Fishman at 40

L.A. news icon marks four decades in same market
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Several hundred news anchors have come and gone in Los Angeles over the past 40 years. One, however, has remained to see all the floods, earthquakes, riots and movie stars.

For the past 25 years, Hal Fishman has been managing editor and anchor of the nightly 10 p.m. newscast on KTLA-TV Los Angeles, reporting both from the station's Hollywood studio and from the controls of his own airplane. Last week, Fishman celebrated 40 years of anchoring the news in Los Angeles, and, at the end of the summer, his career will have come full circle as he covers his second Democratic National Convention there.

Fishman, who was named best news anchor by the Associated Press Television-Radio Association earlier this year, has been a big part of many of the major stories in Southern California. He made the decision to first air the infamous Rodney King beating videotape in 1992, and, a few years before that, he first reported-from his airplane-that a boat off the coast of California, first believed to be a Russian fishing vessel, was a Russian spy ship.

Ktla executives say they have called stations around the country, and, as far as they can determine, Fishman's 40 consecutive years of anchoring local news in the same market is the longest streak going. Fishman, now well-known for hopping into his Beechcraft Bonanza B36TC aircraft when a big story breaks, didn't even want to be in TV.

In 1960, Fishman was just starting out as a political science professor at California State University, while finishing up his doctorate research at UCLA. He also did some commentary for a friend, the general manager of a public radio station. It was that radio experience and his political knowledge that landed Fishman on TV in the summer of 1960.

Executives from KCOP-TV Los Angeles asked him if he would teach a weekly TV course on political parties and politics-a primer of sorts for that summer's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

"At first, I said no because I was finishing up my doctorate. I had my research planned, and my life was basically set," says Fishman, "Plus, I had no interest in going on TV. I had heard the lights were too hot and that there were a lot of negative things that came with it."

But Fishman decided to give it a shot. On June 20, 1960, he took his classroom to TV with the first installment of American Political Parties and Politics. "I remember the first thing I ever uttered on TV: 'Good afternoon, I'm Professor Hal Fishman, and this course is certainly quite unique for me, because it's the first course that I have ever taught where the student can turn the professor off.'"

They didn't. The half-hour afternoon series did so well that KCOP-TV asked Fishman to stay on to do commentary on the station's two nightly newscasts. From there, he moved to anchoring the news, and he has been teaching in front of the camera rather than the classroom ever since.

"I still try to make each news broadcast deeper; you never lose your desire to teach," he says. Fishman first joined KTLA-TV in 1965, after a chance meeting with former Western star and ktla owner Gene Autry turned into a job offer.

Fishman hitched up with Autry and ktla in March 1965. He remained for five years, then moved to KTTV-TV for a year, rejoined ktla for a brief stint, moved to KHJ-TV (now kcal-tv), then came back to ktla in 1975 and stayed put. Ktla's 10 p.m. newscast has been the highest-rated in the time period for almost every ratings period since.

One of the biggest decisions Fishman has had to make during his time at ktla came on a summer night in 1992 when a man came to ktla with a videotape. For $500, ktla received a tape showing Los Angeles Police Department officers repeatedly striking what appeared to be a defenseless man. When Fishman arrived late that night after giving a speech, news producers quickly showed him the tape. "After watching the tape, I said we have to find out if this really happened, because sometimes we get tapes that are staged or jokes," says Fishman. "We called LAPD, who said it happened, and we ran with it. As it turns out, it was the Rodney King videotape, and we had it exclusively."

Once it aired, the video set off a sequence of events that led to Los Angeles' second riot within 30 years. Asked whether he would have aired the tape had he known what would follow, he says, "It's my job to report the news and tell what's happening in our community. When you anchor the news as long as I have, there are going to be times when you affect the course of history in a community."

In his office, Fishman sits surrounded by a short-wave radio (where he listens to everything from the BBC to South African radio), magazines, newspapers and a host of plaques marking his numerous flying records. He has, at one time or another, set 12 official world records in the air, including his most recent: the fastest New York-to-Los Angeles flight time ever in a Citation 10 jet. His 31-minute, 51-second San Francisco-to-Los Angeles flight record in a Learjet in the '70s still stands today. Because of his love of flying and his affection for Southern California, he says, he has turned down numerous offers to join one of the networks.

How has local news changed over the past 40 years? Fishman sees two major differences: the advent of satellite technology, which has made local news just as strong as or stronger than the national news, and the change in faces. "This used to be a white-male-only profession," he says. "It's not to say that there were no women or minorities, but they were few and far between. Now all you have to do is look outside my office, and you will see that our newsroom is almost all female, and there are people from many different walks of life."

Fishman says he has no plans to retire, and he and the ktla staff are currently setting up their strategy for the pending Democratic National Convention. "I tell you what: If the Democratic Convention comes back here in 2040, I'll be here to anchor it."

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