Wednesday, August 15

The King is DEAD?????

It was August 16, 1977. I was news director for WEEK-TV in Peoria. Late that morning one of the station clerical workers—an older woman—came into the newsroom and nervously asked me if it was true Elvis had died. The woman was really shaken. She said she had heard it from a friend. I told her I hadn't heard of any such thing, and offered to check the wires.

I should stop here and tell you that this woman was an Elvis Presley fanatic! She had a Betamax tape of Elvis' comeback TV special from 1968—called the "Singer" special because it was sponsored by the Singer Sewing Machine people. A little history. Home video recording—first Betamax, than VHS—was only two years old. A home Beta recorder cost $1,600-$2,000 (a good month's pay for a lot of people in those days when a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle could still be had for under $2,500). There were no pre-recorded tapes for sale yet, no “Blockbuster,” no cable in most places. You could record off a local channel—you could play back—and that was it: all for only a month's pay!

Somehow, someplace, sometime, someone had recorded a replay of the Elvis comeback special and given it to her (commercials and all). No one in her group of friends could afford a Betamax machine, so their idea of a great time was to pop up some popcorn and—two or three Saturdays a month—adjourn as a group to a local appliance store that was very accommodating and let them watch Elvis Presley for an hour!

Now, don't get me wrong, I liked Elvis just fine: but three Saturday nights a month in an appliance store? I thought she was nuts!

But I also saw she was troubled, so together we went to the wire machines. Nope: nothing there. Three TVs on in the newsroom, tuned to the three networks: nothing there. To be on the safe side I told her I'd make a point to listen to radio news for the next few hours. Nope, nothing.

Nothing until mid afternoon when the wire bells chimed and the printer spit out the news a line-at-a-time: Elvis Presley Dead!

I had to break the news to that poor woman. She took it well. She already knew, she told me: her friends had told her.

I've thought about that a lot in the thirty years since.

No cell phones—only land lines. No cable news (CNN was still roughly two years away, MSNBC and Fox not even dreamed of). No Internet, or instant messaging, or e-mail. Yet somehow word of Elvis Presley's death had made it the 450 miles up I-55 from Memphis to Peoria faster than it had made it to New York and the rest of the world—four or five hours faster!

Telegraph, telephone, television—and yet “tell an Elvis fan” turned out to be the fastest form of communicating that day thirty years ago.

Sunday, August 12

My Dinner with “Deep Throat”

The 33rd anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation as President brings to mind my dinner with "Deep Throat."

It's a seminal "Tying My Shoes" moment—one of those times when I brushed up against the famous (infamous?) yet, in my own way, remained clueless.

"Deep Throat" is the nickname Washington Post insiders gave to reporter Bob Woodward's well-placed administration source—the man who kept steering Woodward and Carl Bernstein back on track when their investigation into political subterfuge and illegal acts in the White House and in the 1972 presidential campaign threatened to derail. The pseudonym (lifted from a famous porn film of that era) was bestowed because Deep Throat always operated on "deep background." That is, he couldn't be quoted, even anonymously. His information was to be used only for guidance and for confirmation of what had been learned elsewhere. Woodward and Bernstein, kept on track by Deep Throat, uncovered wrongdoing that would eventually lead to the resignation of President Nixon as well as prison terms for former Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, presidential adviser John Ehrlichman, lawyer G. Gordon Liddy and Chief White House Counsel Charles "Chuck" Colson.

After the Watergate expose All the President's Men came out, guessing Deep Throat's identity became a popular parlor game among journalists. For his part, Woodward was sworn to secrecy. Even his higher-ups at the Post professed ignorance of the source's identity.

One candidate frequently named was W. Mark Felt, the Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Which brings me to my dinner with Deep Throat. I caution you: don't expect much. This is, after all, a "Tying My Shoes" moment.

In August 1975, a year after the Nixon resignation and more than a year after the "Woodstein" (Woodward and Bernstein) book appeared, my younger brother got married. His fiancĂ© was the daughter of a retired naval officer—known to everyone, family and friends, as "The Captain"—who lived in one of the tonier neighborhoods in Fairfax, Virginia. His neighbor (and good friend) was W. Mark Felt.

At the rehearsal dinner I sat next to Mark Felt.

I made the most of the opportunity—by asking for seconds on the prime rib!

What, you thought I'd start pumping the former deputy director of the FBI at a social occasion on the eve of my brother's wedding? What was I supposed to say: "Hey, I hear Hal Holbrook is going to play you in the movie?"

So my opportunity, such as it was, passed.

Felt himself was swept up in the Watergate-era whirlwind: he was indicted for authorizing a series of FBI break-ins aimed at pursuing violent radicals in the U.S. In 1978, with the Carter administration newly in power, a federal grand jury charged Felt and two others with conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens by searching their homes without warrants. Former President Nixon appeared as a defense witness, but in the end W. Mark Felt was found guilty and fined $5,000.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan pardoned Felt.

And that would have been the last we heard of Mark Felt if he hadn't admitted—in a Vanity Fair article in 2005—that he was/is Deep Throat. Once he had "outed" himself Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stepped forward to confirm the claim. In failing health, W. Mark Felt now lives with his daughter in California.

Thursday, August 9

Shuttle Coverage

The U.S. has another space shuttle mission underway. The Endeavour took off last night from the Cape. I don't know about you, but since the Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch in January 1986, and the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in February 2003, I've been something of a white-knuckle observer of the space program. I keep my white-knuckled fingers crossed until the astronauts are safely back on Earth.

The Columbia disaster lingers in my memory for more personal reasons. The Columbia was passing over the western United States at about 9:00 a.m. that Saturday morning when it started breaking apart. I was home at the time, watching CNN, so I quickly learned of the tragedy: seven crew members presumed killed.

I was still EP at my station at the time—hadn't yet been made News Director—so I rushed to the station to see what we could do to advance the story locally. I remembered seeing a newspaper piece about a local college student who actually had a science experiment on the Columbia. Thanks to the hard work of the weekend assignment editor we were able to roust someone on the college PR staff, track down the student and get him to agree to an interview.

Turned out the story was even better than I had remembered. The young student had actually been on hand to witness the Columbia launch.

The reporter wrote that the student, a "sophmore," "stood in ahh" watching the liftoff from "Cape Cavernal."

What made the experiment even more remarkable was that the local student was a "Palistilian" while his "collegue" was an "Israli."

For those of you scoring at home that's [sic], [sic], [sic], [sic], [sic] and [sic].

I stand in "ahh" of writing like that.

There are some people who think you don't have to know how to spell to be in TV news. I'm not one of them. But if you don't know how to spell, please at least tell me you know how to use the spell-check function on your computer! Please show me that you're interested in communicating well, not just in looking good. (And along the way, show me you know how to properly use "good" and "well.")

We may be in a visual medium, but the words count. Need proof? Watch the first five minutes of your favorite newscast tonight with the sound off. Then watch the next five minutes with the sound on but with your back to the screen. No peeking! Be honest. Which way delivered more information?

I don't blame the reporter: she doesn't know any better, doesn't care to, and these days probably doesn't have to. She's good looking. Too bad she's not flat-out drop-dead gorgeous; then she could work for a network and a field producer would do all her spelling and most of her writing for her. Sexist? Darn right. But not me. I think the system is sexist for encouraging her to think she can get by on her looks. I blame the people who taught her in high school and college and the people who gave her jobs and told her she could report. Who am I to point out that if you spotted her three letters she probably still couldn't spell her own name?

You know the old joke: I demanded to know if she was ignorant or just apathetic and she answered, "I don't know and I don't care." Just kidding. I think. Aren't I?

Over the years I've often administered a writing test and current events quiz to job seekers. Here's a question no one answers correctly: What does "OPEC" stand for? (Hint: everyone figures the "O" stands for "Oil," and it doesn't!)

You know what I say? Ahh…aw…awe, TA-HELL-WIDDIT!

Wednesday, August 8

In Search of Leslie King

Cute kid, right? That's Leslie Lynch King, Jr. Despite the ambiguous first name and the dress, that's a boy! Back when this picture was taken in 1916, that was the way 3-year-old boys were dressed for formal photographs.

Leslie was born on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, but he was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By all accounts he led one of those perfect Midwestern boyhoods. He was an Eagle Scout and a star athlete, captain of his high school football team. He went to the University of Michigan and was an All-American football player. He played center on the U of M's national championship teams in 1932 and 1933. He was offered a contract to play pro football, but turned it down to go to law school. And he was so good looking that for a time he was a male model. The All-American boy!

He had more serious ambitions. After serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II, he set his sights on a political career. He ran for Congress in 1948, defeated an incumbent and began a stellar career that led him to more than eight years as House Minority Leader. He was a prominent Congressional Republican until he became Vice President in 1973 and President of the United States on August 9, 1974—33 years ago tomorrow.


PRESIDENT LESLIE LYNCH KING, JR.? probably know him better as Jerry Ford—Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.

Little Leslie's parents split two weeks after he was born: there are reports that King Senior was abusive, that he was violent, that he had threatened his wife (the former Dorothy Ayer Gardner) and their baby boy. She left, moved in with a sister in Illinois for a time, got a divorce and moved with her little son to live with her parents in Grand Rapids.

There she met Gerald Rudolff Ford and married him—about the time this picture was taken.

The Ford family ran a successful paint and varnish business in Grand Rapids, and by all accounts Gerald Rudolff Ford was a perfect father and had a perfect family. Before too long young Leslie King was no more: replaced by Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr.—although he was never formally adopted; he didn't make the name change official until 1935; and he always spelled his new middle name the more traditional way, "Rudolph." Young Jerry had three half brothers: Thomas Gardner Ford (1918–1995), Richard Addison Ford (born 1924), and James Francis Ford (1927–2001). Jerry, Jr. didn't know he had been born Leslie, Jr. until his mother told him when he was 17. He had a brief meeting with his biological father that same year, but nothing came of it. He never established much of a relationship with his birth father, or with his three other half-siblings, children of King's later marriage.

Which brings us to August 8, 1974. I had been head producer for WWJ-TV (Channel 4) in Detroit for just a few weeks, responsible for the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts. I was home that Thursday morning when I got a call from my boss, Lou Prato, ordering me to the station ASAP. When I got there he told me that it was official: disgraced President Richard Nixon would resign that night—and Jerry Ford was going to become the 38th President of the United States the next morning. Since I had just come to Detroit after five years working for WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Lou said he was sending me, reporter Bob Vito (you may know him from CNN) and a two-man film crew to Grand Rapids to cover the Michigan angle. A chartered plane was waiting for us at Detroit City Airport.

Grumbling that Lou didn't even give us a chance to pack a bag, the four of us hopped on a single-engine Piper and headed west, arriving in Grand Rapids about 5:00 p.m.

It's important to remember that those were the days when local TV stations still shot news on film—that live coverage was almost unheard of for a local station—and that satellite coverage was rarer still. There was no chance to get anything on the air for 11:00 that night, so we concentrated on covering the story for the Noon and 6:00 the next day—the day Jerry Ford would be sworn in as President. Remember, too, that those were the days before morning newscasts. WWJ had only what other NBC affiliates had in the morning: the Today Show cut-ins.

So the four of us went crazy, tear-assing all around Grand Rapids looking for Ford family, friends and side-bars. I think we watched the Nixon resignation speech in a bar in Jerry's old neighborhood. We got high school classmates and teachers. I remember our coup was catching all three Ford brothers together at about 2:00 a.m. Great guys: down to earth, smart. The paint and varnish business had been very good to Tom, Dick and Jim Ford, and they were obviously proud of their brother, but he was still "just Jerry" to them.

OK. Next—get the film back on the plane at 6:00 make the Noon news. So we zonked out in a motel. Don't know where or how, but I managed to come up with a toothbrush and some deodorant. The crew slept longer, but I got about 90 minutes of sleep, then it was off to the airport to put the film in the hands of the charter pilot. The plan was for him to fly it to Detroit and drop it off for the Noon show, then turn around while we stayed in GR to film reaction to Jerry Ford's swear-in as President. Then we were to hop on the plane, get back to Detroit about 3:00 p.m. and put together our final package for the dinner-hour news.

The plan went perfectly.

Tired, sweaty, bedraggled, we staggered into the WWJ newsroom and got what we expected, high praise from all around.

I also got a surprise: Lou Prato told me that there was no one else to producer the 6:00, that I'd have to do it. He promised to pitch in, and he did. Together we produced a terrific local newscast that drew heavily on Jerry's hometown background, his days as a star football player at Michigan, and his legacy as a Congressman.

Hearty handshakes all around.

When it was all over, Lou came up to me and said, "You did a great job. The 11:00 should be easy. I'm going home."

And he did. So I produced the 11:00.

When I finally got home it was around 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning—I was still hot and sweaty and tired—I had put probably 250 miles on a rental car—eaten nothing but cheap hamburgers and fries—swilled about three dozen Cokes—and squeezed in ninety minutes of sleep in the previous 36 hours.

Not a record, not by a long shot. Certainly not hazardous duty like war coverage. Actually, it was fun. I thought would make a good story for my grandchildren: What Grandpa did the night Jerry Ford became President.

I've never been married, never had kids, and I don't think there's much chance of me bouncing grandkids on my knee—so I'm telling you the story of the night I went tear-assing around Jerry Ford's hometown.

Got a second for just one more Jerry Ford anecdote? I wrote (in Man and Mentor on April 12th) about my first boss, Dick Cheverton, and his battle with cancer. "Chev" had, of course, covered and known Jerry Ford for years. The two men liked and respected each other. So it was no surprise that Congressman Ford would hand Chev his last (and biggest) assignment.

Remember Richard Nixon's visit to China? To the "People's Republic of China?" To "RED CHINA????????" After years of distrust and a decades-long break in all relations, diplomatic and trade, Nixon used China's deteriorating relationship with the U.S.S.R. to try what was dubbed "Ping Pong Diplomacy" (the U.S. table tennis team was invited to visit China in 1971). In '72 Nixon himself went for meetings with Chairman Mao Zedong. It was the high point of the Nixon presidency. And for the first time in decades Western journalists—newspapers and the networks—were allowed into China.

Not long after, the House Minority and Majority leaders (Jerry Ford of Michigan and Hale Boggs of Louisiana) made a trip of their own to China. Each was told he could bring a TV crew from his home district. Congressman Ford invited Chev to send a crew—and Chev grabbed the assignment for himself. Chev and a reporter from New Orleans and their photographers became the first non-network TV journalists in China since the 1940s!

For Chev, it was tough going. He was on crutches, still healing after breaking his hip (could that have been a foreshadowing of the cancer to come?). But Chev wasn't about to let a little broken hip stand in the way of the big story. So he and Chief Photographer Tom O'Rourke dogged the Congressional delegation every step of the way—producing memorable coverage.

O'Rourke even got the attention of communist leader Zhou Enlai. Chev and Tom were covering a banquet on their final night in Peking. Tom had his old Auricon Pro 16mm movie camera on a should brace—his sound amplifier strapped around his neck, along with a 35mm camera—a light clipped to the camera and a battery belt on his waist (along with a spare)—and a backpack with batteries, extra film magazines and the like. The whole getup must have weighed eighty pounds.

During a ceremonial dinner Zhou Enlai noticed O'Rourke filming the event and offered a toast to the burly photographer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tom said it translated to something like this: "Modern technology is wonderful. It is sad, though, that so much of it still comes down to manual labor."

I wonder if WOOD still has any of that old China footage. It was remarkable, historic and eye-opening.

The next things we knew, in late 1973, good 'ol Jerry Ford became Vice President Gerald Ford. Spiro Agnew was forced to resign as part of a deal that allowed him to plead nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering. Seems he had accepted bribes during his tenure as governor of Maryland.

I was still at WOOD at that time. Chev was in the hospital. I remember well the new VP's first visit back to his hometown. We were determined to make Chev proud. We were the dominant news station in the market, the only one with an hour-long dinner-hour newscast, and the largest staff in town: seven full-time reporters and seven full-time photographers. Huge for the middle markets in those days.

And go figure: Vice President Ford had seven events on his schedule, from breakfast with his brothers to a tour of the old family home, lunch with invited big-wigs. You know the drill. Seven stops, then back to Washington.

But there was a 90-minute gap in his schedule. An hour-and-a-half unaccounted for. Oh, yeah? We'll just see about that! Our entire staff spent days trying to find out what Jerry Ford was up to.

We never did find out where he was going—but after he left we found out where he'd been. He went to the hospital and spent the time with Dick Cheverton. A nurse later told me that the Secret Service was stationed outside the open door, so no one knew exactly what was said inside.

"But," she told me, "They laughed a lot."

Sunday, August 5

Sounds of Summer

I like air conditioning. I love air conditioning. Can’t live without it. But it robs us of the sounds of summer.

For me, a summer day is sounds coming through the screen door when I was 12. A lawn mower three or four houses down (maybe Mr. Luttermoser has my pal Gary working on the front yard). Somewhere, closer, a transistor radio is on and I can hear, faintly, the gentle southern lilt of Jimmy Dudley calling an Indians game (“So long and lots of good luck, ya heah?"). Plenty of time between pitches to listen to the vendors in the background (“Beer here! Ice cold beer here!”). Makes me want to lie down on the sofa for a quick nap just thinking about it.

I delivered Jimmy Dudley’s newspaper, although I met him only once. He was always on the road. The one time I collected for the paper from him he gave me 75 cents. The Cleveland Press was 55 cents a week then: a 20-cent tip wasn’t half bad. I can still walk my old paper route in my mind, up Lincoln and down West Oviatt in Bay Village. I can still remember who the good tippers were. And I remember the folks who wouldn’t answer the door when I came to collect every Saturday, who tried to pretend they weren't home. Can you imagine that? Who’d try to stiff a 12-year-old kid out of 55 cents? Some did it for weeks at a time, then challenged my reckoning when I finally did catch up with them. I was a shy kid and hated to stand up to adults, so I sometimes got bullied out of my 55 cents. For that reason I didn’t make much money, but I learned a valuable lesson: no matter how nice the home, not everyone inside is a nice person.

If I have a point here—a point relating to the media—I guess it’s that we’re still trying to collect for the service we provide. The Cleveland Press (an afternoon paper) folded long ago. Radio has pretty much gotten out of the news business. These days radio, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, is mostly people yelling at you and computers playing music. TV owners are scared. Even the New York Times recently sold all its TV stations to try to give itself more cash to plow into Internet news publishing, even though reports are the Times isn't making a dime yet.

If anyone has figured out a way to make money—real money—off the Internet, I haven’t seen it. But it’s coming, and we have to go with it. It's a lot easier to ride the horse in the direction he's already headed. Would you want to be a TV station owner waiting for black and white to come back?

I’m convinced that whatever direction news delivery takes next we’ll still need professionals gathering it and editing it and presenting it (in some form or another). This idea that all blogs are created equal—that all voices carry equal weight—that facts matter less than opinion--that anyone can say anything he or she wants about anyone else at any time and have "Because I SAID SO" credibility is something that we’ll work out on the fly. We always have.

But damn—it was an easier business when all I had to do was stick Jimmy Dudley’s paper in behind the screen door on the side stoop and collect my 55 cents on Saturday.