“Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.”
I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would not still be in journalism today had it not been for the mentors I met along the way. One of the most important was Marty Haag. He warned me about Sinclair 15 years ago.
Marty was a legend by the time I first heard his name, which was sometime in 2000 when I went to intern at WFAA, the ABC affiliate which Marty led as news director for more than a decade. He turned down numerous job offers to lead TV networks because he was committed to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, a fact we all only learned of after his death. He was an executive at the station’s parent company, Belo, when I was at WFAA. But because of his focus and exacting leadership, that station was known across the country as a powerhouse and representative of the highest values in journalism. Marty had clear vision, creativity, encouraged risk-taking and empowered his reporters. He is the kind of boss that all his employees wanted to make proud. It’s rare — I have been in the business for a long time now and I have only come across people like that two times since.
I came to know Marty only by chance. I was interning that summer of 2000 and his son, Andrew, decided to intern, too. Andrew and I became friends and together, we went with the WFAA team to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to do tasks such as picking up lunch and cutting tape and running scripts. I was headed off to college that fall (incidentally also Marty’s alma mater). During my senior year a few years later I asked Andrew if, when I came home for the holidays, whether I could meet Marty. He connected us and we all went to eat at their country club because that’s where people from Dallas eat lunch. (True story: When I was on the golf team in high school we were expected to just practice at our own country clubs because it was assumed that everyone had one to go to.)
From then on, Marty and I began one of the great email correspondences of my life. He was quick with the wisecracks and always generous with his advice and wisdom. We met up IRL around graduation to talk about my job hunt. He was retired by then, and teaching at SMU. I had harebrained ideas about maybe just packing up and moving to Nepal to make a documentary. He never seemed to shoot down ideas like that, always willing to imagine what was possible instead of what was not. My more “traditional” notion was to find a job in television news. This is the part of the conversation I remember vividly, and it shaped my trajectory.
Me: Should I just send resume tapes* everywhere throw everything up against a wall and see what sticks?
Him: No. Be targeted in your job hunt. Work for newsrooms with integrity because they will make you better. Don’t work at companies that don’t value journalism. I wouldn’t work at any Sinclair stations, because they only care about the bottom line.**
Marty then proceeded to write down on a Post-it, in pencil, the specific call letters of stations I should work at for my first job and their respective cities. One of them was KWTX-TV in Waco, where I wound up. When I wrote him telling him of my troubles at work (the kind of pedestrian problems the likes of a senior reporter being mean to me), he wrote, “Just keep your head down and work hard and let the work speak for itself.”
I still hear Marty’s voice as clear as day, in my head. It’s powerful how people’s voices really stick with you.
Epilogue, aka, this is no longer about Sinclair
Not more than three months after I started that job in Waco, Marty died suddenly of a stroke over Christmas/New Year’s break. I spent several days afterward at the Haag house with his sons and his beloved golden retrievers and a steady stream of loved ones who flowed in and out of that place. Marty is the first (and only) mentor I’ve had who died and while it cannot compare to what his sons and wife must have gone through, this loss hit me hard.
What I remember about those days at the Haag house was his younger son, Matthew, playing a lot of chess. And at some point when his brother was taking a long time to consider a move, Matthew, then just a teenager, recalled what his father often said to him. “Just make a decision and move forward,” Matthew said, recalling his dad’s advice. He was talking about chess but also about everything.
So many journalists-who-you-know were nurtured, shaped and guided by Marty: Scott Pelley, Russ Mitchell, Andrea Joyce, Leeza Gibbons, Paula Zahn, Verne Lundquist, Dale Hansen (who still talks about him in interviews), hundreds more. A few years after Marty’s death when I ran into Matthew at a bar, he introduced me to his girlfriend and told her, “This is my dad’s last protegé.” There was no one behind me, as Marty died when his son Andrew and I were both only 21.
Today Matthew is a reporter at The New York Times, Andrew is a producer at CNN, and two weeks ago I got to see Andrew in person when I was in New York. I’m sure Marty is so, so proud of them.
Most of the time I find it a huge privilege to do what we do but over the years I have often gotten down in the dumps and unmotivated and plainly just want to do something else. But I often think, what would Marty say, and I either keep my head down and work hard or just make a decision and move forward.
I have never worked at a Sinclair station.
*These were actual VHS tapes, kids
**Now we know Sinclair cares about not just the bottom line but also conservative orthodoxy. Trivia: Marty fired Bill O’Reilly for breaches in journalism ethics back when O’Reilly worked for him in the 1970s.