Still a TV news junkie

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On Aug. 9, 2014, as the streets of Ferguson, Mo. erupted in protests following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, one of the first television reporters on the scene was Betsey Bruce of KTVI, Channel 2.

Bruce updated a report on the station’s website at 3:50 p.m.  That afternoon she worked the streets collecting information.  As she stood in front of the Ferguson police station that Saturday night, she told viewers, “Police are trying to calm tensions.”

The account she delivered included interviews with witnesses, visuals of the shooting scene and comments from the police chief.  Near the conclusion, she said St. Louis County Prosecuting Bob McCulloch would end up investigating.

Months later, when the streets boiled over again after a grand jury issued a “no crime” finding, Bruce was in Ferguson again.

“It was the most compelling and the most frightening experience I’ve ever had because it was dangerous and you didn’t know who you were talking to,” Bruce recalled later. “Those are frightening times when you’re not quite sure when you should be looking over your back or taking notes.”

Many other reporters were on the scene in Ferguson, performing in the same way.  What sets Bruce’s work apart is the fact she was 65 years old when the event unfolded.

While all of her contemporaries have retired or moved on, Bruce continues to work long hours and weekends as a TV street reporter.  She prefers to cover politics and public policy, but will accept any assignment.

“I’m always fascinated by what’s going on,” she said. “I call myself a news junkie.”

Bruce’s 45 years in St. Louis television news at what was once KMOX-TV and then later at KTVI is a record.  As the first woman to work hard news TV assignments, she is a pioneer in St. Louis broadcast journalism.  And Bruce is unique in that she has spent her entire career in one market.

“I hate to say this, but when I was in college I was watching her on TV,” said Mike Owens, who covered the news for KSDK-TV, Channel 5 for 27 years between 1983 and 2010.

In September of 1970, fresh out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Betsey Barnette started as a writer at KMOX-TV, the CBS-owned station in St. Louis. In December of 1971, she married Bob Bruce, whom she had met in college.  For a while she was known as Betsey Barnette Bruce, and then finally, Betsey Bruce.

In college, her adviser had warned her that news directors considered women “economic luxuries.”  “What he meant was that most news directors didn’t believe women were capable of handling a full range of stories,” Bruce said.

At that time, women’s roles were limited in St. Louis television newsrooms.  Pat Fontaine had done weather and features on KMOX-TV.  Dianne White, the first black weathercaster, was on KSD-TV, Channel 5.  Lee Shepherd had become a co-anchor on that station’s “Eyewitness News at Noon.”  And Harriett Woods was doing public affairs programs on KETC, Channel 9 and KPLR, Channel 11.

By January of 1971, Bruce had persuaded management she could go out in the field to report stories.  Her first two offerings were about child daycare and abortion.

“I was trying to prove to my boss that I was not an economic luxury, that I could do things that either the men hadn’t thought of doing or didn’t do or maybe were uncomfortable doing,” Bruce said.  At the time her mentor was Pat Fontaine.

“She was the only older woman on the air at my station and she was very helpful to me,” Bruce said. “One time I got some unwelcome attention from a male staff member, and whatever happened, she took care of it.  It was gone.  He was still there, but he never did that again.”

Covering her first City Hall news conference in the office of Mayor A.J. Cervantes, a photographer from another station made a big deal about Bruce breaking new ground.  She got to ask the first question.  Bruce recalls now some early comments such as “wow, you’re taking a job from a man; you shouldn’t be doing this.”

“There was a lot more focus on how I looked than what I was covering, which I always found frustrating,” Bruce said. “I was very determined, that I was not going to be distracted, and I was going to do my job and be a good journalist and be sure I didn’t spoil it for any other women behind me.  I was probably pretty intense and focused.”Jack Etzel, a reporter at KMOX-TV from 1969 to 1974, recalled that Bruce “had a maturity about her.”

“Women at that time were very rare, and it was unusual to hire someone full time essentially right out of college,” Etzel said. “Betsey was the youngest and ablest of anybody.  It was nothing for her to cover any story that happened.

Betsey Barnette was born into a family of journalists.  Her grandfather on her mother’s side was George Lasher, the founder and director of the Ohio University School of Journalism.  Her mother was the first woman reporter at Editor and Publisher.  Her father worked for newspapers in Gary, Ind., and Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1965, when Betsey Barnette realized she wanted to go into broadcasting, she chose the University of Missouri because the journalism program had a television station with a commercial license.  She enrolled in the fall of 1966, entered the broadcast sequence and edited the “Maneater” student newspaper in 1969.  As a result of a visit to MU by KMOX-TV managers in the spring of 1970, she got a job interview and was hired.

Between 1971 and 1989, Bruce made a name for herself at Channel 4, becoming the political editor and weekend news anchor.  In those days as now, success for television reporters came with either a permanent assignment at a network or a Monday-through-Friday primetime anchor slot in a major market.

Bruce harbored those dreams, too.  But her career took a different turn in 1989 when Channel 4 managers offered her a weekend-only job.

“I left Channel 4 because they didn’t want to have me any more as a full-time anchor,” Bruce said. “I always felt that was a financial reason, a salary reason.  I don’t know for sure.  But I don’t like to burn bridges.  I don’t worry about that.”

Tripp Frohlichstein, who was assistant news director during some of the time Bruce was at KMOX-TV, said he remembered her as “a hard working reporter.”

“She cultivated many sources and broke several stories,” Frohlichstein said in an email. “Even today, she represents a throwback to earlier reporting in that she continues to try to present all sides of an issue, no matter what she covers.”

Bruce moved to KTVI, Channel 2, initially doing some anchoring and reporting. In television journalism, women have always had to meet extra criteria relating to appearance and youth.  Bruce said there used to be a rule of thumb that when women turned 45, they couldn’t survive on TV news.

“Other than some of the very early national broadcasters who made a move from print to broadcast, there’s always been an expectation that women meet a different standard than men on the air,” Bruce said. “If I looked and had the weight of a Herb Humphries, if you remember Herb, was a Channel 4 reporter, I probably wouldn’t have the job.  (Humphries, a 300-pound man, died in 2003).  I do know that to me the more important thing was having a voice that was strong and clear and reasonably pleasant to listen to.”

In 1994, when she was 45, Channel 2 managers pulled her off the anchoring job.

“It had nothing to do with the quality of my work.  I decided I was going to hang in there.”

Over at Channel 5, Owens often found himself in competitive situations with Bruce since they often covered the same stories.

“I always knew when Betsey was around I was going to have to work hard to keep up,” Owens said. “She is a tough competitor.”

Bruce estimated that she has worked half of her career on the weekends, and that off and on, she held anchor posts for 16 years.  Owens said it was “incredible” that Bruce was still at it.

“If I was at her level, 45 years into a career, I don’t think I’d want to be working weekends,” Owens said. “I’d say, ‘find a kid to do this.’  She works what they give her.  I think that’s pretty impressive.”

When Betsey Barnette joined Channel 4 there were three newscasts: 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.  “It was a very relaxed schedule,” she said. “We worked afternoons and evenings.”

Things have changed.  The Channel 2 newsroom produces 13 1/2 hours of news for both KTVI and KPLR.

“It’s become a much more hectic, pressure-driven business even in the last 10 years,” Bruce said. “There is a lot of pressure to turn a 4 p.m. story for a dayside reporter now.  And you don’t get a photographer until 11 a.m. so you have a window of five hours often, not always, to get something put together and it cannot be as comprehensive as I like to do.  I have to admit, I’ve found that frustrating, but we are serving an audience with information and the real challenge is to be sure that you have covered it well enough that a. your accurate and b. you have the other side if there is another side to a story.”

Tom Heyse, a video photographer, worked many assignments with Bruce before he retired last year after 42 years.

“She is very thorough,” Heyse said. “She will dissect everything and look at both sides.  She never has felt entitled.  She’s worked for everything she’s gotten.  When her situation changed from anchoring to street reporting — a lot of talent really want to be anchors — she accepted that role and really did it well.  She’s a unique person in our industry who plugs along and does the job with no complaining.”

Some people in the news business can become calloused by the grind of daily events, but Heyse didn’t see that with Bruce.

“She didn’t look at it as a story that she had to get done for the day,” Heyse said. “She would get involved in a person’s life.  It wasn’t a put-on.  It was true stuff.”

In the four decades that Bruce has covered the news, the technology has constantly evolved.  When she began, 16-milimeter film documented events.  If a reporter was far away from the station, film was air-shipped, processed and edited.  Later, videotape replaced film, and microwave dishes mounted on satellite trucks sent signals to the station from a remote location.

Now the news can be recorded with digital cameras, edited on laptops and sent for broadcast with a special telephone, provided the reporter has a cellular signal.  Relaxed union rules now permit “backpack journalism” in which a single reporter carries the equipment, shoots the video, conducts the interviews and does the stand-up report.  Bruce managed to avoid that method.

“And I am fortunate because I had a ruptured disc last spring and had back surgery and so I’m glad I don’t have to carry that stuff around,” she said.  During her three months’ of recuperation, Bruce had time to think about what’s next.  Her husband is a semi-retired insurance broker.

Bruce said she has a basement full of files to go through as well as stacks of her grandfather’s papers that need to be archived.  She’d like to do some writing of her own, possibly about the switch from film to electronic news.

But for now, she’d like to keep doing what she’s doing.

“It would be really hard for me to skip what I have a front row seat for.”