Detroit TV Anchor Is Quite Outrageous, And Quite Popular

Bill Bonds Is No Tom Brokaw, And He’s Proud of It; A ‘Metaphor’ for the City

by Neal Templin, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

DETROIT — A few years ago, the lead anchor man for
television station WXYZ here reported that some homosexuals
were “groin terrorists” who were purposely trying to spread
AIDS through “zipper warfare.” Later, in 1989, during a
rambling monologue on the air, he challenged the mayor to a
boxing match.

In a lot of cities, that anchor would have been aweigh
long ago. But the outrageous and often offensive Bill Bonds
is the most popular local TV personality in Detroit. He is
Detroit’s own version of newsman Howard Beale of the movie
“Network,” who was mad as hell and wouldn’t take it any more.
How popular is he? After his challenge to the mayor, he
disappeared from the airwaves for five weeks during alcohol
treatment; when he returned, nearly a million viewers — more
Detroiters than watched Game 1 of the World Series that year
— tuned into the ABC affiliate to see the dried-out Mr.

At 5 p.m., when many viewers are blue-collar workers home
from the early shift, Mr. Bonds’s newscast draws twice as
many viewers as the next most popular newscast. At 11 p.m.,
he runs neck-and-neck for the No. 1 spot. The 59-year-old Mr.
Bonds recently signed a lifetime contract with WXYZ that will
pay him more than $1 million a year as anchor for up to seven
more years, a big figure for a local anchor. Then he’ll
continue as a commentator, which he really is already.

Mr. Bonds’s newscasts are a world away from the blow-dried
news of most markets. They’re less traditional reporting than
a kind of “here’s what happened in the world today and what I
think about it.” The earthy Mr. Bonds doesn’t think much of
some of his fancy TV colleagues; in private, he does an
unprintable impression of an uptight Dan Rather during an
intimate moment.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Bonds failed in efforts to make
it big in Los Angeles and New York because he didn’t fit in
either city. But his success in Motown shows that he’s “a
metaphor for Detroit,” says Richard Campbell, a University of
Michigan expert on broadcast news. Just as Detroit’s economy
endures wild cyclical swings, Mr. Campbell says, Mr. Bonds
“captures the contradictory nature of the city. He gets in
trouble a lot, and gets back up.”

When Mr. Bonds returned to the air in 1989, he told
viewers: “Booze, very frankly, had taken over my life. I was
a man out of control, headed for, I’m sure, death, insanity
or perhaps even prison.” He refuses now to say if he drinks
at all. But since his treatment, he has gotten into at least
one bar scuffle, which was frontpage news here. “The
newspapers get on Bill for getting into bar fights, but what
the hell is wrong with that? ” asks Erik Smith, a veteran
reporter at WXYZ. “That’s what Detroit is about. This is a
tough town.”

This is the city where a giant sculpture of a fist — that
of Joe Louis, boxing legend and native son — adorns a
downtown street. The pro basketball Pistons take pride in
being called the “Bad Boys.” Detroit Monthly magazine
recently devoted a cover story to the Detroit Attitude, as
exemplified by Madonna, a local product, and the late Ty
Cobb, the Detroit Tigers’ Hall of Famer who used to slide
into second base with the sharpened spikes of his shoes aimed
high. Local shops carry a T-shirt that brags: “Detroit —
where the weak are killed and eaten.”

“A lot of people look to Bill as the guy who thumbs his
nose at authority and acts as their surrogate,” says Mort
Crim, the anchor on the NBC affiliate in Detroit and Mr.
Bonds’s chief competitor. “That’s why it works here for him
and didn’t work for him in Los Angeles and New York.”

Part of the Bonds appeal is that he was born and raised in
working-class Detroit. He grew up in the city’s 12th Street
area populated chiefly by Irish and Jewish families. He left
one high school by “mutual consent,” he says, was kicked out
of another and dropped out of his final stop. He eventually
joined the Air Force and there passed his high school
equivalency test.

After his stint in the military, Mr. Bonds earned a
political science degree at the University of Detroit. His
first professional broadcast job, as he still reminds
viewers, was working for “a buck an hour” at a tiny radio
station in Albion, Mich., where he even swept the floors. In
1964, he broke into television by joining WXYZ. Back then,
the station’s local newcasts were weak in content and
ratings. Detroit’s 1967 riot changed that.

The riot began only a few blocks from where Mr. Bonds grew
up. Forty-three people were killed, making it the nation’s
worst civil disturbance of a turbulent decade. Mayor Coleman
Young now refuses to be interviewed by Mr. Bonds — “I don’t
care to be interviewed by unstable characters,” he says —
but he recently told the Detroit News that the newsman’s
coverage of the riot was full of compassion, unlike other TV
accounts. “I was watching something I loved die,” Mr. Bonds
says today.

His performance attracted national attention, and a year
later Mr. Bonds left to be the anchor at the ABC affiliate in
Los Angeles. His ratings were good, but he quarreled with the
station’s management and returned to Detroit in 1971. Mr.
Bonds left again in 1975 for New York but had trouble
breaking into an established lineup. The next year, he
returned to Detroit, this time for good.

Or for bad. Mr. Bonds offends just about everyone
periodically — including his own employer. After WKBD,
Channel 50, the major local independent station, aired a
recent Pistons playoff game that went down to the wire, Mr.
Bonds told his viewers: “Channel 50, God bless them, must
have had a 90 rating tonight.” The people in WXYZ’s control
room tend to groan when Mr. Bonds says such things.
Many people in Detroit’s gay community still won’t talk to
Mr. Bonds because of his “special report” on AIDS in 1985,
says Craig Covey, a longtime local advocate for homosexuals
and AIDS victims. “It made us lose a year or two about
educating people about the disease,” says Mr. Covey. But Mr.
Bonds makes no apologies for saying that some gays were
purposely trying to spread the disease. “It didn’t get me in
a lot of trouble with the heterosexuals in town who don’t
want to get AIDS,” he says.

At a Pistons basketball game last year, when Mr. Bonds
appeared at half time to shoot free throws for charity, the
crowd booed him. Mr. Bonds, dressed in an electric pink
shirt, responded by blowing kisses to the crowd and then
sinking three straight free throws.

Fans only boo if they love you, he explains later. “I’ve
had people come up to me and say, `Bonds, you’re the most
opinionated, arrogant SOB I’ve ever seen,'” he says. And
then, he says, they ask for his autograph.

[This article is made available here by Dow Jones Co. for the
personal and non-commercial use of callers to this bbs, in the
hope that it will be of some help to those who are suffering
from the disease and others who are seeking to help them.]

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