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.