‘You can’t let your hair down’
Local television veterans explain scandals in the broadcast business.
What does a satirical YouTube video have in common with the solicitation of oral sex in Burns Park and a recent, tragic death in a hot tub? They are all elements of scandals that blew up when the personal lives of members of the media became public.
Whether it’s a profanity-laden blog post, a run-in with the police or a wild party gone wrong, media personalities stand to lose a lot when their own actions or alleged offenses make the evening news. First and foremost, they are probably going to be out of a job.
“[In this industry] you can’t let your hair down,” said B.J. Sams, long-time Arkansas anchorman. Sams, recently retired after a career that spanned five decades and multiple television stations, knows a thing or two about what it takes to keep one’s nose clean in the business.
“If [an employee] embarrasses the station, that will get them fired,” Sams said. “Especially if it’s making news on other stations — that gets you fired immediately.”
Firing an employee involved in something disgraceful helps television stations protect themselves, Sams said. One of a station’s top priorities is getting its broadcast license renewed. Officials at the Federal Communications Commission can easily use a scandal as grounds to revoke a channel’s license, he said.
As for the ongoing Brett Cummins case, Sams said he believes Cummins was most likely given two choices from KARK, Channel 4 — something like “resign or we’ll fire you,” he said. Cummins was the station’s meteorologist who resigned after police found Cummins’ friend, Dexter Paul Williams, dead in a hot tub.
According to a Sept.10 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, Cummins’ attorney said he resigned from the channel. However, KARK’s general manager would not say whether the weatherman was fired or resigned, simply that he no longer worked at the station.
Other members of Little Rock’s media have been fired — or have independently resigned — for a plethora of infamous reasons.
In the mid-90s an undercover narcotics officer arrested KTHV, Channel 11, weatherman Steve Martone in Burns Park. According to a 1996 article by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the undercover officer said Martone asked for oral sex and started rubbing his groin.
Martone was taken to the Sherwood jail, and though he pleaded innocent, he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of public sexual indecency. KTHV fired him about two weeks after he made news in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s police beat.
A year later, he applied for a forecasting job at another station, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Paper Trails article. The news director for the station commented that Martone was not in the running for the job — not particularly because of his conviction.
Whether or not a media personality is able to find a job in the industry post-incident, the tarnishing effect of a scandal is undeniable.
Criminal convictions aren’t the only offenses that get reporters fired. Last year, KARK disciplined four employees for making an “offensive and distasteful” video that was posted to YouTube.
The five-minute video depicts just another day at the television station. “My name is Pete Johnson. I’m a television news reporter and I hate my job,” the video’s narration begins. “Sometimes walking down this hallway reminds me of The Green Mile, though I’m not actually on death row. I’m on a place that’s worse than death row — It’s my f*ing job.”
Though some online commentary admits the video is “actually funny,” superiors at KARK didn’t think so.
Chuck Spohn, general manager of Fox 16 News, said media employees should be aware of the nature of the industry they work for — regardless of whether they work in front of the camera or behind the scenes. If someone slips up, word will get out and the story’s importance will be magnified.
“Whether you’re a person in media, the mayor or a sports figure, human beings have greater interest in you than the average citizen,” Spohn said. “It’s the big names that get the most exposure. It happens both for the better and the worse … it’s just how people are wired.”
Sams said news anchors are forced to live at a higher standard because they are in people’s living rooms every day. The public expects an anchor to be likeable and believable. If an anchor acts otherwise, he loses invaluable credibility.
“When I was working, it felt like I was living in a glass house,” Sams said. “Everybody saw everything I did no matter where I was. I was representing myself, my station … and my news worth.”
Sams, who worked at a station in Hawaii for nine years, was recognized in public on a near-global scale — he recalls being greeted by viewers in Hong Kong and Tokyo, as well as in airports around the country. With such a following — and the accompanying pressure to stay straight and fly right — Sams said he chose to be on his best behavior. At times, though, it was tedious.
“If you have a drink in public someone’s going to think you’re a lush,” he said. “That person will tell somebody else … and eventually it gets around that you’re a drunk.”
Sams admits to one slip-up that made for an evening news story, albeit a laughable one. His Volkswagen Beetle was the third car involved in a three-car rear-end traffic accident. The second car belonged to Dave Woodman, a rival KARK anchor and personal friend of Sams’.
“I even think I did the news that night,” Sams said. “But the co-anchor might have read the story.”
A brief history of incidents in local television:
September 2011: KARK meteorologist Brett Cummins resigned from the station on Sept. 9 after the death of 24-year-old Dexter Paul Williams. Cummins was found in a hot tub with Williams on the morning of Sept. 5. The state crime lab has determined that Williams died of asphyxiation. No one has been arrested or charged in this case.
July 2010: KARK fired four employees for creating a profanity-laced, satirical TV news video using company equipment and posting it to YouTube.
May 2006: Former KTHV anchorman Win Noble was charged with third-degree domestic battery. He was not employed by the station at the time of his arrest. According to a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Noble struggles with bipolar disorder. He was fired from the station in April after a fight in a bar and his profanity-laced blog became public.
April 1996: Popular KTHV weatherman Steve Martone, far left, was arrested in Burns Park for a misdemeanor charge of public sexual indecency. Martone pleaded innocent. According to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial, because of his popularity, response to his arrest was restrained. Two weeks after his arrest, he was fired. He had been a weatherman at the station for 14 years.