In this new media world order where pontificating pundits crowd the airwaves and news is more entertainment than substance, one local television news anchor has managed to buck the national trend. Unfortunately for viewers in the San Francisco bay area, this straight shooter ended his forty year run with his last newscast on May twenty first, five days short of his sixty fifth birthday. His career tracks the dramatic change from no-nonsense local news delivery to the current sad state of affairs in local television news rooms across the country.
Dennis Richmond’s rise to power in local news began at a time when enlightened news directors were trying to make their newsrooms better reflect the many diverse audiences they served. Richmond, an African-American born in Toledo, Ohio, drove to California in 1968, after a three year stint in the Army where he learned some basic skills. With no real career plan in mind, he took a job at a small, local independent television station in Oakland as a part-time clerk typist. But KTVU and Dennis would soon be joined at the hip, working together to make “The Ten O’clock News” the most watched local night time news program in the country.
Dennis moved from typist to floor director for what was then called “Action News”. Sensing Richmond’s hidden talents, and aware of the desperate need for diversity in local newsrooms, KTVU suggested Richmond apply for a grant from the Ford Foundation to attend a new program at Columbia University in New York dedicated to teaching journalism skills to minorities. Four hundred applicants applied for 15 print and 20 broadcast positions. Richmond won a slot to attend in 1969, just a year after Connie Chung and Geraldo Rivera used the same program to kick start their own remarkable careers.
Upon his return, Richmond started covering local stories as a street reporter. Then in 1976 he was asked to fill in as temporary anchor while KTVU searched for a replacement for its departing anchor. When no suitable replacement was found, Richmond was offered the permanent position. At the time Dennis felt that “I would anchor a few years and move on”. But every year he “felt more comfortable, the ratings improved, and the station offered more incentives to stay.”
He also was reporting on national stories in his own back yard, including the infamous Zebra killings, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the rise of the black panthers and the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. These were heady times for local news, and audiences gravitated to this tall and stocky black man with the authoritative voice and commanding presence. He would hold that anchor chair for the next thirty two years, as KTVU became a major affiliate of Fox Television under the ownership of Cox Broadcasting.
Asked if he missed moving up the ladder to network news despite many opportunities, he says so many of the network journalists he met would tell him “You have the best journalism job in America. You always know where you will wake up the next morning”.
But while he was crafting a no-fluff local newscast, forces beyond his control were crafting a sea change in television news. As more news departments fell under the control of corporate “bean counters”, national consultants were brought in to local newsrooms to tell viewers “the news starts now” (as if they did not know that), and to tease upcoming news reports that contained more sizzle than steak. At the network level, the wall between journalism and its subjects was crumbling, letting former White House aides such as Karl Rove under President Bush and George Stephanopoulos under President Clinton turn into media darlings for Fox News and ABC News.
Richmond, who has fought for decades to keep his newscast clear of bias and sensationalism, says he is “a little sad. Changes have been so dramatic as to blur the lines between news and entertainment. It’s been more a push for ratings that reporting pure news. Ratings are the driving force to a story”.
To prove his point, Richmond cites the tragedy of Natalee Holloway, the young girl who disappeared during a high school graduation trip to Aruba, as a classic example. “CNN picked up the story as if they owned it.” Reports on the war in Iraq, global terrorism, and a broken health care and immigration system here at home took a back seat to wall to wall coverage of this tragic yet minor news event. No wonder former NBC News anchor and current First Lady of California Maria Shriver announced late last year she would not resume her TV news career, citing the circus like media coverage of the late Anna Nicole Smith.
Richmond, never one to sensationalize a story or embellish the details, plans to play more golf and perhaps write a novel. “Whatever I’m going to do I’m going to make it up” he said. Something he never did in the anchor chair.
I ran into a New York based independent producer recently, who left the TV news business in disgust, saying “the perfect lead to a local newscast these days is a pretty young blonde standing in front of a burning building.” Fortunately for Dennis Richmond, he will no longer have to read the lead-in to that story.
Brian Banmiller is a national business reporter for CBS News Radio and former Business Anchor/Editor for KTVU Channel 2 News (the Fox affiliate) in San Francisco. He can be reached at www.banmilleronbusiness.com
This article originally published on July 4, 2009.
CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.