Crooks and ne’er-do-wells, take cover: Jesse Jones, the Tacoma native who popularized the “Get Jesse” segment during a nine-year run at KING 5, returns to TV on KIRO 7 this month.
SO LET’S SAY you’ve just ripped someone off. Added a digit to the amount of their check. Stolen their identity. Absconded with all their earthly possessions in a moving company van. Placed a mystery charge for $1,219 on their cable bill. Sold them a lemon vehicle. Choose your poison.
When the big man, Jesse Jones, and his big microphone appear on your doorstep, cameras rolling, people sometimes panic — and do something stupid. What’s the absolute dumbest move?
“Rule Number One: Never call the cops!” exclaims Jones, hanging out inside his new consumer-crime-fighter lair at KIRO 7. He throws back his head, cuts loose with a staccato cackle and slaps his knee as he recounts a “Get Jesse” segment from his previous employer, KING 5.
“This was a story we did about 20 bucks,” he says. “TWENTY BUCKS. And I would do another story about 20 bucks. Because it wasn’t right, what happened to this kid.”
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Jones now lapses, as he often does to charming effect, into an alternate voice (these range from syrupy-sweet tones of his mother to a stereotypical, deep-baritoned, white-guy news anchor, to — on special occasions — Oprah Winfrey). The voice of the moment sounds like a Bible Belt preacher, ripping down the runway toward oratory liftoff.
“Kid puts money into a machine at ARCO. Had witnesses there. Went and tried to pump (gas). Didn’t work. Wanted his 20 bucks back. Walks in there, the guy tells him, ‘Pound sand!’ We check it out. I show up. Guy calls the cops on me!
“NEVER call the cops!” Jones repeats, busting up again. “Because then it’s GONNA be a story!”
Of course there is no arguing this point: Flashing lights and forced removal? Great TV. “ARCO rips off kid. We make it right. Film at 11.”
Got screwed? Get Jesse. It’s an entire news franchise in four words. And few American TV newsies do it with more exuberant panache than Jesse Jones, who makes a triumphant return this week to local airwaves after sitting out a six-month noncompete clause.
Reliving the ARCO imbroglio has him wound up.
“Sometimes, it’s more than just what went down,” Jones says, as if leaning over a pulpit to stare down those who would wrong his flock.
“Sometimes it’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. The PRINCIPLE of it. I’m serious. It’s humiliating that a company will keep you on the phone for two hours over 40 bucks. It’s just DEMORALIZING. That 40 bucks might mean lunch for the kids for two weeks. So you’re gonna FIGHT! You WORKED for that! You WORKED for it! It’s not like you won the lottery, man! ‘I got up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I took care of my kids, I dropped them off at school, I went to work, I came back, I get a check on Friday, every Friday. And you shorted me 40 bucks. And now you’re making me get down on the floor and wrestle you over it? Or BEG? Or admit to something I did not do?’ ”
He finally breathes and leans back.
“So it’s fun, you know, to be on my end. Somebody goes through all that, I’m the guy who gets to say, ‘I got it back.’ ”
THAT SCHTICK was the Jones trademark for the bulk of his nine-year career at KING, the station that in 2005 brought the Tacoma native home after stints as a general-assignment and investigative TV reporter in Baltimore and Cincinnati, Ohio. In anyone else’s hands, “Get Jesse,” a 2005 creation of then-KING station manager Pat Costello, might have become a caricature.
With Jones, it’s pretty close to the real deal: A combination of imposing gravitas, down-home folksiness, quick wit and self-deprecating ease.
“ ‘Get Jesse’ has become a character, yes it has,” he says. “But I just do me, man. What you see on TV is me. There is no act.”
It’s a combination of traits easily traced to his parents. Jesse Sr. was an Army MP who retired as an investigator for Boeing. Dad was all about personal responsibility — the kind of guy who wouldn’t necessarily give you a curfew, but would opt for a glass-of-water-to-the-face as a wake-up if you overslept. Add to this a touch of personal compassion and regard for the less-advantaged from his mother, a former teacher’s aide, and there you go: Jesse Jones, consumer superhero, now appearing in a flame-colored TV news jacket.
“He’s just a caring person,” says Mom, Mary Ann Jones of Puyallup, who remembers her son as a youngster physically defending kids who were being bullied. “That’s not a put-on.”
His change of outerwear, from yellow to red, put Jones in the odd situation of becoming news himself when the heavily promoted “Get Jesse” namesake suddenly slipped from view last fall. The booming voice with that trademark, over-the-top, over-enunciated sign-off, “JESSE Jones (wait for it . . .) KING 5 News!” went mute. Some fans feared a return of the cancer he had fought two years before.
It was a simple contractual split.
“Basically, my contract was up,” he says. “KING made an offer. A good offer. KIRO made a terrific offer and offered to do some things different in terms of growth of the product.”
Jones, a former Montana State University fullback who tried out with the Green Bay Packers, likened his predicament to an athlete signing what might be his last, best contract.
“I’m 51 years old,” he says. “I only got so much time in the pretty business. ’Cuz I ain’t pretty, man. You’re not looking at Denzel over here, y’know? So I’m on the clock. I figure I’ve got one contract, maybe two, left. So I was like: ‘This is it. If you want to change things up, do something new, flip the script, I don’t have time to wait.’ ”
KING didn’t counteroffer to keep him. But Jones says he really didn’t give them an opportunity.
“I just know this: I have to look out for my situation,” he says. “And in the end, this is about my journey, and it’s about what I like to do.” With his new contract, “I get to keep doing it. Right here. . . . I still drive back to my home in Mukilteo and see my family every night.”
Despite some shenanigans on KING’s part — their attorneys sent threatening letters when he mentioned his new job on Facebook; a KING cameraman creepily lurked while Jones conducted a public meet-and-greet at Pike Place Market last month — there’s no ill will toward his former colleagues.
“Hey, I loved that building over there,” he says, gesturing toward his old TV home on Dexter Avenue North. “I loved those people at KING, many of them I consider lifelong friends. What happened was business. I wish them luck. I hope they wish me luck.”
THE NEW place has a radically different feel. KING, the local ratings leader, has a relatively veteran staff.
“I come over here, and I’m the old guy,” says Jones, now a 25-year veteran in a career he began by guarding the back door and running a teleprompter at KSTW 11 in Tacoma. “It’s like moving into a college town, with all the good and bad that comes with that. I like it.”
The noncompete clause in his former contract kept him off the air for six months, which stretched toward nine when KING pulled him off the air upon learning of his plans to jump. His winter off, he says, taught him how much he will “SUCK at being retired.” And during that time, nobody around town Got Jesse — except his wife of 24 years, Kim (they met in college in Bozeman), and daughter Cydney, 10, both of whom took full advantage.
While the noncompete clause kept Jones off the air, he started work on a new four-year contract in October, learning the KIRO system and bankrolling stories for what’s likely to be a widely publicized launch.
Local TV vets say it’s unlikely KIRO will see a ratings boost simply from snaring KING’s star consumer guy; viewing patterns are more complicated than that. The move of a powerhouse personality — perhaps Jean Enersen in her prime — could cause ripples, but much of what attracts viewers to news is more happenstance — the strength of lead-in programming, for one. Sheer habit, for another.
‘Get Jesse’ has become a character, yes it has. But I just do me, man. What you see on TV is me. There is no act.”
Jones and KIRO already have dumped the “Get Jesse” meme in favor of a simple, “Jesse Jones” brand name (the signoff might be more complicated; he’s still working on it.) The goal is to broaden Jones’ appeal, combining his on-camera flair with the solid, less-flashy consumer reporting that has been a tradition in Seattle TV news for more than three decades. Forerunners in the field include veteran KOMO 4 reporter Connie Thompson and former KIRO reporter Herb Weisbaum — both still in the game. Weisbaum is a freelancer reporting for KOMO Radio, NBC News and his website, Consumerman.com.
Jesse Jones, the franchise, will have more of a daily online presence, and KIRO will try to highlight successes that don’t translate well on-air — things like follow-up stories on legislation that resulted from TV coverage, increased government-waste watchdogging and smaller, daily consumer tips.
Weisbaum, his style the polar opposite of Jones’ bombastic on-air persona, says there’s plenty of room for contrasting approaches to consumer reporting. The craft, he adds, is oft-overlooked by editors and producers who fail to grasp that it’s content that has the most direct impact on an audience.
“Competition is good,” Weisbaum says. “It keeps everybody on their toes.”
AS USUAL, Jones is not working alone. His transition to KIRO was eased by the simultaneous channel-jump by his friend and longtime producer, Amber Benson. They’ve had several months to reinvent the Jesse Jones brand — something they take seriously, given there’s no guarantee former fans will follow along to Channel 7 newscasts.
Like most consumer advocates, Jones and Benson, 34, work at jobs that actually are a lot more daily grind than broadcast glory. At the peak of the “Get Jesse” popularity, the team was getting more than 50 calls or emails every day, each with its own attached crisis.
“There’s never enough time, never enough newscasts” to help them all, Benson laments. Many problems are solved with a phone call. Some are simply unsolvable. Most never see airtime.
“There’s definitely some desperation,” Benson says. “Usually by the time (callers) get to us, they’re completely out of options. They don’t have any hair left to pull out of their heads.”
But some wins are memorable. Benson cites a “Get Jesse” piece that prompted a major health insurer to rewrite rules about when women could get coverage for mammograms and breast-cancer screening. Those sorts of stories can save lives.
“I love it because it’s the closest I’m going to get to a law degree without all the student-loan debt,” she says.
She has developed a friendship with Jones that extends beyond their work: Jesse officiated at her wedding last summer and is close friends with her husband. Jones often finds Benson texting his other primary handler, wife Kim — which he views with bemused, exaggerated suspicion that the two women in his life are conspiring to control him.
“I respect Jesse as a person,” Benson says. “He’s a fighter. Even cancer can’t beat him.”
JONES DOESN’T like to fly that Big-C banner around. But he is upfront about his battle with kidney cancer, which was diagnosed and treated in 2007, before returning and spreading to his lungs in 2010. After surgery to remove two tumors, then immunotherapy, the disease has been in remission. Like other survivors, Jones is wary, but says the experience has broadened his perspective on life.
“I’m absolutely fine,” he says. “I’m more likely to get hit by a bus than to go from cancer. But anything can happen.”
The relapse, he says, “was simply the most humbling thing ever in my life — the outpouring of support I received from the community. I can’t tell you how much it mattered.”
He prefers to focus on the matter at hand, which — what else? — is lifting up defenseless people in hopeless situations. Momentum is building for the big KIRO Jesse launch. He and Benson have spent their four-month head start building up a stable of consumer do-goodism for the occasion: Stories range from a Lynnwood woman who got a leaky lemon of a Dodge SUV — and a check for $32,000 from Dodge/Chrysler, which bought it back after hearing Jones’ voice on the line — to a more-complicated investigation into buyout prices offered to homeowners on flood plains in Pierce County.
He knows this game. Few viewers of Jones in his “Get Jesse” phase are aware of the street cred and reporting chops he gained elsewhere: In his first serious reporting job, his beat was crime-riddled West Baltimore during the era made famous by David Simon’s “The Wire.” Subsequent years at WLWT 5 in Cincinnati were less stressful, but equally enriching, as he worked exclusively on serious investigations.
But the Jesse Jones poised to resume chasing moving vans down the street this month will do so with the satisfied look of a man who wouldn’t trade places with anybody.
“Man, I got the best job in television,” he says. “I get to help people. I’m not showing up and shoving the camera in the face of someone who’s in a time of grief — where something bad has happened and you’re there to take. Me, I’m there to give. I’m there to GIVE. That’s a big difference, isn’t it?”
It’s the principle.