Honoring a Legend: ‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’

Aug 21, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

As a Los Angeles news reporter since the dawn of TV, Stan Chambers has lived the history of the electronic medium from a unique vantage point.

Starting at KTLA-TV in December 1947, shortly after it became the first commercially licensed TV station in the western U.S., Mr. Chambers has played a lead role in pioneering newsgathering techniques and covering major breaking stories for almost six decades. For 59 years—and counting, since Mr. Chambers has no intention of retiring—he has been the face of news at KTLA for millions of viewers over several generations.

“He is the classic news reporter,” said KTLA anchor Hal Fishman, who has worked with Mr. Chambers over a 46-year span. “He is in the tradition of journalism that was established many years ago by such people as Edward Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite. It’s something which we rarely see these days, namely straightforward, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ reporting.

“Here’s a man who started in the earliest days of TV and really worked with the industry developing techniques of TV news reporting. TV reporting has to be very concise, informative and exciting in very few seconds, and Stan has perfected that.”

Over the years, Mr. Chambers has won nearly every award possible, including several Emmy and Golden Mike awards, the Sigma Delta Chi Broadcaster of the Year Award, the Governor’s Award from the Television Academy, an L.A. Press Club Award, and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. KTLA renamed its main building after Mr. Chambers, and the Associated Press Television-Radio Association of California-Nevada annually presents the Stan Chambers Lifetime Achievement Award.

Modest Reporter

When the Society of Professional Journalists announced that he will be honored with the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. Chambers’ response was typical for those who know him. “It was quite a shock,” he said. “I’m strictly a local TV reporter.”

Mr. Chambers was a student at USC when he heard a TV station was going on the air and thought it would be fun to participate. With a few fellow students, he produced a half-hour show on campus life at the station. He made a strong impression and soon got a call from the station offering him a job.

Mr. Chambers began his career at KTLA as a stagehand, next moving to operations, then sales at the same time he began reporting stories. “I like people and enjoy getting involved and getting things accomplished,” said Mr. Chambers, with his trademark modesty. “The timing was perfect because everything was just starting out in television.”

His TV news colleagues universally admire him. “He is the nicest person you’d want to meet,” said KTLA News Director Jeff Wald, who has known Mr. Chambers for nearly 40 years. “The truth of the matter is that in a business that chews up people left and right, Stan is really an anomaly. Whenever you go with him on a story, the firemen, policemen or whoever is in charge of the scene, they come to him. Stan doesn’t have to go to them, because he has a reputation of being honest and straightforward.”

In 1949, a 3-year-old girl fell into an abandoned well in San Marino, Calif., an event that marked the first extended live newscast and launched Mr. Chambers’ career in live, breaking news.

“It was my fortune to be around with the ‘big one’ that started live TV news, which was the rescue of Kathy Fiscus,” said Mr. Chambers, who gives credit to KTLA founding engineer Klaus Landsberg for making the on-location breaking news story technologically possible. “We were on the air for 27 hours of the rescue effort.” Thousands of Angelenos gathered in the few homes or public venues with TV sets, riveted by the story and the unprecedented live coverage of a local event.

“When the girl died, the whole city was overwhelmed with grief and sadness,” Mr. Chambers said. “It was the first time the city had that communal experience, and it was very emotional.”

Over the years, Mr. Chambers became a familiar face to Los Angeles viewers, covering major breaking stories, including the 1963 collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam—which unleashed a torrent of water into Los Angeles neighborhoods— and the 1965 Watts Riots, for which the station won its first Peabody Award.

Along the way, Mr. Chambers also broke new technologies for making news coverage more compelling and complete. In May 1958, KTLA unveiled the Telecopter, its first use of a helicopter with a broadcast camera, to cover news from an aerial perspective, which it used to cover the Baldwin Hills Dam break, among many other early stories. “The fact that you can take a broadcasting unit and put it in a helicopter, get there in 10 minutes and be live was incredible,” said Mr. Chambers. “TV was really growing up to be able to cover the whole city.”

Mr. Chambers was at the Ambassador Hotel to cover Robert Kennedy’s speech accepting the Democratic Party’s 1968 nomination as presidential candidate. “We’d just signed off the air, and then we heard the screams, and we went back on the air,” he recounted about the assassination of Sen. Kennedy in the hotel’s kitchen immediately afterward. “It was a very powerful thing. With our helicopter and live units, we were everywhere.”

Other memorable stories that Mr. Chambers has covered include the Manson Family murders, the Hillside Strangler and the Rodney King beating (amateur photographer George Holiday handed his tape to Mr. Chambers). Mr. Chambers has also reported live for the Tournament of Roses Parade almost every year since 1949.

Mr. Chambers marveled at the recent coverage of the thwarted bombing of U.K.-to-U.S.-bound planes. “It’s been incredible,” he said. “They record and show everything. We didn’t have that ability way back when.” He recalled how the early mobile units had a beeper system to keep in touch with the newsroom. “We’d stop at the corner, get your dime out and call the station,” he said. “In the past, I’d knock on a person’s door and ask to use their telephone and look out the window while I was reporting on a story.”

Mr. Chambers’ news colleagues point to his flexibility as the key to his career longevity. “What’s amazing in a business that is so competitive and difficult is that he’s adapted throughout the years as the technology has changed,” said Mr. Wald. “Stan has been a primary example of that ability to change,” agreed Mr. Fishman. “The fact that he’s still on the air is evidence that he’s adapted.”

Though Mr. Chambers is enthusiastic about changes in news broadcasting, noting that color gave a “more authentic look” than the old black-and-white image and that today’s cameras enable more mobility in news coverage, his philosophy about news coverage has remained very much the same over the years.

“I really think TV news has got to be right down the middle,” he said. “‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ Then, when you start interpreting that, that’s the next stage, when you put your own philosophy on it. But that’s an expansion of the news, and I really think you have to be neutral when you’re telling the basic facts.”

The biggest challenge is always, he said, to maintain that objectivity in the midst of a breaking story. “You hear so many things, so many possibilities, but you’re never sure they’re true,” he said. “The most difficult thing is to make those editorial decisions while you’re live on the air. It’s a subjective decision based on the best knowledge.”

Mr. Chambers is currently creating a series of stories about people working for community betterment. “There’s something about him that has a goodness in him, and he knows how to find what’s good in everything,” said KTLA assistant news director Marcia Brandwynne.

Mr. Chambers’ grandson Jamie has also started his career as a KTLA reporter, and KTLA VP and General Manager Vinnie Malcolm called the young man “another one with great attitude.”

“Stan has done it all, and even at his age he still
wants to do more,” Mr. Malcolm said. “He hasn’t lost any of his desire or interest. His attitude is the same, probably, as when he started. And I can’t think of any higher compliment than that.”