My Town Monday Cincinnati: Jerry Springer

Once upon a time, Cincinnati had a mayor. He was a popular mayor. He was a hip mayor. Afternoons, he would do commentary on local rock station WEBN. After his tenure on city council, he became one of the city’s most popular news anchors, then went on to national fame as a talk show host. So who is this man of the people that everyone seems to have embraced?

Justin Hoch, used under Creative Commons

Justin Hoch, used under Creative Commons

Jerry Springer, born in a London Underground station during the Blitz and raised in New York, came to Cincinnati in the late 1960’s to work for local law firm Frost, Brown, and Todd. He also was an entertainer, which helped him get elected to city council in 1971. Maybe a future governor or senator, Springer would never become president since his parents had fled Germany for London, where Springer was born. Still, his political future looked bright in the early 1970’s.

At least until he paid a visit to a Ft. Wright, KY, massage parlor. The massage came with a happy ending. Springer paid with a check. It was the original Anthony Weiner scandal. Except…

Springer resigned and came clean to the public, apologizing. Sure, politicians apologize all the time when they’re caught, but Springer skipped the step where you strenuously deny everything with righteous indignation. Nope. Springer not only went to a prostitute, but he paid with a check police found in a raid. End of career. Right?

Wrong. They voted him back onto council in 1975. Why? He owned up. Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, take note.

Two years later, Springer became mayor, and he was one of the most popular mayors in the history of this usually conservative town. He was so popular, in fact, that he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1982. Growing up in Cleveland, I never heard of the guy until he ran this ad…

Yes, Cincinnati appreciated Springer’s blunt honesty. The rest of the state’s Democrats opted to nominate a political hack from Cleveland named Dick Celeste, the latest in a long line of boring political hacks to go to Columbus.

Springer then moved into television as a political reporter for NBC affiliate WLWT. He soon became the station’s news anchor, which was his job when I moved to Cincinnati in 1991. Springer would end his 11 PM newscast with his Final Thought. Those of you who watch the current incarnation of The Jerry Springer Show are probably rolling your eyes, but in the beginning, the Final Thought was one of the high points of local news. Thoughtful and passionate, Springer admitted he wrote about whatever struck him, often on the back of a cocktail napkin at dinner after the 6 PM broadcast. It was a continuation of his Springer Manifesto when he was mayor providing the daily commentary for WEBN.

In 1991, as the city basked in the glow of the Reds’ recent wire-to-wire season culminating in a sweep of the Oakland A’s, with two Bengals Superbowls still in everyone’s memories, and the great Paul Brown still alive, Springer and his news team – a couple of whom still work in local television – was considered one of the best local newscasts in the country. From that springboard, Springer decided he wanted to move to the national stage. Not to CNN or the fledgling Fox News Channel. No, Springer had two role models in mind: Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.

So, as I was settling into my new apartment and flailing about in the city’s job market, The Jerry Springer Show quietly debuted. I caught an early taping at WLWT’s old downtown studios, even got to meet the man himself. (Don’t be impressed. We passed in the john.) The show had more in common with Donahue and Oprah than the circus its become today.

Springer caught on nationally, but in the age of Riki Lake and Jenny Jones, it was clear the show would not have a long run. Becoming the next Oprah or Donahue was out. Instead, Springer opted to make the show a carnival of trashy people having cat fights over the most lurid of situations. You know. The quality television we’ve come to expect from Springer today.

Nationally and internationally, Jerry Springer is the Ringmaster whose show is one of the sleaziest on broadcast television. Locally, we still remember the WLWT anchorman and former mayor who owned up to a stupid mistake. Perhaps if Springer had opted for CNN or one of the broadcast networks as a political analyst, the world would think differently of him.

But if Jerry had never become The Ringmaster, someone would have had to invent him.

More at the My Town Monday blog.