Something was wrong, and it wasn't just that these United States seemed unable to choose a president. It was election night, and if you were glued to the No. 1 local news station in Spokane, Q-6, you couldn't help but notice that the face of the station -- Randy Shaw -- was nowhere to be seen on the biggest news night of the year.
"That was a hard night for me," said Shaw over a cup of coffee last week, showing a tug of emotion on his familiar face. "Here I was, watching the election on TV for the first time in years. That was hard."
While the rest of the nation hung in limbo during that day after the election, Shaw's says his two-year struggle with his bosses came to a conclusion. He was fired by the station that employed him for 17 years -- a station he helped to a first place position in the ratings for most of the time he was its lead anchor. As the news came out, his fans across the Inland Northwest couldn't believe the man they trusted for all those years was guilty of "harassment." But that's just what KHQ management suggested in a brief statement on the matter. "His behavior has been a continuing concern for the management and employees of the station," the memo also stated. "His unwillingness to address these issues in any meaningful way left KHQ no option other than terminating his employment."
Shaw says he went through the usual stages: shock, denial, depression and anger. But now he's ready to fight. His lawsuit against the station for wrongful termination and breach of contract was filed earlier this week. KHQ's competitors, meanwhile, are gleeful; here is their chance to finally make some headway in the ratings war that Shaw has been winning for the better part of the last decade.
Meanwhile, KHQ may have come out worst of all, as they lost their top anchor (after losing their other lead anchor, Penny Daniels, to resignation just a couple weeks before that). As they get ready to move into a new multi-million-dollar facility in downtown Spokane next spring, their hegemony over the local market may be starting to crack. Not only is NBC not the dominant force it once was, but the station is having to start from scratch in the area of on-air talent.
Why did all this happen? If the station really had "continuing concern" about Shaw's behavior, why did it sign him to an unprecedented eight-year contract in 1998? It seems like there has to be more to the story. And there is...
This account is based on several interviews with people close to the situation, but since lawsuits are flying, none except Shaw would speak on the record. So in many ways, this is his version. Only if and when the matter goes to court will all perspectives see the light of day. Still, what is known suggests a kind of behind-the-scenes soap opera -- if only KHQ had turned the cameras around, it might have found just the kind of lead-in Debbie Wilde's Circle of Friends so badly needed.
While some sympathetic to the station's position claim the story goes back 10 years, it really picked up steam more than two years ago when the station decided to fix something that many people didn't think was broken. Shaw had co-anchored with Wilde for some 10,000 shows, but management decided to move ahead with a new direction by bringing in a new partner for Shaw. That person was Daniels, fresh from the rarefied media atmosphere of New York City.
While some say Wilde's focus group numbers -- the way anchors are judged -- weren't that great, the duo was No. 1, and KHQ was making lots of money, as TV stations tend to do. Shaw, who clearly liked working with Wilde, says he was prepared for his new on-air partnership to take three ratings periods to really gel, and he says he was looking forward to making it work. He even says he thought Daniels' hard news approach would benefit the newsroom. Although she is said to have been the station's second choice in its search, Daniels, a friend of KHQ News Director Patricia McCrae from a previous market, somehow wrangled a five-year contract -- at least two years longer than the industry standard for a new anchor.
But in Daniels' first few months, she made a bad impression on some coworkers, and some felt that the new hire was not going well, sources say (although Shaw refused to say ahything critical about Daniels). Little things like parking in handicapped spaces were compounded by tardiness and inappropriate on-air moments (like during one live shot when she asked Gary Darigol, who had just reported that police removed sex toys from Brad Jackson's home, what kind of sex toys they were). Daniels was also said to have made enemies at shops around town where she felt slighted, and even reportedly berated a child at a downtown spa. Later, she began dating embattled Spokane Police Chief Alan Chertok, blurring the lines between covering a story and being a part of a story. Some say she never even quite mastered saying "Spokane" correctly, as she gave it a kind of long "a" sound.
Journalistic skills aside, Daniels couldn't have offered a more stark contrast to Shaw, who is in a country band and seems to be the salt of the local soil. While Shaw was at home in blue jeans, Daniels was more of a leather skirt type. Whoever convinced the station that these two would become a fluid team was ignoring some very big differences in style and personality.
And very soon it would become clear that the pair would never gel, and Shaw says it wasn't because of either of them, but was due to poor management. It started about four months after she was hired, when some employees approached him and asked him to talk to McCrae about problems they were having with Daniels. The employees felt like there was a double standard, and Daniels was not held accountable for missing meetings and being unprepared. Shaw took those issues to McCrae, who he says responded by telling Daniels about the concerns -- and that Shaw was the bearer of them. At a meeting the next day, in October of 1998, Shaw says he was broadsided by Daniels at a meeting that he finally had to leave because she was spouting "some of the most vile and outrageous statements imaginable.
"That meeting shook me to my very core," recalls Shaw. He says that after that day, he never had a chance to mend fences with Daniels because management kept them apart and began to watch him closely. He says revealing the source of a complaint is against the company's policy, and he claims that McCrae admitted later that she had made a big mistake by calling the meeting. Shaw says he notified the station's General Manager Lon Lee of the episode so the station could help Daniels address whatever issues she was facing.
While Shaw says he was still trying to make the match work at the time of the meeting, some who were around then say it was clear that he was feeling like his credibility was suffering because of Daniels' behavior.
Within weeks of that fracas, Shaw says he was called to a meeting with McCrae and Lee and told that someone had filed a complaint against him and that he could be fired because of it. Shaw says he was told to take the rest of the day off to think about it.
"I thought about it long enough to get counsel," says Shaw.
He says the station would never reveal who brought the complaint or what the complaint was about, so at that time he began to keep a careful paper trail of everything that was happening. Finally, he was given a list of allegations, and after responding to each one, he was invited to yet another meeting. This time the tone was different, and he says Lee and McCrae said the complaint was being dropped and he didn't need to worry about it. While relieved, he was also angry that he had been put through such stress during the holidays. But what happened next, he says, gave him a real chill.
He says at the end of the meeting, McCrae admitted that there was no complaint from an employee, as they had indicated, and that, in fact, she had been the one to launch the complaint.
But Shaw says the dropping of the complaint was short-lived, as he was advised by McCrae soon thereafter that they would be monitoring his every move. He soon found out that fellow employees were solicited to spy on him, especially in how he related to Daniels. Shaw says he understands now that for the next year or so he was being pushed to quit, which would thereby negate his contract.
"I considered it a lot," says Shaw. "But I had invested 17 years in this organization, and I was not going to let them do that to me. So I consciously stood to fight."
Shaw says he was on his best behavior because he didn't want to give the management any ammunition to hold against him. But he says by that time the idea that he and Daniels were a team was a joke, as management kept them apart, only allowing them to appear together at the end of newscasts. Later, they were completely separated and worked different newscasts altogether. Clearly, for whatever reason, the plans to create a dynamic new team had failed miserably.
Then just last month, Shaw discovered that a formal harassment complaint was filed against him by Daniels. As companies do when faced with such internal problems, KHQ hired an investigator to look into the matter. But Shaw was dismayed to discover the investigator worked for the law firm that KHQ owner and President Betsy Cowles once worked for. Since he felt management already had it in for him, he was concerned that the investigation wouldn't be fair to him.
Just before he went on vacation, he was told that Daniels was resigning. He and his attorney felt this meant he would be in the clear, as the complaint should die with the complainant. But that was not the case, and he was told the investigation would continue.
Upon returning from vacation, he was told not to return to work as the investigation was being finalized. He asked for a copy of the report that was being used against him, but he was never given one. Then, after one brief meeting to try to work out a solution, he was terminated.
"What's been hard for me and my family is that word," says Shaw. "Harassment. You know, when people hear that, they just attach the word 'sexual' to it. To have that in the paper has been hard, but so many people have been so great and so supportive. Now I'm fighting this so they can never do this to [employees of the station] again. This has never been a money issue -- it's a what's right issue."
For the record, those in the know say Daniels' complaint was not for sexual harassment. Shaw finds it ironic that after suffering what he calls two years of real workplace harassment, he was ousted on what he calls imaginary workplace harassment. Those who have worked with him, however, do say Shaw could be pretty hard on people if they weren't doing their job -- he was always an outspoken stickler for good journalism, but, sources say, it was always about work and never personal. But the line between hard-ass -- or even prima donna, as some call him -- and harasser is a blurry one.
So after hearing Shaw's side of the story, do we know what really happened? Without hearing the whole story from KHQ and Daniels, it's impossible to see the complete picture. Some sources are less flattering about Shaw, saying that what you see on the TV is not the real Randy Shaw. And it is rumored that the station's investigation revealed 23 employees who confirmed the original complaint. So one theory is that Shaw really was a continuing problem for the station. But this theory is contradicted by the station signing him to an eight-year contract. Eight years is almost unheard of in the business, so if there were problems, it seems unlikely that the station would be willing to offer such an arrangement.
Then there's Shaw's theory, that the station is badly mismanaged, and that his bosses threw their lot in with Daniels, meaning he became the odd man out after things got so out of control that they couldn't salvage the situation. But he also suggests something even worse could be happening -- that he is being paid back on an old, festering vendetta. He points to an ugly confrontation he had with management six years ago as the reason he has been persecuted these past few years. But this theory, too, is refuted by the eight-year contract. Why would the station's management sign him to such a long extension if they harbored a grudge against him?
But there's a third theory, and it holds that the winner in all this is none other than Daniels, who, it is whispered, won a cash settlement from KHQ for leaving (a rarity for those who resign) and saw her alleged harasser lose his most-high status in the local media landscape. This theory starts with KHQ's public firing of Shaw. Rather than simply firing him and giving no reason, as most businesses do to prevent future litigation, KHQ gave a reason that was amplified in the station's owner's newspaper the next day. To those who know something about employment law, it raised a red flag and looked suspiciously like a firing specifically designed to cancel a pending lawsuit.
Under the law, if an employer is faced with a harassment complaint and they do nothing, that's when the liability can pile up. What they need to do to avoid liability, if they discover there is a problem, is respond decisively. And firing the franchise anchor is about as decisive as it gets. So if Daniels pressed such a lawsuit after resigning, saying management failed to protect her from Shaw's harassment, it could have prompted the station to fire Shaw in such a public manner. (Others, however, argue the station may have given a reason for their decision to fire Shaw as a way to seize the initiative in the war of public opinion they anticipated would follow their decision.)
Those who say Shaw got what he deserved point to the station's firing of him, and endangering their future ratings, as proof of the severity of the situation. But the decision may have been more a function of the gender dynamics that drive harassment cases. A male co-anchor and a male general manager may be found less sympathetic by a jury than the woman who says they harassed her and allowed the harassment to persist. Perhaps defending that lawsuit, if in fact it was threatened, was judged more difficult than defending Shaw's. If that's the way Daniels did work the situation, it was a shrewd play. It left KHQ in a lose-lose situation, and in appeasing one lawsuit, the station has enabled another one.
Whichever theory emerges, Shaw may be right about one thing -- that the station got itself in trouble through poor management. Whether Daniels or Shaw was the problem, to allow such an obvious personnel crisis to continue was the biggest mistake (although some might argue that hiring Daniels in the first place was bigger). And the station may pay the price, as a drop of even two rating points can add up to millions of dollars in lost revenue over the course of a year -- not to mention any settlements paid out related to the various lawsuits, both real and threatened.
Shaw says things won't change at Q-6 while the current management is in place, and he points to the departure of popular former employees like Greg Heister, Mark Peterson and Wilde as proof. "The public knows that a number of wonderful and talented people are not there any longer," he says, "and I'll let people draw their own conclusions about why."
But now Shaw is philosophical, relishing his newfound time off. He says he wants to get his country band, the Randy Shaw Band, going again. And music may be his first love, as his father was a singing rodeo cowboy.
Shaw grew up in Spokane, attending Franklin Elementary, but moved around with his family as a kid. After his best friend was killed in Vietnam, he chose to become a medic in the Coast Guard. After getting out, he ended up in Washington, D.C., where his sister lived, and he went to work for the Arlington Daily Sun. One of his first assignments was to cover a little flap known as Watergate. After that, he went into radio and TV, gaining national exposure when he was the first on the scene of an assassination of a Chilean official. After that, he went to work for Mutual Broadcasting and covered the Reagan/Carter race and Reagan's inauguration.
Shaw was a rising star, but when he was offered the State Department beat, he knew it would mean lots of travel, and with a wife and three young children at home, he considered making a different trip: home. Hired by KHQ in 1983, he was soon catapulted into the anchor chair when veteran Carl Clark moved away.
Now 53, Shaw looks ahead with an eye to the possibilities. To begin with, he is adamant that he's staying in Spokane. Although never affiliated with a political party, Republicans tried to draft him to run against Tom Foley in 1994 (a task that fell to party leader George Nethercutt after Shaw declined). He now says he was relieved to stay in journalism. But he says he could be interested in local politics sometime in the future (as for where he might serve, he resides in Spokane County).
But beyond the talk of his band and his possible political aspirations, it's clear that he already misses the grind of journalism. And he says he misses his colleagues, who he thanks for picking him up at an impromptu going away party at a restaurant near the station attended by many of the employees of KHQ. It was exactly a week after his difficult night watching the election from home.
But Shaw's real revenge may not come in the courtroom (although that outcome still remains to be seen), as he could get back on the local airwaves sooner than many might think. While he says he'd never work for Q-6 again, he may wind up at one of the other ratings-hungry stations in town as early as April, when his non-compete clause expires.
"If it was good journalism," he says, "and it was still fun, yeah, I'd get back in it."