Tuesday, March 18

Who's Holding Whom?

Time for another “So You Want to be a News Director” quiz.

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?”

Next question?

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.

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