Beatty broke his interview embargo and met with her at the Space Needle.

The story wasn't hard-hitting, but it was news in a city that hadn't seen many movie stars on its streets at that time. Still, Blacklow knew she had a long way to go to compete for the longer, complex stories that were a KING trademark.

In 1971, for example, KING was one of only two commercial stations nationwide honored by Saturday Review magazine for public-service broadcasting. It cited KING's series on the potential dangers of police entry into politics; the campaign for abortion reform; and the problems of desegregating Seattle schools by mandatory busing. All in all, not light fare. Each story required in-depth research, teams of reporters, editors and photographers, and enough air time to tell a complete, complicated story. They were a far cry from the sound bites of today. Their mission was to educate, not titillate.

KING owner Dorothy Bullitt demanded that. Royer said she was the "conscience and soul of the place," a feeling that was echoed by other employees.

"Mrs. Bullitt is the single most fascinating person I have ever known and to have worked for her was an honor," says Aaron Brown, a reporter and anchor with KING from 1976 to 1986, and now an anchor on ABC's overnight news program, "World News Now." "KING was exceptional."

Of course, it was easier to be high-minded in those days. KING was a virtual money machine, a network affiliate in a growing city. The cost of producing news was far less than the revenues it generated among advertisers who had wed themselves to television.

Fear of offending (or boring) viewers was a consideration, but there was enough money being made to prevent some of the paralysis that is so evident today. In 1964, for example, Seattle viewers were stunned to see Dorothy Bullitt's son, Stimson, appear on the air to denounce the nation's involvement in the war in Vietnam. It was not a popular stand at that time.

That type of independence spawned a strong, almost mythical freedom among KING reporters: "They gave me license to say whatever I wanted on the air," recalls Charles Royer. "Most of the time we were out there on the edge."

Blacklow wanted to go out there with them. She put her East Coast pushiness to work, refusing to cave in when her male colleagues ripped up her scripts, refusing to back down when they ridiculed her stories. After all, she knew - and they knew - she had one ace over them.

"Just not let it be forgotten for a moment who was sitting at the top," she says. "A woman. And I knew that woman. And that woman took care of all the girls in the newsroom and had us over to her house for a glass of wine, for dinner, and to talk about the news. They were magical times. All that Dorothy Bullitt gave to me offset all the silly men's games."

Julie Blacklow is now the late-night weekend anchor. Her challenge? To queue up viewers for "Saturday Night Live." The sinkhole story is a natural. Seems the ground in Winterpark, Fla., had devoured a small house, trailer and porch.

Blacklow describes the disaster, unaware that the on-set camera has pulled back and widened to include sportscaster Elaine Perkins and weatherman Jeff Renner. Blacklow senses movement, her eyes darting to the right and left. They widen. She can't believe what she's seeing.

In keeping with the sinkhole story, Perkins and Renner are sinking in their chairs. Blacklow is trying not to laugh as her colleagues disappear from sight. A producer wildly gestures from the sideline. It seems that the station's news director, Sturholm, has seen this on his set at home and is now on the phone, screaming: Get those people back in their chairs!

That was in the early '80s. Blacklow had been at the station for a decade and had shown she could handle a variety of stories. There was, for example, the suicide jumper on the Aurora Bridge. She rushed to the scene, muscled her way onto the span and didn't see anyone. She turned to a man standing next to her and asked, "Has he jumped yet?"

"No," said the man. "I haven't."

Inside the newsroom, that and other Blacklow stories would make the rounds. She was a hoot to work with, the newsroom's "emotional center," as reporter Bob Simmons described it. She was also the epicenter of conflict.

"She never shirked from letting anybody know that what they just did was mediocre and they ought to be ashamed," says Simmons, who worked at KING from 1977 to 1991. "She did that to me, too. It was a police shooting story assigned in only one day and I wrongly identified the police department. I can remember Julie chewing my ass for that, which at the time I thought was pretty cheeky."

Still, he respected her frankness, as did other employees.

"She's one of the best writers I ever worked with," says Ken Jones, an award-winning photographer and 20-year veteran at KING. "When I went out on a story she was the one I always chose. She was a real bulldog. Lots of times you'd go out on a story and people would want to manage you - a flack or politician for example. But she was tenacious and if anybody was holding back or denying information, Julie had a great sense of outrage. You were real proud to have her on your team."

Blacklow challenged anyone who didn't agree with her, even people with rank over her. Most of her colleagues admired that. Her bosses didn't. In 1986, Blacklow was fired in a sensational case that the newspapers followed for months.

It started with the kidnapping of a 10-year-old Bellingham girl. In their coverage of the story, Blacklow and a cameraman reportedly crossed paths with police and FBI agents, hindering the law-enforcement operation. The girl was eventually released unharmed, but her family and Bellingham police sharply criticized KING for its handling of the story.

Months later, KING fired Blacklow - not because of her coverage of the story, but because management felt she had lied to them about events that unfolded during the reporting. Blacklow stood her ground and an arbiter backed her. In 1987, the station was ordered to rehire her, with back pay.

Blacklow and many in the newsroom were jubilant, but none could put the firing behind them. They felt Blacklow was a scapegoat, sacrificed for public relations, and sold out by management. "The decline of KING began with Julie's firing," says Jack Hamann, a reporter who worked at the station from 1983 to 1990. "It was a betrayal."

For her part, Blacklow claims it was management's way of trying to get rid of a troublemaker. They had grown tired of her tirades, which were increasing as changes in news began to increase. Blacklow believed the station was trading its high standards for less substantive, more sensational news.

Modern technology was the culprit. With the emergence of remote transmissions, live shots were being used more frequently to jolt viewers with a sense of immediacy and urgency - even if there wasn't much of either in a story. Hamann recalls a night he was sent to Tacoma to cover a new ordinance to stop cruising. He rode with police, he interviewed officers, and then he waited. And waited. And waited. It was a cruising story with no cruising. Still, he had to produce a report because KING had already promoted the segment. He went with what little he had. It was embarrassing.

"KING had decided, and they were clear, that ratings mattered," says Hamann.

Ah, ratings. In addition to live shots, the technology of overnight ratings began to make its heavy presence felt in the newsroom. Each news show was synthesized into quarter-hour chunks from which management could determine when viewers tuned in or turned off. And viewers did, too, with ratings' evil twin, remote control. Like no time in television's past, viewers were channel surfing, while the ratings recorded their movement.

To make things worse, more channels were coming on line, via cable, and more consultants were being hired to interpret the ratings data. In some newsrooms, consultants competed with news directors for editorial control, stressing the need to lighten up, speed up and inject more entertainment. At some point, it seemed that news executives began to mistrust the inherent value and interest of the news itself, opting instead for faster-paced, fluff-filled broadcasts that emphasized sensation over substance. Ratings were a powerful tool, but subject to abuse.

"The temptation is to use journalism based entirely on what you think the people will watch," says Simmons. "Where does that take you? It can take you to the supermarket checkout stand.

"I don't think it's any secret that the news assignments are combed daily to see what the potential ratings are for a story," he adds. "If they're not high, the story won't get reported. This, to doddering old duffers like me, is very frustrating. I'm not hanging this around the neck of KING-TV, it's the industry in general. Sadly enough, it leads to trivial and sensational stuff."

Simmons' former colleague, Phil Sturholm, was noticing the same thing at KIRO-TV, where he was executive editor from 1986 to 1991.

"We all race for the ratings and come up with `Soldiers of Satan' and other dumb things like that," he said of KIRO's astonishingly inept series in 1989 about devil worship. "It was an embarrassment for everyone, but (former news director) John Lippman wanted it covered because it was sweeps week. The theory was, there were numerous bodies buried down near Shelton. We went down with a shovel, almost, and couldn't find anything. The sheriff said there was nothing there, trust us; we have already looked."

But KIRO sent its helicopter anyway, saying there were rumors of many bodies buried somewhere down there!! "We were really hyping it," says Sturholm, "but the story was, there was no story."

Blacklow is standing near some woods in Snohomish County. She is telling viewers about the discovery of some human bones, a scalp, and the hair attached to it. It could be the work of a serial killer, but police aren't saying much more, which means Blacklow isn't saying much more. There isn't time.

Soon after, Blacklow resigns from KING-5 news.

Like those bones, Blacklow says television news has deteriorated. While its technology has improved, bringing more news into each broadcast, the quality of that news has declined to a level that irks her and many other veteran journalists. Their complaints are a chorus of disappointment, a chorus that Blacklow is now singing before the public.

"I have a policy," she says. "Never attack first, but once attacked, kill."

But while she's on the attack, many say something is missing from her arsenal: perspective. Amid her articulate and courageous declarations about the sorry state of television news today, she is suggesting that a new commitment to old values would rescue the day, and many broadcast people say that's oversimplifying the issue.

"Look. Julie is a wonderfully talented person, a wonderful writer, and I think she has a nice sense of television and I admire that," says Aaron Brown. "But this business fed our souls for a long time, it fed our families for a long time, so I'm a little uncomfortable turning around and snapping at it. We all had opportunities to make it better and none of us can say we seized every opportunity. That's true of Aaron Brown, that's true of Julie Blacklow.

"I don't think anybody out there is trying to see how badly they can do it," he adds. "To not look at the fundamental changes in terms of economics, and not keep at least one eye on that, is to be dreadfully unfair."

Brown sighs and recalls Vanna White's role in all this: "My favorite piece of research in the world was one that showed that everyone loved the notion of Top Story (a half hour segment that KING devoted to one story each night in 1988). But the fact is, Top Story never did well with the numbers. It couldn't survive. Yet, if asked, `Would you like to see a single half hour of quality news?' people would absolutely say `Yes,' and then watch `Wheel of Fortune.' "

That's a hard thing for journalists to admit, but the message has not gone unheeded by those who remain at KING.

"It's always easy to look back at the old days and say they were better, and in some ways they were," says sportscaster Tony Ventrella. "KING was more fun to work at, no question about it. It was a big family - but so was Frederick & Nelson. What can I tell you? Things change, you have to move on.

"From Julie's standpoint, she's not overstating her case: She was there during the glory days of KING news, in many people's eyes," he says. "But as far as her being a savior for television news? No, I don't think she should be considered a hero because it's simply her opinion."

Ventrella does echo Blacklow's concern that the news has become too glitzy, but argues it was too boring five years ago. "We used to lead with live shots from the Capitol. That may have been journalistically correct, but it was dull."

Similarly, other KING veterans acknowledge the need for change. "This is a real volatile industry," says photographer Jones. "There is growing pressure for ratings. Before we had the luxury of having three stations and it didn't matter who was first, second or third because they were all making money. Now, it has become more competitive and has to be lean and mean. Before, we were operating in sort of a bubble and that was sort of an unreality."

Bob Jordan, KING's news director for the past two years, wants to pop that bubble, and Blacklow is not helping. When asked about her public put-downs, he scoffs and says KING's news has "absolutely never been better," noting that its ratings have climbed from third to first place in the key 5 p.m. slot. "That's not to say it's never been good, but the product I found when I came to town was not good. Our news was irrelevant; our news was boring and it was not commercially successful."

As for substance, Jordan points to February's ratings period and, sure enough, the station avoided segments on the sex lives of married couples, or a special consumer report on exploding wine coolers - as featured on KIRO and KOMO, respectively. Instead, KING surprised a lot of skeptics with Jim Compton's moving reports from the splintered Soviet Union and Brendan McLaughlin's study of communism's struggle to survive in Cuba.

And, Jordan says, the station will keep airing more hard-edged stories: "I personally don't like features. I view them rather a waste of time."

Of course, Jordan's viewpoints are only as good as the station's new owners, the Providence Journal Co. It took control of the station in February and almost anything could happen under its tutelage.

But even that company's game plan won't answer the ultimate but elusive question that has plagued stations from Day One and has been the driving force behind the industry's change: What do viewers want? Information or entertainment? Information and entertainment? Informative entertainment? Entertaining information?

Only Nielsen knows for sure, and even that company's insights are suspect at best.

What we do know is this: People have been lamenting KING's decline for more than a decade. Blacklow herself quit the station for a while in 1977, citing the time limitations on stories and other restraints that were squelching her creative and journalistic drive, way back then.

Now, hearing that refrain all over again, it makes you wonder if there ever was a high-fivin' heyday of news at KING. As Aaron Brown says, "Like anything else, television news has its bad decades, er, days." As photographer Jones says, "Adapt or die."

Now that's a sound bite for our times.

Linda Keene is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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