Behind Lippman’s ouster at KCBS

KCBS-TV’s ouster of news director John Lippman — after a stormy 16-month tenure at the station — was seen in most quarters as a case of too many headaches with too little ratings improvement to show for them.

A memo was circulated on Friday, just two days into the May ratings sweeps, informing news staffers that Lippman had left the station. No word was given about a replacement, and station VP-general manager Steve Gigliotti said he’s currently in charge and will rely on the existing management team until a successor is found.

Jay B. Newman, recently promoted to VP of operations and station services at the CBS TV Stations division after being station manager at CBS O&O WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, is expected to help out at the station through the transition period. Susan Sullivan, a news staffer at the network’s WCBS-TV in New York, has also been mentioned as a more permanent candidate to fill the void.

The announcement regarding Lippman followed by one day circulation of a scathing, anonymous two-page memo, allegedly written by station news staffers, contending Lippman had hurt KCBS’ credibility with some of the methods used to grab ratings and had virtually no allies within the newsroom.

Gigliotti wouldn’t comment specifically on the reasons behind Lippman’s exit, calling it “inappropriate,” but did say that the memo “did not impact this decision.”

In fact, the latest in a series of skirmishes surrounding the station’s news operation — and what some insiders view as the straw that broke the camel’s back — involves another internal flap over a piece on carjacking by a per-diem reporter. In that story, the reporter drove around town with an alleged carjacker who, it turns out, may have been an impostor. That matter is still being investigated.

Another major controversy during Lippman’s stint as news director occurred at the conclusion of the Rodney King civil rights trial, when KCBS reporter Bob Jimenez was temporarily stripped of his credentials and nearly held in contempt of court for carrying audio from the courtroom over the air.

Station attorneys maintained the breach was accidental, though a memo from Lippman to staff, obtained later, implied that the broadcast had been planned and urged staff to build the hype leading up to the verdicts. KCBS officials maintained that the memo was a draft and had been countermanded by a later missive.

Lippman also engaged in an off-camera shoving match a few months ago with KCBS anchor Michael Tuck, an event subsequently downplayed by the parties.

“As KCBS’ eighth news director in 10 years, I’m proud of what we accomplished ,” Lippman said Friday. He claimed the station earned its highest Arbitron ratings in the last decade under his direction.

He added he has “the greatest respect for the staff” and said he thinks the “vast majority” performed brilliantly.

KCBS gained some ratings ground on KNBC-TV during the February sweeps but has remained third among the market’s network-owned stations and watched its news numbers slide recently.

Some observers feel criticism and controversy surrounding Lippman were easier for management to tolerate when the station appeared to be making strides toward a more competitive position in the market.

Lippman joined KCBS in January 1992 and immediately stirred ill feelings by putting a hold on reporters’ contracts, an unusual practice in local TV news. KCBS’ news content has drawn criticism from staff.

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