Tuesday, October 28, 2003

What the heck is Leon Harris doing in Arlington? It is a Monday afternoon in late October, and Mr. Harris is slicing into a pork chop at Tivoli, an Italian restaurant above the Rosslyn Metrorail station. It’s his first lunch on his first day of work at WJLA-TV (Channel 7), the Washington area’s ABC affiliate.

Until a few weeks ago, Mr. Harris anchored the late-morning news on CNN, where he had a national audience for almost 12 years.

He has given that up to become a lead anchor at WJLA, a station that historically has been Washington’s third choice for local news.

He is scheduled to debut tomorrow at 5 p.m.

“Not a single one of my [CNN] colleagues told me this was the wrong move to make. They told me, ‘I wish you didn’t have to go,’ but no one said, ‘Please stay,’” Mr. Harris, 42, recalls, his presence causing a stir among the other patrons in Tivoli’s mirrored dining room.

It turns out that the affable Mr. Harris, a favorite among viewers and colleagues alike, wasn’t the happiest camper during his final years at CNN.

He came to the network in 1983 as a cameraman. On a lark, he auditioned for an anchor position during summer 1991. Executives liked what they saw, and within a few months, he was given a full-time anchoring gig.

Life at CNN was good until 2001, when panic set in about the rise of flashier rival Fox News Channel. Veterans such as Natalie Allen and Lou Waters were pink-slipped. Newcomers such as Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown were given choice assignments.

Mr. Harris felt the network wasn’t promoting his newscast enough, and he was frustrated that he wasn’t being used more prominently during its war coverage.

He once found himself sitting on the network’s Atlanta set, ready to go on the air, only to see Ms. Zahn on a monitor reading his copy from CNN’s New York bureau.

Finally, Mr. Harris confronted his bosses.

“I told them, ‘I feel like your concubine. You put money in my pocket. You put me in nice suits. You don’t tell anyone about me. You only call me when you need me,’” he said.

In July, after three years of persistent courtship, Mr. Harris signed a deal to co-anchor WJLA’s weekday 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. His star power would have made him welcome at any station, but the increasingly scrappy WJLA reminded him of a young CNN.

Since 1999, WJLA has lured stars such as Maureen Bunyan and Doug Hill and merged with sister cable network NewsChannel 8, creating the largest local television newsroom in Washington.

“I was there when [CNN] was [derided as] Chicken Noodle News. The best years of my life were when we were changing people’s minds about us,” Mr. Harris said.

His wife and two children remain in Atlanta, but they will join him in the Washington area when the school year ends.

The family expects to settle in Northern Virginia.

With Mr. Harris aboard, the feeling around town is that WJLA’s moment may have finally arrived.

He is eager to get to work, but is also a little wistful.

“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to uproot my family to get the kind of respect I’m getting here,” he said.

• Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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