By S. Clayton Moore
For someone who always envisioned himself more of a teacher than a television star, Hal Fishman has been on the air a long time. For more than 45 years, the highly respected Los Angeles-based anchor for KTLA Television has been the voice of the news for many California residents. In fact, it’s widely believed that Fishman holds the record as the longest-running news anchor in the United States.
As the nightly anchor for the top-rated “News at Ten,” Fishman has been America’s witness to some of the greatest triumphs and tragedies in its history. Fishman was not only in Berlin when the Wall fell, but also was there when it went up in 1961. He held vigil at the hospital after Robert Kennedy was felled by an assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He reported on the Watts riots, Vietnam War protests, earthquakes, fires and a police pursuit of a white Ford Bronco with O.J. Simpson inside. He still carries the tremendous responsibility for running a videotape of a police beating that would forever change the face of Los Angeles.
What many of his loyal viewers may not know is that Fishman is a dedicated aviator who holds 13 world records for speed and altitude, breaking his first in 1969. Since then, he has been around the world twice with famed pilot Clay Lacy, taking part in several of Lacy’s world speed record flights. He also remains close friends with fellow aviators like racing legend Bob Hoover, and Barry Schiff, with whom he shared Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s Louis Blériot Medal in 1969. He has traveled throughout the world and has seen such diverse destinations as Africa, India, Thailand, both poles and Mount Everest.
Fishman says he finds the camaraderie in aviation a rare and remarkable phenomenon.
“We’re all part of the flying club,” he said. “I think the desire to fly is innate. I think it’s born in you and either you have it or you don’t. I’ve always believed that people can learn to fly, but you can’t learn to love it. It’s a pretty unique club, and I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s a real admiration between pilots, whether they’re general aviation pilots or fighter jocks. It binds pilots together and it really brings out the best in them.”
His fellow aviators have equal respect for the veteran newsman.
“He’s incredibly bright and methodical,” said Barry Schiff, with whom Fishman has been breaking speed records since 1969. “The same talents that he applies to his news career he applies equally well to aviation. He doesn’t accept anything at face value; he always wants to know the “why” behind everything that he learns. He remains a dedicated student of aviation despite the fact that he’s such an experienced pilot.”
Fishman, a multi-award winning journalist whose honors include the Emmy and the Peabody Award, got into the television game by accident. He credits his success far more to his educational background than any natural broadcasting ability. His career started at UCLA, where he received his M.A. in political science in 1956, and was well on his way to completing his doctorate. For two years, he even taught the subject at California State University in Los Angeles.
However, history had different plans for him. In 1960, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention that would nominate John F. Kennedy for president of the United States, a local station invited the 28-year-old Fishman to teach an on-air course called “American Political Parties in Politics.”
“I had no desire at all to go on television. I loved teaching, but I got talked into it, and 45 years later, I’m still on television,” Fishman said.
Great ratings for the program led to a nightly segment and from there to an anchor position. Since he joined KTLA in 1965, Fishman has been on the air continuously, without a single hiatus. It’s his strong sense of responsibility to his viewers that helps him retain credibility in an age of media saturation.
“I’ve never considered myself a television personality,” Fishman explained. “When I go on TV, my job is to teach. I’ve always considered the role of a newscaster to be the conduit for information for the public. You have to respect the intelligence of your audience. The television camera doesn’t lie and you are a guest in people’s homes every night of the week. The public can tell who is just reading at them and who has some depth of understanding. People are very discerning, especially these days.”
It didn’t used to be so complex. When Fishman started his career at KTLA, there were only seven stations in Los Angeles, which broadcasters believed to be the most competitive markets in the world. Today, with more than 500 channels broadcasting 24 hours a day, the infinite number of choices have made Fishman’s job tougher, not only as anchor but also as managing editor of the nightly news.
He works hard to meet the challenge. He reads incessantly, devouring three newspapers over breakfast, listening to television and radio broadcasts, and consuming dozens of magazines and other news sources during the day. By mid-afternoon, he is consulting with News at 10’s executive producer and laying out the story for the day. In short, he feels a strong sense of accountability to his viewing public.
“I feel that the news is as important in a democratic society as teaching or medicine or the legal profession,” Fishman explained. “I tell students that are going into journalism that it’s good to know the mechanics, but to also study political science and history so that when they give their newscasts, they understand what they’re reading.”
The broadcaster has definitely been put to the test. His first major assignment was covering the Watts riots in 1965, which contributed to the station’s winning of an Emmy and Peabody Award for its news coverage. Fishman remembers the time as a good example of the station’s pioneering use of live helicopter coverage, an uncommon innovation at the time.
“During the riots, I can recall being down at the police command center right in the middle of the civil unrest. The police asked us to fly to an intersection where they had a report of an officer down but had no idea if it was a trap. Everyone has a helicopter now, but in those days, we were the only ones,” Fishman recalled.
Fishman has owned three planes over the years, a Piper Comanche 250, a V-tail Bonanza and his current B36TC Bonanza. He’s covered major news stories in all of them in addition to flying for his own pleasure.
“We use helicopters for covering news in close in the city and the environs, but we use my plane when there’s something bigger going on,” he said. “I used the Piper Comanche when there was a big oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. I would fly up there and do a daily report on the cleanup and the spill’s effect on the beaches. When Mount St. Helens erupted in the Northwest, I flew my V-tail Bonanza to Washington and circled the volcano, shooting right down into the crater. With the new Bonanza, I’ve covered forest fires up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and anything else it occurs to me to shoot from the air.”
One of the more unusual stories Fishman covered with his plane involved a fishing trawler spotted 50 miles off the coast of Los Angeles in the late 1980s.
“There was a rumor that there was this Soviet spy ship off the coast and Hal was determined to find it,” Schiff remembered. “He knew approximately where it was based on the rumor. He took his trusty Bolex 16mm movie camera and located the trawler; it was bristling with antennae and had Russian markings on the side. He circled around taking pictures of this spy ship for an hour. He said it was really kind of amusing circling around this thing at low altitude while all these Soviet sailors stood around wondering what he was up to. That’s how Hal ended up showing what a Soviet spy ship looked like on the nightly news.”
Fishman covered the biggest story of his career from the KTLA newsroom that now bears his name. In March 1991, a home video was brought into the station showing LAPD police officers repeatedly beating a man with their batons during what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. The station bought the tape for $500, purchasing one of the most controversial images ever aired. As the managing editor, Fishman knew he had an incredibly volatile decision to make. He confirmed with LAPD sources that the incident had taken place and gave his news team the order that changed Los Angeles forever: “Run it.”
That decision, enflamed by the subsequent acquittal of the four police officers who were charged with police brutality, led to the April 1992 riots that nearly destroyed Los Angeles. More than 50 people were killed during the riots and over 600 buildings were burned to the ground. Estimates of the damage done to the city run up to $1 billion.
“The decision to run that tape was solely my decision and I had to make that choice in under a half hour,” Fishman remembered. “It’s a classic case and a lot of journalism classes now use that incident as an example. I had that little tape in my hand and I knew the impact was going to be tremendous if I put it on the air. A lot of professors raise the question, “If you knew what was going to happen, would you still run that tape?’ When it’s put to me, my answer is yes. I would run it.”
Fishman has mixed feelings about technology. He’s very enthusiastic about the immediacy of television news but insists that the development of the media must be tempered by human decisions.
“There’s a real upside and a downside to technology,” he said. “The upside is that we are able to bring to the viewer a much more complete coverage of world events because of satellite technology. On the other hand, the proliferation of stations and new technology has created a need for bodies just to fill the air time. It leads to a diminution of the high standards we had early on. You could be discerning in the people that delivered your news, which is why you had Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. These people were giants in their field and now a well-quaffed anchorman can simply read the news without understanding it. So there are pluses and minuses.”
On that same subject, he suggests having a system for credentialing journalists brought into the industry.
“I’ve felt for years that there should be a process for verifying that journalists are trained and qualified and know that they’re doing,” Fishman said.
For his own exhaustive research and reporting, Fishman has won numerous awards. In 2002, the Associated Press Television-Radio Association presented him with its first Lifetime Achievement Award and also named him Best News Anchor for the third consecutive year. He has also received the Governor’s Award from the Los Angeles Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Outstanding Broadcast Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists as well as numerous Golden Mike awards from the Broadcasters’ Foundation. In addition, the Los Angeles Press Club honored Fishman and his “News @ Ten” colleagues with an award for Best Regularly Scheduled Daily News Program for their coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Since 2001, Fishman has felt strongly enough to broadcast a regular commentary on events affecting California and the country as a whole. Although, as the managing editor, he insists on straightforward, objective reporting in the station’s news reports, the clearly labeled commentaries often focus on subjects
close to the newsman’s heart, including aviation.
“I raised the question just last night about how we can prevent aviation becoming a target for terrorists,” he said. “My conclusion was simple. You cannot have a foolproof security system unless you go to some kind of police state. There are 972 public and private use airports in California alone, many of which don’t even have a fence around them. The responsibility is on all of us. We’re all in this fight against terrorism. Every pilot, flight school and instructor has to be aware at all times. We live in a unique time in aviation history.”
On a lighter note, Fishman occasionally does some entertainment work. He co-authored two aviation novels with Barry Schiff in the 1970s, including “The Vatican Target,” which nearly got the two pals arrested.
“It’s a funny story,” Schiff recalled. “The first novel involves hijacking an airplane carrying the pope. We were sitting in a restaurant discussing the logistics of hijacking this plane and I guess we got a little bit loud. Someone in the next booth could easily overhear us planning to kidnap the pope. The next thing we knew, there were two cops standing at our table wanting to know what we were planning to do to the pope. Someone had called the police and reported us. Once we explained what we were doing, it turned into a big joke but it wasn’t too funny at the time.”
His inspired broadcasts have also occasionally brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He has appeared in nearly a dozen movies, usually playing himself, starting with the action thriller “Black Sunday” in 1977. He has also appeared in “National Security,” “Joe Dirt,” and “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.”
“It wasn’t a conscious effort,” he said. “Producers call and ask if I’ll be in their movie. They come in with the script, I do my one take and out they go.”
Although he can’t confirm it, it’s widely rumored that the Simpsons anchorman Kent Brockman is based on Fishman and fellow LA newsman Jerry Dunphy.
“What the heck? I don’t have any objection if it’s true. It’s sort of a fun aspect of news casting,” Fishman laughed.
Fishman’s son has followed him into academia, studying at the prestigious London School of Economics. It hasn’t been easy raising a family while sometimes working seven nights a week and Fishman regularly praises his wife, Nolie, for her patience.
“If you’re really dedicated to your profession, it’s a 24-hour-a day job,” he said. “It permeates your private life in a lot of respects. I told my wife just before we got married that if she could tolerate my job and could tolerate my flying, we would have a very successful marriage. It’s a great tribute to her.”
Hal Fishman has no plans to retire, either. The veteran newsman has outlasted over 100 other newscasters who have come and gone from the competitive Los Angeles market over the past four decades. His long association with KTLA and his strong connection to Southern California has earned him the loyalty and respect of his viewers.
“My plans for the future are to keep on doing exactly what I’m doing,” Fishman said. “I’m trying to bring our viewers the best, most objective, most credible newscast that I can get on the air and I’ll keep on doing it as long as I can.”