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“A Surreal Thing”
How a La Crosse anchor broke the fourth wall of TV journalism.




Jennifer Livingston
never meant to go viral.

The La Crosse TV anchor got national attention last fall for her on-air lecture to a viewer who had sent an email message criticizing her weight. A video of the speech posted at Jim Romenesko’s website spread with dizzying speed, leading to stories at The Huffington Post, appearances on TV talk shows, and a debate over her decision to set aside her journalistic robes to grapple directly with the viewer’s criticism.

 

In an interview last week with Steve Schuster, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, Livingston made clear that her on-air response wasn’t an off-the-cuff retort – she only opened up after considerable deliberation, a process that included behind-the-scenes discussions at the station, WKBT Channel 8 in La Crosse, and encouragement from supportive viewers, who first saw the critical email when Livingston’s husband posted it on Facebook.

 

In an email conversation after the SPJ interview, Livingston told me she had full support from station management.

 

“I had several conversations with my news director Anne Paape about the email and the enormous amount of community reaction that resulted from posting it on Facebook,” she says.

 

The fact that Livingston has worked for the station for 15 years – she started there right out of college – and that Paape has been a long-time mentor lent support to the idea of addressing viewers directly.

 

“I’ve opened up a lot about myself,” Livingston says. “My struggle with weight, my struggle with infertility. And so it seemed natural to have a conversation about something the community was already buzzing about.”

 

Livingston has written about infertility on her station blog, and she’s also talked before about her weight and even written about it for local publications. One article began this way:

 

I know what you're thinking.

Go on, say it.

“Why on earth is the chubbiest gal at News 8 writing a column for the Health and Fitness issue?" Believe me - the irony does not escape me either.

Her brush with national notoriety started with viewer Kenneth Krause’s message taking Livingston to task:


 

... I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years.

Sure you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.

 

“I was a little taken aback,” Livingston told Schuster last week. “A lot of people have shared with me, especially in bigger markets, that they get emails like this all the time. We really don’t get a lot of mean-spirited emails.”

 

She read it aloud to colleagues at the station, more to laugh it off than anything. “The reaction in the newsroom was not anything light-hearted at all,” she said. “One of my co-workers had tears in her eyes.”

 

Livingston’s husband, WKBT evening news anchor Mike Thompson, posted the email message on his Facebook site. The reaction was overwhelming in its support for her, Livingston said, and in community appearances in the days that followed, viewers stopped her to wish her well. “I really felt people wrapping their arms around me.”

The outpouring of community support is what ultimately prompted Livingston to go on the air. “I felt like I needed to address this myself on my own program because so many people were talking about it,” she said. That need persisted even after her own email conversation with Krause.

 

“I always respond to viewer emails whether they’re positive or negative,” she said. And on the subject of obesity, she recalls telling him, “I am part of the problem, and I’ve never said otherwise.”

 

Livingston said she wanted to calibrate her on-air response so that it wouldn’t come off as simply being about “poor Jennifer” who was “just being picked on.” Instead, she used it as an opportunity to point out bullying of all kinds, urging victims to stand strong and to accept themselves.

 

“I think it’s a sad, sad thing in our society today that people so frequently spew anger and hate on the Internet,” she told Schuster. “I realized through this whole experience just how thick-skinned I am.”

It was the bullying angle that drove the extensive coverage – on NBC’s Today and the network’s evening news program, as well as on talk shows with Ellen DeGeneres and Katie Couric.

 

“It was sort of a surreal thing,” Livingston told Schuster, to be on the other side of the news. “I hope people grab hold of this topic in their own community and keep the conversation going, and I don't become as much of the focus; but the message becomes the focus.”

  

 
Rhonda Lee
But late last year, another TV personality who riposted a critic ran into opposition from her station’s management, not reinforcement as in Livingston’s case. Meteorologist Rhonda Lee, who is African American, was fired from the Shreveport, La., TV station where she worked after replying on Facebook to a viewer who criticized her short hairstyle. Station management later issued a statement claiming Lee’s termination was for violating the station’s policy against responding to Facebook criticism, although Lee has disputed aspects of that account. (The Lee incident has been covered extensively on the Richard Prince online column Journal-Isms and at the Poynter Institute’s website.)
 

I asked Livingston what she thought of how the Lee matter had turned out. “As a journalist, I don’t know that I have all the facts,” Livingston tells me, noting the “he said/she said” nature of reports on the incident.

 

“On one hand if an employee is breaking a station policy, it seems within reason that they would be reprimanded in some way. But for me – it all comes down to the policy itself. I don’t understand or agree with banning employees from engaging with viewers on Facebook. Isn’t that what Facebook is for?

 

“For me it has become a great tool to engage with viewers on a new level. But to only engage with the people that like me, or like the story I covered or the way I look, seems very one-sided. Bottom line, if I were in her shoes, I absolutely would have responded.”

 

*

Crowded Locker Room: Will the switch of WOKY AM 920 from country music to sports-talk programming cause people at Milwaukee’s two existing sports-talk stations to break a sweat?

 

WAUK, which goes by the moniker 540-ESPN, and WSSP, aka SportsRadio 1250, have been the area’s leading stations in the format. The most recent Arbitron data shows WSSP well ahead of WOKY in listeners, but that’s from before the format change. (WAUK doesn’t show up in the Arbitron ratings, but that appears to be because the Jackson-licensed property of Good Karma Broadcasting isn’t an Arbitron subscriber.)

 

On the one hand, WOKY’s owner Clear Channel has very deep pockets (it’s the No. 1 radio station owner in the country). That would give it the resources to boost the newcomer’s profile with the sports-talk audience. But as Dave Begel points out, content for “The Big 890” is coming from Clear Channel’s Madison sports-talk station. That means virtually no additional expense. Fans wonder, too, whether hometown favorites like Marquette basketball will get ignored in favor of Badgers chatter.

 

*

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