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Anchor Marlene McClinton's on-air resignation and denunciation of her KHOU-Channel 11 bosses last week stunned station viewers and made her an instant folk hero in some newsrooms around town, where M&Ms were passed out in her honor. But it should hardly have surprised her station's management.
After all, another veteran newsperson had exited KHOU in much the same fashion only three months before, the only difference being he hadn't delivered his farewell speech on the air and his departure received no publicity.
When the 43-year-old McClinton told viewers at the end of the 5 p.m. Tuesday newscast that she was "very unhappy with the way management has decided to treat people," one of the people very much on her mind was former colleague and tennis buddy Sam Saucedo. The 13-year station veteran walked off his assignment covering the arrival of a planeload of Kosovar refugees in Houston May 28.
According to Saucedo, the disrespect being dished out to longtime KHOU reporters by the team headed by general manager Peter Diaz and news director Mike Devlin had gotten to be more than he was willing to endure, even for a six-figure salary.
Saucedo describes his last 60 seconds as a KHOU employee this way. After he told producer Camille Scott that he had nothing to report because the planeload of refugees hadn't arrived, she insisted that he go on the air with something. When Saucedo said he had nothing to report, managing editor Jack Beavers came on the line.
"He says, 'What do you have?' and I said, 'I don't have anything,' " recounts Saucedo. " 'The plane isn't here yet.' And he says, 'I wonder what the hell you've been doing the rest of the day. That pisses me off.' And I said, 'That pisses me off. Unlike you, I don't have to work, so I quit.' "
"And I've been playing tennis and golf ever since," says Saucedo. Thanks to successful investments over the years, Saucedo reports he's financially secure and does not have to find another media job. His situation parallels McClinton's, who made an estimated $300,000 a year at KHOU, owns a video production company and is married to a successful lawyer.
According to Saucedo and a stream of other station refugees, abusive treatment has become standard management behavior over the past several years, partially as a tool to drive off highly paid veterans. John Getter, KHOU's longtime space beat reporter until his termination last year, joined former features reporter Norm Uhl in filing an age discrimination complaint against the station, which is pending.
Getter says more than 20 KHOU staffers over the age of 40 have been terminated by the station in the past several years. Another veteran, Charlie Hadlock, recently resigned to take a position at a Shreveport, Louisiana, station, though he says that was for family reasons and he was not pressured to leave.
"What Marlene said confirmed what we've seen unfold at Channel 11 over the past year or so," opines Getter. "They're not treating people well. They are clearly biased against older folks, and they are not showing respect for the audience. People who are serious about journalism get to the point where they say, 'I just can't stomach this.' "
Former KHOU news director David Goldberg, now the news director at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, CBS affiliate, says the process eating at the KHOU staff is endemic to the current television news business.
"You have these broadcast companies that are so highly leveraged, and there's no place to cut expenses except for people, because everything else is locked in by contract," explains Goldberg. "It's sad, because you end up losing the institutional knowledge of the market."
"It's pretty much what Marlene said," comments another former staffer. "It starts at the top. I think that we've really dumbed down the audience. We once did longer thought pieces, and now it's 70 seconds tops [for news stories]."
This source says the veteran staff, including McClinton, saw the handwriting on the wall. "When the contracts are up, that's going to be it. They'll think of some reason to get rid of you." Uhl agrees. "Personally, I thought Marlene would be the next to go."
After he walked out, Saucedo says, McClinton called him to commiserate, and he offered a warning to his friend.
"I told her, 'Watch yourself, Marlene. You're one of those people who got there when the rest of us got there, and you're in the upper income bracket. These days they're hiring people for a third what they were paying us.' "
In recent weeks, Saucedo says, McClinton left messages at his home, but he had not found time to get in touch with her before she pulled up her anchor. "Now I wonder whether she just wanted to talk over her plans, her exit," says Saucedo.
Although both McClinton and KHOU management say she was in line for a new contract with a raise, station sources indicate McClinton was clearly unhappy with her work situation in her final weeks and that her dissatisfaction was widely known on staff. "If somebody's making $300,000," observes Saucedo, "and they only offer you a $1,000 raise, well, it's not a raise, it's an insult."