When an Anchor Curses on the Air, She Becomes the Night’s Top Story
Maybe that will teach Chuck to stop reading things on his computer monitor and start paying attention to Sue.
It looked like a spat between two people who have worked together for so long that they know each other’s rhythms a little too well. And, of course, they have worked together, for ages — or at least since 1980. There was Chuck Scarborough, reading something on a computer screen embedded in the desk and not listening to his co-anchor, Sue Simmons.
So she let him have it in what sounded like mock derision. But she used a word seldom heard on the noncable air, and then only by accident — a word that is not publishable in the newspaper.
The difference between them and, say, a couple having a spat over the dinner table was that they were on television — live television, on a network-owned station in the nation’s largest media market.
It happened during a promotional spot at about 10:30 p.m. on Monday night on WNBC-TV, when they were supposed to describe stories that would be on their newscast at 11. By Tuesday morning, the outburst had New Yorkers talking about the nature of cursing in everyday conversation — not to mention the nature of Ms. Simmons, almost as permanent a presence in local news as there can be — and about how some things seem to be appropriate nowadays, even on television — and some things are not.
“That gets thrown around like ‘hello’ and ‘good morning,’ ” said Omar Villaneuva, a doorman at 27 West 72nd Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, referring to the word Ms. Simmons used. “But when you’re a news reporter, you’re supposed to report the news. You’re not there to swear.”
Peter King, who works in an architectural office on the Upper West Side, echoed Mr. Villaneuva’s point. “It’s overused, and we are crasser than we were for it,” Mr. King said. “It’s just another indication of standards declining. I mean, I curse like a sailor, but I know how to talk to my dad and talk to clients, versus how to talk to my friends.”
Mr. King said he remembered when the word Ms. Simmons used was “shocking, as opposed to tiresome.”
“Yeah,” he said. “If you see movies or plays, it’s a writer’s gimmick.”
But this was no David Mamet play. Each night around 10:25, the anchors on Channel 4 tape a 15-second spot promoting the 11 p.m. newscast. Occasionally, it has to be done live.
On Monday night, according to someone who works at Channel 4 and has direct knowledge of the situation, Ms. Simmons and Mr. Scarborough thought the spot was being taped. When they were cued, Ms. Simmons read her line: “At 11, paying more at the grocer, but getting less. We’ll tell you how to get the most.”
The station then cut to images for an upcoming story about a cruise ship, without any narrative from the two anchors.
At that point, Ms. Simmons says, basically, What are you doing?
But her question had two extra words.
Ms. Simmons, looking genuinely pained, apologized during the 11 p.m. broadcast. “While we were live just after 10 o’clock,” she said, “I said a word that many people find offensive. I’m truly sorry. It was a mistake on my part, and I sincerely apologize.”
Channel 4 would not say whether it was considering disciplining Ms. Simmons; the station said it did not comment on personnel matters. She appeared on the station’s 5 p.m. newscast on Tuesday, as scheduled.
“How do you cope under pressure?” asked Willie Pope, who was collecting donations for the United Homeless Organization at Columbus Avenue and West 72nd Street on Tuesday. “I have people who call me everything in the book. Back in the day, I’d go after the person, take action.”
Not anymore. Now, he said, “I try my best not to curse.” And he said that a television anchor should not curse, either.
Sarah Bassine, a filmmaker, said that Ms. Simmons was a role model. “It’s not setting a particularly good example to be cursing on the air,” she said. “I think that profanity has taken a place in our society where it’s all too acceptable as a form of communication. It’s a lazy form of communication. Certainly, a newscaster should be able to express herself or himself better. People who are in the public eye have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a responsible manner.”
Linda Murray, a graduate student originally from Ireland, said that after 9 p.m. in Europe, the standards are looser.
But then she had second thoughts about that.
“I guess it’s inappropriate for the news,” she said. “There’s a perception of professionalism.”
Ms. Simmons’ eyebrow-raising word-bomb brought back memories of, among others, television reporter Arthur Chi’en, who was fired from WCBS-TV for shouting an obscenity at some hecklers on the air in 2005. An arbitrator ruled in 2006 that he should have been disciplined, not dismissed. Now a reporter for WPIX-TV’s “CW11 News at 10,” Mr. Chi’en did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.
It also brought back memories of Mara Wolynski, a reporter at WABC-TV in the 1980s who made an obscene gesture that was caught on camera.
That same gesture was made by Prof. Alain E. Kaloyeros of the State University of New York in Albany, and a photograph of it was published in The New York Post two days in a row.
That photo was taken at the end of a meeting, Professor Kaloyeros said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, and the person who snapped it had “made a derogatory comment” about two female colleagues flanking Professor Kaloyeros. He said the gesture was meant to show that he was “taking exception to a joke about age and looks.”
“I learned my lesson,” he said. “Even in a private joking moment, keep all my digits to myself.”
Ms. Simmons and Mr. Scarborough “are talented, smart, competent people,” said Richard Wald, a former president of NBC News and senior vice president of ABC News who is now the Fred W. Friendly professor of media and society at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. (Mr. Wald said that Ms. Simmons and Mr. Scarborough worked under him when he was vice president for news at the local stations that NBC owned around the country.)
“Local anchors become a piece of the community,” Mr. Wald said, “and they are to television what typeface is to your local newspaper. They are the way in which you get the information. I think that live television is lucky that there aren’t more minor errors like that because it’s tricky, and it requires a great deal of concentration, and I guess her concentration must have slipped.”