Is This Thing On?

Copyright the Globe and Mail - January 22, 2000

Newscasting is an unforgiving game - or is it? As Avery Haines joins the hall of infamy of anchors and talk-show hosts who have incensed audiences with ill-considered remarks, industry watchers are abuzz that she's a catch.

Arts Reporter
Saturday, January 22, 2000

What a difference seven days can pack.

Exactly one week ago, Avery Haines stumbled through an introduction to a taped report on farm aid and fired off the most fateful joke of her life. At the time, most Canadians hadn't even heard of the rookie news anchor, who had been manning the morning desk on CTV's NewsNet for a mere two months. She cracked that she was a "lesbian-folk-dancing-black-woman stutterer" with a "rubber leg." When the tape accidentally went to air, the story fell with a splat on the front page of the Toronto Sun.

An anchor's worst nightmare? Well, Haines was certainly fired with haste. And now she's famous.

The phone at the Haines household has been ringing non-stop with requests for interviews from all over the world. Barbara Walters and the gang debated the scandal on The View, Inside Edition ran a feature and Reuters shot it out over the international wires. On Thursday night, U.S. comedian Bill Maher hashed it out with author Studs Terkel and other guests on Politically Incorrect. Even Howard Stern wants to chat. (Haines turned him down.)

Haines says she never had any desire to be a celebrity. "Especially not this way," she stressed on Wednesday morning, before taking a second call from Rick Mercer, who was trying to convince her to fly to Halifax and do a skit for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But she's buoyed by the support.

"I know I'll get a job again," says Haines. "So I'm not too worried about that." In fact, she's considering a move to the United States, where she says the industry is "a bit more aggressive." She met a U.S. agent a couple of years ago who tried to convince her to relocate there, "I guess things are different now," she says.

Haines certainly isn't the first broadcasting personality to get fired for a terrible faux pas. Consider a couple of Toronto cases, like Jeremy Brown. Classical 96 FM gave the former entertainment and food commentator his walking papers in 1996, after he said "tits up" on air. He's now working on a couple of books and doing advocacy work for Parkinson's disease, but he's never been back on the air. "I'd love to go back," the 68-year-old says. "I haven't been asked."

Or how about the tragedy of veteran jazz DJ Phil MacKellar. In 1982, CKFM listeners overheard MacKellar referring to blacks as "niggers" when he took a private phone call without noticing that the microphone was on. He lost his show and then died of a heart attack five months later.

But plenty use their notoriety to their advantage. After New York talk-show host Bob Grant was dumped from WABC in 1996 for making racial slurs, he resurfaced eight months later, bigger than ever, on a competing station with a Freedom of Speech Award from the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts in his hands.

Then there are some who can say just about anything, if they're popular enough. Michael Coren has offended so many people it would be impossible to list his misdemeanours. During his first week on air with CFRB in 1995, he lashed out at the Toronto Arts Awards for honouring a woman "with something like a dirty tea towel wrapped around her head." Forced to apologize? No.

Or think about Toronto's Brian Henderson (CHUM AM) and Dick Smyth (680 News). Four years ago, they denigrated Jewish mothers on air. After the swell died down, the two got away with a light tap on the wrist from the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

"There are people who make mistakes," says Peter Goldberg, a New York talent agent with the N.S. Bienstock agency, which caters to news announcers. "Many get second chances, even third chances. Who's to say [Haines] wouldn't? . . . If she sent a tape and a résumé here, I'd take a look."

Haines still doesn't know what to make of all the attention. "I don't feel honoured by any of this. Sure, people recognize my name and my face. But not because I've won any awards in journalism -- which I have. Or because I ask really tough questions. All I know is that I'm unemployed. And I had a great job a few days ago. The payoff hasn't come in yet. I'm not at the point where I'm glad to be fired."

Well, not yet, anyway. Some of those phone calls have come from potential employers. She hasn't received any offers yet. "They've been vague, wanna-do-lunch kind of things," she said. But Haines will have no problem bouncing back, says Jeff Ansell, a Toronto-based spin doctor, who specializes in image rehabilitation. "I'm sure she will do very well. She's doing all the right things and saying all the right things. She's acknowledged the inappropriateness of her remarks and has apologized from the heart. She has been very gracious toward the technician who pulled the wrong switch. I thought that, in particular, was very classy."

Some might say Haines was also remarkably savvy when she raced to her old employer, Toronto radio station CFRB, where she worked for 11 years, to explain her predicament and take phone-in calls -- only one hour after she got the boot from CTV. And after countless interviews, she also wrote a first-person piece for the front page of the National Post. "It was my first time writing for a newspaper," she says. "I've already done radio and TV," she adds laughing. "Maybe [print] is my next opportunity."

Haines says she wasn't trying to spin anything; she's just being open and honest. But is that enough? Gabor Apor, a communications consultant who once helped former Ontario premier David Peterson smooth out his ruffled edges, predicts that Haines will find another job within a few weeks. He's not so sure, however, that a Canadian network will be willing to put her in front of a camera. "The easiest thing is to enter another market. . . . The fast break was best. It's yesterday's news."

For Haines, who was born in New Mexico 33 years ago and still has an American passport, a cross-border move would be easier than for most. Her husband, Steve, is a freelance set decorator. "So he's mobile," she cheerfully notes. "I feel Canadian through and through. But I love my career. . . . I'm not closing my door to anything."

Bill Carroll, news director at CFRB and Haines's former boss, agrees that Haines should move on -- straight to the top. "She's always been exceptionally talented," he says. "But now she has the notoriety. There would be instant ratings for any station that picked her up.

"I told her she's crazy if she stays here. In fact, I'm about to phone her with the number for an American TV agent right now. If I were her, I'd be trying to pick which climate she'd like to live in. She's that good."

Odds on Avery

The chances of Avery Haines making a quick recovery are excellent, with her newfound celebrity status having upped the ante. But where she'll land is anybody's guess. Herewith, a book of odds to consider before laying down your wager.

CanWest Global, 3 to 2
Best bet. The maverick network would love to steal the thunder from its bitter rival, CTV. "She's a superstar now," one high-ranked executive enthused. Besides, Haines has much better, um, everything than Susan Hay. "I'd have to give it some thought," said Ken MacDonald, vice-president of news. "I think she's very capable and very talented.

CITY-TV: 5 to 2
A tossup. The bold silver stripe in Haines's hair would add the perfect balance to the station's kaleidoscope of staff. Moses Znaimer wasn't offended by her sense of humour. "She sounds spunky and forthright . . ." he said. "Tell her to give me a shout if she's eager." But then again, why would Haines want to limit herself to a local newscast?

Note from Jeff - Haines was hired by City TV in February!
Talk640: 5 to 1
Hazardous. The brash Toronto radio station needs a new morning host after Michael Coren was let go earlier this month at the end of his tumultuous six-month contract. Some suggest his departure was sealed with a dust-up before Christmas with station manager Pat Cardinal, which was overheard by several staffers on a newsroom speaker phone. Cardinal didn't return The Globe and Mail's phone calls. Perhaps he's had his fill of controversy.

CNN: 10 to 1
The windfall. Why not? Network founder Ted Turner loves ballsy women (before they turn Christian, that is) and he certainly knows what a foot in the mouth tastes like. The network already has Pat Buchanan. And with a roster of about 75 anchors, turnover must be high. Go for broke.

CFRB/The Mix: 15 to 1
The safety net. "She's welcome back here any time," boomed Gary Slaight, president of Standard Radio, who gave Haines her first job right out of college. A comforting idea, but too much like moving back home with the folks.

ABC: 20 to 1
A wild card. Haines has already attracted the attention of Barbara Walters's top-rated daytime gabfest, The View. Eighty per cent of the audience threw their support behind her in an on-air poll. But network spokeswoman Eileen Murphy says that if Haines had made the same gaffe on one of their stations, "There would've been some sort of action taken." Would they hire her? Murphy wouldn't speculate.

CBS: 30 to 1
A random shot. This is the broadcaster that employs Howard Stern. But the suits in New York Have just reached a settlement with former WARW Washington, D.C., morning host the Greaseman, a.k.a. Doug Tracht, who was fired after expressing his dislike for a Lauryn Hill song by saying, "No wonder people drag them behind trucks." So they'd likely shy away. Jeffrey Kofman, a former CBC reporter who flew the coop to join CBS Evening News, isn't impressed with Haines's infamy. "She didn't even make it on [industry gossip Web site]," he sniffed. (She did.)

CBC, 50 to 1
The long longshot. Desperately earnest, seriously strapped for cash and under pressure to improve its regional representation, Canada's public broadcaster wouldn't dare risk the wrath of the country's taxpayers on an irreverent steeplechaser from Toronto. The suggestions was politely rebuffed by CBC spokeswoman Ruth Ellen Soles: "CBC-TV news has a rigorous hiring process and anyone interested in a journalism career here would need to meet our hiring criteria."

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