Sunday, March 23
Patricia Jeanne Burns
If you live in Pittsburgh, there's probably not much I can tell you about Patti Burns that you don't already know. I can contribute one anecdote--but it's a good one!
For the rest of you, here's some background. Patti Burns was the daughter of legendary KDKA-TV anchor Bill Burns. These days local TV news seems to be of middling importance to most people: with so many sources for news your local TV newscast is just a small part of the mix. But there was a time when local news was a daily essential. And there were markets like Pittsburgh where everybody watched. And in some of those markets there were anchors who stood out, who became a vital part of teir viewers' live. And a tiny number of those anchors--if they were good, if they were lucky--almost approached the power Bill Burns had on Channel 2 in Pittsburgh.
He was the state's most-trusted and best-liked anchor, and KDKA's Eyewitness News was a part of everyone's daily routine. His sign-off, "Goodbye, good luck and good news tomorrow" was a Pittsburgh trademark.
Daughter Patti got into the business, earning her stripes at WFAA in Dallas. But when Pittsburgh's WTAE tried to lure her home, KDKA stepped in and made her an offer she couldn't refuse. In 1974 she went to work as a member of her father's TV news family.
Some months later, in late 1974, I went to work there, too, as a producer.
Some of you might know about my all-too-short KDKA tenure. It wasn't measured in years--or even months. Unfortunately it was measured in weeks.
Here's how it happened. I had been searching for work, KDKA made me an offer, and I gladly became a part of the Eyewitness News team. But just weeks later, and out of the blue, a former boss of mine at WJBK in Detroit put my name in as a candidate for news director at a sister station, WSPD in Toledo.
That boss, the late Dick Graf, called me up to tell me that I had a good shot at the job if I wanted it. "But Dick," I said, "I haven't even been here two months. How can I leave?"
And Dick said, basically, Listen kid, you wanna be a news director or dontcha?
Me, a top-fifty market news director at age 27? I took the job, and the folks at KDKA (especially my boss, Larry Manne) took it well. I felt guilt, but my overpowering ambition overpowered my sense of obligation.
So I worked with Patti and her father for just a few weeks. She was obviously "royalty," a sort of "news princess," but she never carried herself that way. She was just a hard-working junior member of the staff; smart, a go-getter and funny.
I wasn't in Pittsburgh when Bill and Patti were teamed as co-anchors in 1976. I wasn't there for what was quickly nicknamed "The Patti and Daddy Show." Nepotism? Sure. But what if it worked? It did. Together they were pheonmally popular. They anchored together until his retirement in 1989. He died in 1997 (at age 84); ironically, Patti left KDKA that same year after a contract dispute.
In 2001, Patti Burns fought cancer and lost. She was 49. That's not fair.
But on to my anecdote.
If you've guessed my identity, you'll know that I'm a big fat guy. "Orca fat" (to quote a movie line). For the last 40 years I've started every day on a diet, and ended most days off it. From time to time, though, I've had phenomonal success.
During my short time at KDKA I went on the so-called "Stillman Water Diet," a precurser to today's high-protein/no carb diets. And the pounds were dropping off, ten or more pounds a week! I was only mildly heavy at the time, but I was on my way to seriously skinny!
One day Patti and I were walking down a hallway with a young male anchor. I'm really embarassed that I can't remember his name. He was a good guy, GQ handsome, and a great dresser. Patti complimented me on my remarkable weight loss and asked me what my goal was. Being flippant, I turned to "Mr. X," and said, "X looks like he's gaining weight. My goal is to fit into those designer suits he's outgrowing."
And Patti said, "If you keep losing weight at this rate, you'll be in my pants soon."
That's my Patti Burns memory: three people standing in the hallway laughing so hard tears were streaming down their cheeks, laughing so hard they had to lean against the wall, laughing so hard they were doubled over.
Tuesday, March 18
Y'know what I hate? I hate being "the Media." You know, as in, “The meed-ya liberal chorus,” or “meed-ya bias.”
Worse, the implication that “the meed-ya” are somehow in league with the government.
In my first job (WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids) I worked with a guy I’ll describe as a “strict constructionist.” Our job, he said, was to report the news, not to get involved with the news. When police asked us to put up a phone number for the public to call with leads in a particular case, he’d grumble, “Maybe they should do their job better. It’s not our job to be cops.” News Director Dick Cheverton had the last word, though. That word went something like this: “The station, as an entity, is a citizen of this community. If it’s in the best interests of our citizenry, of course we’ll help.”
Want a hypothetical? Forget that! Let’s fast-forward to a real-world example.
On a Thursday morning in October of 1982 a convicted robber was taken to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn to have a cast taken off his broken arm. 34-year-old Larry Gardner overpowered his two guards, took a gun off one and wounded him, then rushed down a basement corridor to a staff locker room where he took five hospital employees hostage. A standoff ensued.
Every New York television station raced to the scene; and in the confusion that morning, before the police were well organized, we all took up live camera positions in a window overlooking a small hospital courtyard. WABC was there first: our crew staked out the best position. From our vantage point we could see the narrow casement windows high in one wall of the locker room. Apparently hospital officials and police each thought it was the other's job to control us, so neither did. We wound up with a small army of staff stringing hundreds of feet of cable through hallways and out to our live truck. By the time anyone realized we had unprecedented access, it was too late to do much about it.
Gardner requested, and got, a telephone, blankets, pillows, coffee, cigarettes--and a TV--from the NYPD hostage negotiation team. He released one hostage that afternoon, another at about 9:00 that night, and—apparently pleased with the live television coverage at 11:00—let a third go at 11:30. We were live for all our newscasts that Thursday, and again throughout the Friday standoff.
Friday afternoon he released another hostage. Four down—one to go.
Gardner demanded to speak to reporters, saying he wanted to bring attention to brutality, corruption and drug smuggling behind bars at the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men. He was also said to be worried for his safety because he was rumored to be a behind-bars informant, a snitch.
At first light Saturday morning Gardner told negotiators that he’d release his last hostage and surrender if he were allowed to make a live—unedited—statement to the media. WCBS radio had technical problems. WINS radio had technical problems. Every TV station in town was represented at the scene. But when police shouted up from the courtyard to ask who could go live, only the Eyewitness News crew could say yes.
I was at the station that Saturday morning, babysitting the situation, rotating crews in and out of the scene. WABC’s mission, its mandate, was to own every big story, no matter what it took. My job was to make sure we were ready for anything. Tipped off by our crew, I took the request from police and called News Director Cliff Abromats. I don’t remember whether he cleared it with General Manager Bill Fyffe or not, but he gave me the green light for the live broadcast.
At 8:30, all was ready. The last hostage came up a ladder from the basement after 46 hours in captivity. There was cheering in the courtyard. When Larry Gardner reached the top of the ladder he was frisked by a deputy chief to make sure he was no longer armed. Then he faced the newspaper, radio and TV reporters--including the live WABC-TV audience.
''I am not a madman,'' he said, ''I'm a man that was trying to get freedom. I got caught. I'm here.''
''I wanted freedom,” he went on, “but I couldn't get freedom. We're not the criminals,'' he said. ''The rich people are the criminals.''
And that was that—except for the second (and third, and fourth) guessing.
Here’s something I haven’t discussed in 25 years. Cliff had hired the former NYPD chief hostage negotiator as a consultant and on-air expert: for “color commentary,” I guess you'd say. He was fairly critical of the department’s response and tactics on the air. Off the air he was beside himself. He said his successor was “an idiot” for letting any cameras (let alone live cameras) into the middle of an ongoing negotiation. He said he never would have provided a TV to an armed hostage-taker.
Strangely, it wasn’t the NYPD that got the most heat afterwards: it was WABC for going live. The basic tone was, “What are you guys, Pravda, an arm of the police state?” “Kind of crossed the line between observing and influencing, didn’t you?”
An editorial in The Daily News took us to task: ''There's something wrong when a guy who was just a number in Attica a few days ago can commandeer the spotlight like that. We in the news business must draw the line against being twisted so easily.''
In the New York Times, WCBS-TV reporter Chris Borgen (who didn’t have to make the tough call because his station wasn’t as aggressive or as prepared as Eyewitness News) took a shot across our bow. ''When you have one hostage situation, suddenly you'll have four; when the media has [been] used once, suddenly it will be used four times.'' He said he was worried about setting a dangerous precedent. Me? I thought maybe Borgen should have worried more about getting beaten by WABC on all the big stories.
Cliff handled himself well. Here’s his quote in the Times: “We felt that lives were at stake—the lives of the hostages, and those of the police officers and correction officers at the scene. I wouldn't want to speak for the press in general, but in this context, I feel we did the right thing.''
Better yet was GM Bill Fyffe. The Times asked for an interview with Bill on Sunday afternoon for a planned think-piece on the role of “the meed-ya” in the situation. I helped set it up, and ushered the reporter (I forget his name) into Bill’s office at 7 Lincoln Square.
You could tell the guy wanted to get into a lengthy philosophical debate about “the meed-ya” in society. Maybe work in Sacco and Vanzetti, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Scopes Monkey Trial and the sinking of the "Titanic" somehow. With a little luck maybe he could push the general manager of ABC’s flagship station into some sort of hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing mea culpa. Maybe tears and a public apology for not carrying the lofty torch of journalism as high as this guy wanted.
He didn’t know Bill Fyffe.
Bill wasn’t impolite, and he wasn’t curt, but his first reply was his only necessary reply and it ended the interview: “If you were stopped at a traffic light and a police officer rushed up and said, ‘I need your car to save a life’ what would you do?”
Well, hey, thanks for stopping by.
Great quote. Somehow it never made it into the NYT.
So, kiddies, the answer to today's quiz is this: the federal government licenses TV stations to operate in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." Go thou and do likewise.
Here endeth the lesson.
Monday, March 17
These days it seems just about anyone can own just about any number of TV stations in any markets they darn well please. That's a change. For the longest time the feds put strict restrictions on the number of "voices" you could control in any market. They were, they said, worried about one owner settting itself up as the gatekeeper in each market, becoming so powerful that all other voices were drowned out.
The FCC was particularly tough on newspapers owning TV stations. That's why the Detroit Evening News, which owned WWJ-TV in the motor city, and The Washington Post (as Post-Newsweek), which owned WTOP in the nation's capital, got worried enough to arrange a swap.
So in 1978 the top brass from WTOP moved to Detroit to take over at the newly-renamed WDIV ("We're Four Detroit," with the IV being the Roman Numeral "Four," get it?).
I jumped at the chance to return to Channel 4, even though it was to essentially the same job I had held four years earlier (or is that IV years earlier?); producer. The ownership change made it very attractive.
WWJ had always been the newspaper's red-headed bastard stepchild. Boy, were they cheap! The prevailing wisdom was that a little infusion of Post-Newsweek money and leadership added to an excellent (if under-manned and under-equipped and under-financed) news staff would lead to a rebirth of Channel 4.
The first signs were positive. The News had charged employees to park in its parking lot. Not much--50 cents--but they charged you to come to work. Some poor schlub was on duty 24/7 to collect your four bits. On "Day One" Post-Newsweek instituted free parking and tore down the parking lot attendant's shack. Talk about a positive first impression!
Mort retired in the mid-90s to run his own production house. He turns 71 soon, and I'm told he's had health problems. Can't help but wish him well. I don't pass around the word "professional" easily or often. Mort has always been a pro.
Tuesday, March 11
Wait a minute. Come to think of it—I am proud of this. It’s shameless hype at its best (worst?), but it’s my hype, thank you very much!
This is a “Monogram” kit circa 1985, still in its original cellophane shrink-wrap. Build your own “Skycam,” your own model of WNEP-TV’s news helicopter. “All Parts Snap Together.” “No Gluing Necessary” (in case you’re worried about Little Timmy sniffing his hobby kits).
This is “Skycam II,” if you please, because it replaced an older and smaller Hughes helicopter. This was the real deal: A Bell “Jet Ranger.” And that’s pilot Jack Ruland at the controls. I should know, I took this picture. When we took delivery of the ship in August of '84 we rented a “chase chopper” for a couple of hours of promotional shooting, video and stills, over the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania. I took the stills.
One of the things GM Elden Hale preached is that we were not to identify ourselves with either Scranton or Wilkes-Barre, the two major cities in the market. So what’s that landscape behind the Skycam? Why, that’s your town, isn’t it? Of course it is.
I think I’ve said here before that I’ve had maybe two or three great ideas in my life. Everything else was adapted (a kinder, gentler way of saying “stolen”) from the work of others. I don’t know who first had the idea of selling models of a TV chopper, but I saw one—and contacted the “Monogram” people outside Chicago.
Here’s the deal: they already had molds for a Jet Ranger. They stamped them out of white plastic to make model police helicopters. They could mold almost any solid color (like black) and add in the necessary decals all for $1.82 apiece. I remember that figure, but I honestly don’t remember how many models we ordered: I’m going to guess 10,000, but it could have been fewer, or as many as 20,000. Of course, WNEP was still in its growing years and didn’t have $36,000 to ante up for hunks of plastic. Here’s where I got creative.
In those days WNEP was doing the “Children’s Miracle Network Telethon” for the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. We asked them to put up the money, with the promise that we’d charge $2.50 for each model, all profits going to the hospital. Hey, a 37% return on investment isn’t that bad, right? The only problem is that I wasn’t sure how long it would take to sell out the run. What if it took three or four years?
It didn’t. The whole lot was gone in a year-and-a-half. We peddled them in supermarkets, by mail, and sold them at the yearly air show at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. That was a goldmine for us. Mom and Dad and the kids out looking at aircraft. “Hey, it’s only two-fifty and all proceeds go to charity!” There was a time when it seemed every 12-year-old in 20 counties had a “Skycam” model.
My only mistake was the “Skycam II” business. When it came to naming the new ship I said it was important to prove that we’d been in the chopper business forever. I said the “II” designation showed longevity and continuity. I was right--and I was wrong. Truth is, “Skycam 16” is better branding. The "II" was clutter, and it was removed some years later. The ship is now "Skycam 16" again.
I will take some credit for making sure the helicopter was treated like a station personality. I made sure it was in the new opens: “Newswatch 16 with Nolan Johannes, Karen Harch, Chief Meteorologist Tom Clark, Joe Zone on sports, and Pilot Jack Ruland in Skycam 16.”
I wasn’t alone. Sheryl Bourisk was/is a genius. Last I heard she was in Boston; but at 'NEP in those days her title was marketing director, or some such. She came up with this little gem:
These are “Skycam” pilot’s wings. Anyone here old enough to remember Eastern Airlines? If you are—if you do—then you’ll remember that in the days before hijackings and terrorists and locked cockpits, Eastern Airlines stewardesses (they weren’t "flight attendants" yet) would escort youngsters up front to talk to the pilots and get their own pilot’s wings—plastic versions of the gold wings the pilots actually wore. Hey, Mom and Dad, look!
Ours weren’t that fancy—but at something like 2 cents apiece they were terrific promotional giveaways. Whenever the Newswatch 16 folks made personal appearances, we handed them out. And we were always making personal appearances. We were always riding in parades.
In those days it wasn’t just three or four WNEP staffers riding in a convertible: 10 or 15 or 20 people would show up, and that meant a float. Sheryl and her loyal band of station volunteers and interns spent hours decorating floats until she came up with a brainstorm for the best float ever!
She rented a flatbed truck and Jack landed the helicopter on it. Tie it down, put up a few railings, decorate the railings with $15 worth of crepe paper, and you've got an instant float with an instantly identifiable symbol of WNEP. And along the parade route, the goal was to make sure every kid who hadn't yet hit puberty got a pair of wings.
The idea behind so much of what we did back then was to get kids to watch our newscasts. My thought was, If I can get you to watch when you’re 9, and 13, and 16, I’ve got a pretty good idea who you’re going to turn to and trust for news when you’re 30. Seems to be working still.
My old WABC boss Cliff Abromats now runs his own news consultancy, specializing in research and marketing. He’ll tell you that the key is to have the viewer make an emotional commitment to your station, to your “brand.” He doesn’t go around saying “ABC” (A—Always! B—Be! C—Closing!) but he wants his clients to be relentless about being—who they are.
I wish I could show you my pictures of the”Skycam” float, but I lost them all in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I used to have a case of “Skycam” models; but the ones I didn’t give away I lost to Andrew as well. Too bad.
But I salvaged a plastic bag of wings from a desk drawer, and now I have a "Skycam" model kit—and I have my memories of back when news was fun and we were a scrappy band of kids doing our best every day and connecting with our viewers in ways that don’t seem possible today. We were part of people’s lives, and the helicopter was our most visible symbol.
Oh, a P.S.
Bet you didn’t know that when WNEP took delivery of the Jet Ranger in August, 1984, it was a used ship! It had been owned and flown by WMAQ in Chicago and was fully outfitted (microwave, radios, etc.) for TV coverage. So today's “Skycam” is probably 27 or 28 years old. Not to worry. Helicopters are like old wooden yachts: keep overhauling them and they’ll last forever. I wonder if there’s a single original part on the ship now. I take it the station is continuing on in the Jack Ruland tradition of following the maintenance guidelines to the letter and having the work performed by the very best.
I said I lost a lot of "Skycam" memorabilia and pictures in the hurricane. This picture is from later. This is the "Skycam" and the WNEP satellite truck (in the background) drawing a crowd at the last local air show in August of '97.
Anyway: the models are a thing of the past. So are the wings. And the local air show. But we're still having fun, aren't we? Aren't we?
Sunday, March 9
I hired a nun back in 1995 to serve as a reporter for WEWS-TV in Cleveland. What was I thinking? I was looking for a way to “own” coverage of the Cleveland Indians’ playoff run to the World Series. I knew our sports department could handle the runs, hits and errors—the sports coverage. I knew the news staff could come up with compelling sidebar stories. What I was looking for was something unique—something one-of-a-kind—something you’d get from Newschannel 5 that you couldn’t get anywhere else, that would make you sit up and take notice. In those days I don't think we were yet using the term "water cooler talk" to describe must-see features (come to think of it, I'm not sure the term "must-see TV" was in use, either): but I wanted something that would get both die-hard baseball fans and casual viewers talking. I wanted a reporter they could identify with.
So we had a brainstorming session with the staff. I said, “I want a super-fan. Get me the guy who beats the drum out in center field.” I didn’t know his name, but I knew that stretching back to the old days in mammoth Municipal Stadium a guy out in the cheap seats beat a huge drum in tom-tom rhythms at every home game to cheer “the Tribe” on.
“Let’s hire him and send him to every game, home and away, to file reports froim a super-fan's perspective. I’ll even buy a first-class plane ticket for his drum so he can take it on on the plane.”
“Oh, you mean John Adams,” someone said. “You don’t want him. He’s not very cooperative.”
“OK,” I said, “Get me the nun.”
I didn’t know her name, either—but everyone knew who I was talking about: The Indians’ #1 fan. She was allowed more-or-less free access to the team clubhouse—and she baked the players and coaches cookies! The staff told me I was talking about Sister Mary Assumpta of the “Sisters of the Holy Spirit.”
You might recognize her, too. She had a bit part in Major League, the Charlie Sheen/Tom Berenger flick about the hapless Indians trying to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1954.
The on-the-field baseball scenes were staged (for some reason) in Milwaukee, in the Brewers old ballpark: but the city scenes were shot, of course, in Cleveland—and the cast and crew took a liking to Sister Assumpta, just as the real-life Indians had.
I met with her and found her to be bright, articulate, funny and out-going—with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Cleveland Indians. So I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. If she could get time off from her job as an administrator at Jennings Hall, one of the finest elderly-care facilities in the area, I’d send her to all the Indians playoff and series games—and pay her, to boot. She could do what she wanted with the money (which, admittedly, wasn’t much).
And that’s how Sister Mary Assumpta became a big-time TV reporter, even featured on the CBS Morning Show and in People magazine.
I guess I could just publish a link to the article (it’s at http://www.clevelandseniors.com/people/assumpta.htm) and be done. But it’s long and involved. I’m sure Ms. Hansen won’t consider it plagiarism if I borrow some of her research and copy some of her pictures and try to condense the highlights, still giving her credit for a job well done.
The work is hers. The conclusions: that the Sister brings light and joy to all around her—are Ms. Hansen’s as well as mine.
Remember, I grew up in Cleveland. My first knowledge of the Indians came just after my 7th birthday—when they played the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. I remember my Grandpa took the train from Racine, Wisconsin, and my Dad took him to one of the games. It might have been the first game: the one in which Willie Mays made what some call the greatest play of all time, his over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz smash to deep center.
In the end, the Giants won it all in four straight. For the next forty years every year was “next year” in Cleveland.
Little Helen Rachel Zabaskiewicz was a fan by then, too.
Later, as Sister Assumpta, she taught in Catholic schools from 1968 until 1992, when she got her license in Nursing Home Administration. In 1986 she became the Mother Superior, an elected position, of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit at Jennings Hall.
To quote the Hansen article:
“While she was teaching, Sr. Assumpta helped out at Jennings. One of the resident's daughters was the manager of Service America, the company who serviced the stadium. The company often gave their tickets to ‘the good sister taking care of her mother.’That is how Sr. Assumpta so often sat behind home plate, along with the player's wives.
“She started a fan club of sorts at Jennings, called ‘Adopt A Player.’ The residents adopted the player of their choice and then sent them a certificate letting them know. They then followed up with cards and letters, special notes after games, for birthdays, etc.
“Sister took approximately 50 of the residents, all in wheelchairs, to an Indians game. The tribe was still playing at Municipal Stadium at the time, which was not handicapped accessible. Benedictine High School loaned them 2 busses and they went to the "behind the fence" picnic area where the wheelchairs could get in. In order to convince one resident who was bordering on depression that she should come along, Sister promised her that she could meet Mel Harder.
“Not knowing how she was going to keep this promise, but determined to do so, she knocked on a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only" thinking it may be the clubhouse. It was. Mel Harder came out and talked to them and then made arrangements for meetings with Joe Carter, Brook Jacoby, Andre Thornton and others.
"To thank the players for being so considerate, the sisters made them chocolate baseball players and put their individual numbers on the caps. The start of the next season they made them chocolate chip cookies to welcome them back, and the cookies became a trademark.
“Sister Assumpta even arranged to have the residents sing the national anthem before the game in the 87-88 season. 1988 was Sr. Assumpta's 25th Anniversary in the community. Her friends from Pennsylvania [where she was born] sent the sisters money to buy her something really special that she wanted badly but would never buy for herself.
“Her choice? An Indians starter jacket. She has been seen nationwide in that jacket, which along with the cookies became a trademark.”
Debbie Hansen’s article told me something else I didn’t know: that the folks at Upper Deck Trading Cards made a card of her—apparently she’s the only non-sports figure on an Upper Deck Trading Card.
Now the bad news: despite “our” best efforts and prayers (so much for my claims of objectivity), the Indians lost the 1995 World Series to the Atlanta Braves in six games. But Sister Assumpta got to see all six—as my employee.
My Dad saw one game, too—with me. Sort of our family story turning full circle. We sat with my friend, Sister Mary Assumpta.
I’m glad I was her boss. Not her “Big boss,” mind you: we know who that is. He’s lucky to have such a faithful servant. Her talent isn't "on loan from God"--it's a gift she shares with us all!
Thursday, March 6
I don’t watch much Fox News Channel, but I take it she’s been on the trail with the Republican candidate. But there ain’t no Mike Huckabee to follow around no more! What’s next for Molly? Probably something big. She’s been front-and-center for Fox on several major stories. She was the first national reporter on the scene at the Virginia Tech student massacre just last April. A tragic story, but Molly did solid work.
I can’t say I know her well. Our time together at WBRE (our “overlap”) was short. She was the medical reporter, so I didn’t see her break any big stories, chase down any big leads. She seemed competent enough and smart enough; but not exactly a hard-charger. She was good enough that her scripts pretty much got a rubber stamp from me in my role as EP. I don't think I influenced her career at all. I make none of those "I taught her everything she knows" claims.
She also wasn‘t glamorous. Past tense—wasn’t. Fox News gave her a makeover. As WBRE anchor Andy Mehalshick might say, “Big-Time.”
Fox likes good-looking women.
Mary Katherine Ham, writing at Townhall.com this week, shared this picture of a Fox Business Channel billboard in New York City: “The Future of Business News Has Arrived.”
Uh…yeah…hmmmmm…uh-huh…yup…OK…sure…I see. What I’m missing is a bald-headed white guy with horn-rimmed glasses, or a person of color. What I’m missing is anyone without cleavage.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a mysogo—I mean a mysognis—I mean a misojon—I mean a guy who hates women.
I like to oogle—I mean ohgle—I mean look at pretty women as much as the next guy.
It’s just not my #1 determinant as I pick credible sources for news.
And don’t even get me started on “Fair and Balanced!”
Sunday, March 2
In my teaching days I also taught the “Three Fs:” First, fair, factual.
Let’s face it, in these days of “gotcha” journalism, being first is what counts, right? You can’t really get ‘em if you don’t get ‘em first. You gotta race to get your story on the web, on the air, on the printed page. If it’s incomplete or inaccurate you can always clean it up later, right? These days, more than ever, journalism is “instant history.” Hindsight, someone said, is 20/20. While we’re in hot pursuit some toes will get stepped on: tough.
So when I asked my students which of the three Fs was most important, I was never surprised when “First” came in…uh…first!
And factual is second, right?
You didn’t think you were going to get out of this without hearing a parable, did you?
I’m going to say it was 1970; right around there for sure. I was a producer at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but still hoping to be a reporter. I had an understanding with News Director Dick Cheverton—if I could develop my own stories (and they were good enough) I could cover them myself.
So I jumped when I got a tip. Someone had dumped several half-dead dogs in a meat rendering truck in Kent County.
SOMEONE DID WHAT, WHERE??????
Look, the caller said, everybody knows—but no one wants to face the fact—that the local humane society has to kill dogs. Not far away from the Society offices, in an industrial area (I’m paraphrasing now), are two semi-trailers owned by a meat-rendering firm. Butchers, cattle, dairy and pig farmers, restaurants—anyone with dead livestock or fat and the like—takes it to this place. They get paid by the pound. The two semis are open at the top. Trucks go up a ramp and the “waste” is dumped into the trailers from above. Every week-or-so the trailers are covered and replaced.
I’m wondering how this guy knows all this when he dropped his bombshell: “The Humane Society of Kent County has a deal to dispose of its dead dog carcasses by dumping them into the trailers.”
It became obvious to me this guy was an insider when he said, “The Humane Society kills by lethal injection, but they screwed up on the last batch. The dogs dumped into the meat-rendering trucks were unconscious, but alive.”
I had a photographer and was out the door in five minutes.
When we got there, no one was around. We hiked up the ramp to look down into the two trailers, and what we found was exactly as described—and worse. There was meat there—rotting meat. And dead animals. I can’t describe the smell for you. I can describe the sound: the buzzing of a million flies feasting in the summer son.
And another sound. The whimpering of dogs. Live dogs. Dogs buried in hundreds and hundreds of pounds of rotting meat and fat.
I was so angry I was shaking. I knew what to do next: I got to a pay phone and talked to Chev—then I called the Humane Society. Hey—they rescue animals in distress, right???
An official came out—and looked shocked when I pointed out what was inside the truck. And photographer Tom O’Rourke and I carefully documented what happened next. At our “urging” the man got a ladder and climbed down into the meat and pulled out four or five half-dead dogs. He rescued them from hell.
He rushed them off to his headquarters with us right behind. Once we saw they were cared for we put him in front of the camera—and under the spotlight. I did my best to be the unbiased, neutral, fair journalist I knew Chev wanted me to be; but the first question had to be, “Those are your dogs, aren’t they?” He said he wasn’t sure. Couldn’t be sure.
Pressing ahead he had to admit that the Humane Society did dispose of animal carcasses in the rendering company semis. He did admit that they had recently taken several dead dogs there. He said he had numbers, but didn’t have descriptions of the animals.
He admitted it was possible (not probable, mind you, but not impossible) that someone had gotten the dosage wrong and that the dogs weren’t dead when they left the facility.
I had my story. I had these butchers nailed! The people charged with protecting animals had, at least in this case, tortured dogs and left them to die a horrible death. In all fairness—wait a minute, WAIT JUST A MINUTE! Fairness? There was no way to be fair in this case. There was no “other side” to interview. There were no "special circumstances to consider."
BUT WHAT? There were no BUTS as far as I could tell.
I rushed back to the station and started working on my script while the film was being processed.
Word spread fast. The whole station soon knew what I had. The Humane Society knew, too: they called Chev to try to have the story killed. He refused.
And when the film was ready he came to the editing area to look at my script and watch the footage. It seemed like most of the station came to watch, too. Everyone was stone-faced. I heard sniffling. I remember a secretary became nauseous and had to leave the room.
I took my script into Chev’s office and he suggested a change or two: he even toughened it bit.
Then he asked me if I was sure I wanted to go to air with it.
“Damn right! Why wouldn’t I? We’ve got these bastards right where we want them!”
And Chev said, “I just want you to think about this for a second. For more than fifty years the Humane Society has been looking out for animals in this county. It’s not a public agency. It gets no tax dollars. When we put this story on the air, we’ll end it all. There will be no more Humane Society of Kent County. Donations will stop. The doors will have to close. I’m not sure who will look out for animals then.”
“If this is part of a pattern—if there has been systematic abuse and negligence at that place, then they deserve everything they’re about to get. But if it was a one-time foul-up—a horrible, regrettable accident, but just an accident—we will have inflicted capital punishment on the organization for one mistake.”
"It’s your story and your decision. We’ve got several hours before the newscast. It stays as the lead unless you decide differently.”
I thought it over. I talked to my colleagues. I weighed the arguments for and against my all-time gotcha story.
I'm not much for censorship. I figure it's our job to tell people what we know. Who am I to decide that you shouldn't see a story, hear the facts? I remember the Scripps-Howard motto from back when I was a kid delivering the Cleveland Press: "Give light and people will find their own way."
But I also remembered Chev telling me that television never whispers--it only shouts. Anything I wrote, any pictures I showed would rocket through the tube directly into people's living rooms.
I put the film in my desk drawer: no sense rushing to judgement. The facts wouldn't be fair. Over the the next few days I did more checking. It looked more and more like an isolated incident, a tragic accident. The film stayed in my desk for years.
I called my “friend” at the Humane Society and told him that WOOD and I would be keeping an eye on him. I did. We did. The Society came up with an alternate way to dispose of euthanized animals. Don’t get me wrong—they still killed unwanted pets—that’s a fact of life. But to the best of my knowledge they hadn’t been and wouldn’t be running some sort of “Doggie Dachau.”
Was I right? Was I wrong? Hell, it’s 2008: today I could have started my own news cycle that might have affected every Humane Society and SPCA in America—and beyond. I’d make the cover of Newsweek. Oprah would have me on for an hour. I’d be the PETA poster boy.
In my teaching days I trotted this out for my students as one case where being factual didn’t add up to being fair. I'd like to think I was being fair to the dogs. I hope I looked out for them--they couldn't look out for themselves.
In my book, you want to be FAIR—then factual—and first would, of course, be nice.
What do you think? Discuss amongst yourselves. Post your thoughts in the “comments” section.