Item: WAGA reporter Justin Gray is leaving the station to work for Cox’s Washington DC bureau. What follows is a cold war-era cautionary tale about my sad experience in DC.
It was the mid-80s. Back then, media companies big and small had DC bureaus for their local TV news operations across America: Jefferson Pilot, Gannett, Hearst, Storer, Cox. Most of them were located in offices at 400 North Capitol, across from Union Station and overlooking the dome itself.
Gannett hired me, then fired me within six months. It was a head spinning adventure.
The guy who hired and fired me was the nicest guy in the world. Jack Hurley had been a news director at WXIA. His most recent work made him a respected honcho at the Newseum. “You got fired by a legend at Gannett!” I heard as I re-told the story when WXIA hired me.
When he ran Gannett’s DC bureau, Hurley had parlayed it into an outfit that traveled the world to cover stories, then spent time between trips covering the minutiae of Washington. Whenever the Minneapolis congressman, James Oberstar, held a hearing of his transportation subcommittee, we covered it for KARE. Whenever Sen. Gary Hart belched, we covered it for KUSA. We went to all of Sam Nunn’s pressers for WXIA.
Anyway — I found it a bit stifling and predictable. At age 27, I thought I had a better idea. Can we enterprise some stories, please? Maybe do some investigative stuff? Hurley let me stomp around the Capitol a wee bit but kept the leash very, very short. Whatever I came back with failed to impress, apparently.
It didn’t help that I was, at that stage of my career, a poor performer in live shots. It took me many more years to get somewhat comfortable delivering live utterances on TV. And in that job, I was constantly concluding the day with a 7:15 pm live shot to a midwestern station– usually about a hearing or a presser that had bored me to death.
So I became a liability. Hurley warned me I was in a tailspin. I couldn’t pull out. With the blessing of his corporate VP, he fired me. It was the only time I’d been fired from a job, unless you count the time Morrisville, PA pizza legend Spike Maruca fired me from his restaurant for allegedly smoking weed out back with the cook. (At age 15, the accused denied the allegation.)
It took me three months to land another job, and the new job at a freelance bureau– also at 400 North Capitol — paid me 40 percent less than the Gannett job. Fortunately, my boss there was amazing. Aside from my current boss, the lovely Ellen Crooke, Ken Vest remains my favorite boss ever.
And when I told Vest four months later that WAGA had offered me work in Atlanta, he said: For the love of God, son, get out of DC while you still can!
I don’t regret working in DC. I lived in a great city. I had a handful of cool experiences. Before my situation there soured, Gannett’s DC bureau sent me to Europe to produce three stories over a languid ten day period.
But I was in over my head and it nearly killed my career.
I made a point of disclosing my Gannett work history before WXIA hired me. I never fully understood why Hurley fired me, and had hoped the company’s personnel records would shed some light. But the records are in paper form in a warehouse somewhere, apparently. The company, to its credit, made no heroic effort to find them. My skeletons stayed closeted.
I hear Cox’s DC bureau is more about enterprise / investigative work, and less about covering hearings and pressers. So I wish my friend Justin lots o’ luck. I hope DC bureau work is a lot different now.