Plante inducted into TV hall of fame
by Matthew S. Bajko
As a young man growing up in the 1960s in the Detroit area, CBS 5 political editor Hank Plante never considered journalism as a career. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in sociology and moved to Washington, D.C., where he had friends in the anti-war movement.
He loved politics and had lofty ambitions of changing the world. But reality threw a wrench into his idealistic plans.
"I needed a job," recalled the openly gay Plante, who turned 60 on October 30.
Walking past the Washington Post building one day, Plante thought to himself it might be fun to work for a newspaper so he walked in and applied. The paper hired him as a copy boy and soon promoted him to the city desk.
"I fell in love with journalism and journalists," he said. "I loved how relevant it was. You were making a difference."
The Post company owned several suburban weeklies it used as a farm team and had plucked up-and-coming reporter Bob Woodward for a job at the daily paper. In his place the paper sent Plante, where he stayed for five years to become managing editor. However, Plante saw the local television reporters beat him on air with stories and set his sights on joining their ranks.
"I would go to these stories and see the glamour boys walk in. The city council people would run up to them because they had cameras. Plus, they beat me on the air. Their stuff would be on that night whereas mine wouldn't appear until the next day," said Plante.
His competitive nature led him to quit the newspaper business and jump first to radio then to television news, landing himself a job with a station in Norfolk, Virginia. He did stints at stations in Minneapolis, Houston, and Los Angeles, finally landing at his current station in San Francisco 20 years ago.
Over the last two decades, Plante won accolades for his and the station's coverage of the AIDS crisis and the Loma Prieta earthquake. As the station's political editor, he has nabbed interviews with everyone from Al Gore and George Bush to Dick Cheney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has earned a reputation for hard-hitting questions, everything from asking then-candidate Bush about perceptions he was too dumb to be president to being the first reporter to challenge Cheney for supporting an anti-gay agenda that would hurt his lesbian daughter Mary and her partner.
Last Saturday, November 11, Plante's colleagues honored his contributions to television news by inducting him into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle at the NATAS San Francisco/Northern California Chapter Twentieth Anniversary Gold & Silver Circle Induction Luncheon. The prestigious Silver Circle recognizes individuals who have been actively engaged in television broadcasting for 25 years or more (at least half of those years in the San Francisco/Northern California chapter area) and made a significant contribution to the local television industry.
It is the equivalent of a TV hall of fame. Along with Plante, this year's inductees included KTVU's John Fowler and Ross McGowan; CBS 5's Sydnie Kohara; Mark Hedlund with KXTV in Sacramento; and Bob Long from Fresno's KSEE.
When asked how it felt to be inducted, Plante joked, "old," then added, "I am thrilled. It's a nice thing to be inducted with my colleagues."
He said he is lucky to be at a station that devotes time and talent to covering politics. Prior to last Tuesday's election, Plante hosted two half-hour specials on the candidates and ballot measures, and reported live on the station's Web site for two hours on election night. The site recorded over 400,000 hits and the webcast is a sign of where the business is headed, he said.
"It was a record for the station," said Plante. "The eyeballs are moving that way because of YouTube and everything else. Our Web-only content is exploding."
Plante, who has been with his domestic partner, Roger Groth, for 12 years, has never come out as a gay man on air. But he also doesn't hide his sexual orientation. He recently convinced his union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, to provide domestic partner benefits in retirement. The union approved the benefits in September.
He is a founding member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and has worked behind the scenes to convince the national news networks to integrate gays and lesbians into news stories about everyday life.
"I think the next frontier in television news has got to be the mainstreaming of gays and lesbians into non-gay stories. When a network does a story on credit card debt, why shouldn't it be a lesbian couple profiled? It is criminal we are excluded from these stories," said Plante, who pushed former CBS anchor Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw of NBC News, and executives at CNN on this point. "I don't know how to make that happen. We are part of the fabric of this nation. We need to be included in these non-gay stories. It is a crusade of mine."
At the local level, Plante gladly emcees at various LGBT events and is a contributor to gay nonprofits, from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He draws the line at hosting political events but said he sees no problem with supporting gay groups.
"I enjoy doing it. It is giving back. These are my friends. I can still do stories on them," said Plante. "I have done stories the AIDS foundation hated over the years. I still emcee their events and give them money. They need the help, absolutely. They are fighting for me."
He does refuse to write a column or host a talk show, pointing to the recent example of the backlash ABC 7 news anchor Pete Wilson faced after he referred to Supervisor Bevan Dufty's new baby girl as a "travesty" who would grow up to be a "serial killer" because she was born to parents in a "loveless relationship" on his KGO radio show.
"This is the danger when you have someone who is supposed to be a journalist doing a column or radio talk show. Eventually your true feelings are going to come out," said Plante. "If you want to be a journalist you give some of that up. I am sorry but that is the way it is. You shouldn't know whom Katie Couric is voting for. Besides the fact, I thought what he said was ridiculous."
So far he has been impressed with Couric's performance as the first solo female anchor of a network newscast. When he had breakfast with Couric prior to her taking the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News , he said she mainly asked him about the governor.
"I like her. I like her interviews and I like the free speech segment," said Plante, who is not related to CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante. "People used to ask if he was my father. Now they ask if Bill is my brother."
He has three years left on his contract with the station, and while he expects his duties may be downsized, he is not quite yet ready to retire with his partner to the home they own in Palm Springs.
"We talk about settling in there but after three days I would start talking to the cactus," he quipped. "I can never imagine not working. Maybe not at this pace; it is a lot of work."
Plante is already focused on future political races to cover. He expects to see San Francisco elect a gay or lesbian mayor someday, and can see covering Dufty's run for the office in five years. He also said he has no doubts that Mayor Gavin Newsom will run for re-election, and then broker a deal with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on who will run for governor in 2010 and who will run for Senator Barbara Boxer's seat, who is rumored to be ready to retire.
"I know for a fact Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa met privately and talked about who wants what job in four years," said Plante. "They don't want to face each other in a primary."
Besides there being more stories to tell, Plante is still enamored with the profession he stumbled into all those years ago.
"I absolutely love what I do. A friend says being a journalist is like having a backstage pass to life," he said. "I am as in love with it now as I was as a kid at the Washington Post ."