WTTW wise to hold on to Ponce

Posted by Mitchell - January 29, 2004 (entry 141)

Laura Washington
Chicago Sun Times Aug 19, 2002

WTTW wise to hold on to Ponce ; Phil Ponce is poised to sign a new contract to stay on with Channel 11, but the Latino community is steamed about his "demotion." Details at 10.

That's the latest headline on the ongoing debate over plans to overhaul "Chicago Tonight," WTTW-Channel 11's venerable nightly public affairs show. Last month, I told you that Network Chicago, the parent company of WTTW, plans to expand the show to an hour in the fall and has hired veteran broadcaster Bob Sirott to replace Ponce, the current host. The station is negotiating a new contract with Ponce to provide news and analysis. For some viewers, the debate comes down to news vs. entertainment. Sirott, 52, is a former disc jockey and morning news anchor known for his irreverent humor.

Ponce, 52, has hosted "Chicago Tonight" for three years and was a national news correspondent before that. Some wondered whether the push to broaden the feature-oriented content would "dumb down" the show. Station management has pledged to honor the show's high standards and boost its ratings. They urged viewers to stay tuned. But on Aug. 7, Mary Gonzalez-Koenig, president of the Chicago-based Latino Council on the Media, a 24-year-old advocacy group that promotes Latinos in the media, said in a letter to the 45-member board of directors of Network Chicago that community leaders fear that Ponce will be "placed in a subservient and potentially vulnerable position" to Sirott. "The only Latino on-camera news professional WTTW has is Phil Ponce.

We seriously object to what appears to be his demotion and slotting in a program that is not up to the high standards of broadcasting for which WTTW has been known." Dozens of similar letters and e-mails have been sent to Network Chicago President and CEO Dan Schmidt and the board, she says. Ponce, a Mexican American, is "a top-notch journalist who happens to be Latino. His visibility should not be diminished," she added. Not to worry, Schmidt says. He wrote Gonzalez-Koenig that "We have never been more committed to preserving the respected reputation of our signature news analysis program. It was never our plan to replace Phil with Bob Sirott. They are both talented broadcasters and they will work together to serve different roles." In fact, Schmidt says, he is on the verge of signing a new contract with Ponce that will name him "anchor of the news analysis portion of 'Chicago Tonight.'" And Ponce will have total control of that segment.

Ponce declined to comment on the proposed changes or his negotiations with the station. I predict Ponce will remain at the station and continue to produce award-winning journalism. But the Latino Council's protest raises a bigger question: Can WTTW overcome its shortcomings on diversity? For example, Ponce is not only the station's "only on-camera Latino professional." He's the only person of color in that role, period. And the team of top professionals that produces "Chicago Tonight," which once included three African Americans, now has one. Chicago's commercial stations have a far better track record. Every one of the city's five major stations boasts a black, Latino or Asian anchor, and some have more than one. Dozens more toil as reporters and producers. Those stations have figured out that if they want to get the respect and attention from communities of color, they had better hire their talent. WTTW is a nonprofit station with an estimated $46 million budget. Its airwaves are owned by and should reflect the community.

Schmidt argues that hiring minorities is tough for a public station that must grapple with a smaller budget and lower staff turnover. "It's not good enough," he admits, "but I can tell you that it's better than it was." As of 2001, according to the most recent numbers available, 22 percent of the station's staff of 375 were black, Latino or Asian, up from 18 percent of 343 employees in 2000. And 17 percent of the station's management and professional staff were people of color. He is especially proud of his board, which is 22 percent minority. But Schmidt adds he is determined to boost those numbers. No one is happier to hear that than me. For more than a decade, I have been a guest analyst on "Chicago Tonight" (although if I keep this up, that may change). Change brings opportunity. Sandra Guthman, the respected Chicago philanthropist who was just elected chairwoman of the Network Chicago board, argues that "as with any institution, we could always do better." And she promised that they will.

Keeping Phil Ponce in the fold is a smart start. E-mail: lauraswashington@aol.com

Public TV's staff should reflect its diverse audience

Phil Ponce (left photo, at right) interviews the Republican candidates for governor on "Chicago Tonight" in February. WTTW plans to expand its public affairs show from half an hour to an hour in the fall and add veteran broadcaster Bob Sirott (above). Not everyone is happy with the change.

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