KTLA’s Hal Fishman, the longtime dean of Los Angeles news anchors, died Tuesday morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 75.
Fishman was diagnosed just last week with colon cancer, after falling ill and collapsing at his house. But doctors discovered that the cancer was already at an advanced stage, and had spread to his liver.
KTLA staffers were still shocked at the quick turn of events, and broke the news at 6:50 a.m. on the station’s early morning newscast. The station then devoted all three hours of its “KTLA Morning Show” to Fishman, featuring guests such as 60-year KTLA vet Stan Chambers, L.A. councilman Tom LaBonge and “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent Jann Carl.
For the station’s 10 p.m. newscast, the station planned to spend most of the hour recounting Fishman’s life, including his other passions as a political science professor and record-setting aviator.
By midday Tuesday, more than 1,500 viewers had already expressed condolences on KTLA’s website.
Fishman’s last broadcast was just a week ago, on July 30; the following night, he was honored by the station at a gala celebrating Fishman’s 47th year as a broadcaster and KTLA’s 60th anniversary.
It turned out to be fortunate timing, as Fishman fell ill soon after being honored at the Autry National Center event. Both speakers and videos saluted Fishman, who in turn had a chance to walk on stage and discuss his career, plus thank his wife and son for supporting his career.
“When I started in this business, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States,” Fishman reminsced last week. “That’s almost like saying ‘Abe Lincoln was president of the United States.’ We were broadcasting in black and white. And we didn’t have teleprompters.”
Interim news director Rich Goldner said he started planning the tributes late last week when word came that Fishman’s health was quickly failing.
“We’re still stunned,” Goldner said. “We just had the tribute to him at the Gene Autry museum. This is still shocking to all of us… the hardest part is for us to stop and take a break to wonder what just happened.”
Observers had long assumed that “KTLA Morning Show” anchor Carlos Amezcua would move to the 10 p.m. newscast once Fishman opted to step down; on Tuesday, however, Goldner said it was too soon to discuss succession plans.
“This came up on us rather quickly, and there’s nothing set yet,” he said. “We’ll sit back and reassess the situation. Our first thought is Hal, and then we’ll take a look at what we need to do to go on to the future.”
It’s not a shift KTLA – which is also without a news director, as Jeff Wald recently left the station — will take lightly. According to the station, Fishman held the longest tenure of any anchor in TV history, having led the Tribune-owned outlet’s 10 p.m. news since 1975. He also served as the broadcast’s managing editor.
As lead anchor, Fishman won countless awards during his tenure, including the Governors Award from the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences’ L.A. branch; the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Associated Press TV-Radio Assn.; the Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Broadcast Journalism award; and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Fishman also helped KTLA win Peabody Awards for its coverage of the Watts riots in 1965, and for its report on the Rodney King beating in 1991. Under Fishman, the station has also won countless Emmys, L.A. Press Club awards and Golden Mikes from the Southern California Radio and Television News Association.
In 2000, KTLA renamed its newsroom “The Hal Fishman Newsroom” in honor of the anchor’s 40th year on TV.
“He was an icon,” KTLA reporter Eric Spillman wrote Tuesday on his blog. “He believed in Journalism and The News, capitalized. Those of us in broadcasting had an almost-sacred task of delivering important information to the viewers so that democracy could survive.”
Fishman first joined KTLA in 1965, having been personally recruited by Gene Autry, soon after the singing cowboy-turned-media mogul purchased the TV station.
The anchor actually began his TV career by accident. KCOP-TV hired Fishman, then a college professor for Cal State, to teach the on-air class “American Political Parties in Politics” in June 1960 as a primer for the Democratic National Convention, which was coming to Los Angeles later that summer.
To the surprise of both KCOP and Fishman, the show pulled a decent rating. At the end of that summer, Fishman recalled last week, he visited KCOP’s general manager to say farewell, as he was heading back to teach 18 more college units. The KCOP boss had another idea.
“He said to me, ‘How would you like to anchor your own spot at 6:15 and 10:15,'” Fishman remembered. “I said ‘No, I’ve got to get back to teaching. I had my hand on the door… but what do you think I asked him? ‘How much.'”
Fishman, who earned $5,800 as a college professor, was floored: “I remember he said, ‘Maybe we can go $17,500 or $18,000.'”
“With lightning fast reflexes, I added up (the difference). That’s how it all began,” Fishman quipped. “I hate to destroy an image, but it was greed!”
In more recent years, KTLA has faced increased competition at 10 p.m., and the station has struggled to make the newscast more compatible with its youth-fueled CW (and before that, WB) lead-in. Crix have also disapproved of the station’s more frequent hiring of younger, less seasoned on-air personalities.
For his parting remarks at last week’s gala, Fishman subtly expressed his disapproval at those moves.
“It is essential that our views be objective, our news be credible, our news be knowledgeable,” he said. “You can’t just hire people to do the news that don’t have the experience in a market like this. It is essential that we have the experience and maturity to make rapid decisions.”
Fishman cited the night in 1991 when KTLA first got ahold of the Rodney King tape. Right before air, the station finally confirmed with the Los Angeles Police Department that the footage was real.
“We had to make a decision right then, and I said two words that changed the course of history: ‘Run it,'” he said. “We ran it, and the rest is history.”
Fishman said he’s been asked frequently over the years whether he regrets the decision, which ultimately led to the 1992 L.A. riots.
It happened, and that kind of brutality demanded to be seen, he replied. As a result, even now, “I’d say, ‘run it.'”
Beyond his TV career, Fishman was also known for his love of aviation, having set 12 world records for speed and altitude.
Fishman is survived by his wife, Nolie, and a son, David.
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