The First Lady of South Florida news television has died.
No hyperbole there. Molly Turner was, literally, Florida’s first anchorwoman in 1960. She began her television career in 1951 at WTVJ, South Florida’s first TV station.
She joined WPLG-Channel 10 as the first woman television reporter in 1969. There, in a Miami TV career stretching to her retirement from the station in 1988 — 37 years — she covered stories on the burgeoning women’s movement, was the station’s first consumer affairs reporter and won three Emmy awards for investigative reporting.
Turner, who lived in Coral Gables for four decades, died Thursday at 93 at an assisted living facility in New Jersey, where she moved to be near her daughter.
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Her influence was immeasurable, paving the way for the late Ann Bishop, another WPLG TV news legend, who once credited Turner for thrusting doors open for female broadcasters. Also, Carmel Cafiero, WSVN-Channel 7’s first female reporter, who retired June 30 after 43 years at the station, and WSVN’s current news anchor Belkys Nerey.
“I grew up watching her on TV, 100 percent,” said Nerey. “She did all the consumer stuff. Such a strong, hard-hitting reporter. One of those women that nothing could stop them. ‘If there’s a wrong, I’m righting it’ and that’s what a good journalist is. I remember watching her in middle school and thinking, ‘That is some job that lady has got.’”
In 2007, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., presented Turner with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol to honor her for her television career. “We want to thank you for starting a wave that knows no end,” Lehtinen said. Activist Roxcy Bolton, the founder of the Miami Commission on the Status of Women, of which Turner was a charter member, said at the 2007 event, “Molly knew how to find a good story.”
Turner responded, “There were so many things that needed to be done.”
Turner’s career before the cameras at WTVJ initially had a comedic spin thanks to her mother who watched Martin Wales’ Saturday morning show on then-Channel 4. She arranged an audition for her daughter to sing on the program — on a dare.
Turner landed a role as Cousin Effie on the station’s “Uncle Martin Show,” in 1951, playing a hillbilly country singer. She was the show’s comedienne with flaming red hair, a face full of freckles and blacked-out teeth.
“I was so scared, I could hardly talk, let alone sing. That's when I put those big freckles on my face and blackened my teeth to become cousin Effie,” Turner recalled in a 1988 Miami Herald story.
But playing a wacky character wasn’t for the more serious Turner. Effie soon became Molly. The affectations of a country comic departed and a hard news persona emerged.
When Post-Newsweek bought Channel 10 in 1969, the owners put a hard news edge on the station and eyed Turner, already in her mid-40s, as its best bet to deliver the product. She learned news reporting on the job.
Often, she had to do so at a disadvantage. Women reporters were barred access from many events. News reporting was seen as a male birthright.
One infamous incident centered on Miami’s Tiger Bay Club in 1969. Then male-only, the political group also believed only men ought to cover its events as Turner found out when she reported on a meeting at the old DuPont Plaza in downtown Miami.
A former WPLG general manager once said of Turner, “She had style and grace, but you would do well not to misconstrue that, because she was hard-nosed and driving in her job — she just did it with a touch of class.”
Turner called on all of these attributes when she “sort of integrated” the club in 1969.
“At that time, they let male reporters in; they sat up near the head table and had lunch, while female reporters had to sit in the lobby and hope to catch speakers as they came out the door,” she recalled in a 1988 Herald story. “The first time I went, they wouldn't let me in. The next time, I waited until everyone was in, and then, with the mic live, the camera rolling, and my knees knocking, I went in.”
She was asked to leave. She responded they were interfering with her job. “After three weeks of seeing themselves on the news, they decided to let female reporters cover the meetings. That time — with the women's movement and the environmental movement — made it thrilling to be a reporter,” Turner said.
She was unflappable. In 1968, while covering an anti-Vietnam war protest on the lawn at the University of Miami, a student, clad in the hippie attire of the era — torn jeans and bare feet — suddenly fell out of a tree and hit her on the way down. Unhurt, Turner dusted herself off and continued filming her piece.
Truly the iron fist in the velvet glove.
Former WPLG producer Pauline Winick on consumer affairs TV reporter Molly Turner.
“I was lucky to be one of her producers,” said Pauline Winick who was one of the young producers in the public affairs department at WPLG in 1976. She later became executive vice president of the Miami Heat.
“Among the programs we did was a live call in show on Sunday nights, “On the Line,” with Molly fielding calls from viewers and studio guests. Molly was fierce but never nasty. She brought our cameras into the then male-only Tiger Bay Club. I like to think that some of her graciousness became a part of my DNA. Truly the iron fist in the velvet glove,” Winick said.
In a consumer affairs promotional segment broadcast in 1976, Turner explained her role to viewers as she pushed a shopping cart at a local grocery store.
“Ultimately, the consumer has to be her own best friend,” Turner said. “She has to know how to shop correctly. I have a low boiling point. I get mad often at some of the stuff I see and hear about and the phone calls people give me. It gets you steaming but you’ve got to do more than steam. You’ve got to go out and find a solution and I keep trying.”
Turner enjoyed consumer reporting. “I feel I’m helping people. I feel I’ve learned a lot doing it and it’s a necessary function. We are faced with so many decisions and too little information to make them well and properly. How to read a contract and know what a guarantee is. These are all important things and things I can help with,” she said in the clip.
Among her other achievements, Turner was founder and president of the Gold Coast Chapter of American Women in Radio and Television. The organization presented her with its Florida Legend award in 1986. She won three Emmys for investigative reporting during the last 15 years of her career for reports on water quality, health clubs and the Women's Rights Movement. She’s a National Press Club award winner, and won the 2001 Imprint Award given by the Miami International Press Club.
Turner is survived by daughter Lyle Landon, son Chris Ruppenthal and four grandchildren.