Sunday, October 28

Single-Handed

It's been a long time since I posted here. Too long.

And I certainly don't want to be posting only with bad news; but Jim Cummins died the other night, and that's worthy of note.
That makes three people I worked with, liked and respected gone this year: Joel Siegel, Tom Snyder, and now Jim. Must be something about passing age 60--for me, and for them.
Jim was the long-time NBC News Dallas bureau chief and correspondent . He retired earlier this year. He and wife Connie were going to slow down at last and enjoy their children (six) and grandkids, but cancer cut his plans short.
I met Jim in 1970 at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids. I was a year out of college and in my first job, he was two years older and came to work at Channel 8 after starting his career in Mason City, Iowa.

When Jim first got to town I was on the assignment desk. First week-or-so, he'd take whatever story I gave him. Then he started meeting my suggestions with, “Y’know, I’ve got something I’d rather do, whaddaya think?” Hell, yes! And about two weeks in he started coming up with stories that led the news two or three nights a week—then three or four—then pretty miuch every night.

I didn’t realize then what I came to realize later: WOOD may have had the highest ratings in America, but it was also the most complacent newroom in America (yeah, a 50+ share will do that to you). But pretty soon all the reporters in the shop were standing around in the hallways saying, “Who does he think HE is????” Next thing you know, they were hustling after their own stories and fighting it out to get the lead.

It only took Jim Cummins about two months to raise the standars for broadcast journalism in that station—and that town—to a whole new level! He did it single-handed!
Not much later I was producing the 11:00 p.m. news--the highest-rated 11PM in America, thank you; and it wasn't easy. News Director Dick Cheverton (you've read about him here, before) had made the 6:00 p.m. one of the first sixty minute newscasts in the country. Stories ran--whatever the reporters wanted them to run --four minutes, five, longer!
It fell to me, months out of college, to bust them down into VOs or VOSOT’s …OR…jigger with the script, edit the film and get an engineer to re-cut the audio cart (a line here butted to a line there, and that "bridge" might make a decent close). That way I could get reporter packages on at 11:00. My goal was to capture the essence of the story--and make it fit into a 14-minute news hole.

One morning Jim came in, walked up to my desk and said, “I told Connie last night—my package runs 4:35 and I don’t think anyone could get it under 3:00 without gutting it. You got it to 1:45, and Connie said, ‘That was cleaner than your 6PM piece.’ And it was. Thanks.” A reporter thanking a producer? Yikes!

It meant so much to me that I’ve carried that kind word around in a secret place in my heart ever since. I was 22…and trying SO…DAMN…HARD! Kind words and confidence were tough to come by back then. Jim--the best reporter in town--let me know that he respected my work, that he trusted me with his work. I was dying for a kind word, and he provided it.

Jim and I went out for a drink one night (a rare occasion--Jim and Connie already had at least two kids, and he was a real homebody). On a cocktail napkin we started listing the stations we hoped to go to in our next move. Back then the big three networks each were limited--by law--to owning seven stations. So a network O-and-O (owned-and-operated) station--any O-and-O--made the list. Also any "Capitol Cities" station, any "Westinghouse" station--a handful of independents.

Jim--a Midwestern boy who played basketball for Northwestern--had his dream game plan: he wanted to work for WMAQ in Chicago, then for the NBC network. But he knew he needed one more stop between Grand Rapids and the Windy City, and he picked WTMJ in Mikwaukee, a solid station. And--it happened, JUST THE WAY HE WANTED: to WTMJ, WMAQ and the network. I wish I still had that napkin to prove my story.

When Jim retired Brian Williams, in a Nightly News farewell, called Jim Cummins the definition of a field correspondent who seemingly covered every story more than once. From U.S. political coverage, to plane crashes; from the civil war in El Salvador to countless hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. He even reported from Iran on the hostage crisis of the early 80s. But his bread and butter was covering major news out of the heartland, from datelines such as Waco,Oklahoma City and Galveston. He earned an Emmy in 1993 for his reporting on the Midwest floods.

NBC News President Steve Capus wrote the staff this weekend, "The NBC News family has lost a gentle giant of a man...It’s fitting that Jim had a big family. After all, he spent decades making Americans feel right at home, with his down to earth, warm reporting style, delivery and presence."
His long-time preoducer and Dallas colleague at NBC, Al Henkel, wrote a wonderful tribute to Jim for the NBC web site. He included what he called "One of the finest pieces of writing I have ever seen, and will probably ever see...a long piece we did for the Today Show on the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing."
Hard to disagree with his assessment. Hard not to mourn the passing of a reporter who could work with such skill and compassion. Please ignore the commercial.







1 comment:

velvetham1 said...

God! I wish you had a syndicated show, radio or TV. You should be unleashed on the "masses" every week. You are so talented and interesting,(yet, annoying:)

You are a "NATIONAL TREASURE"!!!!