Only two weeks ago, Sue Simmons, the veteran WNBC/4 anchor, uttered an F -word that was heard around the world. And today her penalty has shocked the world of TV journalism even more.
Instead of being fired, suspended, hung by the thumbs, forced to wash her mouth out with a sponsor's soap on air, whatever punishment fits the crime, the management of the flagship station of the NBC network gave its sinner a big fat promotion. She is being moved from the Siberia of local news -- the five o'clock news show -- to co-anchor of the 6 PM broadcast with Chuck Scarborough, the Cadillac of Big Apple newscasts.
Holy s---, advocates of morality in broadcasting might argue. What the f--- is going on here?
Now you don't have to live in the New York market -- thank God -- to know Sue Simmons. She became a national institution as the inspiration for the Gilda Radner Susanannadana character on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980's.
In case you missed her latest great moment in TV journalism, Sue was teasing an upcoming story the night of May 12 in a live promo at 10:26 PM for the eleven o'clock news, which she also anchored. It was a story about the high cost of groceries when a tape of a cereal box suddenly switched to the cruise ship from which a woman fell and disappeared earlier in the week. Ever the observant journalist, Sue asked on the open mike, "What the Anglo-Saxon are you doing?"
This was not a general comment on local news in New York, the nation's number one TV market. The legendary late Roger Grimsby of our beloved "Eyewitness News" on WABC/7 once got in trouble by summing it all up, "And now for some alleged news."
A number of pacemakers may have fratzed out in the audience for late local news that is still awake at 10:26, and across the nation after the promo of Sue misspeaking was shown around the world via You Tube and other journalism reviews.
Her shocking promotion is bound -- to use another polite Anglo-Saxon expression - to piss off some of the New York papers that conducted a campaign of verbal and pictorial abuse against the 64-year old anchorwoman for her moment of candor.
The New York Post, in effect, alleged she was under the influence while reading the TelePrompTer ("SILLY SUE A SALTY SWILLER"). It's true that after Sue finished the five o'clock news, she took a dinner break until the eleven o'clock show. Even a two-and-half million-dollar newswoman has to eat. The Post interviewed waiters and bartenders at Midtown watering holes like Gallagher's steak house and Jean Georges, who recall seeing her lifting the occasional glass from 6 to 10, Sue's happy hour.
An equally incensed Daily News wondered if she shouldn't be suspended or fired for her use of the F-word, even began a poll to settle the issue.
The way the debate was escalating with learned essays in the New York Times it seemed as if Western Civilization itself was undermined by Sue's outburst.
I thought it was terrible the way the press was going after the Grande Dame of local news.
It was not totally her fault. An argument can be made that the guy running the seven-second-tape delay machine button should be suspended or fired.
Shit happens. That's why stations have a button that can take them off the air. Censoring is not all that hard to do.
Unless the tape delay machine and beeper have been sold at auction.
Since last month NBC's number one station's news director and general manager have been fired and more widespread cuts are coming in the current economy wave. One would think that NBC with all its resources, backed by its owner GE, which has more money than the Federal government owes, could afford to keep the seven-second-delay beeper. But you never know.
Secondly, Sue has a history of her mouth being an unlicensed weapon.
As a veteran watcher of Sue Simmons -actually I have a doctorate in Sue Simmons studies earned as the media critic at Newsday for 35 years -- I was once compiling a doctoral thesis on "The Wit and Wisdom of Sue Simmons."
I still remember the time one winter when she said, "The roads are slippery and icy, hopefully."
"Hopefully?" What does she own -a tow truck?
When she said "traffic on the brudges and tinnels," we all knew what she meant.
Then there was the time she identified the eighteen month- old baby -the son of Prince Charles and Lady Di -as Princess William. That may have been premature.
My favorite encounter of Sue's with the English language was the sad night when six people were killed in a fiery car crash. An oil truck had piled into the cars as they waited to pay the toll at the Connecticut Turnpike tollbooth. Sue was giving the story in her chatty, relaxed manner. Then she read off the TelePrompTer that the six victims had been "incarcerated" in the crash. I thought the police were adding insult to injury. It wasn't bad enough they had died. Of course, she meant to say, "incinerated."
And I don't mean to imply reading was her only problem as a journalist. She had trouble with names. They were discussing "Gone With the Wind" one night on "Live at Five," the best known line of the movie came up, the one where Clark Gable said, "Frankly ... I don't give a damn." Sue filled in the missing name with "Charlotte."
I gradually realized that Sue's problem was not that English was a second language. She never did her homework. She was reading the stuff for the first time. "If she had to read it twice," a source explained, "she would lose her spontaneity."
Despite wiseass critics like me making fun of her, Sue has survived in a business where we will never forget what's-his- or her- name. What is the secret of her success?
First, she has improved with age. By that I mean, she has reduced her TPT Average to .987. Her percentage of reading errors is better than the fielding average of some Mets and Yankees infielders.
While she still has difficulty remembering names - who can forget the time she called Yankee manager Billy Martin Billie Holiday? -- and she still gets names twisted (Don't ask her to say "Meredith Baxter Birney" fast), Sue has retained a zany, unpredictable quality. It was hysterical the night (Jan.13, 2007) she tumbled off the anchor chair, feigning dozing in response to a Brian Williams scintillating commentary.
And she is beloved by her crew. Not only do they consider her a pro, they love her sense of humor off camera. She cracks them up. As Liz Smith, a Ch.4 news stalwart once said, "You couldn't make those guys laugh with a feather duster."
We in New York love Sue because she's a smart, sarcastic, sassy, funny chick, compared to the usual vapid, vain but gorgeous newsperson. She is the successful single older aunt who wisecracks her way through Thanksgiving and Passover dinners that everybody wishes they had. If she didn't exist, we would need to invent her.
So leave my Sue Simmons alone.
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