Longtime PBS Reporter Spencer Michels Reflects on the Past, Present and Future of News
KQED recently announced the launch of a new multiplatform program called “KQED Newsroom,” which starting Oct. 18 will replace “This Week in Northern California” on Friday nights. The title is a nod to the station’s groundbreaking 1968 program, which was the first nightly news series on public television and informed the launch of the national “The Macneil/Lehrer Report,” which premiered in 1975.
More than 30 years ago, Spencer Michels, the longtime San Francisco correspondent for MacNeil/Lehrer and its successor show, “PBS NewsHour,” worked at KQED on some early shows in the “Newsroom” mode. Here, he reflects on those years.
Sitting in my office at KQED, I was recently told, for the third time in my career, that I will soon no longer be employed doing what I love to do: researching and reporting news stories on public television. The “PBS NewsHour” decided it could no longer support offices in San Francisco and Denver, and therefore would close them down and lay off several producers, a cameraman, and me — a national correspondent who has been producing stories for “NewsHour” since 1983.
No one likes to get laid off, but the fact is, it’s nothing new to me. The first time I got canned was when I worked on a short-lived 1979 KQED show called “Evening Edition,” one of the shows the station launched after the demise of its landmark “Newsroom” show. “Evening Edition,” hosted by Belva Davis, featured Rollin Post and me and a few other reporters taking an in-depth look at Bay Area and California news.
But it died an ignominious death because too few people watched. The era of “Newsroom”-type programming, it seemed, had ended. The Vietnam War and the anti-war protests had faded, and so had interest in an alternative current affairs program. What the public seemed to want were news choppers and fast-paced shows with flashy personalities in the anchor chair, spiced with lots of crime. We weren’t flashy, though we did use a balloon furnished by Yoplait Yogurt to try to compete with the commercial stations’ whirlybirds. The balloon, however, crashed, with me in it, along with the show.
Then there was “Express,” another KQED go at serious, long-form journalism. This was a weekly half-hour exploration on a single subject. I was the host, moderating in front of a live audience. One time, when Nancy Pelosi was running for her first term in Congress, we did an election special with all 14 candidates, plus a very large security guard just in case. Pelosi and 12 other candidates behaved themselves. But candidate No.14, a self-proclaimed communist, decided the whole show was a charade. He stood up, shouted, and refused to sit down. As anchor, I tried – on live TV – to reason with him, which didn’t work out. So I called in the big security guard, who had to drag him ranting all the way out of the studio.
“Express” had a staff of about 25, cranking out stories that often appeared on the “NewsHour,” and producing documentaries. The discussions were lively and well-informed, but it could be tough controlling the audience, as when a well-known animal rights activist started screaming at an official of the University of California over Berkeley’s research labs. There was just no way to keep that one civil.
The show and its staff won a slew of awards, but it was expensive, and once again, the ratings were nothing to write home about. They brought in a new anchor to jazz up the presentation, a young lady who told me she “made love to the camera.”
“The most important thing in TV news,” she told me, “is to be sincere. Once you learn how to fake that, you’ve got it made.” That didn’t help the numbers, though, and eventually KQED –in the midst of a recession –decided it wasn’t worth the effort or the money. So around 1990 the powers that be shut it down and laid off most of the staff. Eventually, I got the axe as well.
But this time I didn’t miss any paychecks. The “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” (as it was then called) picked me up and I became a full-fledged correspondent and producer, based as usual at KQED. I covered everything, including the recall of Gray Davis, the coronation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the resurrection of Jerry Brown. Davis and Schwarzenegger were very security-conscious, and it was tough to approach them except under controlled circumstances.
Brown, however, was different. When he was attorney general, I set up an interview with him about prisons. We were told to go to an address in Oakland and ring the bell. Who answered? Brown himself, all alone in his loft. No security, no press aide, no nothing. Just Jerry and me and my cameraman. When we left, he asked if I thought he should run for governor. I said I didn’t know. (My hedging didn’t factor into his decision, apparently.)
“NewsHour” wanted to have representation in various cities, including Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and, of course, San Francisco. In fact, they originated part of the show out of KQED, with Elizabeth Farnsworth (a KQED alumnus) as West Coast anchor. But nothing lasts forever. In public television, money always seems to be short — that lasts forever. Farnsworth left to explore new options, and after several years the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” decided it couldn’t really afford to have bureaus in all those cities. So they laid off most of the correspondents, and eventually I was the last man standing – until this June.
Now the “NewsHour” hopes to use “a variety of locally based freelance video journalists around the country.” In a widely seen memo, the show wrote that “under no circumstances do we intend to abandon the mini-documentary reports that have become so critical to our broadcast.”
And so it goes. I’m older now, long eligible for Medicare, but I think I have a few more stories left in me. “Newsroom”? We’ll see.