- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Two Washington-area icons made news last week for reasons so diametric, it seemed weirdly poetic.

Former D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry won the Democratic nomination for the Ward 8 City Council seat, all but assuring his return to public office in January.

Three days later, Gordon Peterson quietly signed off as the 11 p.m. news anchor at WUSA-TV (Channel 9), a job he held for 33 years until his bosses at the CBS affiliate decided it was time for a change.

The timing of Mr. Barry’s latest comeback and Mr. Peterson’s forced swan song brought back memories of an electric exchange between the men in 1989, about a year before the mayor’s drug arrest.

“Do you have a drug problem?” Mr. Peterson asked Mr. Barry during an interview on the District’s crime crisis.

“No. Why you ask a silly question like that?” the mayor shot back.

“It’s not a silly question,” the anchor replied. “The question’s been raised more than once, that you yourself are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

“I think that’s your opinion,” Mr. Barry sniffed.

Whether this town should welcome its former mayor back is debatable. What isn’t is whether it should bid farewell to Mr. Peterson, who is as sharp now as he was when he took on Mr. Barry 15 years ago.

Mr. Peterson’s ouster from the anchor desk would be shocking if WUSA hadn’t already demonstrated such disregard for the wisdom that its older newsmen bring to the job.

The station is right to prepare for the future by recruiting bright newcomers such as Tracey Neale and Todd McDermott, who took over the anchoring duties on the 11 p.m. newscast on Monday, and sportscaster Brett Haber, who debuts in November.

But WUSA is wrong to fire veterans such as Mike Buchanan and Frank Herzog and to demote Mr. Peterson when each still has so much to contribute.

It’s not clear what will happen to Mr. Peterson when his contract ends in December.

For now, he will anchor the station’s 6 p.m. newscast and report on the presidential campaign, the ninth he has covered for Channel 9.

He also will continue to moderate “Inside Washington,” the refreshingly shout-free political roundtable show that he inherited from Martin Agronsky in 1988.

But you can’t shake the feeling that an era is ending.

In his new book, “Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism,” former NPR host Bob Edwards — who knows a thing or two about forced retirements — catalogs the contributions that Mr. Murrow made to shaping network television news.

“The fact is, we had Murrow when we needed him most — at the beginning of broadcast journalism, before there was a corrupting requirement that news make money,” Mr. Edwards writes.

The same thing can be said of Mr. Peterson.

He came along at exactly the right moment, during the infancy of local television news, when it needed smart people to craft high standards.

Far too many of the people who work behind the scenes in local news are failing to uphold those standards today.

That’s why Gordon Peterson is still needed.

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

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