Saturday, June 30

A Farewell

This one is going ramble, and be a bit more disorganized than I'd like. Maybe I'll fix it up and add to it later.

It's 6:30 on a Saturday morning and I just learned that my friend Joel Siegel has passed away at the age of 63, and I'm saddened.

I can't say we were close friends (wish I could), but we were more than just acquaintances when we worked together at WABC in the early eighties. Come to think of it, everyone who knew Joel was a friend. He was a genuinely nice man.

When you're new to New York (as I was), the city and the job can be a bit intimidating. Sinatra had it right: "If I can make it there..." But it's not necessarily a welcoming place. The WABC attitude seemed to be, "You've never worked in New York before? Then you've never worked. Period. Your career starts now, and you'd better be good...or else!"

Joel's attitude was, "How are you, welcome, nice to meet you." I had a coffee pot in my office which everyone was free to raid. Many did. Joel stayed for conversation.

He was an amazing raconteur. If you saw him only as the movie critic on "Good Morning America" you already know that he was more than just clever and witty. He had insight and could make you laugh and think at the same time. And he was a student of New York and New Yorkers. He knew something about everything that had ever happened in the Big Apple. Joel could tell anecdotes about the city and its residents than went back to the New Amsterdam days.

The only friction I remember was caused by the tug-of-war for his talents. As "GMA" became more and more popular, the network wanted more and more of his time. Joel, who had been doing movie and theater reviews and cultural reporting for WABC, started cutting back his local duties--aiming to become just a theater critic for Eyewitness News. The WABC brass were reluctant to loosen their grip on him, he was just too good at too many things.

I remember one election night--must have been 1982--when we left room for a Joel Siegel election-rated anecdote as the "bumper" before every commercial: little slice-of-campaign-life stories shot all around the city. The one that left everyone howling was the story of a mayoral debate in the early 1800s--maybe even the late 1700s. I don't remember the setup or the names, but it closed with one candidate cursing at the other and saying, "You, sir, are a cur and a vile cad, and you're bound to die of some loathsome disease."

The reply? "That, sir, depends on whether I embrace you principles, or your mistress."

Did you know Joel was a Broadway playwright? He wrote the book for a musical called "The First," based on Jackie Robinson's start with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A young David Allen Grier played Jackie Robinson, and Lonette McKee played his wife, Rachel. Martin Charnin (of "Annie" fame) wrote the lyrics and directed. How's that for a lineup? The show had a short run, though. I never could figure out why. I was smitten by it. To this day I can still hum some of the songs (like the one where Rachel responds to Jackie's marriage proposal saying, "I damn well better know you better" before marching down the aisle). I saw the show three times, including the final performance. I sat on the aisle and got to give Joel a sympathetic hug at the curtain. He became the only theatrer critic in history to be honored with a Tony award nomination. Hey, how many critics think they can be playwrights? All of 'em. How many can go on to be nominated for a Tony? Only one of 'em!

Parenthetically--and selfishly--I don't know how I'm going to pick movies now that Joel's gone. Over the years I've agreed with his movie reviews 99.9% of the time!

Anything else I should share? I sat shiva with Joel when his second wife died. She was young--a former WABC film editor, I believe--and her passing broke Joel's heart. Years later he remarried and has a young son, born in 1998, I think. By then Joel had colon cancer. At one point he was told he had only a 70% chance of living to see the birth of his child. That's when he wrote Lessons for Dylan, a highly-praised book, life lessons he wanted to pass down to his boy.

I stayed in touch with Joel Siegel a bit after I left New York. But he was very busy, and I didn't want to take up much of his time. Now I wished I had, if only to tell him that he brightened a corner of my life, that I was awed by his talent, thankful for his kindness, and that I liked him a lot.

Monday, June 25

The Fritz Rule

Back in the early 90s, at WEWS-TV in Cleveland, I instituted "The Fritz Rule."

Fritz was my five-year-old nephew, and the rule went something like this: "I don't want to see anything on our newscasts that I'd be embarrassed to have to explain to Fritz."

I don't want a five-year-old watching a story on Monica Lewinsky and asking, "What's oral sex?" I don't want to talk about what Michael Jackson may or may not be have been doing with little boys in his bed. I don't particularly want to have a conversation about uncovered, bloody bodies at the scenes of car wrecks. I don't want to have to explain the pictures from Abu Ghraib Prison, so keep the photos off my air or put a disclaimer in front of them three times the size of an interstate billboard.

I've talked here before about television as a "truth detector," and about "Eyewitness News," which was designed to let viewers experience the news as close to first-hand as possible. An argument can be made that the "Eyewitness" concept doesn't allow for either toning down or cleaning up the harsh realities of life.

That may be so, and I may be a hypocrite. But just as people can't reclaim their virginity, you can't give children back their innocence. I did grow up in a more innocent time. We didn't lock our doors. The keys were left in the car. We trusted our neighbors, and thought that the world was a safe place. Maybe we were delusional back then, but now I hear words on TV that I personally didn't learn until I was hanging around the locker room with the rest of the jocks in high school—and later! If I don't want to explain to a child that there's no Santa Claus, why should I have to explain what "nappy-headed ho" means?

I don't have any hard, fast answers here. I know that we do good by warning children of the dangers of the Internet and sexual predators and drug abuse and drinking and driving. I'd just like to hope that before we put things on the air we mull them over a bit and consider their deeper meanings and the impact they can have on impressionable young minds. So I think about my little nephew.

Fritz, by the way, isn't so little anymore. He's 17 and a high school sports star heading into his senior year. He probably knows more cuss words and more about sex than I knew when I was 21. But he didn't learn from me!

Wednesday, June 20

Uphill…Both Ways

Ah, ya young whippersnappers! Ya think you got it hard? You don't got it hard, nosireebob. You ain't hardly got no idee what hard is, goldang it! Why, when I was your age I used to walk fifteen miles to and from grammar school—and it was uphill both ways. We used to drive a herd of cattle in front of us, and along the way we'd trade some of the cows for firewood. We'd use the wood to start a fire so that when we slaughtered other steers we could tan the cowhide to make our own shoes. And we'd milk some cows—drinking the milk for breakfast and trading the cream for needles so we could sew our own clothes. All this and it was -30 degrees—in May!

Yep, kids today don't know the value of a little hard work.

That's what I heard growing up from my father; and my guess is you heard the same thing from yours.

I vowed that I'd never be one of those "Way Back When" types.

Another promise broken!

You see, I don't have much respect for some of the younger journalists I've encountered recently.

I've written here before about my first boss ("Man and Mentor," April 12th) and said that my first broadcasting job was part-time at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Let me tell you "The Rest of the Story."

In late 1968, early in my senior year at Michigan State, a professor in one of my broadcasting classes asked if anyone would be interested in weekend news writing at WOOD. Half the hands in the room went up. In those days (and maybe still, I'm not sure) the best TV stations in all of Michigan were the network affiliates in Detroit and WOOD. Channel 8 was simply the class of medium-market Michigan TV. And in those days there were literally no internships in broadcasting, and real jobs were tough to come by. A chance to work at WOOD would be dream come true.

Then the prof. explained the hours: 5:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on Saturday (18 hours), followed by 10:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on Sunday (13 hours).

Every hand went down...but mine.

I applied, I interviewed and I got the job (if I remember) $2.55 an hour. Now, Grand Rapids is 75 miles from East Lansing. So the drill was get up at 3:00 a.m.—drive to Grand Rapids—work until 11:00—get a motel room—catch eight hours sleep—work until 11:00—get home at 1:00--and head off to class on Monday.

(TRIVIA: know how the "Motel Six" chain got its name? Because all rooms in those days were $6.)

Counting the gas (at about 25 cents a gallon), the $6 motel and meals—heck, I was still clearing $60-$65 a weekend. But you couldn't put a price tag on what I was learning.

After WOOD, every time I had a career choice to make I asked myself--What do I need to learn--Where can I go to learn it? I made what looked like lateral (or even backwards) moves so I could pick up new skills and master my craft. Each stop along the way was a link in the chain--the chain I called a career. It was my apprenticeship. It took me eleven years (until I reached New York) before I considered the apprenticeship over. Still I never stopped learning, never stopped striving, and could never resign myself to being a 40-hour-a-week clock-watcher.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. In my most recent incarnation as a news director I found most of the staff willing to give 100% effort 50% of the time. Or was that 50% effort 100% of the time? Either way, most had jobs but not careers. Most were dedicated to taking the easy way out. A few years back, in short succession, I lost two young producers from my medium-market station to a much larger market where they signed on as Production Assistants--newsroom go-fers. Talk about lateral or backward moves! When I asked why, about the best they could come up with was that both were big baseball fans and their new city had a good major league team.

Have no idea where either is today. My guess is in some sports bar with their baseball caps turned backwards pounding home the brewskies.

Different station, same dilemma. Rookie producer helped put herself through college by waittressing at a popular local restaurant. Came to me to say she'd had an offer to go back as the lead hostess. Let's see: hostess, news producer--hostess, news producer--hostess, news producer. These career choices are tough, aren't they? In the end she stayed in TV (and I lost my chance to double up at the salad bar without paying extra).

A lot of people want to be "TV Stars." How many want to do the grunt work of producing, reporting, shooting video, running the assignment desk? Everyone wants the big bucks, no one wants to pay any dues. Am I crazy, or does it seem as if more and more TV news people aspire to Paris Hilton's lifestyle than to Walter Cronkite's?

I know what you're thinking: that I've settled in to my "Old Fart Emeritus" years. That could well be true. But prove me wrong. Please.

Sunday, June 17

This One Got Me Into Trouble

This one is going to be a bit long, but please bear with me. It contains an article that was picked up by "ShopTalk" on back in 2001, which got me into hot water with my bosses at WBRE.

I've been a news director off and on since 1975. Several times I've consciously stepped away: once to teach, twice to accept second-in-command positions (EP in one case, ME in another). Truth is, I liked not being the ultimate boss. The news director is busy all day in meetings with the Sales Department on how to arrange a trade-out so anchors can get their hair styled for free! The ME or the EP gets to do news (what a concept).

In the article below I was quoted (correctly) as saying that over the years the job of news director has become more administrative and less about journalism. When it appeared the WBRE higher-ups were upset. They thought I was taking pot-shots at them.

Only indirectly. I think my criticism here applies to just about every TV station in America. One exception? There's a story about my friend the late Ron Tindiglia when he was General Manager for WCBS in New York. The story goes that he hired a new News Director, and on his first day told him, "You'll get the keys to your office in thirty days. For the first month your job isn't behind a desk, it's in the newsroom." Might be apocryphal , but I certainly hope not. And it sounds like Ron Tindiglia. If anyone ever got it, it was Ron!

A couple of years later WBRE's News Director "left to pursue other career goals" (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean, say no more!) and I was made acting ND. After the proverbial "nationwide search" (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean, say no more!) the station couldn't find anyone willing to take the job and it was offered to me. Maybe "offered" isn't the right word: when I asked if I could stay where I was (ME), doing what I liked to do (news), I was told that there would be a new ND, and that he or she would be hiring a new ME or EP. It could be me doing the looking, or me looking for another job.

So I reluctantly became News Director. I took a job I didn't want--doing things I didn't want to do--for people I didn't respect.

Want to guess how that ended?

Anyway, here's that article from more than six years ago.

A News Director By Any Other Name

By Stu Nicholson

Columbus Media Talk

A News Director by Any Other Name . . .

By definition, a news director is simply someone who directs the news. He or she is also the person to whom tons of mail is uselessly addressed in the hopes their news release and/or event will rise to the top and get covered. Santa Claus answers more mail than the typical news director does. While this may come as a shock to all but the most savvy public relations mongers, it is significant evidence that the job of news director has changed (some would say evolved) over the last few decades in television news. Today's news director, I submit, has less and less to do with directing the news of the day, and has become increasingly more of a newsroom manager. In other words, he / she has become a bureaucrat. That's one of the kinder names I've heard from my brothers and sisters in the news business . . . news directors included.

Some of this evolution, if you want to call it that, is attributable to the growing corporate nature of broadcasting as a whole and TV news in particular. You have the Jack Welchs of the corporate world putting the pressure on local managers to perform or else be viewed as some kind of impediment to the greater good of the corporation. Being an impediment is not a good thing in the eyes of the folks at "corporate". They expect you to do more (and more) with less (much less), and make that profit margin look good. Their concern over whether a news market is being adequately served and informed by their local outlet is minimal. They want to see ad revenues, first and foremost. So the local news director, with some exceptions, sees himself / herself as being forced into towing the corporate line: reviewing budgets almost constantly, hiring and firing, dealing with visiting corporate honchos who (for the most part) know or care little about local news, and maybe once in a while poking their head into an editorial meeting to make a show of looking like they're in control. Ultimately, they are in control: in control of the professional lives and careers of everyone in the newsroom. There are still some news directors who do that job with a sense of humanity and true leadership. But I know and hear about many more who treat their people like some kind of corporate-owned cattle. Don't perform up to their vague expectations and you're sent to the meat-packing plant for your career to be sliced and diced.

But while all this is going on, who is left in charge of how and if local news gets covered, if it gets covered at all? It's the executive producer at many stations, or the title may be assistant news director. If that person is competent and knows how to use their knowledge and journalistic skills to lead, the newsroom and news people can still do their jobs. For some, it is as far as they want to go in local news, because they realize they will give up much of that day-to-day influence on the output and quality of news if they grab the brass ring and allow themselves to be elevated into an ND's job.

Or, consider the case of long-time news director Paul Stueber: a man who has led newsrooms in markets like New York, Baltimore, Miami, Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Wilkes-Barre. He recently made the conscious decision to step back from being a news director and become Managing Editor at WBRE-TV in Wilkes-Barre-Scranton. His reason? "I get to do NEWS," say Stueber. He traces the change in the role of news director back to the 70's when, as he puts it, "One (TV station) salesman turned to another and said, 'you know, if we could get a couple of more share points we could break even on news.' And his buddy said, 'y'know, if we could get FIVE more share points we could turn a profit!' And that was that."

News, says Stueber, then became a business instead of a duty and service of local stations. It was no longer a newsroom. It was a "profit center." "Suddenly, being a good newsman (there weren't many women in the biz back then) didn't count for much. Suddenly, you had to be a (gulp)"MANAGER."

Of many of today's news directors and station owners, Stueber observes, "They don't know or care about their communities. They don't view broadcast news as a service performed for your neighbors, but as a product for sale." What's the resulting new measure of success? High ratings and high income.

I once worked for one who went home at 4 PM almost every day, missed his own newscasts and then had the gall to be critical of the people who labored everyday to put on a decent half-hour of news. Stueber wonders how many local news directors will watch their newscasts tonight and say, "I didn't know that!"

"But they SHOULD know," says Stueber, "because they should be setting journalistic standards, not just BUSINESS STANDARDS."

Former Memphis news director Bob Jacobs shares many of the same observations, saying the corporate pressure on the industry has forced the job to be more difficult than ever before. "You are usually promoted for your work as a journalist, and you're thrown into a position that requires you to manage multi-million dollar budgets, handle human resources for 60 or more people, come up with regular special assignment and series reports that will bring in viewers and, in your spare time . . . concentrate on the quality of your daily news coverage."

Even the decision-making process has largely been taken out of the hands of many local news directors and given to some Armani-clad executive at corporate headquarters. D you think they really know or care what makes news, much less quality news? Don't bet your remote on it.

"But let those numbers slip", says Jacobs, "let the profit margins fall, and it's the news director's head that's offered to corporate management on a platter.

Jacobs is now out of the business and says he cannot imagine stepping back into a news director's job again. "There's an assumption that the news director makes decisions. That's simply not the case. However, they are saddled with the responsibility if something goes wrong." He decries the corporate pressures that have turned many newsrooms into profit-or-die operations. After climbing the career ladder into his life-long dream of his first news director job, Jacobs says his lofty ideas about doing solid journalism were dashed by those pressures. "The corporate heads wanted profit margins in the 50% range. You cut people and you don't invest in the technology infrastructure. Simply put, you do more with less. It didn't last."

Jacobs admits "there are plenty of people who still find being a news director rewarding, and I applaud their ability to make it through the pile of garbage thrown in their way each and every day from sleazy general managers to car and cash giveaway contests. It is hard for a news director to keep his/her head above it all. And if they stick their neck out too far, someone's likely to lop off their noggin."

He says he misses the daily news challenges, "but I don't miss the petty and petite minds that pull the purse strings."

Like Bob, I have found there is life after news. Still with a sense of humor intact, Jacobs says of his new life, "To this day, I don't know whether to slap my last general manager, or give him a big kiss." It is probably too much to hope for much to change for the positive. That's going to take the same chipping away at the corporate culture that has infected and diminished local news bit by bit for the last three decades. It will take enough news directors and other newsroom folks to take up the challenge of doing challenging news. It will take the realization of the corporate suits that the reason the numbers of homes watching TV news are down is that viewers are tired of watching over-consulted, ratings-driven drivel instead of actually being informed about the important stories in their community.

Some will say to do this is too difficult, too expensive, too boring. I submit such people are too lazy, too cheap, and journalistically-challenged to pick up the fight and make the business of news a worthwhile profession once again, and one that once again serves the public.

Here's to those who fight on. Here's to those who have fought the good fight and have earned the right to step back and live a new life. To those who stand in the newsroom and do nothing, I say either lead or follow or get the hell out of the way of those who still view hard work as a virtue and news as an honorable profession.

Tuesday, June 12

A Lesson from Josh

Bear with me. As I write this, my dear friend Simon should be on the way to the airport to reunite with the love of his life after many years apart.

OK, Simon being Simon, many loves--and what seems like many lifetimes.

Still, he says, this woman has been in his mind and in his heart for many years. Recently widowed, she's coming from California to see Simon.

I was with him last week, and his mind was racing: if this happens, then maybe that will happen, and if she does this I could do that, or maybe the other, and I could say this and maybe she would say that, and what if something else happens, could I do another thing???????

Now, who am I to give advice about anyone's love life? But I had to say it—stop projecting—stop over-thinking—just react—be there in the moment—stop eating the menu—stop steering with the rear-view mirror.

Right now you're saying, "Eating the menu?" Sure. We go to a restaurant and we see one of our favorite dishes on the menu and start to remember how it tastes. Pretty soon we've conjured up a dandy image of the perfect meal. When it arrives at the table, we're too busy thinking about how it was in the past to taste it in the present.

"Steering with the rear view mirror?" Uh-huh. We can't possibly know with 100% certainty how any situation is going to turn out. So we try to predict by looking at what's happened in similar cases in the past. We drive full-speed ahead looking at what was and trying to predict what will be.

I told Simon to reject his preconceptions.

And that got me to thinking about Josh Littman.

Josh and I worked together 30+ years ago at WISH-TV in Indianapolis. Seems I learned a lot of useful things at WISH. Josh taught me, "Reject your preconceptions."

I've got to admit it. To my shame, I didn't think much of Josh when I first met him. He didn't look like much and he didn't sound like much. I guess I was in my "Reporters should look like movie stars and sound like studs" days (which I outgrew by the time I got to WABC). That's the first preconception I needed to get past. Josh helped kick it right out of me!

Once I started working with him I saw that he was all energy and enthusiasm and very, very sharp. He could throw himself into any story at break-neck speed and make it better. I've said over the years that I don't care about the reporter covering the plane crash: it's already a "10." I can send the station janitor (I mean, maintenance professional) out to cover a plane crash and it will come back a "10" every time. No, what I'm after are reporters who can turn "3s" into "6s" and "7s" into "10s." Enter, Josh Littman.

I was riding the assignment desk one day and sent Josh out to cover the annual home and garden show. He came back a couple of hours later, marched up to the desk, and said, "I’m here to apologize."

"What for?"

"I got a story, but it's not a very good one."

"Well, Jeez, Josh, I mean it was just the home and garden show."

And then he said something that took my breath away: "No, you don't understand. Over the next six days 100,000 people are going to go to the home and garden show. They're going because there's something there that fascinates them, or excites them, or something they're dying to learn. I couldn't get a handle on it, and I came to tell you I'm sorry."

Wow! Josh was teaching me that for a true reporter every story is a fresh story, and has a fresh angle.

In newspapers, reporters take a lot of their credibility from the masthead. Work for the Louisville Courier, you've got good cred--that's a good paper. Work for the New York Times, you've got all the credibility in the world. But in television news that's your face up there, and the folks at home will learn to respect you, to trust you, to like you. So DON'T EVER CHEAT THE AUDIENCE. Go for it all the time!!! I have this mental image that every night at 6:00 all over Indianapolis “Joe” was leaning forward in his chair and saying, “Mary, that Josh guy is on: better come here and see what he’s up to.” I know I felt that way.

Sadly, Josh Littman is no longer with us. Sometime after I left WISH, he did too—for WJBK in Detroit. There he learned he had leukemia. He spent the last months of his life making a documentary "Castles in the Sand" about his fight, his losing fight. I've never seen it. I'm torn between wanting to see Josh's last work and being afraid to. He taught me an important lesson about how to look at life, and I'm told he faced death rejecting his preconceptions.

Ironically, in my next job as News Director for WEEK-TV in Peoria, I won a reporting award--almost by accident--by thinking like Josh Littman.Channel 25 had a small staff in those days--fewer than 15 full-timers. One afternoon a small handful of us in the newsroom heard the scanners go off: report of a disaster at the local power plant, mass casualties being rushed to a local hospital.

In the newsroom: the 6PM producer, one reporter, two photographers, and me. The reporter and one photographer headed to the power plant, and I took the other photog. and raced to the hospital. Along the way we found out more. This was a coal-fired plant. Know what fly ash is? It's the incredibly fine residue left by burning coal. Something like 20 workers were digging a "fly ash receive pit" to bury thousands of cubic yards of the stuff when the flue carrying it overhead gave way and buried them.

Imagine: instantly blinded—coughing, gagging, drowning in gray ash—trying to "swim" out of the pit. Two men didn't make it. The rest were dragged to "shore," put on respirators and rushed to the hospital. My shooter and I beat the ambulances to the hospital. There we found 25 nurses, 25 oxygen tanks, 25 gurneys, and every doctor in the place waiting in the ER parking bay. When the ambulances pulled in teams of doctors and nurses went to work on the ash-covered survivors—and saved them all. And my photographer and I shot it all.

As the situation stabilized I went to the hospital head-man and told him how impressed I was with the response. He told me the facility had mock disaster drills all the time. When I asked when the last one was, he said "Two weeks ago."

"What was your scenario for the drill?" I asked.

"A disaster at the power plant."

And suddenly my story—a good story—turned into an excellent story. And I, years removed from holding a microphone, won a reporting award.

Thanks, Josh.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. For a young broadcast journalist, a little experience is a dangerous thing. You go to your 30th city council meeting, or your 40th fire, or your 10th murder, or your 5th haz-mat spill and you say to yourself, “I know how to cover this.”

Yeah. Everybody knows how to cover it. And that’s why everyone’s story looks exactly the same. I don’t give a damn for people who trot out the “Think Outside the Box” cliché. Tellwiddum. Treat every story as a new experience, a great chance to learn something new and share it with your audience. Be excited and involved in your stories. Reject your preconceptions.

I can’t guarantee you (or Simon) true love: only that you’ll be a better journalist.

Friday, June 8

"Weathering the Storm" (I Stole This Title)

Remember this? It's a National Lampoon magazine cover from 1973--voted one of the Top Ten covers in the last forty years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.

OK, now check out this promo from KWTV in Oklahoma City, shown on the "NewsBlues" media commentary site. Compare and contrast. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Do you get the same message I'm getting: "Watch Gary England during severe weather or your kids will die!"

I'm disappointed. I know Gary England. I worked with Gary England. Quite simply, Gary England invented severe weather reporting on television. He doesn't need to hype his coverage or his credentials. He's the founding father of tornado coverage as we know it. His warnings have saved countless lives over the years. No brag, just fact. Why, then, the over-the-top frantic mom clutching her frightened child to her bosom and hinting that maybe God can't save us, but "Gary England" can.

I know, I know: it markets the product.

Let me counter by saying that a simple recitation of the facts can "sell" viewers on KWTV's weather coverage better than any actors-dodging-the-special-effect-debris spot can.

Gary was the driving force behind KWTV's decision to become the source for severe weather information in the Midwest. He and his company, Enterprise Electronics, developed the world's first commercial Doppler radar. In the early 80s Gary became the first person to use Doppler radar for direct TV warnings to the public. He had the first color Doppler on TV. Those little "First Warning" weather maps you see in the corner of just about every TV screen in America? Gary England's idea.

And I don't care where you live, there's a 99.9% chance you've seen Gary England. He appears (in KWTV archive tape) in the first few minutes of the movie "Twister," airing a tornado warning. That's not acting, that's the real deal, actual tape of an actual broadcast. Gary is the real deal, too. He served as a technical adviser on that blockbuster film. Some years ago I met a terrific meteorologist from WHNT-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, Dan Satterfield, an Oklahoma native. He told me he saw Gary that night. Not the Gary depicted in the movie—the actual warning, that actual night. He said it changed his life and determined his future.

You’ve heard of “Da Man?” Gary England is “Da Weatherman!”

When I arrived in OKC as news director I thought I knew about tornadoes and severe weather coverage. Guess again! I inherited a weather department that operated with military precision, staffed 24/7, ready to go at all times. And I found that Gary England ran the station—or could, anytime he chose to. He had a switch at his desk that would fire up a camera and lights and microphone and override Master Control. He could literally get himself on the air in under five seconds! The decision had long since been made that in times of severe weather the on-duty meteorologist should take to the air instantly and stay on the air non-stop until the danger had passed. The entire news staff—the entire station—stood poised to take marching orders from Gary.

Let me make it clear: I had nothing to do with it. When it comes to weather coverage I can’t claim I did a single thing in my six months at KWTV except cheer from the sidelines and run for an occasional cup of coffee for the troops. My biggest achievement? Staying the hell out of the way so Gary and his team could save lives.

Gary has written an excellent book. “Weathering the Storm: Tornadoes, Television and Turmoil.” Fortunately it’s long on the drama behind the science of predicting storms and the excitement of live TV coverage—and short on the drama behind-the-scenes at KWTV. I’ve referred to that soap opera in another post. As Gary says of the 70s and 80s, “It was beginning to become a bit confusing—another boss and another set of rules, thirteen news directors in fifteen years.”

He doesn’t mention names, but I think there's a chance he’s referring to me when he writes, “The year 1988 arrived, and with it came another news director. My fourteenth boss was older, quiet, knowledgeable, and best of all had a healthy respect for meteorologists and our array of sophisticated equipment.”

Hard to say because of the revolving door in those days, but I'd like to think he’s talking about me as knowledgeable. I know I have a healthy respect for Gary and his pioneering work.

Maybe that’s why I was disappointed with the promo and its theme music and its sound effects. The reality of Gary England’s work has been on display to Oklahomans for more than 35 years. No brag, just fact.
(A late note: in re-reading Gary's book, I'm now convinced I'm NOT the "older, quiet, knowledgeable" chap referred to. Whoever he is--and I never met the man and have no recollection of his name--he was, I'm convinced, my predecessor.)

Wednesday, June 6

The Truth of the Matter

Now that I’m 60, I’m probably a little too old to go back to college for an advanced degree, so let me share with you what would have been the topic of my doctoral thesis:


Thank you, you’ve been great, I’ll be here all week, please tip your waitress.

What’s that? You want a more detailed explanation? OK, here it is, and a visual aid to boot:

Notice I didn’t say television is a “lie detector.” It’s not. Of all the people who have ever appeared on television, what percentage has been lying? Politicians—my guess is upwards of 90%. Lawyers—I’ll go with 75%. Sports figures—65%. Clergy—“survey says…” 50%.

But every once in awhile someone forgets about the camera, the microphone and the lights and just speaks the truth. Someone speaks from the heart, and it goes through the air at the speed of light and hits us in our hearts and suddenly we understand. Suddenly we know. And we care about people who obviously care so much that they'd bare their souls.

That’s why those of us who have been in TV for a long time aren’t quite so bothered by the mic-in-the-face-at-the-scene-of-the-fire story. We know that sometimes people really want to share their feelings. An ambush “How do you feel?” is, of course, the stupid, rote way to ask the question we all want to answered: “At this second, what do you want people to know about your life?”

If I keep referring in these posts to WABC, it’s because that’s where I learned my “Eyewitness News” lessons.

Strangely, I’ve never actually met Al Primo, the inventor/architect/creator/teacher of the “Eyewitness” format. Never met the man, but I’m his disciple (or is that “apostle,” I always get the two confused). Anyway, I learned from the people who learned from Al Primo. I think I’ll go into more detail about “Eyewitness” in future posts. My purpose here is to say that among the truths I learned in New York City 20+ years ago is that everyone wants to live in a small town. New York City is a small town! We all want to believe that if we had a problem we could knock on any door and tell our story to a kindly neighbor who would help. We all want to be cared for and about—and we all want to care for and about others. Guy jumps off a subway platform to save a man who fell under a moving train? I got tears in my eyes hearing him say that he just couldn’t do anything else, that he knew he had to help. He was telling us about his life, and he proved my point: TV is a “truth detector.”

I guess I knew that before WABC. I guess I first realized it watching Richard Nixon. That’s right—bear with me—Richard Milhous Nixon.

In August, 1974, Nixon resigned as President: we called it "Watergate," but it was a patchwork of lies and cover-ups and petty crimes that did him in, and he faced the music and the nation on the night of August 8th. Contrary to his repeated assurances, Richard Nixon was a crook: he used his office as a money-making scheme. And he was a liar. Time and again he looked the American people in the Cyclops eye of the TV camera and told blatant untruths. And yet—and yet—a majority of Americans believed him right up until the “smoking gun” recording of one of his Oval Office conversations made it clear what he knew, when he knew it, and that he’d been lying all along. He fell on his sword, insisting he was a man of honor, just as he was facing impeachment and removal from office.

Since the Watergate break-in a majority of the American people had bought the ticket and had taken the ride. Hey, what did we know? We watched him on TV. How were we supposed to know he was lying? Television is a lousy lie detector.

Not everyone remembers the next morning when Richard Nixon, surrounded by his stricken family, addressed White House staffers at an impromptu farewell in the East Room. He was (as was typical) sweating under the TV lights. He was (as usual) trying to be funny—and the man had no sense of humor. He was trying to be warm—and we had most often seen him coming across as stiff and wooden. I remember thinking that the only people who “got it” that morning were his staffers--openly weeping—and his family, trying to be brave while obviously devastated. It was a funeral service, and the only person in America who didn’t get it, was the corpse.

And then—and then—Nixon started talking about Teddy Roosevelt, and about the death of Roosevelt’s young wife. He put on a pair of glasses. We’d never seen Nixon in glasses before. And in a choked voice he read from TR’s diary: “And when my heart's dearest died—died, the light went from my life forever.” He was barely in control of his emotions. His voice caught. He was teary-eyed. Everyone in the room wept. I remember glazing over at the tragedy before me. And it was unfolding at the same second in living rooms around the country and around the world. Here was a broken man telling the truth about how he felt, and for the first time in my life I felt I KNEW him. I cared about him. I felt pity for him. I wished him peace. Amazing!

Nixon being Nixon, he finished with self-justification. The man who lived for revenge, who hated his enemies (and was sure he saw them lurking behind every White House pillar) went on to say, “Always give your best; never get discouraged; never be petty. Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” And I knew that Nixon, too.

Richard M. Nixon wrote his own epitaph that morning. I know. I saw it. Thanks to television I was there. And because television is a TRUTH DETECTOR I felt it in every bone of my body. I remember thinking, “The New York Times can write thirty full pages tomorrow on what just happened, but it won’t convey the experience I just had.”

And I thought, “My God, television is a wonderful tool.”

I spent the first few years of my career bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t a “journalist” like the folks working for newspapers. It dawned on me that day that I should work my side of the street and let them work theirs.

That’s even more true today in this time of cable news saturation and the Internet. The lines that used to so clearly delineate the news delivery systems have blurred. I don’t know how people will be getting their news 20 years from now (or even 20 months from now!). But I do know a camera and a microphone and the truth make a potent, irresistible combination.

I say we should seek to do more truth detecting. It works for us, and for our audience. And I think we should do less of the stuff that doesn’t work.

Sounds simple. But if I’m so smart, how come I ain’t rich?

By the way: here’s a link to a web page with the video of Nixon’s farewell speech as well as a full transcript. If you’re my age, it’ll bring back memories. If you can’t remember Nixon, here he is, warts and all. Here’s the truth detector at work.

Tuesday, June 5

Getting a Kick(er) Out of Grimsby

I’ve posted before about WABC uber-anchor Roger Grimsby. Did I mention that he was a masterful writer?

Don’t know where he got it, but somehow over the years he seemed to have been granted carte blanche to write five or six segment “kickers” to end various blocks in the 6:00 o’clock news hour. No editing. No veto. For years Roger did an ABC Radio Network newscast each afternoon so he’d have an excuse to sit down and scan the wires looking for three or four stories that caught his fancy.

Of course the best was saved for last: the final spot in the final block at 6:00. Grimsby would come up on camera, and if he had that certain twinkle in his eye news director Cliff Abromats would groan, “Oh, no. Please Roger. Don’t do this to me. I’ve got a wife and a mortgage. I need this job. Please don’t do this to me.”

I committed to memory—more-or-less—one of my favorites. It went pretty much like this:

“Finally tonight, from Kansas City, the story of Ricky Smith, who wants to be known as Raquel. And to that end he is halfway through a series of sex-change operations which will turn him into a her. But police say he/she has been financing his/her re-gendering by sticking up liquor stores. They caught him/her last night, and now they’ve got a problem: do they throw HIM in the mens’ cells or HER in the womens’ cells?


“Either way, it’s too early for a halfway house.

“Hoping your news is good news, I’m Roger Grimsby.”

Bill Beutel chuckles, the studio camera bobs and weaves while the cameraman tries to stifle his laughter, and Cliff Abromats turns and says, “I guess it could have been worse.”