Farewell, Joel Hello, Marvin

A few years ago in these pages I described Joel Cheatwood as "the evil genius behind Channel 7's lurid news style." The occasion was the release of a Hurricane Andrew documentary Cheatwood and WSVN-TV produced that was about as melodramatic, self-absorbed, and manipulative as you might have expected -- just like the station's nightly news program, which Cheatwood also created.

The recent announcement that Cheatwood would soon be ending his long association with Sunbeam Television (which owns WSVN in Miami and WHDH in Boston) prompted me to consider his legacy and to see if anyone else shared my sentiments about him and his lucrative if revolting accomplishments at Channel 7. A computer search of various databases provided a veritable thesaurus of descriptives from newspapers and trade journals nationwide: "reckless," "free-wheeling, sensationalistic," "the only victims are the viewers," "in your face," "a symphony of catastrophe," "depending on who's talking, Joel Cheatwood is either the bright young visionary of local television news or the antichrist," "Sunbeam Television built a reputation for high profits and low journalism," "the most notorious and widely imitated independent television station in the country," "panic news," "his newscast fires at you point-blank with a submachine gun that leaves viewers wondering whether they live in a war zone," "evil wizard," "alarmist broadcasting at its worst," "slash and burn newscasts," "the worst example of local news I have ever seen in the U.S."

Obviously the man has made an impression. And though he may be heading to Chicago (to work for NBC and its owned-and-operated station there), that impression will linger, especially here in Miami, where he arrived nine years ago. Already it's hard to remember a time when television news wasn't paced like an action movie, edited like an MTV video, and scored like a horror flick. Nearly seven years ago New Times devoted a cover story ("If It Bleeds, It Leads") to the dramatic changes Cheatwood had wrought at Channel 7, and at that time he made this assertion: "Those who say Channel 7 is sensationalistic are wrong. This is a radical way to do television news, but television news has been pretty damn boring. The viewer has changed. The little things don't wow them any more."

Over the years Cheatwood has employed variations of that defense whenever he has been attacked, which has been often. His rationale is a blurry mix of the truth and the lie, not unlike the mongrel he fashioned for Channel 7: news as entertainment.

He was truthful and insightful in noting that a younger generation of viewers -- fluent in the vocabulary of modern visual technology -- was tuning out of conventional broadcast news because (among other reasons) its presentation was staid. But there was (and is) no question that his Channel 7 news was wildly sensationalistic, and his rebuttals to that charge have amounted to mere obfuscation: To those who questioned the wisdom and the ethics of using the wardrobe of entertainment to dress up news, he has responded that the critics simply did not understand broadcast journalism was losing the battle for viewers. To those who complained about the heavy reliance on crime and violence, he countered that crime was of the greatest concern to Miami viewers. And to those who argued that he had abdicated the editor's responsibility to apply judgment regarding which events deserve to be reported and which do not, he hollered "Censorship!" Opening his news program with ten or fifteen minutes of crime and mayhem thus became a principled stand for the people's right to know.

Broadcast journalism is first and foremost a business, and so all efforts to succeed are justified. A complete dependence on viewer research to "program" the news does not constitute pandering. Editing is censorship.... There is about Cheatwood's utterances on these subjects something Orwellian. That his influence, already widespread among independent stations, is about to be magnified by his position with NBC should be cause for alarm.

But what could be more alarming than the fact that people love it? They loved it when Rick Sanchez, huffing and sweating, raced around town for his nightly "Crime Check" segment. They loved it when Sally Fitz would leap out of her anchor chair shrieking about the latest horrible crime. They loved it when the eye-popping graphics and the throbbing soundtrack made you think you were watching a movie, not local news.

And yet there is no disagreeing with this comment Cheatwood made to the Boston Globe: "I can't force a viewer to watch my program. They have complete control. We put it out there. If they watch, so be it. If they don't, we try something else."

Our loss certainly must be Chicago's gain.

Miami's connection to the fundraising scandal swirling around the Clinton White House gained national attention January 10 with a lengthy New York Times article headlined "Triumph Turns Sour for Fund-Raiser." The subject of the story was Marvin S. Rosen, venerable Democratic money man and partner at the influential local law firm of Greenberg Traurig. During last year's presidential campaign, Rosen served as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee.

The Times article was tough: "And as questions continue to surface about the Democrats' fundraising practices, there are indications that Mr. Rosen may have pushed ethical limits in his law practice and business dealings." It went on to detail controversies surrounding Rosen's bond work in New Jersey and his and his firm's involvement with a failed savings and loan in Palm Beach. (Greenberg Traurig eventually negotiated an $8.15 million settlement with federal regulators.) The Times piece concluded by quoting Carlos Herrera, who heads Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI), winners of the biggest sweetheart deal in Dade history when county commissioners granted him and his partners exclusive rights to develop the air base.

As first reported by New Times staff writer Jim DeFede, Herrera, whose company is represented by Greenberg Traurig, contributed generously to the Democratic Party and managed to secure a private audience last spring with Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. His money also bought him access to President Clinton himself, with whom he discussed HABDI's plans.

On January 11 the Miami Herald published a severely truncated version of the Times article. Then on January 16 there appeared a story by Herald political editor Tom Fiedler titled "Fund-Raiser Downplays Role in Controversy." In what can charitably be described as an apologia, Fiedler wrote, "The capper came when [Rosen] picked up the New York Times and saw his picture on the front page, attached to an article that not only put him at the center of the party's scandal, but that also alleged unethical dealings in his law practice, past and present.... 'I saw that article and I just couldn't believe I was reading about me,' Rosen said."

Three days later Fiedler again rose to Rosen's defense in a "Viewpoint" essay: "Many of those caught in the [fundraising scandal] spotlight seem to me to be more victim than perpetrator. Rosen, for example, was hammered in a New York Times report over his role in the collapse of the Royal Palm Savings and Loan more than a decade ago -- a gratuitous slap not relevant to his role in the Democratic Party."

When Jane Mayer took aim at the scandal last week in a New Yorker article titled "Inside the Money Machine: How the Democrats Went Wild," Rosen and his knight in Herald armor could not have been pleased. "For Rosen," Mayer wrote, "government-bond work depended on his relationships with government officials and, not surprisingly, he had nourished those relationships over the years with sizable cash contributions. At the time that he put himself forward for the D.N.C. job, Rosen's Miami law firm, Greenberg Traurig, had just opened a Washington office and was looking to expand its lobbying business in town.... D.N.C. colleagues soon suspected that Rosen hoped to use the access given to him by his Party post as a business boon.

"According to several witnesses, Rosen would attend top-dollar Clinton fundraising events and solicit business for his own firm when the President was out of the room. Edward Faberman, a lawyer who at the time was American Airlines' vice president for government affairs, recalls one such event when Rosen, who had done some legal work the for carrier, circulated through the room a number of times, saying, 'Hey -- I can help you with So-and-So in Washington.' Then, according to others, he'd pass out his business cards. Both Party officials and donors were discomfited enough by Rosen's pitches that they complained to the White House. Counsellor to the President Doug Sosnik acknowledges that he received 'a couple of complaints' about Rosen's conduct, but he prefers not to comment.

"One big Democratic donor asserts that Rosen offered to set up a meeting with a Cabinet member and boasted that the Secretary and he socialized all the time. 'Have you been invited to watch a movie at the White House?' the donor recalls Rosen asking him and other businessmen at a $10,000-a-plate Presidential dinner. 'No problem. I can get you in.' Then, says the donor, came the business card."

At the article's conclusion, Rosen denied soliciting clients at Democratic Party functions, and then was suddenly overcome with a bad case of attorney memory loss: "[H]e said he had 'no recollection' of ever having told any client that he could help him gain access to Administration figures, although he did acknowledge that at least one Cabinet officer -- Federico Pena, the Transportation Secretary -- 'is someone I know and I'm friendly with.'

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin