URBANA — Richard and Leslie Frank hark back to a time when there was a clear line between news and commentary, and it was much easier for people to tell the difference.
And while they lament the news industry’s changes for the worse, the Franks are also making a sizable investment in Richard Frank’s beloved alma mater to help foster good journalism at its roots — basically, what journalism students are taught in the classroom.
The University of Illinois announced this past week that Richard Frank, a former entertainment executive, and his wife, Leslie, a former award-winning broadcast journalist, have made a $7.5 million gift to the UI’s College of Media.
In an interview Wednesday with The News-Gazette, the Franks — who now operate Frnak Family Vineyards in Calistoga, Calif. — spoke about why they want to give back to the UI, their hopes for the use of the money and their views on today’s news industry.
“I believe there are very few people in the journalism business today who can actually define the word journalism,” Richard Frank said. “I believe it is a morphing definition, and I think we see it every day.”
A New York native who recalled never venturing farther west than Chicago before coming to the UI to get a bachelor’s degree in marketing — studying architecture and engineering along the way — Richard Frank said he’s still grateful to the university.
“It was a university that allowed me to find myself,” he said.
He went on to work in advertising and later to become president of Paramount Television Group and then Disney Studios, also overseeing the launch of the Disney Channel.
His leadership spawned the creation of such memorable TV shows and programs as "Cheers," "Taxi," "Family Ties," "The Golden Girls" and "Entertainment Tonight," and such movies as "Good Morning Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society" and "The Lion King."
Canadian-born Leslie Frank worked in some of the largest U.S. television markets, covering events now etched in the nation’s collective memory — among them 9/11, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Michael Jackson trial. She won an Emmy for her work as a news anchor at KCPQ in Seattle.
The Franks’ gift to the UI comes at a time when news outlets and journalists are called upon to cover a ravaging pandemic, civil unrest and a divisive national election campaign. Yet news-media resources have continued to dwindle.
According to a study released this year by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, 300 newspapers have closed and print newspaper circulation has declined by 5 million since its “The Expanding News Desert” project was published in 2018.
Leslie Frank said there were many ways she and her husband could have given back to the UI. They’re focusing on the College of Media, she said, because of their concern about the direction journalism is going in the U.S.
When she studied journalism in Canada, she said, fundamentals and accountability were taught.
“These are the things that are lacking today,” she said.
It’s “lazy” journalism, she said, when reporters don’t verify their facts, attribute their sources by name and present balanced viewpoints.
“I think that’s my problem, that I just don’t see any accountability today,” she said.
“Actual news should be clearly labeled news, and commentary should be labeled commentary,” Richard Frank said.
When the lines began to blur, he said, is when Ted Turner launched the first 24-hour cable news network, CNN.
“And they found people wouldn’t stay with them if they kept reporting the same story, so they started expanding into other areas that may not have been news,” he said.
Then along came competitors, and “then it became a fight for eyeballs, because that’s where they made their money,” Richard Frank said.
A change for the better begins with what’s taught in the classroom, according to the Franks.
“Students have to understand what the fundamentals of journalism are,” Leslie Frank said.
She also said she isn’t criticizing the UI’s program, but “there’s always room for improvement.”
Before the pandemic, the Franks made frequent visits to the UI, sharing their experience and coaching students in the College of Media. They hope to continue their hands-on contribution in the years to come, they said.
Their gift will fund new technology for classrooms and the creation of a state-of-the-art broadcast studio within the Richmond Studio. It will also create the Richard and Leslie Frank Center for Leadership and Innovation in Media at Illinois to bring in experts to speak and work with students and create other professional enrichment and outside learning opportunities, such as conference participation and internships.
Leslie Frank said she has seen firsthand how much the UI needs an improved teaching studio with better equipment.
She and her husband are already looking at bringing in experts to speak and work with students, the couple said. Their gift will be spent in the best way possible on bringing in people who can talk about journalism and explain how things work in the real world, Richard Frank said.
Tracy Sulkin, dean of the UI College of Media, said the new center will have a transformational impact on students and define the UI’s excellence in media fields.
“I’d underscore that my colleagues and I are very much looking forward to working with the Franks and that the center’s programming will benefit greatly from their expertise and commitment and from their generosity in connecting the College of Media with accomplished professionals in their network,” she said.
Meanwhile, here’s a tip from the Franks about getting a wider view of the news: Don’t limit yourself to one outlet.
“My advice, and this is what I say to my friends, I say, 'Do yourself a favor and watch them all, and make your own decision,'” Leslie Frank said.
Read as much as you can, too, she advised — including your community newspaper, national publications and what’s on social media.
Richard Frank said he switches from news channel to news channel while he works out in the mornings.
“When a commercial comes up, I switch to the next news channel,” he said.