THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Local anchor feels our pain from afar

By Suzanne C. Ryan
Globe Staff / January 15, 2004

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On one of the coldest mornings of the year, veteran WBZ Radio anchor Gary LaPierre couldn't get over how frigid it was outside.

"Would you believe it's 5 below zero right now?" he told listeners yesterday at 6 a.m. "The only thing worse than the actual temperature right now is having the wind chill factored in."

What he didn't mention was that he was actually in northern Florida, where it was a balmy 50 degrees.

It turns out that LaPierre has been co-anchoring the WBZ Morning News remotely from his home in the Sunshine State on and off for the past two years. His home in St. Augustine is equipped with its own studio, where he can conduct interviews, touch a computer screen to broadcast commercials, and scan the Internet for Boston's news.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030 -- Boston's dominant local radio news outlet -- hasn't informed listeners of LaPierre's location and defended its approach yesterday.

"He's reporting about Boston and Boston's issues," said Peter Casey, director of news and programming at WBZ Radio. "Where he's reporting from is irrelevant. I'm not wasting my airtime to tell people where Gary is."

For 39 years LaPierre has been the voice many listeners have turned to in the morning for everything from school closings to Red Sox scores. Yesterday, his broadcast was typical local news, traffic, and weather reports. But when contacted by phone in Florida immediately after his shift, he said, "Oh, my secret is out."

He described his practice of traveling south for two weeks in the fall and two weeks each month in the winter as a perk he's earned.

"It's just one of the nice little things the station has done for me," said the 61-year-old newsman.

Asked whether he thought he was misleading people into thinking he's shivering along with them, LaPierre said he doesn't see a need to share his whereabouts with his audience since it doesn't affect the quality of the broadcast. "I don't think it's being disingenuous," he said. "I'm not lying to anybody."

During his 5 to 9:30 a.m. shift yesterday, the anchor did make several comments about the weather. "It doesn't get any worse than this," he said at one point. "When do we get a break?" he exclaimed at another.

But LaPierre said he was not being dishonest. "I didn't say I was cold," he said. "Why do I have to say `I'm not here'?"

Ethics specialists argue that LaPierre is breaching an unspoken contract of honesty between journalist and listener. "You can't deliver news and create the illusion that you're in the city where everybody's mucus membranes are frozen when really you've just picked a grapefruit off the tree in the backyard for breakfast," said Roy Peter Clark, an ethics teacher and vice president at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said it's a matter of credibility. "You don't want to be in the business of hiding [things]," he said.

To be sure, LaPierre isn't the first on-air personality in Boston to anchor remotely. Jay Severin broadcasts his WTKK-FM (96.9) Boston talk show "Extreme Games With Jay Severin" from his New York home each weekday. His topics include local, national, and international issues. His whereabouts, however, have been well publicized. Leslie Cipolla, a station spokeswoman, said the arrangement is "easier for him since his home is in New York and it works for us."

WBZ's Casey said that with the advancement of technology, it has become common practice for on-air personalities across the industry -- such as Rush Limbaugh -- to anchor programs remotely. No one else at WBZ is doing it, he added. (Poor health has led talk show host David Brudnoy to broadcast from his home at various times.)

But some observers maintain that local news should have a different standard than talk shows, especially syndicated shows, which are generally more entertainment oriented. "If you're going to be doing journalism, then you have to operate according to certain basic rules of journalism," said Rosenstiel.

Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade publication Talkers magazine, said he doesn't think listeners care where LaPierre is. "The people tuning in to that program are looking for information. The quality of the news being broadcast is in no way being impaired because he's not gathering it. He's a presenter.

"When he's talking about how cold it is, that's not news, it's entertainment. It's cosmetic," Harrison added. "It's no more a lie than putting makeup on a TV anchor to make them look younger. The main thing is that his information does not deceive the public."

For his part, LaPierre has no plans to change his ways. "I like it," he says. "I think it's a special deal."

The anchor will be flying back to Boston on Sunday and will stick around through the New Hampshire primaries. After that? "I'm going to sneak back," he said.

Suzanne C. Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com