Longtime Madison television anchor Tedd O'Connell died Monday at his home in Green Bay. The following story, appearing in the "Mixed Signals" department, was printed in the February 3, 1989, issue of Isthmus.
Tedd O'Connell was a public servant for about three hours last week when one reporter's phone call helped convince him he was in the wrong line of work.
It was Joe Beck of the State Journal, asking tough and embarrassing questions about things in his past.
There was this drunken-driving conviction from 11 years ago -- that, and Tedd's reputation as a wild and crazy party guy who loved a good time. That sort of thing might be okay for a TV newsman, went the general drift, but how was he going to justify it in his new job as the Thompson administration's coordinator of the Alliance for a Drug-Free Wisconsin? Had he told the governor before he was appointed, and if so, what did the governor think?
Seldom at a loss for snappy comebacks, O'Connell was taken aback.
"I had this feeling of impotence," he says. "I've done enough interviews myself to know which way they're headed by the ways the questions are asked. I wanted to be succinct in my answers, maybe even clever, but as soon as I heard that accusatory tone, an alarm bell went off in my head.
"I thought, 'Uh-oh-if they want to make a deal out of this, then what will come next?' I began to have very serious reservations about putting myself and family through that kind of scrutiny."
Three hours later, submitting a letter to the governor, O'Connell resigned the post. He felt embarrassed -- as though it were one hell of a way to cap off an otherwise distinguished career as a television newsman. But he took has lumps with dignity and tendered no real complaints about how the system works.
"I was very nave," he says. "For a guy who's been around as much as I have, to think that possibly my '70s personality did not fit my '90s position never really entered my mind.
"You can be public -- sort of public -- as Tedd O'Connell, the well-known anchor person, but the minute you step into the public arena and become a 'servant of the state,' you're open to anything, certainly to press and public scrutiny. The rules change fast."
Now, as he originally intended before Tommy Thompson came along unexpectedly with his $42,000 "drug czar" position a few weeks ago, Teddy Ball Game -- "ol' Double-D" -- will conclude his career at WISC in a few days, then ride off into the sunset with his wife, Rosanne, "to escape the public eye" and find "a little adventure in life." It may be to Arizona, or possibly Florida, whichever way they point their car first. But wherever it is, he won't go out slinking, tail between his legs.
"For a while," he says, "I thought to myself, 'What a horrible way to go out instead of going out nicely-boy, did I screw up.' But then I thought no, maybe not. Sure, I may be remembered as 'the guy who blew the state job,' but I really don't think so. I would prefer to think my colleagues will say, 'He raised the level of TV journalism in this market a little bit.'
"I think I did, and in the long run, I suppose that's all that counts."
O'Connell sees a pressing need for a revitalized media effort to get down to the truth of matters by digging in harder and cutting through the dreck. He feels this has not been the trend-especially in television.
"I'm a little less familiar with the newspaper writers -- I've seen some who are good and some who are bad-but as far as TV journalists go, there are very few good ones around. TV does well in covering spot news immediately-election results, the tornado in Barneveld, the carnage at city hall last year when Clyde Chamberlain was shot -- but what we haven't done well is bring the viewers the kind of exhaustive, investigative, tedious background information that informs them why an issue is important.
"Sixty-eight percent of Americans rely on TV for most of their news," O'Connell says, "and what that tells me is we're not well informed. It borders on ignorance. If people don't read their newspapers to augment their television, we're in real trouble as a society."
The main problem with TV, he says, is that stations are far more concerned with the "appearance" of a show rather than content, often taking their marching orders from numbers-conscious researchers who reside out of state.
"The bottom line should be whether or not they covered the important events of the day and informed and illuminated without too much subjectivity," he says. "But as it stands now, the idea that TV news actually reflects what's really happening in the community is absolutely preposterous."
If TV news does want to improve, O'Connell says, stations need to expand in both time allotted for coverage and competent staff. "But frankly," he says, "I don't see it coming."