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."
McClinton declined to go into detail about her reasons for her own exit but indicated Saucedo was one of the people she feels got shabby treatment from management.
"Sam has been there for a very long time and was a very good reporter, and I was stunned by what happened to him," said the anchorwoman several days after her on-air good-bye. "He's not alone. If you're looking for a story, there's 80 people who left the station. There's a whole bunch of walking wounded people who have jobs, some of them who are better off and some of them in shock."
The co-anchor McClinton left behind when she walked out doesn't share that view of the state of affairs at KHOU. Forty-one-year-old Greg Hurst, who has been at the station less than a year as the replacement for longtime anchor Steve Smith, says he was blindsided by McClinton's action and disagrees with her comments.
"I find the management team to not only be totally professional and competent, but completely open and honest and highly supportive," says Hurst. "So I really don't understand [McClinton's comments], and we were all kind of at a loss." Station manager Diaz did not return an Insider inquiry for this story. Devlin declined to discuss McClinton's exit, calling it a private personnel matter.
If Hurst hasn't detected tension on the station staff, he hasn't been looking, says one employee. According to the source, a handful of mid-level staff complained to Diaz several weeks ago that newsroom morale was plummeting, but they were dismissed as "whiners" and "crybabies."
KHOU management is not exactly receptive to criticism, judging by a memo issued to the staff by news director Devlin in April. After the station employed an expert with Serbian ties, Dr. Ron Hatchett, to interview strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Houston Chronicle TV critic Ann Hodges wrote an article questioning his objectivity.
In the memo, Devlin countered that the production was great. "It was balanced and fair. (Ignore the review from that washed up hack in today's newspaper.)"
Not content to trash Hodges, Devlin then opened fire on dozens of reporters from newspapers and networks around the world who had questioned him about KHOU's Hatchett job.
"With only a couple of exceptions, I don't think I have ever dealt with a more arrogant or rude group of people," wrote the man whose job it is to manage a staff of reporters. "No wonder the public hates the media."
Devlin's missive ends with "I have been lax on critiques. They will resume in full force next week."
At KHOU, apparently a few words are worth a thousand pictures in figuring out why journalists can't stand some of their bosses.
One of the KHOU walking wounded in the wake of McClinton's departure is producer Camille Scott, who had the misfortune to be at the controls when both Saucedo and McClinton willingly walked the plank. Apparently suspecting that Scott had conspired with McClinton to get her speech on the air, station manager Diaz suspended the producer for three days with pay. McClinton denies that Scott had any advance warning of her intentions.
"If you ask me did I tell anyone, the answer is no," says McClinton. "If you ask me did anybody know what I was going to say, the answer is no. Did other people know outside of the building? The answer is yes." The anchor explains that her husband, lawyer-agent Rick Kaplan, and her lawyer Michael Cuper both knew of her plans, indicating the on-air declaration was a carefully thought out maneuver.
A former station reporter laughs at the idea that Scott is somehow responsible for McClinton's action. "Why don't they pin it on Greg [Hurst]," chuckles the reporter. "He was sitting closest to her. He could have knocked her out!"
Scott referred media inquiries to her attorney, David Adler, a former production assistant at the station during his law school days. He accuses station manager Diaz of scapegoating Scott to cover up his own failings.
"It seems to me they are obviously unhappy and embarrassed by what Marlene did and looking to blame it on somebody," he says. "I think that is probably one of the very management practices that Marlene McClinton was unhappy with."
According to Adler, McClinton simply asked that the camera go to her for the closeout to the newscast. A station source observes that weatherman Neil Frank is always hitting up the producer for extra time to promote his speaking engagements to civic groups.
Adler says his client could hardly be expected to refuse McClinton's request. "Marlene as an anchor had much more pull at that station than Camille, and for Camille to say no or ask why, well, she doesn't have that kind of authority."
Scott asked management to allow Adler to attend a meeting between her and her bosses after the suspension, but according to the lawyer, Diaz refused.
The disciplinary action against Scott, who started at KHOU as an intern and worked her way up to producer over the last decade while raising a young son, may prove as damaging to station morale as McClinton's departure. Friends describe her as "devastated," and her minister, Kirbyjon Caldwell, called station manager Diaz to get an explanation. Caldwell later chose to accent the positive after Scott's suspension was announced. "Keeping her on board is a win-win situation. Camille keeps her job, Channel 11 keeps a tremendous human asset."
Caldwell says he is continuing to talk with KHOU and has reached no conclusions about the treatment of Scott and other staffers. "Traditionally, nepotism, sexism, racism, all those isms, have been alive and well in the broadcast industry," says the minister. "So I'm always curious what the process is."
Closer to home, a KHOU staffer says Diaz has launched an internal investigation, quizzing everyone as to what they knew about McClinton's action and when they knew it.
"Our general manager is playing Kenneth Starr right now," says the staffer, who likens the atmosphere in the KHOU newsroom to an emotional earthquake, with aftershocks like the Scott suspension continuing to keep everyone on edge.
After the walkouts of two high-profile employees and the resignations of others, says the source, "it was just awful in there yesterday. If I were a manager, I would say, 'What's going on here, guys? Let's look at ourselves, see what we are doing.' But their first reaction was, 'Who can we blame for this.' "
Former news director Goldberg agrees. "You don't blame the producer. You've got to look at how and why they got to that point to start with. If there's blame, that's where it should rest."
McClinton is chagrined that what she had planned as an individual gesture is damaging other people.
"A lot of arrows are flying, and there are a lot of good people who are getting hurt just because they are in the way of the flying arrows," says the former anchor.
"I am done. I have left. I just don't want anybody associated with me to get hurt." Scott's attorney says McClinton has offered financial support to help the producer through the suspension period, an indication she feels some responsibility for getting Scott in hot water with management.
If KHOU's management has learned anything from the McClinton public relations debacle, it was not apparent last Friday after a meeting between Diaz, Devlin, executive producer Willie Walker and Scott. Despite her insistence that she did not cooperate with McClinton, producer Scott was suspended by Diaz for an additional week without pay and was put on probation for a year.
According to Scott's attorney, he and his client regard the action as an attempt to pressure Scott into resigning.
As the shaken woman rose to leave, Diaz told her, "Okay, let's put this behind us as soon as possible."
You wish, buddy.
The Insider is always ready, willing and able to receive news tips. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.