Media World: House arrest over, Larry Mendte takes a look at the media

For the past year or so, Larry Mendte, an award-winning broadcast journalist, has been caught in a scandal that seems like it was ripped from the pages of a bad melodrama. Now, it's finally coming to an end.

Earlier this week, Mendte ended the sentence of house arrest he received after pleading guilty to illegally accessing the email account of his former co-anchor at Philadelphia's CBS3, Alycia Lane. Mendte is rumored to have leaked unflattering gossip about Lane, a controversial anchor in her own right who was fired after an undercover New York police officer said she uttered homophobic slurs after punching her in the face. (Charges were pressed by the cop, but later dropped.) Lane has filed suit against Mendte and CBS3. During his sentencing, he apologized to Lane. The veteran journalist is still on probation for the next two-and-a-half years.

In an email interview with DailyFinance, Mendte, who was also the first anchor of Access Hollywood, lamented the state of the media and described what it is like to be in the middle of the same sort of media frenzy he helped feed. He declined, however, to discuss the specific allegations against him and vetted all answers with his lawyer.

Are the days over of one station like 6ABC being able to dominate the local ratings? And if so, what are the ramifications?

The amazing thing about WPVI (6ABC) in Philadelphia is how the station jumps off of bad lead-ins. Most TV station's late new fortunes are tied to network programming. For instance, NBC stations across the country were hot during the time of ER, Friends and Seinfeld. Now, most NBC stations are having a difficult time because the network is last in prime. ABC is having similar prime time problems, but WPVI is immune to the ebb and flow of the network ratings.

So I guess the answer to your question is no. The ratings are lower, but there are still stations like WPVI that dominate markets. I was part of the team that beat WPVI a few years ago when I anchored at NBC10 and we came close again when I was at KYW. But aside from those blips, WPVI has been dominant for 30 years and I don't see that ending anytime soon.

You spent your career in Philadelphia where you grew up. That's not the case with many anchors and reporters and I was wondering if you thought this was a problem.

I have reported and anchored across the country including New York and Chicago. I didn't have any problems, except that I did once called Islip, a town on Long Island, Is-lip instead of Ice-lip.

But it was wonderful to come home to a place where I knew the pronunciations, traditions and history. That wealth of knowledge from personal experience is a big help, especially during breaking news when you can add perspective.

The only time I thought the lack of homegrown talent was a real problem was during the parade for the World Champion Phillies. Most TV reporters and anchors missed the importance and the emotion of that moment for the city.

How are budgetary pressures hurting local news?

The local stations were hit by a perfect storm of problems that started with the growth of cable stations, the explosion of the Internet and the recession.

There are now up to 300 channels to choose from on cable. My daughter Stacia is 26 and my son Jonathan is 24 and they make no distinction between Animal Planet, TruTV, MTV, TLC or NBC, ABC and CBS. My son Michael is 5 and David is 2. They watch the Disney Channel and Sprout. Add that to the fact that I watch Morning Joe on MSNBC and my wife and I watch HBO at night, and you get the sense of a typical household's viewing habits. Also, the Internet has captured a significant portion of the news market, if it doesn't have the majority of it already. The Internet is killing traditional newspapers and television news is next on the list.

The news department has a much larger budget than any other department at a local station, so it follows that the news department suffers the most when things are bad. Most have had layoffs, put capital expenditures on hold, cut anchor salaries (or anchors) and capped overtime and hiring. Many stations are de-unionizing and doubling up on jobs; writers and producers now edit and reporters shoot their own stories. This all culminates with an inferior product being reported, shot, produced and edited by kids out of college with little world experience. These young men and women are bright and eager, but not yet ready. When they become ready, they will become too expensive. And so it goes.

The irony is that as you water down the product, you continue to chase away viewers. The decline of local TV becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Were you ever asked to take a pay cut because of pressures to help the bottom line?

No, I never was. I did offer once at WCAU to take a pay cut and redo my contract to save the jobs of others in a expected cutback. I was turned down and it was explained to me that it was a mandated "head count" cut. What a despicable piece of business terminology that is.

Has local TV news done a good job in responding to the Internet?

No, Local TV has been slow to react and clumsy in integrating the Internet. Most in Local TV still see the Internet as competition and not as the new platform.

The next general managers of Local TV should have a complete understanding of the Internet. It is where everything is going. The station in the individual markets who lead the way on the Internet will be the new market leaders. And I don't just mean just getting your anchors to begrudgingly Twitter or write a blog, but to start to cut the cord and integrate 100 percent. Stream your newscast live. Stop worrying about the TV ratings and start worrying about Internet visits and sustained users. Those who watch on TV will not leave for the Internet. Service those who have already left for the web and are looking for content. The first TV station in the market to capture those "users" will make an indelible stake on the future.

I believe the next "Network" will be a web site that produces original programming exclusively for the Internet.

As a journalist, what's it been like to be in the news instead of reporting on it? Has it given you a new perspective?

Absolutely. That is a great question. First, I have a new understanding of the legal system. Second, I am much more empathetic.

I also learned a sad lesson about the profession I love. That many local news reporters are lazy and that makes them easy to manipulate. There is little follow up or analytical thinking. Many will just repeat what they are told without a filter.

Also, it is fair to lump all of the reporters from TV, radio and newspapers under the same umbrella term -- the media. "The media" covering a story has become monolithic in thought and substance. They seem to move in unison and respond with one brain.

In Washington the press corp has been referred to as "the monster." I understand that now. It is a singular being with one personality and a singular purpose.

As you can tell, I am more than a little disappointed.

On the day of my sentencing, all of the news stations but one led with my story. It was the same day that the city was in mourning over yet another police officer who died in the line of duty. Only WPVI led with the funeral over my sentencing.

And I did learn one other thing -- that the media does not have the power it once had. Despite an onslaught of bad publicity, viewers have been kind, caring and supportive. I have received well over a thousand emails and letters of support, encouragement and inspiration. Viewers it seemed made up their own mind about my case and were not as easily led as the reporters covering the story.

In TV they always talk about dumbing down the news for the average viewer. Here is a newsflash -- the average viewer is smarter than the average newsroom employee. Stop the arrogant self-delusion and put together a more intelligent newscast, one that doesn't insult the intellect of the vast majority of the population.

What do you want to do once your legal problems have been resolved?

There are so many things I would like to do. Right now I am concentrating on being the best husband and father I can be.

How close have you come to a Ron Burgundy moment in your career?

I did wrestle a bear once when I was a reporter in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The bear won.

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