Monday, December 31
These days ABC broadcasts from its own studio overlooking Time’s Square. But back then, Dick Clark and his crew were huddled on a building ledge about twenty stories above the crowd. Well, maybe it wasn’t a ledge—no one was in danger of falling. But I don’t think you could call it a balcony. It was a parapet, a 15-foot-wide piece of concrete outside an upper floor of the Minskoff Theater, with a sturdy metal railing to keep people from toppling off onto Broadway.
So Dick Clark and his 30-or-so staffers, and WABC Reporter Doug Johnson and five or six of us made our way up to our perch. It wasn’t easy: to get there the equipment had to be hauled through the innards of the theater and through the lighting booth (past the spotlights and lighting boards) to the one door that led outside.
30-40 people humped crates of equipment up the stairs, through a doorway, and onto a narrow perch overlooking—a sea of screaming boo-hoos: jostling, necking, yelling, drinking, peeing, groping, inhaling, injecting, puking, mugging and staggering. And to try to keep them under control, THE CAVALRY! That’s right, a sea of mounted police.
Up where we were, there was no crime, no drunken rowdiness. What we had was freezing wind. Gale force winds swept through the canyons of Manhattan and quickly had us all stamping our feet to ward off frostbite.
And here’s something you don’t see on TV (the cameras carefully avoid showing it). The screaming boo-hoos are treated like cattle and herded into pens. For security purposes (and this was almost 20 years before 9/11) Time’s Square was sectioned off by barricades. Instead of one solid sea of people, the crowd was stuffed behind those barricades, leaving pathways down the major streets for police and ambulance traffic. The cameras show the huge crowds from up close. If they pulled back just a bit you’d see the cattle pens, and cops playing cowboy, riding herd.
And that’s pretty much that. We did our live shot, dragged our equipment back down to the street, then trudged back up to watch Dick Clark announce the ball drop at midnight. Nice. But not one of the “Dozen things You Have to Do Before You Die.”
At 12:01 a.m. I was out of there. In those days I lived in an apartment at 56th & Broadway—eleven blocks up Broadway. I went the back way. I went west to Eighth Avenue, up to 56h, and over. I had the streets to myself. No one tried to pick my pocket, no hooker propositioned me, no drunk puked on my shoes, I heard no gunfire. I got home at 12:15, watched a bit of the coverage, and was in bed by 12:30.
I spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square and came back alive!
Whatever you’ve got planned for tonight—have a great and a safe time. Stay out of Time's Square!
And the best of everything in the New Year.
A New Year's Day postscript. I stayed up until midnight last night to watch Dick Clark in Time's Square. That's unusual for me. I'm not much of a party-goer or a party guest, and I haven't had a drink in over ten years.
Dick Clark, in some ways, was hard to watch. The stroke he had three years ago has left him with slurred speech and a slight tremble., On the othe hand, you have to remember that he's 78 years old now! Stroke or not, there are plenty of people a lot younger than Dick Clark in a lot worse shape.
Youngsters won't remember--but for the longest time Dick Clark was seen as a Picture of Dorian Gray type: ageless. On that rooftop a quarter-century ago he looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. Seeing him now as an old man is a grim reminder for us baby-boomers that nobody gets out of life alive. But he's also an example of fighting the good fight.
There's a New Year's message for all of us: keep up the fight!
Thursday, December 27
Here’s the short-hand version. She was the principal of an exclusive girls’ school in Virginia; he was a womanizing cad who gained fame by inventing something called “The Scarsdale Diet,” and writing a book about it which sold millions of copies, turned him into a household name, and made him wildly rich. During their 15-year relationship he played her for a fool and ran around with countless women. Finally, on the night of March 10, 1980, she went to his home to confront him. Next thing you know he’s dead, shot four times, and she’s under arrest.
But this isn’t about him—or about her—or about them. It’s about Milton Lewis. If you’re a New Yorker (pronounced Noo-Yawker) you already know the name. Milton was a superstar reporter for WABC-TV in New York from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties: an old newspaperman who started during the depression as a copyboy with the New York World and later at the New York Herald Tribune where he worked his way up to reporter and spent 34 years. He was a character out of Damon Runyon. He was a Noo Yawker. He was about 5’4”, rumpled, and cranky. And he was a helluva reporter.
He was the one broadcast reporter in town best plugged into the world of organized crime, and proud to be a burr under the saddle of the mob bosses. (I remember one night, on set, he looked into the camera and said, “Today in court Carmine ‘The Snake’ Persico…who doesn’t like it much when I refer to him as ‘The Snake’”…).
Since I was a newcomer to New York and to Eyewitness News he was predictably impatient with me. I’m not sure he ever called me by name. He’d call in to the desk on the two-way radio and ask to speak to “The incumbent assignment manager," his voice dripping with sarcasm.
He knew and enjoyed his role as our brash, “Listen-Sister-Get-Me-Rewrite” old newspaperman, our throwback to the Ben Hecht Front Page days of newspapering. But he also embraced the power and the visibility TV gave him, and knew how to play his new role to the hilt.
His catch-phrase for an exclusive story was, “Now listen to this.” Then he’d drop his bombshell. His job was to sit on the set next to anchor Roger Grimsby every night and throw Grimsby a tag line he could react to—if he so chose. And it really made no never-mind to Milton Lewis. He was there to toss the softball. Grimsby could hit a homerun, swing and miss, or leave the bat on his shoulder—it was all the same to Milton.
Back to the Harris case, one of Milton’s finest hours and one of his scoops. I wasn’t at Eyewitness News at the time of the shooting, but I was sure there for the trial. I saw to it that every day Milton and one of our best crews went to the courthouse along with a live truck and courtroom artist Marilyn Church.
I won’t take time here to rave about Marilyn—the country’s preeminent courtroom sketch artist. If you go to the internet you can spend thousands on some of her original artwork: “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz; John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman; mob boss John Gotti; “subway vigilante” Bernard Goetz.The picture above is one of her Harris trial sketches: a series of seven available for $18,500.
Or you might just want to buy her book: Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials, written with long-time reporter Lou Young.
Anyway. As the trial got underway, the big question was would Mrs. Harris testify in her own behalf? Of course, it was Milton Lewis who provided the definitive answer in an exclusive report, sitting on-set next to Grimsby:
I’ve learned that Mrs. Harris WILL take the stand. She’s going to testify that she didn’t go to the Tarnower home to commit MURDER; she went there to commit SUICIDE! And while she and the good doctor struggled over the gun…
…it ACCIDENTALLY went off…
…hitting him FOUR TIMES.
Two updates. New York Governor Mario Cuomo commuted Jean Harris’ sentence after 12 years in prison. She’s 84 now.
I did a “Google” search on Milton Lewis and came up with a fairly recent article written by one of his grandchildren that says he’s 94 now, living in the Jewish Home on Silver Ave in San Francisco, and still feisty.
I can imagine him haranguing the staff: "Now Listen to THIS!"
Saturday, December 22
I’d like to think that I’m still learning, but one lesson came 33 years ago this month.
I was working for WJBK-TV, at that time the CBS affiliate in Detroit. Later Channel 2 became a Fox affiliate and O-and-O (although an ownership change is pending as I write this). Back then ‘JBK was the key station in the Storer Broadcasting empire. Back then there was a Storer and it was an empire.
It was Christmas, ’74. Many of my faithful (and fretful) readers weren’t even born yet, so a history lesson is in order.
Greatly simplified, the American economy had been sent reeling by something called the “Arab Oil Embargo.” For three weeks in October, 1973, Israel was at war with a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria: the “Yom Kippur War,” so-called because it began with an attack on Israel on that Jewish Holiday. Despite early setbacks, Israel had gained the upper hand when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in late October. In the middle of the war the Organization of Petroleum Exporting countries announced that it was cutting crude oil shipments to the west to punish Israel’s supporters. The U.S. was, of course, the primary target of the Arab Oil Embargo.
These numbers sound silly today, but back then they sent shock waves through the world economy: oil prices quickly jumped almost 20% to $3.65 a barrel. In the U.S. the price of a gallon of gas—which had been around 35 cents—rose sharply. Gas stations were running out; lines at the pumps stretched for blocks. Each newscast brought word of fistfights—even shootings—as angry motorists practiced vigilante justice on line jumpers. To try to ease the lines, stations started selling to drivers with odd-numbered license plates only on odd-numbered days. Back then the normal speed limit on the interstates was 70 M.P.H. Proposals were quickly enacted to cut it to 55 to save gas.
This country started on a path to recession and high inflation that persisted into the early 80s, and high oil prices that stayed with us until 1986.
Back in those days the words “Detroit” and “autos” were interchangeable. And the prevailing wisdom went something like this: If Detroit sneezes the American economy catches a cold.
Americans were afraid. They had been driving big gas-guzzling behemoths for years—it was The American Way, dammit! You can’t have a car without tail fins and whitewall tires, can you?
I could. I did. I was driving a Volkswagen Beetle with a 12-gallon gas tank. Now, don’t ask me to do the adjusted-for-inflation math. All I know is that a fill-up on my ’69 Beetle back then cost less than four bucks! I wasn’t alone. All of a sudden American drivers were looking at German cars—and even those new, tinny, rattle-trap Japanese cars—and wondering if they held the answer. I had a friend who bought a Saab, back before they had sex appeal: a three-cylinder Saab that sounded as if Briggs and Stratton were having a fistfight under the hood. Was this the next step for Detroit?
That’s what Ike Pappas wondered when he came to The Motor City in December, ’74. The embargo was over but the rising gas prices, the inflation and the jitters remained. Ike was a solid, seasoned correspondent for CBS News. He talked the brass into sending him to Detroit for a report to air Christmas week. The premise: Let’s examine Christmas spending and consumer attitudes in the one American city most tied to oil.
He must have done a good selling job. Those were the days of the three-person film crew: cameraman, soundman, lighting man (Sorry, not “persons.” No women in those days. Not my doing. Don't blame me.)
Ike Pappas came to town with two three-man film crews, a producer, and his own film editor out of New York. CBS shipped in a Steenbeck eight-plate film editing console (about the size of a meat freezer in your local supermarket). The union contract stipulated individual rooms (no doubling up), so that was nine top-of-the-line hotel (not motel) rooms for a week. Meals for all. Four cars.
Back in those days, with all the equipment (tripods, lights, batteries, mics, cables) everyone had his hands full, so frequently each packed only one small overnight bag. The crew bought the clothing they needed on location, and shipped the dirty laundry back home. CBS paid for it all.
But this was a big one. Ike and crew had been promised seven minutes on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Christmas week would be slow, there’d be room for an in-depth report, and everyone seemed to want to do this right.
And Ike and company busted their butts! They were all over town morning to night, talking to labor leaders, auto bigwigs (Henry Ford II himself), production line workers, shopkeepers, average Joes.
At WJBK, where we knew Michigan like the back of our hand (come to think of it, Michigan is shaped like a hand stuck in a mitten), even we were dying to see what Ike had to say.
Ike was given a desk in the back of the newsroom, next to mine, so we had several interesting conversations. All I remember is thinking what a decent, intelligent, straightforward professional he was.
The day before his piece was to air I walked to my desk and noticed Ike hunched over the phone. But something was wrong! The muscles in his neck were knotted. The back of his neck was beet-red. He started shaking. I’m thinking, “Am I watching a man have a heart attack?” I didn’t know what to do.
Just as I was about to step forward he hung up the phone, let out a huge sigh, and turned to face me.
“Ike, are you OK?”
“Kid, don’t ever take a job with a network.” (I think he actually called me “kid.”) “I was just talking to a junior producer at Cronkite. I told him about the mood of Detroit. He said, ‘That’s not the mood in Detroit. According to this morning’s New York Times this is the mood in Detroit.’ And he told me I have a minute-forty-five tomorrow night.”
Don’t know that I’ve ever heard a man more disheartened.
In the years since I never got the chance to take his advice: never got an offer from a network. I know several people who are happy—or say they are—working as network correspondents. It’s not for everyone. And in this age of multiple delivery systems the pressure to file and file and re-file your pieces is tremendous.
Ike Pappas should have taken his own advice. He later got screwed by CBS. He was never movie star-handsome, but he knew how to work a beat and tell a story, and he rose to become Pentagon correspondent. But under President Van Gordon Sauter, CBS News divided itself up into "yesterday" people and "today" people. Guess which list Pappas was on? In the end he was tucked away covering the "labor beat." Guess how much face time he got on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. He knew his stuff, and he delivered solid material, but there wasn’t much room for reporting that didn’t come wrapped up in a handsome package. Some years later Ike Pappas got caught up in one of those (seemingly interminable) rounds of CBS layoffs. Funny: the good-looking correspondents stayed, Ike Pappas was bought out of his contract. He found himself down-sized.
Here's another horrible irony. He was in New York to accept an award from the Greek Orthodox Church--former President Jimmy Carter was on hand--when he got word that he no longer had a job. The network he loved and served didn't love him back.
The Detroit auto industry has been down-sized over the years, too. Ike saw it coming in 1974. He told us so in a tightly-produced report that ran 1:45. Excellent reporting. It left me wanting more. That was 33 years ago this week.
Sunday, December 16
I said in today's earlier post that at least no TV tower had collapsed in the ice storm that swept through overnight. . I spoke way too soon. Apparently one of WNEP's two Penobscot towers toppled onto the transmitter building. I didn't notice this morning because WNEP uses microwave and fiber optics to deliver its signal to many cable companies, my supplier included. I was watching Channel 16 on a cable feed.
The collapse also damaged WYOU's power lines. CBS programming on my local cable TV is being routed in from KYW-TV in Philadelphia. A bit surprising to look up at 6:00 p.m. tonight and see the Philly newscast with Philly weather and sports. And Philly commercials!
WBRE has been on and off--but I saw the Channel 28 newscast at 6:00 on my cable. Truth is, I'm not sure anyone is actually on-air over-the-air right now, and information on a wicked weather Sunday is hard to come by.
This isn't a hard news, breaking news site--that's not my purpose--but it will be interesting seeing how this shakes out in the weeks ahead.
As for me: been there, done that. I was at WCIX (now WFOR) in Miami when our tower collapsed at the height of Hurricane Andrew in '92. At 1,860+ feet it was the tallest man-made structure in Florida.
If you're in the business, you know that towers are designed to crumple straight down into one heap. "Andrew" pushed that big stick straight over. It wound up stretched across 1,860 feet of mango groves down near Homestead. It also fell over the transmitter building. Two engineers were inside. They thought they heard something--but with the storm throwing mangoes at the side of the building at 120 miles-an-hour, they didn't want to stick their heads out to look.
They were OK. But I remember the GM, Allen Shaklan, sitting in my office when news of the collapse came. He leaned forward in his chair and put his head in his hands.
For about sixty seconds.
Then he--and we--pressed ahead.
I know the local broadcasters will do the same. Some engineweers are in for some sleepless nights, but it will work itself out.
We didn’t get the feet of snow that was mentioned a few days ago as a possibility—but I’m still calling it a big victory for the area meteorologists. I think we got lucky by about a hundred miles. North of here it’s snowing. Overnight, here, we had freezing rain. I opened my sliding glass door at about 2:00 a.m. and the sleet sounded like BBs bouncing off the icy pavement. We’ve got a break right now—then the snow hits. I know there’s a difference between snow and freezing rain—but how big a difference, really? The bottom line is that the meteorologists said Sunday would be a horrible travel day. They were right.
People raided the stores Friday for their French Toast makin’s. It still surprises me that some people think any forecast of snow means they’re going to be snowed in until spring. They must have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on cable once too often.
Some other thoughts.
As I write this several local TV stations are off the air: most notably WYOU (CBS) and WBRE (NBC). All the local stations have their towers on Penobscot Mountain, and the power is out up there. I’m not sure if WNEP (ABC) is working on its own generator power this morning, but they’re on the air. During the morning news, anchor Andy Palumbo mentioned that the power outage kept WNEP from receiving microwave signals. It’ll be interesting seeing when the other stations get back on. This is one of those mornings when you’re dying for a local forecast—and only WNEP was able to deliver.
Many years ago WBRE lost its tower when it collapsed during an ice storm. It doesn’t sound like this will come to that.
When I posted earlier this week about the pending nor’easter, I didn’t bother to mention the heavy snow predicted for Thursday. So here’s a big “attaboy/attagirl” to the meteorologists. They said the storm would start at 7:00 a.m. over most of the region—and taper off in the afternoon. They said to expect 5-6” of snow—more in what we call the Northern Tier of counties and the Poconos.
They were dead on! The snow started when they said—came down as fast as they said—accumulated as much as they said—and died down when they said.
The important thing to note is that virtually every school district in the area paid attention and canceled classes for the day; in some cases the night before. Thank God! It was hairy enough there for awhile it would have made getting home from school Thursday afternoon a nightmare.
It drives me crazy when school districts keep kids for a half-day, dismissing them early when snow hits mid-day. Why would they do that? Easy. They get state credit for a class day even if the kids spend only a couple of hours in class. It's dollars, even if it doesn't make much sense.
Another note about school closings. Whether I had a hand in developing the computerized closing system or not, it has changed the way school superintendents view snow days.
Now, when I was a boy (I know, cover your ears if you don’t want to hear a “remember when” story), I don’t think classes in my suburban Cleveland school district were canceled more than five or six times during my entire K-12 career. And delays? Classes were never delayed.
Were we tougher back then—descended from heartier stock? Possibly, but I don’t think that’s the reason for the change.
First, I think the computerized closings on TV made it easier for the superintendents to cancel or delay classes. Used to be, they’d have to get up at 5:00 a.m., decide what to do, then start calling five, or six, or a dozen radio stations. Then came TV listings—and it took only two or three calls. Today it can all be done almost automatically from a computer. “Dr. Jones,” the superintendent, rolls out of bed, checks out the window, goes to his PC, and ten minutes later he can be back in bed, dreaming of high standardized test scores.
Second reason: if kids aren’t weaker, maybe it’s that lawyers are stronger. “Dr. Jones” is thinking, “You know, Milt isn’t that great a driver. God forbid the bus slides sideways three feet and clips a mailbox. I’ll have 37 lawyers in the office claiming whiplash for 37 kids—when there were only 25 on the bus. We’ll get sued for an amount of money equal to the GNP of some emerging countries. Jeez, we can’t even play dodge ball in the gym without someone filing a personal injury lawsuit! I should take chances?” And it’s back to the land of nod.
It comes down to this: school superintendents are a bit gun-shy these days. Hell, they have guns pointed at them!
So I suggest we honor the real heroes of the last few days. Can I declare this “Hug a Meteorologist” week?
Tuesday, December 11
And you know what that means.
FRENCH TOAST WEATHER!
I don’t know about your area, but here in northeastern Pennsylvania even the slightest threat of snow sends people scurrying to the store. They'll head out later this week to strip the shelves of bread, milk and eggs. What could they be doing but making French toast? (Holy crap, I don’t want to even think of where the 20 rolls of toilet paper they’re buying fit into the recipe!)
Everyone is going to head to the store in his or her humongous S.U.V.—the one that’s slightly bigger than a Conestoga wagon—then park it in the garage for four or five days. Around here everyone owns an S.U.V., but no one actually uses theirs to go off-road or to drive in snow. They’re for show, not go. Something about penis size, if you ask me. Are Humvee dealers subsidized by OPEC?
(By the way—different topic altogether: why have your fog lights on in the daytime? At night they might help you see the road, but in daylight it’s already plenty bright; they can’t cut through the fog. They’re useless. If it’s foggy and you want to be seen by other drivers, won’t your regular headlights do just fine? Why are you driving around on dry pavement on a cloudy day in a land-yacht the size of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with a 747’s landing lights on?)
Sorry. Lost the thread there a bit. Back to the weather.
The next few days will be tough ones for meteorologists. God forbid—if the storm does come—that they’ve predicted a half-inch more snow than we get: they’ll be accused of sensationalizing the weather, of panicking the populace. If we get a half-inch less, they’ll be branded as inaccurate and criticized without mercy. Newspapers, especially, take gleeful pleasure in skewering TV meteorologists.
Truth is, even given the tremendous technological advances in forecasting over the last twenty-or-so years, predicting the weather is still an inexact science. Think about it. If NASA, with its billion-trillion-gazillion dollar budget can’t figure out if it’s going to rain two days out from a shuttle launch at the Cape, how can we honestly expect a TV meteorologist to get a ten-day forecast dead-on for every hill and vale in a 22-county viewing area?
I’ve long said that those “Ten Day Forecasts” are nothing but window dressing. Seven days? Silly. A great meteorologist working with the latest equipment and access to the best data has a good chance of getting it right three days out—but there are just too many variables standing in the way of 100% accuracy.
I got a letter many years ago from an arrogant ass (a man not unlike myself, I guess!), who said, basically—In my line of work, commercial refrigeration, I wouldn’t last long if I were only as good as your so-called forecasters. He actually might have underlined "so-called."
My reply went something like this:
“Then you ought to be calling up supermarkets each night and saying, ‘I know with 100% certainty that the compressor on meat case #3 is going to fail overnight. Why don’t you move the meat now, and I’ll bring a new compressor over in the morning.’ Seems to me, Mr. Commercial Refrigeration Guy, that more variables go into weather patterns than there are in an electric motor.”
I’m a huge Charles Osgood fan. His poem, Broadcast News, fits here perfectly.
Remembered (I hope accurately) and reprinted without any permission whatsoever. So sue me.
Powerful are those who choose
The items that make up the news.
And yet in spite of all that power
It’s much like singing in the shower.
For it is clear from card and letter
That you all think you could do it better!
What kind of syrup do you like with your French toast?
Monday, December 10
I don’t have children, but I always check for the status of “S. Wilson Tech.”
When I took over as News Director at WNEP, back in 1983, morning anchor Frank Andrews would sit at the anchor desk with slips of paper—a pile of slips of paper—and read off the closings and delays. During commercials and the weather forecast he did his best to alphabetize the mess. God, it was boring, reading them over…and over…and over. It was rotten TV, but what could be more important than keeping little Johnny from freezing to death at the bus stop, or little Suzy from getting killed when her school bus slides on a patch of “black ice” and winds up on its side in a ditch?
One year later the slips of paper were gone and Frank was back to anchoring. The school closings were displayed on the screen—in alphabetical order—on something we named the “Winterwatch Computer.” We were "Newswatch 16," and we had the "Spotrtswatch" and the "Weatherwatch." Creative, huh?
A case can be made that WNEP was the first station in America to computerize school closings, and that I was the one behind it.
I’m not sure about either claim, but here’s what I know.
Then-WNEP VP and GM Elden Hale was/is a genius. When he was EP at KXAS in Dallas, he hooked up with a computer programmer by the name of Frank Ivan. Ivan wrote one of the first TV station master control automation programs in the industry.
At WNEP, Elden had Frank Ivan design a vote tabulation program that hooked up to a CG (“character generator”) to compute and display vote totals on election night. Similar programs were cropping up around the country, but Frank's was a winner!
But election night came only twice a year. Was there any way we could jigger the program to put it to other uses?
Elden says that I came up with the idea of computerizing the school closings. I say it was Elden. Either way, it was child’s play (seemingly) for Frank Ivan, and by October, 1983 we were up and running. We were the first in the market.
But were we the first in the country? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that word of Frank’s programming prowess spread. In November, 1986, the folks behind one of the first newsroom computer systems, “NewStar” came from Madison, Wisconsin to WNEP to watch Frank’s election program in use. The idea was that if it worked and worked well during a real, live election, they’d put Frank on retainer and take his vote tabulation program nationwide.
Of course it worked, and they came up with a deal for Frank. They got Frank Ivan, his expertise, his vote tabulation program , and—as an extra added attraction—his school closing program. Next thing you know, anyone who had “NewStar” computers had access to a school closing program. In cold-weather markets, lots of stations started using it.
Now, remember: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But so did Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis and Elisha Gray, among others. Lots of people were working on the same idea at the same time. Bell gets the credit.
I can’t say who might have been working on a school closing program at the same time Frank Ivan was working on his for WNEP. I can’t say if WNEP was first. Maybe someone else had a similar program in 1983: I hadn’t heard of any commercially available.
I can tell you who wasn’t first. It sure as hell wasn’t WDAU-TV (now called WYOU-TV), our Scranton competitor. But within a year of WNEP’s “Winterwatch,” WDAU had school closings and delays displayed on its screen.
Funny thing, though: in the beginning, they weren’t in alphabetical order (something Frank Ivan’s program did automatically). And WDAU’s closing information seemed to be running 15-20 minutes (or more) behind ours. Then I noticed WDAU had every closing we had—well after we had it—but none we didn’t have.
It dawned on me. THOSE WERE OUR CLOSINGS, COPIED DOWN AND ENTERED BY HAND INTO THEIR CG! Those bastards! Those thieves!
WNEP has a wonderful engineer, Stu Wilson. Wonderful tech, wonderful guy! I went up to him and said, “Stu, you’re a ‘tech,’ right?” Yes. “Bad weather this morning, right?” Horrible. “Bad driving conditions?” The worst. “Have trouble making it in to work.” Yes. “Were you late?” About a half-hour.
So I went to the Winterwatch computer and entered, “S. Wilson Tech, Half-Hour Delay.” Hey, it harmed no one, and it was accurate—sort of.
And sure enough, about a half-hour later “S. Wilson Tech” showed up on WDAU’s screen.
Now, I’m not the one who tipped off the newspaper. Swear to God. I know who did (and I’ll take his name and his secret to the grave). I swear it wasn't me (I?). But I certainly wasn’t unhappy to get a call from the paper asking for a comment, and I certainly wasn’t unhappy to see a front-page article the next day in which WDAU admitted its thievery. The station’s excuse: once WNEP had broadcast it, it was in the public domain, and it was in the public interest.
Darn right it benefitted the public. And if WNEP wasn’t first in the country, we were first in the region and put our viewers first. And that’s one reason WNEP is still #1 today, and WDAU (now as WYOU) is still #3.
And this morning, judging from the “Winterwatch” display, apparently “S. Wilson Tech” was on time. At least, I didn't see"it" listed as closed or delayed.
Sunday, December 9
The producers did an excellent job mining old TV news footage and newspaper clips and marrying them with present-day interviews. Among those asked to reminisce were drug runners, drug sellers, drug-gang assassins, law officers, lawyers and two journalists.
One was Edna Buchanan, Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald who later morphed into a best-selling novelist. The other was my old friend Al Sunshine, for a long time a reporter with WTVJ, later a CNN Correspondent covering (among other things) the Space Shuttle, and for years now WFOR’s “Shame on You” consumer reporter. From my perspective, Edna was lucky to be in such good company.
The film details the second of the two things that made Miami what it is today. The first was—trust me on this—air conditioning, which turned South Florida from a sleepy, bug-infested backwater into a popular tourist destination and retirement community. The documentary focuses on the second—cocaine; smuggling drugs in from Columbia, which brought money and notoriety to the area starting in the 70s and the 80s.
I have a friend who says, “There are only three big cities in America: Boston, New York and San Francisco. Everything else is Pittsburgh.”
Think about it. Philadelphia is Pittsburgh…with history. Cleveland is Pittsburgh…with a lake. Detroit is Pittsburgh…without the hills. Chicago is Pittsburgh…writ large. Denver is Pittsburgh…a mile high. Seattle is Pittsburgh…under water. Los Angeles is…well, just what the hell is Los Angeles, anyway? Omaha, Minneapolis, even Las Vegas: give me a break. New Orleans—the old Nawlins—had charm and style, but it was never really a big city. So maybe everywhere else is Pittsburgh.
With one exception: friends, Miami ain’t Pittsburgh. Someone in the documentary says Miami is Casablanca. I’ve always thought of it as Singapore, or Bangkok, or Istanbul, or…you know, some “stateless” state, some crossroads for nomads and fugitives. It wouldn’t have surprised me a bit to be stopped by a cop and asked for my “letters of transit.” It’s also, to my way of thinking, a rootless society: no one there is from there. Oh, you can find native South Floridians; but most people are transplants. They could care less about voting for Mayor—they’re not from here, they have no stake in the society. On the positive side—forget all that talk about a “melting pot.” Miami is a bouillabaisse; the ingredients mix but still retain their own unique flavors: Anglo, Cuban, Black, Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, Columbian, etc. I say again: it ain’t Pittsburgh.
I arrived in Miami in 1989, after the “Cocaine Wars” had died down a bit.
A bit. Miami is still the craziest news town I’ve ever seen; and remember, I’d been around! In every newsroom in America there’s a morning meeting to go over story ideas for the day: the news “budget.” You come out of the meeting with a pretty good idea of the shape of the day, certainly with an idea of the “big story,” your lead for the day. In my four years in Miami, NOT ONCE did the projected lead make it as the first item in the evening news. And sometimes, many times, the projected lead didn’t even make the broadcast! It had been eclipsed by other breaking news during the day, shoved deeper and deeper into the lineup until it just disappeared.
A sidebar: the Miami-Dade police department used to present an “Officer of the Month” award. We covered the ceremony every month, knowing it probably would be squeezed out of that night’s newscasts. “But,” someone at the morning meeting would say, “At least we’ll have his picture when he’s indicted.” It happened far too often. That was Miami. There was too much money to be made. Cocaine Cowboys makes the point that everyone has his price. I’d like to think that’s not true, but some otherwise respectable Miamians were making a lot of money simply by looking the other way while the drug lords fought it out on our streets. The film makes the point that after awhile drug-related killings became so commonplace that it took something special to make a murder newsworthy: a high body count, for example. God forgive us.
Another sidebar: newspaper columnist Dave Barry—sort of the Will Rogers of modern-day South Florida—used to pass out bumper stickers that read, “Miami: Thanks for Not Shooting!”
Cocaine Cowboys is a solid piece of journalism—and I don’t mean to take away from the producers’ achievement. But it’s easy to see “the big picture” from a vantage point 25 years down the road. Al and other journalists of the time were writing instant history, and trying to make sense of the senseless killings that had invaded a quiet backwater nestled between the ocean and the Everglades.
I don’t know if Al Sunshine invented the term “Cocaine Cowboys,” but he was among the first to use it and popularize it. It’s only fair that he’s a key narrator in this fascinating documentary.
Here’s the promo: Cocaine Cowboys is on Showtime this month; and you can catch it anytime on Showtime on Demand. It’s more than worth a look.
Saturday, December 8
This is it. This is the anniversary of one of the defining “Tying My Shoes” moments. December 8th.
You think you’ve got a career. You think you’re making a difference. You start thinking of yourself as—just maybe—important. Then in a heartbeat you realize you’re just occupying space on the planet—barely.
I’ve heard it said, “Want to know how important you are? Stick your foot in a bucket of water. Then pull it out quickly. The hole you leave in the water is how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.” I learned that once and for all 27 years ago today.
December 8th, 1980 was the day John Lennon was murdered, gunned down in front of “The Dakota,” his New York apartment, by a crazy kid, Mark David Chapman. Many will pause today to remember his music, his life and his death. I’ll also remember it as a moment when I felt useless and helpless.
In those days I slept more soundly than I do today. I was such a heavy sleeper that I always set my clock radio for an hour before I actually wanted to get up. The radio would rouse me, I’d listen to a top-of-the-hour newscast, get up and splash a little water on my face, and return to bed for some lighter sleep until I had to get up.
On that December 8th I had been working as Director of News Operations (a loftier title than Assignment Manager) for WABC in New York for all of three weeks. I was the manager in charge of all news gathering for the #1 station in the #1 market. The long years of apprenticeship were over. Sinatra sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” That’s how I felt about WABC.
That morning at 5:00 the radio went off, and the announcer on all-news WCBS said, “The world is mourning the death of Beatle John Lennon, gunned down last night at his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.”
I was instantly awake, and pulling on jeans and a shirt. I was also cursing out our overnight desk kid.
That’s what he was—a kid—just barely out of college. You see, in the days before full-fledged morning newscasts, newsrooms—even the one at the mighty WABC Eyewitness News—were all but deserted overnight. The way the union contracts read the New York stations could employ “stringers” to shoot what was called “non-scheduled news events” overnight. That meant a handful of independent photographers hit the streets every night running from fire to shooting to stabbing to train derailment. WABC’s overnight desk assistant was there as protection only, to call for help if World War III broke out.
But why hadn’t he called me? He must have heard the Lennon shooting calls on the two-way. Or a stringer must have gotten the film and tipped him off. As I jumped into a cab all I could do was pray that we weren’t playing catch-up.
Why did I jump into a cab rather than call the station? Because I lived only twelve blocks away, at 56th and Broadway. It took me less than ten minutes to get out of bed and to the WABC studios at 67th & Columbus.
I rushed up to the newsroom and found…
...and found…about half the news staff already there and working on the story. Roughly 100 people—with more on the way, including pretty much the entire assignment desk staff. I rushed up to the night assignment editor (whose shift normally would have ended five hours earlier) and asked—demanded—to know why I hadn’t been called.
The editor—I think it was Neil Goldstein, but it could have been Fred Chieco, I forget which—looked sheepish. “I guess we just forgot about you.”
My face flushed. Or maybe I was on the verge of tears. The story of the year and I was superfluous, an afterthought. Ouch!
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m not sure everyone on the staff even knew my name yet. I was just too new to have had an impact—too new to be thought of as a go-to newsroom decision maker—too new to have earned trust and respect. And let’s face it, WABC had been working without me just fine for decades, thank you. Matter of fact, I think I was the station’s first assignment manager. Channel 7 had EPs for early news and late news and special projects: but of the seven or eight line managers running the place, no one had sole responsibility for the desk until News Director Jim Topping hired me away from Detroit. The Eyewitness News machine (the best in town, which meant the best in the world) was well-oiled and primed to rise to meet any emergency.
In fact, when I got to the station I learned that WABC was first with the news of Lennon’s death. We (OK, they—I wasn’t a part of the we yet) broke the news to the world.
And here’s the story behind the story.
December 8th, 1980 was an amazingly warm December night in the Big Apple. WABC’s 6:00 p.m. news producer, Alan Weiss, was taking his motorcycle for a spin through Central Park when he collided with a taxi. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital with what they feared might be a broken hip.
It was a quiet night in the ER, Alan said later. Quiet until the ambulance bay doors slammed open and a slew of cops rushed in with a gunshot victim on a stretcher. Alan said the attention shifted from him to the wounded man. And even though he was in terrible pain he couldn’t miss Yoko Ono being escorted in by an officer. The man on the stretcher was John Lennon.
Using his gurney like a walker, after a lot of finagling Alan was able to get to a pay phone and alert the assignment desk. The desk was able to confirm a shooting at the Dakota Apartments. It was a Monday night—ABC was carrying Monday Night Football. Word was relayed to Howard Cosell, and he told the world.
Riding his motorcycle on a balmy night gave Alan Weiss the scoop of his lifetime—one which he, of course, would rather not have had. After calling in the tip Alan watched through the trauma room door as doctors and nurses tried—in vain—to save John Lennon. He watched a sobbing Yoko Ono being escorted out of Roosevelt Hospital. It was small consolation that his hip wasn’t broken after all. As a Beatles fan, his heart was broken. As a news professional, though, he was at the top of his game.
The next few days are, from this distance, a blur. Crowds of weeping fans surrounded The Dakota for an impromptu candlelight vigil that lasted for days. It seemed we were live non-stop.
I was finally able to really get into the game when WABC decided to carry the Central Park memorial service the following Sunday. Alan Weiss was, of course, picked to produce the live tribute. The logistics fell to me. With the engineering Department we surveyed the area around the Central Park bandshell, and determined that there was roughly a forty-foot stretch of curbside where a microwave truck could “see” the Empire State Building. Without a straight shot to Empire—what was and is called “line of sight”--there would be no live coverage (no one in New York had a satellite truck in those days). That meant our live broadcast hinged on a parking spot!
I arranged with ABC security to put the truck in place on Friday and have it guarded 24/7 until the telecast.
New York is a tough town. How tough? The security guards would only agree to go in teams of three. So we had uniformed men shuttled in and out of Central Park for 48 hours.
On the day of the memorial, Eyewitness News was live in Central Park, live at The Dakota, and live overhead froim a helicopter. The broadcast was meaningful and moving; and Alan Weiss won several awards for it.
YouTube has excerpts from that coverage: that's Roger Grimsby at the anchor desk and Ernie Anastos is in Central Park, standing atop the WABC live truck.
Alan Weiss now runs his own production company in New York. He works with Al Primo, the man who gave birth to Eyewitness News way back when, on Teen Kids News.
Neil Goldstein has gone on to a successful career as a news director: as a matter of fact he was my successor, twice removed, at the CBS O-and-O in Miami. Most recently he was news director at WDIV in Detroit.
Fred Chieco still works for WABC. He started there as a kid, and has worked there for something like 35 years. He was part of the phenomenal growth of television news, and he’s lived through the downsizing of the last few years. He‘s still one of the best I’ve ever worked with. He recently wrote me that he hasn’t lost an ounce of enthusiasm for his work.
Mark David Chapman, the gunman, has been denied parole four times, most recently at a 16-minute hearing in October, 2006. His next chance for freedom will be in October, 2008. He’ll be 53 then. There are reports he has become an evangelical Christian while serving his time in Attica State Prison.
Yoko Ono remains a controversial figure in the worlds of art, music and film. She still lives in the Dakota which, now more than ever, is the most famous apartment building in the world.
From The Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, you can see “Strawberry Fields,” the 2 ½ acre section of Central Park Yoko Ono sponsored as a tribute to her late husband. It was dedicated on October 9, 1985—what would have been Lennon’s 45th Birthday. Every October 9th—and every December 8th—people come together at its centerpiece, the “Imagine” mosaic, to sing songs and remember.
I remember, too.
Wednesday, December 5
It was the Summer of ’70. I was 23, producing the 11:00 p.m. news for WOOD AM-FM-TV and dreaming of a career as a hotshot reporter. Trouble was, the demand for reporters with absolutely zero reporting experience was, uh, zero! I was earning praise as a producer and a rep as a solid writer, but WOOD was famous for the strength of its award-winning reporting staff. Can you say "DuPont-Columbia" boys and girls? At WOOD they could and did.
How was “The Kid” going to crack the starting lineup?
My solution: volunteer, put my name out there, and then NEVER SAY NO! Need someone to come in at 3:15 in the morning? I’m your man! Get a sound bite from the local Congressman (that Jerry Ford guy)? Just tell me where. Climb to the top of a water tower under construction? That’s another one I actually did. I would do anything to get a story on the air and get noticed by the boss, the legendary Dick Cheverton (read about him in the Man and Mentor post).
Rather than just wait for assignments to come to me, I started dragging in my own story ideas, pitching them and volunteering to come in on my day off—for free—no pay—to cover them.
Maybe this one time I overdid it a bit. Grand Rapids’ Mexican-American community was growing and becoming more vocal. Producing the 11:00 meant I didn’t have to show up at work until 2:30. On Tuesdays I took to attending the 10:00 a.m. City Council meetings, just for the experience and to pick up some story ideas.
I’m damned embarrassed I can’t remember the man’s name, but La Raza, “the movement,” the recently-formed Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, had a dynamic, charismatic leader in Grand Rapids. The man spoke forcefully at council meetings and made himself a presence in local politics. He was demanding without being strident, and he knew how to bargain. He played up his ethnicity without playing a stereotype. He got things done for his community. I figured a profile of the man and his neighbors would make a fascinating (and educational) story for the good burghers of Grand Rapids.
Events played into my hand, and I found the “hook” for my story. The local Mexican-American community was planning a huge celebration on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe one summer Saturday. I donated my time, and got the best photographer in the shop (Tom Lehnen) to come in and shoot the story by promising him an absolutely free hand to shoot it the way he wanted—to run wild creatively. It being a Saturday, the weekend producer was desperate to fill the newscast, and I was told I could have all the time I wanted.
And it clicked. The Mexican-American community was used to being overlooked. Now here was a TV crew talking to them about their lives and their concerns—and finishing at their colorful celebration in the civic plaza downtown. I even got help translating my stand-up close so that I could deliver the same few lines in Spanish as well as English.
It was a tremendous hit. The next thing anyone knew, Mexican-American groups from around the country were asking for copies of the story—asking for and getting them, which was unusual. You see, in those days everything was on film—except the narration, which was on an audio cart. Marrying the two and making 16mm film dupes wasn’t done in an afternoon, and it wasn’t easily done at the station. But copies were made, and the story generated a lot of positive talk.
And it led to me being a full-time reporter. For a year. Until I realized I was more cut out for producing and managing than I was for reporting. Oh, well.
Here’s the payoff. Problem is, I can’t verify its accuracy. It came to me as an anecdote told by a former Time-Life manager.
WOOD was owned by Time-Life, the magazine people. Back then the company owned several stations—and put them all up for sale so that, we were told later, there’d be cash on hand to pay off angry subscribers when Life was shut down. But there was no subscriber backlash. Life subscribers gladly took subscriptions to other T-L publications.
Strangely, WOOD was the only station not involved in the original sale. While the rest of the stations went to McGraw-Hill (which owns most of them to this day), WOOD stood alone as the last Time-Life station for another two or three years until it was quietly sold.
And later—much later—I was told that I was the reason why!
The story that made its way back to me years later was that when the FCC was considering the group sale, several Hispanic organizations protested. They said they were worried that the stations had made no real effort to cover issues of interest and importance to the Spanish-speaking community. And they had this film, from WOOD, that showed how coverage SHOULD be done. How, they asked, could the FCC approve the sale of the one station that was making an effort to serve the minority community?
How, indeed? As the story goes (remember, this is all hearsay from years later), McGraw-Hill made coverage commitments and Time-Life execs agreed to hang on to WOOD (which was, for a time, renamed WOTV when the radio stations were spun off). A few years later, quietly, WOTV was sold. It’s had several owners since then, and remains successful.
Can’t say if they cover issues of interest to the Hispanic community, though.
And now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know "El Resto de la Estoria."
Even if it’s just a story—even if it’s apocryphal—it’s interesting, isn’t it? And think about this--“The Kid” was politically correct before PC ever entered the vocabulary, right?
Saturday, December 1
I’m not sure you can imagine the thrill of landing a top job at the station you grew up watching. WEWS (the call letters stand for “E.W. Scripps”) was the dominant station when I was growing up in the early fifties. Its slogan was “First in Cleveland,” but it was really the first TV station in the state, and if I’m not mistaken the first TV station between New York and Chicago when it signed on sixty years ago this month, on December 17, 1947. I was eleven months old at the time!
Dorothy Fuldheim did news commentary. A local utility sponsored a 15-minute nightly local newscast, and put its name on it (so I grew up watching Tom Field and the East Ohio Gas Report!). Gene Carroll had a Sunday afternoon talent show that was a fixture in Cleveland for decades. Another Sunday favorite was Polka Varieties. Paige Palmer aired a weekday exercise program. Later Don Webster hosted an American Bandstand-type show that was syndicated nationwide, Upbeat (how big a treat do you think it was for me to later work with Don Webster, who became Channel 5’s lead weathercaster?). Later The Morning Exchange became the blueprint when ABC remade its morning news into the easygoing Good Morning America.
And, of course, for years there was Captain Penny. He was a “railroad engineer” who showed "Three Stooges" and "Little Rascals" shorts on his noontime show (because that’s when the kids walked home for lunch every day). Life was simpler then.
How simple? Captain Penny signed off the same way every day:
“Remember…you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…but you can’t fool Mom! She’s pretty nice and she’s pretty smart. You do what Mom says and you won’t go far wrong.”Listening to Captain Penny didn’t quite prepare me for my first big problem at “NewsChannel 5.”
I had been on the job only a couple of weeks when one of the news staff came to me to complain that someone had been messing with objects on her desk. I sat her down to find out what was going on. Nothing was missing, she said, but she had a stack of head-shots on her desk ready to send out to autograph seekers, and a couple had been torn in half. Serious business. I knew she wasn’t particularly well-liked by some of the staff—she was said to be a bit of a diva—but one’s personal property is still sacrosanct. I was asking her if she had an idea who might be behind it when she dropped her bombshell. She said she thought it had something to do with her religion!
I’ll admit to total naiveté. I asked—because I honestly didn’t know—what her religion was. She told me she was Jewish. And I told her that I’d be talking to station General Manager Gary Robinson as soon as possible and that we’d get back to her.
If I ever worked for a more genial, non-confrontational, easy-going man than Gary Robinson, I don’t recall. He was taken aback—and instantly made several sound decisions. After contacting Scripps Howard corporate officials he sought out the station’s local law firm and asked for help in finding the best private investigation firm in the city. We then met with the employee and promised swift action.
Within 48 hours Gary and I were having the first of several meetings with two former FBI agents: two trim, crew-cut, no-nonsense men in white shirts and dark suits who laid out a number of scenarios. First, as a team, we talked to the employee, who suddenly seemed a little less sure of herself, and seemed anxious to drop the matter. In light of the seriousness of the original charges, Gary and I were reluctant to let the issue go. The investigators were talking about how to get access to the newsroom in off hours (Off hours in a newsroom?????) to install hidden cameras—asking for lists of anyone who passed by her cubicle on any given day (Anyone? Try everyone!)—and preparing for more thorough background checks of employees than they were given at hiring.
It was, in a way, heartbreaking to think that our co-workers—some of whom had been part of the Channel Five “family” for years—were suspects. But the slightest hint of anti-Semitism is not something to be handled in a casual way. And when pressed by the investigators for the name of possible suspects, the employee had one at hand: a respected long-time news photographer. She said she had rejected his romantic advances, and he continued to press the issue.
What that had to do with religion I didn't know, but I quietly had schedules rearranged to try to keep the two from working together, and the investigation moved forward.
It didn’t last long. The woman came to me just days later and said she had been offered a job anchoring in a much larger market, and if we would let her out of her contract it might be the best thing for all concerned.
I personally think that contracts are binding and shouldn’t be broken: don't sign it if you can't honor it. But at the same time I’ve always been reluctant to stand in the way of a someone accepting a wonderful opportunity, and this was just that. More than that—with the cloud of possible anti-Semitic harassment still hanging over the newsroom (although less than a half-dozen people knew about it, counting the photographer who had been brought in for questioning) this might work out to everyone’s advantage. Gary and the corporate honchos agreed and the contract was torn up.
So it was that on a Friday night a few weeks later most of the news staff gathered in a popular Cleveland pizza joint to bid bon voyage to our soon-to-be alumna, on her way to the big-time as an anchor. When I got there, late, I was surprised to see our suspect news photographer’s personal van—a fancy conversion job—in the parking lot. “What’s he doing here?” I wondered.
Inside the party was well underway. I’m not much for parties, but I was determined to pay my respects and wish the woman well. Strangely, she was nowhere to be found. Everyone said she was there, but I never saw her. After about ninety minutes I was pretty much partied out, decided it was time to go and made my farewells.
In the parking lot I was getting into my car when I saw, across the way, the side doors of the photographer’s van open. He got out—and helped the now-former employee out. She had that look—what do they say at the racetrack? She’d pretty obviously been ridden hard and put away wet.
So that question was answered. But even this many years later I still have a dozen more questions. They all lead to one major puzzle: WAS THERE AN INCIDENT IN THE FIRST PLACE, OR WAS THIS ENTIRELY A PLOY TO GET OUT OF A CONTRACT?
So, boys and girls, it turns out that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…and you can certainly fool me!
And no, I won’t tell you her name.