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Hammer, Pasceri departures raise delicate PR issues for Channels 2, 7

Where’s Patrick Hammer? Where’s Joanna Pasceri?

A day doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t ask the question about Hammer, the meteorologist who has been off Channel 2 for about a month.

It probably won’t be long before I’m fielding questions about Pasceri, who abruptly left Channel 7 a week ago.

If you missed the explanations in The Buffalo News over the last two Saturdays, this column is for you.

The handling of their departures illustrate that Channel 7 and Channel 2 aren’t the smoothest organizations when it comes to dealing with potentially embarrassing public relations issues. They deal with them in relative silence, an odd stance for news operations that rely on people to talk to get stories.

Channel 7’s owner attempted to replace the 50-year-old Pasceri without embarrassing her or leaving itself vulnerable to an age or sex discrimination lawsuit. Channel 2 officials are trying to figure out whether Hammer deserves another chance after he embarrassed himself and the station by being arrested on a felony driving while intoxicated charge five months after cheerfully arriving to eventually be Kevin O’Connell’s replacement.

The Pasceri case was a potential public relations nightmare for Channel 7; she has spent the last nine of her 22 years there as the station’s primary lead female anchor.

Though no fault of Pasceri, her tenure coincided with the decline of Channel 7’s news, which was brought about by mismanagement and running the news department on the cheap. Still, she was a very competent anchor who wasn’t the reason people aren’t watching the station’s news.

But after owning the station for 18 months, the E.W. Scripps Co. understandably felt it was time to see if a fresh face could get viewers to sample its third-rated newscast.

It most likely will announce the hiring of former CTV reporter and occasional anchor Ashley Rowe next week. The delay probably is because it wants to distance Rowe from Pasceri’s departure so the new anchor isn’t blamed for it.

Channel 7 tried to find a way to make the switch without alienating viewers who liked Pasceri and believe she is being replaced by a younger model. Scripps most likely hoped Pasceri would accept a demotion to a lower profile job until her contract ended in April. But Pasceri decided to negotiate a settlement to leave.

Judging by negative comments on social media to The Buffalo News story about Pasceri’s departure, there has been some viewer backlash. That isn’t surprising, since Western New Yorkers are known to be resistant to change. Pasceri gave a classy on-air goodbye that undoubtedly suppressed her true feelings and just as likely was missed by her fans because there was little warning she was leaving. You won’t read her true feelings here, either; she isn’t able to talk now.

Channel 7 has to hope the clumsy way her departure was handled doesn’t prevent viewers from embracing Rowe.

Hammer’s case is a more complicated public relations issue. Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner has said only that Hammer is on “personal leave.” The station is waiting to see the outcome of his case and learn whether Hammer is getting help after receiving his second alcohol-related driving infraction in two years.

According to Hamburg Town Police, the charge against him was dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor by the Erie County district attorney’s office because it was determined that the previous conviction in Minnesota does not qualify as a predicate crime that would require prosecuting him as an aggravated felon. “The previous conviction in Minnesota was a non-criminal conviction,” a source close to Hammer told Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck.

On social media, people speculated about why it took so long to report the arrest. The delay occurred because it was made under Hammer’s real name, Fay. I actually interviewed Hammer on Nov. 3 for a Nov. 15 feature story about eight hours after he was arrested. I had no idea he had been arrested, and he didn’t share that, either.

Several days after the article ran, Hammer’s on-air absence was noticeable. I sent him a text, asking if he was ill. He didn’t really answer.

Hammer isn’t the first TV celebrity to be arrested on a DWI charge. Bob Koop, the late Channel 4 anchor, went off the air and into an alcohol treatment program a couple of decades ago after a third DWI arrest. He was battling leukemia, the disease that eventually killed him, at the time of his third arrest.

I don’t know Hammer very well. I met him when I interviewed him and learned that he has a wife and two young children and that he rode his bicycle to a $15 an hour job at Target in Minneapolis after being fired from his TV job. Those tidbits led people to leap to the conclusion that he rode his bike to Target because he lost his driving license, and that he was fired in Minneapolis because of his alcohol-related arrest.

I have no idea if he lost his license in Minnesota. But before he stopped responding to texts, Hammer told me that his arrest in Minnesota happened a month after he left his TV job and that had nothing to do with his firing. Presumably, Channel 2 would have investigated that before it hired him.

I’m torn over what I would do if I were Toellner. Hammer hasn’t been around as long as Koop was when he was arrested so Channel 2 doesn’t have that much invested in him and could release him.

I don’t condone drinking and driving and understand why some people want Hammer to be fired. But perhaps because this is the holiday season, I’d be inclined to be compassionate and give Hammer another chance provided he is addressing his problem in a meaningful way, as Koop did.

And if he returns to the air sometime in 2016, Hammer even could turn his embarrassment into a positive by delivering speeches, using his story as a cautionary tale about how alcohol can come close to destroying your life.