Ex-Press Secretary Returns to Broadcast News

Posted June 13, 2003 at 4:01pm

As a 5-year-old in the early 1970s, Jim Heath regularly recorded the “Heath Family News” to send to his grandparents in Ohio. Although a 60-minute cassette tape took about a week to fill, Heath said he relished every moment he spent adding weather updates and singing new songs.

Today, the 37-year-old Heath has fulfilled his lifelong affinity toward broadcast journalism as he anchors the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts at the ABC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But his success follows a five-year detour to Capitol Hill. Heath’s career veered off track when he was lured into politics by Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), who in 1987 was a sportscaster at a Phoenix television station where Heath was as an intern. Heath said the men quickly developed a friendship that stemmed from a mutual interest in politics and broadcasting.

“I did the news internship during the day and came back at night to hang out with the sports guys,” Heath said. “He’s a funny, great guy.”

Hayworth had similar praise for Heath.

“I found him to be a remarkable guy,” Hayworth said. “He has both a passion for journalism and politics. That made him a natural choice for me.”

After Heath assumed the position of Hayworth’s first press secretary in January 1995, the journalist put his broadcast aspirations on the back burner.

The rookie press secretary was immediately assailed with the first 100 days of the “Contract with America” in 1995. Heath described that “monumental undertaking” as one of the most important of his tenure. “Talk about jumping into the skillet,” he said.

Hayworth described Heath’s skill and initiative, citing in particular one morning in which Heath scheduled three appearances for the Congressman at different Arizona television stations — all before a flight to Washington and a full day’s work.

“He did a very good job,” the Congressman said. “He is a quick study. He had experience in both worlds; that lent itself well to the press secretary post.”

But just because his broadcast journalism career was temporarily out of sight did not mean it was out of mind. Based in Hayworth’s district office and spending only about six weeks a year in Washington, Heath faced a dilemma as the Congressman began to rise in seniority.

“When you’re no longer a rookie, I think at that point the press secretary needs to be on the Hill.” Heath added that had the Congressman asked him to make that transition, he would have refused.

Simultaneously, Heath said his “broadcasting blood began to boil.”

With his sights set on leaving his post before the 2000 election, an anchor opportunity came up in Yuma, Ariz., during the fall of that year.

“Basically it all fell into place,” Heath said. “The timing played out. I didn’t have to leave Arizona at all.”

Hayworth said he was very excited when Heath announced the move. “It wasn’t a shock out of the blue. It was a very pleasant revelation. I think you have to go where your passions lend you.”

After two more years in his home state, at “broadcasting boot camp,” Heath started monitoring opportunities to move up in the ranks.

After stepping off the plane in Myrtle Beach just a few months ago for his first visit to the coastal city, Heath said he knew he found a fit. As a self-described “West Coast boy,” Heath, who is not married, wanted to move somewhere his parents would want to visit.

“It’s just a great place,” Heath said. “It fits my personality perfectly. I smile every day as I wake up and go to work.”

But Heath said his time on the Hill continues to serve him well. He noted that a knowledge of the political process has made him a much stronger anchor, and added that his tenure in D.C. left him much better equipped to sift through spin to find the facts. “They say nobody can spin a spinster,” he said.

The former press secretary said he misses the camaraderie with journalists on the Hill most of all.

“I really took pride in the relationships I cultivated,” Heath said. “You can manage a Member through intimidation, but over time that’s going to come back and bite you.”

Many aspects of politics on Capitol Hill still haunt the Myrtle Beach anchor, however. “I really don’t miss how partisan you need to be,” Heath said, adding, “I’ve never been ideological. I can now legitimately say who is delivering the strongest argument.”

Only a month and a half into his five-year contract with WPDE, Heath said he does not currently aspire to return to Washington in any capacity. He cited the weather and the lifestyle as reasons.

Heath said his only definite plans for the future are to continue broadcasting. He joked, “I think they’re going to have to pull my dead body off the anchor desk.”