Friday, April 13

Words of Wisdom

I thanked Lee Giles for not firing me. He could have. Perhaps he should have. He did me a favor by only bringing me down a peg or two.

R. Lee Giles was the long-time news director for WISH-TV in Indianapolis (emphasis on looooonnnggg). If you’ve heard the name it’s probably in connection with Jane Pauley. Lee “discovered” her, mentored her and promoted her. Her career—which took her to TV news stardom and made her one of the earliest and most respected women in network news—began at WISH, and she has always been generous in her praise of Lee Giles.

Lee hired me as his Executive Producer in 1976. I was coming straight from my WSPD-TV debacle in Toledo: fired, canned, sacked, cashiered, sent packing—embarrassed, humiliated, discouraged, but (if you know me) nowhere near humbled. After all, I had already been the producer of America’s highest-rated newscasts (in Grand Rapids) and head producer for a station in Detroit. It wasn’t a question of getting back on the horse that threw me—it was more get back into the prize ring at the rodeo by riding the fiercest bucking bronc out there until the horse gave up and admitted defeat..

The only problem (my ego told me) was that I was better than Indianapolis. I didn’t need them, they needed me (I humbly thought). Remember, Toledo taught me humiliation, but it didn’t teach me humility!

Remember, too, the mid-seventies were still the days before cable—before CNN and MSNBC and Fox News—before the wide use of satellites. News? In each market you had your choice of three local stations and their three network newscasts, and that was that. Indianapolis, stuck in the middle of the state, was—to my mind—“The Market That Time Forgot.” They couldn’t even see Chicago. What were they going to watch to get an idea how it was done in the big-time? Terre Haute? Fort Wayne? Me--I not only knew big-time, I was the very definition of big-time (and no ego, either!!!!).

As EP I was also hands-on producer of the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts (another sign, to my way of thinking, that Indy was “small-time”).

I spent a couple of months meeting the people and figuring out the systems—biding my time. Soon, I figured, I’m going to show these yokels a thing or two. I’m going to take WISH-TV out of the sixties and into the seventies. Hell, I might not stop there: I might invent the newscast of the year 2000! Take that, Hoosier hicks!

Finally I picked a Friday night as the night I would break the mold—stretch the envelope—reinvent the wheel. I produced a lineup that required three ¾” tape rolls—three 2” machines—two film chains—multiple graphics—fancy camera angles.

It blew up on the air. No survivors. No prisoners. Blood on the walls.

At 11:30, while the smoke was still in the air, I limped out of the control room and back to my typewriter and wrote a note to Lee Giles. I listed the equipment that needed to be acquired and the people that needed to be fired. And I ended with what I thought was the coup de grace: “I guess under the circumstances I can’t do my best work.”

I put my missive in an envelope and—after thinking it over for about three-tenths of a second (patience, after all, is a virtue)—shoved it under Lee’s office door. “That’ll show him,” I thought.

When I came to work Monday I stopped first at my mailbox. There was a note from Lee. I read it—marched to his office—and said, “Thank you for not firing me. You’re absolutely right. I’m absolutely wrong. It will never happen again. You’ve taught me a valuable lesson.”

What had Lee written? Words to this effect: “You’re going to need to get more realistic expectations. If you want to produce a Detroit newscast with Detroit equipment and Detroit personnel, there’s a place you can do it—and you know where it is. I suggest you use Indianapolis people and Indianapolis equipment to produce the best newscasts you can that appeal to an Indianapolis audience.

“You wrote, ‘I guess under the circumstances I can’t do my best work.’ Please understand that the circumstances count. Your best work is the best work you can do UNDER…THE…CIRCUMSTANCES. Master them. Do what you can do—and don’t worry about what you can’t do. Don't live by the limitations, overcome them.”

My ego being what it is I forget that lesson from time to time. Lee’s ego being what it is (nonexistent) he was WISH-TV News Director for more than 35 successful years until his retirement. He was one of the best bosses I ever had; a gentleman and a gentle man. I’ve thanked him before for not firing me. This is my chance to do it publicly.

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