Jeff Simon: Diana Fairbanks was the anti-diva of Buffalo television news - The Buffalo News
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Jeff Simon: Diana Fairbanks was the anti-diva of Buffalo television news

I was in the kitchen seriously contemplating an enticing piece of lemon bundt cake when Maryalice Demler saved me from myself.

She was on the tube in the living room billboarding a segment on the 30th anniversary of “The Natural” as the next – and last – segment on that night’s Channel 2 news.

She got me. I resisted the bundt cake and went back into the living room to watch Demler’s and Channel 2’s mini-contribution to Buffalo’s “Natural” nostalgia industry.

It was 30 years ago in the summer of 1984, Demler told us, that “The Natural” was filmed in Buffalo. And further, she was happy to boast that Channel 2’s very own Scott Brown was the only Buffalo reporter to interview Robert Redford, the film’s star.

Well now. “The Natural” did indeed premiere May 11, 1984, but that very fact makes its filming in Buffalo during the summer of 1984 impossible. In fact, it was Aug. 1, 1983, when Redford and the still mind-boggling cast of Barry Levinson’s movie finished landing en masse in Buffalo to shoot the film in War Memorial Stadium and, in fact, all over Western New York.

As for Scott Brown, I guess he was the one who did the Q&A interview in The Buffalo News about Redford’s career, film by film, which still bids fair to be the longest ever published in this newspaper (certainly it’s up there.) I guess Brown was the one, then, whose News interview was picked up by the New York Times syndicate and printed all over the world. (Playgirl Magazine wanted it and offered a good deal of money. They were turned down at my insistence. Redford would never even have considered it.)

But then I don’t remember Scott Brown being employed at this newspaper at the time so I guess I was the one who did that. What I do remember is having a long discussion with the film’s unit publicist after my afternoon-long session with Redford about which Buffalo TV station would be most likely to treat Redford in a farewell to the city with the kind of dignity so important to the actor. And I remember offering my opinion that, at the time, he would probably be happiest with Channel 2’s coverage.

That, then, was two Demler mistakes in just a few seconds of on-the-air nostalgia to lead into Brown’s reminiscence.

I am, I assure you, never surprised in the slightest by the multitudes who have neither knowledge nor interest in everything (or indeed ANYTHING) I’ve been doing here for the past 45 years. I’ve always been happy to have readers, but I always assume that people are capable of living full, rich and altogether wonderful lives in Buffalo without having read a single word I’ve written.

On the other hand, in the Internet Age, such things are so easy for news organizations of any sort to check that two elementary errors in less than 30 seconds are quite unnecessary. None of us is perfect. In the 24/7 era of online journalism, we’re all living with perfection being less likely than ever, even if unimpeachable accuracy has to remain the standard we’re always shooting for.

But 10 seconds on the “Wikipedia” site would have revealed the date of the film’s premiere, with the obvious inference that it must have been filmed the previous summer. Enter “date ‘The Natural’ was filmed in Buffalo” on Google and it calls up my 30th anniversary story from August 2013, which would have provided the necessary Buffalo filming date for any WGRZ news functionary.

It is, of course, true that Scott Brown was the only TV reporter to interview Redford. But in Demler’s promotional zeal to provide a shout-out to her colleague, she blundered into a minor misstatement that never had to happen. (It was subsequently corrected online in the intro to Brown’s story.)

I’m going to insist on charity here and attribute it to others on Channel 2’s staff. Demler’s beauty pageant past has made her a sitting duck for the large crowd that always wants a narcissistic TV news diva to be the target of their spitballs. I’ve always preferred to remember too that, according to her online bio, she once taught middle school French and if you can’t give former middle school teachers the benefit of the doubt, who can you give it to?

But what all of this did last week was underline several times over how much of a loss it is going to be shortly when Channel 4’s Diana Fairbanks departs the station to go back to Traverse City, Mich., with her husband who has a job waiting for him. (She doesn’t.)

I find it hard to overstate my admiration for Fairbanks, the perfect local TV news anti-diva. She was not only the best thing to happen to Channel 4 news in 20 years, she may be the best on-air addition to any TV news department in the city in that time (with a lot of competition from Jodi Johnston and some good younger sportscasters).

She was brisk, unerring and possessed of the kind of on-air unfussy ultra-competence that we associate more with news at network and cable level than we do local news.

I’ve just spent four days in Los Angeles and I can tell you that of all the glamorous local TV newswomen I caught out there, I much prefer Fairbanks in every way.

If you listen to her comments and questions to Channel 4 staffers, her intelligence and genuine good humor is so much more evident than what we’ve been used to that it is almost unfathomable that Channel 4 management would let her walk out the door. I can’t say that I’m surprised that they seem to have nixed farewell interviews with her. Channel 4 has become ground zero in Buffalo TV news for highly visible and/or highly regarded people virtually racing out the door as fast as their legs can carry them (John Murphy, Vic Baker, Paul Peck).

Through it all – and management investigations too – Joseph Schlaerth remains the station’s news director, which is certainly notable in a “believe it or not” sort of way.

Fairbanks always seemed to me on the Bob Koop/Carol Jasen level when the station was at its absolute best. I was once told by someone who should know that Koop was the only anchor he’d ever known who actually understood every story he read. Jasen, for her part, was always gloriously candid about being sent to what she wittily termed “anchor charm school” to become the most likable 6 and 11 p.m. female co-anchor in the city’s history. (When she first started, I confess that I once referred to her with her maiden name as “the prissy Miss Crissy.”) That very self-deprecating candor was part of what put her credibility and likability through the roof.

Let me confess plainly at this point that Don Postles’ loyalty to both the city and Channel 4 over all these years has taken me completely by surprise. I’ve come to have far more affection and respect for him nightly than I ever thought I would.

Jacquie Walker has long since knocked off the on-air schoolmarm act that I found so off-putting years ago (and that now seems to be bedevilling Demler’s clumsier version of it) but, for all her self-evident professionalism, I’ve never found Walker either compelling or interesting in any way.

Fairbanks’ crispness and intelligence were arresting from the very first seconds of her first Buffalo broadcast. She has never stopped being the very opposite of a TV News diva of any gender – a completely credible and fluent and engagingly professional TV news presence of a sort this city both needs and richly deserves.

If it turns out that, like the former Jasen – now Carol Nigrelli –she has, back home in Michigan, departed the world of TV news altogether, it will tell us all we need to know about local TV news every time we watch.

Every single time.


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