Sal Celeski was an early adopter of the new technology and with videotape his newsroom sprinted ahead of the competition, writes guest columnist Marc Johnson.(Courtesy of KTVB)
For a time in the 1970s and early 1980s, Idahoans who cared about government and politics, and who would lead the state after the next election, had a standing weekly date.
They tuned in at 6:30 p.m. Fridays to KTVB to listen as Sal Celeski and a panel of reporters on his weekly “Viewpoint” program interrogate a politician or business leader.
The program continues as a staple of local television, but inevitably the proliferation of online and digital sources of information – I won’t use the term news – has diminished the reach and import of any one broadcast. That is a reason for sadness, as is the passing of Sal Celeski, who died recently at 87.
Celeski was a true broadcast news pioneer. I admired him and learned from him for 40 years or so, and frequently was on the short end of his ability to beat a competitor to an important interview or a big story. Celeski – and his long-time boss Bob Kreuger – had a vision for local news as a window into a community, a vital service that informed, enlightened, entertained and, yes, even united.
The rise to local broadcast dominance of Boise’s KTVB dates to the station’s commitment to what we used to call “electronic news gathering.” In the late 1970s, expensive, time consuming 16mm film was giving way in newsrooms to expensive, but fast video cameras and tape. Celeski was an early adopter of the new technology and with videotape his newsroom sprinted ahead of the competition.
As important as the technology was to Celeski’s success, his “old school” sensibilities as a journalist also made him and his newsroom a national leader. Sal knew everyone. He was respected by everyone. He was scrupulously fair. And he was serious. He covered City Hall and the Legislature. He scored big interviews with big names. He practiced journalism in all the best ways.
More than once, as a friendly competitor, I would try to book a guest only to find that Celeski had gotten there first. And his interviews often made real news and were picked up by the Associated Press or the state’s newspapers.
On one occasion in 1978, Celeski conducted a lengthy interview with then-Secretary of the Interior Ceil Andrus. Idaho voters were set to consider a ballot issue that year related to property tax reduction. Naturally, Sal asked Andrus how he was going to vote. Andrus being Andrus, said he would do something he had wanted to do for a long time. “I’m no longer an elected public official in Idaho and how I voted is none of your business,” the once and future governor said. The wire services picked up the story and it went coast to coast.
Admittedly, Celeski pioneered quality local broadcast journalism during a simpler, more civil time. He covered politics and politicians on the basis of policy and positions, and rarely had to deal with conspiracy theories or bald faced lying from public officials. That luxury, sadly, no longer exists.
After years spent running a successful newsroom, Celeski used his understanding of television, news and politics to work on several campaigns. We became collaborators rather than competitors in 1986 when Andrus made his “comeback” campaign and won the governor’s office for the third time.
Since Andrus had been off the ballot for more than a decade, we knew we had to “re-introduce” him to Idaho voters. Celeski produced a lengthy television piece to accomplish that objective, and it aired statewide. He had the brilliant idea of using the title song from the then-recent Robert Redford film, “The Natural.” It was a perfect soundtrack for a natural politician.
Sal’s talents and integrity were so respected that he worked for Republican Jim McClure in 1984 and Democrat Andrus two years later.
Celeski was rarely nostalgic about the old days, but remembering his career and contributions is occasion to recall a better, if not perfect time in our politics. Journalists like Sal and the local broadcast, print and digital reporters who cover the news in our communities aren’t always perfect – I know I did that work – but they also are certainly not “enemies of the people.” And what they report and care about is real. There is nothing “fake” about it.
At their best, and Celeski often exemplified the best, reporters are watchdogs and vital observers of public institutions and officials. They provide the connecting tissue that allows critical information – if voters are willing to utilize that information – to enlighten and educate. They are truly indispensable to democracy.
I’ll miss Sal Celeski and what he represented. I suspect he’d brush off any lofty tributes, however, and admonish all of us to work harder at citizenship – and read and listen to more good journalism.
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