Friday, October 01, 2010

A 'sticky situation'

When the news popped up on my computer screen today, I was amazed.

Former WSVN anchor and current CNN anchor Rick Sanchez made some outrageous statements on a rado show yesterday. He called Comedy Central's Jon Stewart a bigot and implied that Jews run the media, including his own network, CNN.

If there hadn't been a tape of the show, I might have given the guy the benefit of the doubt.

But there was a tape and it wasn't just an off-hand remark that was misinterpreted. Sanchez went on for what seemed like an eternity, trashing his bosses and Jon Stewart and anyone else who may have slighted him over the years

As I listened, I was dumbfounded that someone with over 30 years in television - and who should know the power and permanence of the broadcast word - could be so stupid.

My first thought was, does Sanchez actually think he can get out of this one?

After all, he'd been in tight situations in the past that might have ended the career of a lesser man.

There was his questionable relationship with Hialeah homeboy Al San Pedro; a criminal who was implicated in the mid-80's in bribery, murder conspiracy and drug trafficking cases.

And of course there was the time that Sanchez hit a pedestrian as he left a football game and then compounded things by not stopping. Sanchez slid out of those sticky situations and came back stronger than ever.

Perhaps Sanchez said those outrageous things yesterday because he knew if he got into trouble, he'd be able to wriggle free. Just like back in the good old days.

Well, he wasn't able to slide out of this "sticky situation."

The story of Rick's stupidity broke early today. By 6pm CNN announced that Sanchez was gone. Finished.

Or is he? Sanchez has been on the skids before.

Tonight I poked around a bit and found a clue that might explain Sanchez's resilience - and perhaps his thinking - in a brilliant Miami Herald Tropic magazine story by Juan Carlos Coto from June, 1991.
The Cuban restaurant in the heart of Hialeah whirls with its usual dance of waiters and busboys transporting overloaded baskets of bread and filling water glasses to the rim. Hearty eaters lean over their vaca frita and moros, chattering and carrying on -- that is, when their gaze isn't fixed on a table near the center of the dining room.

It is also the center of attention, a place Ricardo Leon Sanchez de Reinaldo has always occupied. He is the homeboy here, a Hialeah High graduate and former football star, a neighborhood kid done good -- and accused, in the past, of having done bad.

South Florida television viewers know him as Rick Sanchez, the melodramatic TV news anchor for WSVN-Channel 7, the guy who put the police procedural on the nightly broadcast with a live, in-your-face feature called "Crime Check," where it wasn't only the crime that was important, but the fact that Sanchez was out there, sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, checking it for you.

This is the guy who visited Cuba last year, then filed a series called "Sanchez in Cuba." The point of the series wasn't simply that Cuba and Fidel Castro face enormous change, but that Rick Sanchez was there, checking it for you.

Perhaps the amazing thing is that Rick Sanchez is still here. His relationship with an underworld kingpin -- played out in front-page headlines and newscast lead stories -- ended one career in Miami television and sent him into a disgraced exile. Now he's back, more successful than ever, pulling down a quarter of a million dollars a year and living in a $200,000 Pembroke Pines home on a golf course. Even a drunk driving charge in an incident that left a man in a coma hasn't slowed him down. Once again he seems able to do no wrong. The Teflon anchor.

To Sanchez, there is something noble in the ability to slide out of sticky situations.

"Everybody admires it," he says. "Other men, and especially men who seem to be powerful men, I notice -- I'm talking like a dime or nickel psychologist here, if you'll permit me -- will always come up to me and that's always the thing they say. They admire in me the fact that I've been in some battles and I've won them.

"It's like I think when William Kennedy Smith gets out of this -- if he gets out of this -- he will be more respected, more successful.

"You find out the true measure of a man when he is down in the dumps, and he's able to rise again."

After the San Pedro revelations, Sanchez was exiled to Houston. But after a year, Sanchez started getting offers from other markets.

Back in Miami, the stage was being set for Sanchez's return.

Again from Coto's Tropic story:
Channel 7's new news director, Joel Cheatwood, was looking to give the station a new style. He wanted it to be more flamboyant, more aggressive, and . . . more Cuban.

Cheatwood climbed the stairs to the station's executive offices and told his bosses: "This may sound like a nutty idea . . . "

He called Sanchez, who was planning to visit relatives in Miami, and a clandestine meeting was set.

According to Sanchez, Cheatwood told him that since he (Sanchez) had left the station, it had lost ratings points among Hispanic households.

"If you had a magic wand," says Cheatwood now, "you couldn't create someone more suited for this TV market. Young, dynamic anchor, very talented, very animated, flashy, Cuban -- which was an added bonus, you know."

In May 1988, after almost two years in Houston, Sanchez, who had been making $125,000, came back to Channel 7 for $60,000 and agreed to a clause in his contract that "basically allowed them to let me go as soon as they wanted to."

For his part, Sanchez wanted to come home, and he wanted to erase the past. "I hated the way I left here," he says.

As far as the station was concerned, Sanchez's viewer appeal and his willingness to make concessions were enough to persuade Channel 7 to overlook his past.

Cheatwood: "In my analysis of what had happened and talking to people who had been involved . . . I found that the greatest mistake that he made was really the mistake of immaturity."
Cheatwood developed the feature -- what the industry calls a "franchise" -- after reading a station research report showing the No. 1 concern of Channel 7 viewers was crime. Cheatwood decided to cover the No. 1 concern in a novel way, and he chose Sanchez to do it for him. Both decisions proved profitable.

The segment -- which began in January 1989, nearly a year after Sanchez returned to Miami -- sometimes aired four times over the course of the hour-long 10 o'clock news.

Gung-ho Rick Sanchez hit the streets, followed by a hand- held camera, often calling cameraman "Ralph" (Ralph Rayburn) by name. Sanchez walked us through crime scenes, cinema verite style, his collar unbuttoned, tie loosened and sleeves rolled up. He perspired a lot. Sometimes he held a notebook, a few words scrawled on it as cues, and he carried a pen in his shirt pocket. To the viewer, Rick looked like he had already put in a hard day's work and was now on hard overtime.

This was no accident. Cheatwood and Sanchez designed the image with care.

"You gotta look the part," says Cheatwood. "People don't want to see a guy in a nice pressed suit hanging out with narcotics officers."

The idea behind "Crime Check" was to cast Sanchez alongside the crime fighters -- he huddled in their stakeout trucks, sprinted behind them as they ran down suspects, charged with them into a bust -- and to toss the audience face-first into a real-life pulp novel.

Through Sanchez, audiences could poke beyond those yellow streamers that announced POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, finger evidence -- a kilo of cocaine left on the street after a drug bust gone bad, a wad of $50,0000 in "greenbacks" (Sanchez handled both in one night).

Sanchez allowed viewers to approach a suspect -- as the alleged criminal was being hauled off by police -- and ask him outright if he was dealing in drugs. Or, through Sanchez, viewers could enter the cluttered basement of a South Florida home, where some industrious drug dealers had a marijuana hydroponics lab in full bloom ("What I'm about to show you is a whole lot of marijuana in a basement in Pompano Beach. Let's take a look . . . ")

When an elderly couple was attacked in their car in a smash-and-grab robbery, Sanchez introduced the bandaged couple, walked over to the car to display the broken window, then picked up the rock the robbers had used to break it. ("Really, this is what did the damage, this rock. As you can see, it's quite -- I'm gonna drop it, Ralph, just to show, on TV . . . " KERPLUNK).

One "Crime Check" had Sanchez holding an IV bag for a paramedic, who was attending a man who had just been shot.

At its best, "Crime Check" was a story in the raw. Instead of reading about a missing child in the morning paper or seeing some nicely packaged tape on the 11 p.m. news, viewers could watch Sanchez talk to the mother live. When Dawn Young, a 9- year-old Cooper City girl, was reported missing the night of Friday, July 28, 1989, Sanchez was there, speaking live with Mrs. Young. He put his hand on her shoulder as she talked through her tears:

"Dawn, if you can hear Mommy or if you can see Mommy, just do this, honey: Just put your hands together and you pray to God and you're gonna be all right, honey."

TV producers across town undoubtedly clenched their fists at the sight of such a tremendous scoop.
Have we heard the last of Rick Sanchez? Don't bet on it.

Today when this broke I predicted he wouldn't be on the air come Monday.

Looks like I was right.

So I'll go out on a limb and predict that Sanchez will be back on a TV screen near you...sooner rather than later.

After all, he's gotten out of tight situations before.

As one current Miami TV anchor told me tonight, "He's a clown...but he's also a communicator."

Stay tuned.

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