A young Essex Porter watched in 1963 as trusted broadcaster Walter Cronkite told a troubled nation that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Looking back, Porter says that’s the day he was drawn to journalism.
Porter retired late last month from Seattle’s KIRO-TV and is learning to appreciate a new way of life after 43 busy and successful years in broadcast journalism, 39 of them at KIRO. Throughout the years, colleagues’ descriptions of Porter have remained steady and are reminiscent of Cronkite — honest, direct and fair.
“Essex is Essex. He’s authentic; there’s no pretense about him. He’s very humble. He’s very truthful. You know that when you’re speaking to him, you’re getting the truth,” KIRO news director Tara Finestone said.
While at KIRO, Porter co-anchored KIRO Morning News, anchored its Puget Sound Business Report and was its Eastside bureau chief. Porter got his start at KLMS Radio in Lincoln, Nebraska, after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He held jobs in Omaha, Nebraska, and Portland before finding a home in Seattle.
Porter said the biggest story of his career was in 1980 when he was one of the first reporters on the scene of the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption — an opportunity he had because St. Helens erupted on a Sunday.
“I had just arrived in Portland, so I was not the main Mount St. Helens reporter, but it turns out that I worked Sundays,” Porter said. “There’s only one story maybe bigger than an erupting volcano, and that’s a once-in-every-100-years pandemic. So, those are sort of the bookends of my career.”
Porter established himself most of all as a political reporter. He interviewed presidential candidates and covered political conventions, including both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2016.
At a news conference on Nov. 18, Gov. Jay Inslee named Porter “Washingtonian of the Day” and said Porter had made him a better governor. Finestone said Porter garnered respect from both elected officials and the community through his reporting ability.
“He’s not afraid to hold people accountable, but he’s always going to do it in a really fair way,” Finestone said. “He knows when to go in for the tough questions and when to pull it back. That’s an art form, and not everyone knows tact. I think it could be learned, but it’s also just really ingrained in him.”
Porter said his reporting philosophy is to ask the tough questions, but never be malicious, and to put the public first.
“A reporter has sort of different constituencies, but, to me, the primary constituency is the public we serve,” Porter said. “As a reporter, and as a person, I try to report with both integrity and compassion. And I think when people see you doing that on a consistent basis then you have a chance at earning their respect and their trust.”
Porter received a heartfelt on-air goodbye from his colleagues, who also renamed the KIRO editorial staff room to be the “Essex Porter editorial room.”
KIRO reporter Deborah Horne, who worked with Porter for 30 years, said he was always a voice of reason in the newsroom.
“When Essex speaks, people listen, because he doesn’t waste a lot of words,” Horne said. “He’s always been steady and unflappable. And when he raises his voice, because it happens so infrequently, of course you would listen to him. He somehow has an ability to help the temperature go down. That’s an amazing quality.”
Horne said she came to know Porter when he would do stories for her KIRO show, InColor, about diversity in the Pacific Northwest. In his reporting, she said, Porter was always genuine and never judgmental.
“He treats everyone the same, and that’s exactly what I think we all want,” Horne said. “I certainly would like that.”
Porter was involved in diversity efforts in his time at KIRO and has been a member of the Seattle Association of Black Journalists for many decades. Porter said he’s fortunate there were groundbreakers in the industry before him, but sometimes the door was “only open a crack.”
“We have to continually bring a diverse group of young people into the business, so that no one can ever say we didn’t hire because we just didn’t have a pipeline,” he said. “That’s not a good excuse now; it wasn’t a good excuse in the 60s either, but certainly now.”
He said diversity means different things, including having a diverse newsroom staff and producing diverse content.
“I certainly have, along with my many colleagues of all races, advocated to be sure that our coverage is diverse, that we’re not leaving out communities simply because we haven’t thought of them or they don’t necessarily fit the usual pattern,” he said.
As Porter settles into retirement, his influence persists in the newsroom. For Horne, Porter’s greatest lesson was that differences are not a weakness.
“We [as journalists] can see things very differently, and we need to all be allowed to see them differently, and have that difference be reflected in the story in the show. That’s what I learned with him — to let go and let the person be who they are,” Horne said. “That may seem trivial to some extent, but that has stayed with me. … And that really made a difference to me to be able to see the value that everybody brings, even though they may get there in a different way, or their conclusion may be different from what yours would be.”
Porter doesn’t have any big plans for retirement, but after decades in a job where “everything is a possible story,” he said it’s nice to have more control over his time.
“I’m doing what they often advise the retirees to do: take some time and give some thought to what you want to do next,” he said. “Give yourself some time away from what you spent your life doing, and try to gain a little perspective.”