National Press Club

Former TV anchor Maureen Bunyan says battle against monetization of news is lost

October 10, 2017 | By Bill McCloskey | bmcclos325@aol.com

Former WUSA and WJLA anchor Maureen Bunyan lamented the state of TV news today at an Oct. 5 "Legends of Broadcasting" dinner conversation at the National Press Club.

She said news anchors have lost the power they had to help set an agenda for the day's newscast.

The change began when owners realized news broadcasts could be money makers if enough people watched, Bunyan said. This led to the hiring of consultants who helped managers give viewers the type of broadcast they would prefer to tune in to.

"If it bleeds, it leads," she said was the mantra. Bunyan said she regrets not moving into management, where, she said, she would have fought "the monetization of news." Now, she said, "the battle has been lost."

Bunyan was among those who "put their careers" on the line in 1975 by forming the National Association of Black Journalists, said National Press Club President Jeff Ballou.

He introduced her at the "Legends of Broadcasting" dinner. The series is produced by the Club's Broadcast and Podcast Team.

She praised former Club President Frank Aukofer for "taking me under his wing" in the newsroom on The Milwaukee Journal in the late '60s.

Bunyan said she got into the news business, "because I had to inform myself."

She said she was taken by a line the 1968 report of The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission set up to look into the causes of the riots across the United States each summer since 1964. It reported: "Editorial decisions about which stories to cover and which to use are made by editors. Yet, very few Negroes in this country are involved in making these decisions, because very few, if any, supervisory editorial jobs are held by Negroes."

She said that when she applied to work at a TV station in Milwaukee supposedly interested in finding minority journalists, she was told she was not black enough, didn't sound black and her name was "strange."

Following that experience, she enrolled in a Columbia University summer program teaching journalism to minorities, she said. The program required returning to a TV station or newspaper in the student's hometown. Ironically, she was placed at the same station that had previously rejected her. She stayed 30 days before moving to WGBH in Boston, then to WCBS in New York and then, in 1973, to WTOP in Washington (now WUSA).

"In Washington, I found a home," she said, adding that she made point of having dinner with different people on a regular basis so she could learn about Washington.

She criticized beginning journalists who take jobs in smaller markets with only one goal in mind -- move to a bigger market. She said she would prefer for them to put down stakes and learn the market.

"We have reporters in small markets who have no idea what is going on around them," she said. She believes that phenomenon contributed to news media under reporting the groundswell of support for the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Bunyan said she also believes the deregulation of broadcasters has led to newscasts that no longer reflect the community.

"It's never going to back to the way it was," she said.

She believes local TV still has a role in increasing citizen participation in the community. But, she said that won't happen unless people say "no, we want stations to serve us."

Bunyan, who migrated from her native Aruba to Wisconsin when her father followed an oil industry job to the Milwaukee area, was let go by the new management at Channel 7 in January.

The Club's next Legends of Broadcasting dinner will feature a conversation with John Cochran, a retired ABC newsman and his wife Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism and current board president of the Club's Journalism Institute.