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Cheatwood first came to prominence in 1989 while serving as news director at WSVN in Miami. The longtime NBC affiliate had recently switched to Fox as part of a major shakeup in South Florida television. Station owner Edmund Ansin responded by pouring most of the station's resources into its news department. With Ansin's backing, Cheatwood adopted an "if it bleeds, it leads" format heavy on flashy graphics and crime stories. Cheatwood was often criticized for an emphasis on sensationalistic reporting, as it was often overlooked that crime was a major concern for the people of Miami at the time. However, the "7 News" format revived a station that had low ratings while it was an NBC affiliate. It also heavily influenced what other Fox stations' newscasts would look like for many years to come.
In 1993, Ansin bought WHDH-TV in Boston. Like WSVN, WHDH had long been last in the local news ratings. Ansin brought Cheatwood to Boston in with the hope of turning the station around. By this time, Cheatwood's reputation in television news was such that many of the station's veteran reporters resigned. Cheatwood relaunched the station with a considerably watered-down version of the WSVN format, which was still shocking by Boston standards. Nonetheless, it led to a ratings boost, especially after the longtime CBS affiliate switched to NBC in 1995. It soon rose to second place in the Boston ratings, and for the last decade has regularly traded first place with long-dominant WCVB-TV.
In 1997, Cheatwood moved to WMAQ-TV in Chicago, as vice president of news and promotion. Although the decision was made by WMAQ-TV before Cheatwood was brought onto the scene, Cheatwood is often mistakenly criticized for bringing Jerry Springer on as a commentator. The station's longtime anchor team, Carol Marin and Ron Magers, resigned in protest. Springer only made two commentaries before being let go, and station management later admitted that his hiring was a mistake. Cheatwood took the fall for the management's decision and was later moved to serve as a consultant for NBC (WMAQ is an NBC O&O).
In 2000, Cheatwood moved to WCBS-TV in New York City as news director. He also doubled as executive vice president of news for all of CBS' O&Os. At the time, once-proud WCBS-TV had been in last place in the New York ratings for five years. Soon after his arrival, WCBS-TV adopted a format that, while tame compared to WSVN and even WHDH, was still much flashier than had been the case on New York's Big Three affiliates. In August, he rebranded the station as the "CBS 2 Information Network," using "content partners" such as U.S. News & World Report and VH1. He also moved most of the station's newscasts to the CBS Sports studio. This caused a few problems whenever the sports department needed the studio on the weekends. For instance, the studio sported "CBS Sports" rather than "CBS 2" logos at times. He also renamed the 11pm newscast "Nightcast," giving it its own graphics and music.
During his tenure at WCBS, Cheatwood is also known for running the stations operations throughout the September 11, 2001 crisis, providing a sizable portion of footage that otherwise would have been unavailable. In February 2002 he opened a full-time news bureau in Jerusalem, Israel, hiring former CBS Radio reporter Kimberly Dozier as correspondent.
On April 6, 2011, Fox News and Glenn Beck's syndicator, Mercury Radio Arts announced that Joel Cheatwood would be leaving Fox News and would become an Executive Vice President for Mercury Radio Arts. He will work as the liaison between Beck and Fox News as Beck transitions from an employee of Fox News with a 5 day a week TV show to someone who will perhaps produce occasional specials for Fox News later in 2011. He officially joined MRA on April 24, 2011.
- Rosenthal, Phil (April 7, 2007). "The Times they are a-changin'?". Chicago Tribune.
- Ch. 2 adds Israel beat Foreign bureau a first, Richard Huff, NY Daily News, January 29, 2002
- "CNN's Cheatwood Heads to FNC". Broadcasting & Cable. April 6, 2007.
- Glenn Beck Pulling Show Off Fox News, Jay Yarow, Business Insider, April 6, 2011
- Glenn Beck to leave Fox News program, Paul Farhi, The Washington Post, 6 April 2011
- Joel Cheatwood collected coverage at the Los Angeles Times
- Joel Cheatwood collected coverage at The New York Observer
- Joel Cheatwood collected coverage at the NY Daily News
- Joel Cheatwood at the Internet Movie Database