Tuesday, September 30

Passing Notes

The passing of Paul Newman reminds me of the time I ran into him--literally--in a New York City art store, turning a corner around a counter. I remember thinking, "That's the skinniest man I've ever seen." And he wasn't all that tall either.

Now, New Yorkers are cool (even transplants like me): they're not going to make a fuss over anything or anyone, no exceptions (that I know of). It was interesting, though. He left the store before I did. When I left, and turned to walk down West 57th Street, he was about 25 yards in front of me. No, I was not following him!

Here's what I noticed. You know how a powerboat cutting through the water leaves a wake? Water spreads out to either side and behind the boat. Paul Newman left a wake! No one was going to rush up to him or try to talk to him, or even acknowledge him (where he could see it). But off to the side and behind him there was a spreading buzz. "Bzzz-bzzzz-bzzzz-that was Paul Newman."

Bzzz-bzzzz-bzzzz. All down 57th Street.

I've been out and about with celebrities, people who got noticed, but never anyone on a level with Paul Newman. I wondered then, and I wonder still, if that sort of fame is more curse than blessing.

A couple of people I know had contact with him over the years: media professionals who dealt with him in the world of acting or in the world of motor sports. The spoke of him as a solid, decent guy. His charity work bears that out. And I'm hard-pressed to think of an actor who appeared in more flat-out entertaining films, ever! Butch, and Hud, and Fast Eddie and Luke. We can repeat lines from all of them.

Just a quick remembrance, nothing special. But apparently he was very special.

By the way: anyone out there know that he was from Cleveland? His family founded and ran the first large sporting goods store in the city, Newman-Stern, for many years. It's gone now. Paul Newman, too. Thanks.

Thursday, September 25


Bad news. I think I lost an old friend this week. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight over media bias; specifically his contention that in this election year the "Mainstream Media" have chosen sides. I said I just don't see it.

I may be myopic, even delusional, but I just don't see it.

Now, I'll admit that this year is far more confusing and contentious than any election year I've ever seen. Or maybe it's just that, in my semi-retired state, I've got more time on my hands to do something I've never done before
: pay attention to what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are saying.

Here's a bias I do recognize and admit: they make me sick--almost physically ill. I can take them in four or five-minute doses; and I have to be careful while driving to switch away before I drive straight off a bridge! The hate speech that passes for informed discussion these days is truly frightening. I'm not talking about their politics, I'm talking about their polemics. Add to that the Internet (a wonderful source for totally accurate, guaranteed opinion-free factual reporting, dontcha think?), and we're bombarded on all sides with hate, with bitterness, with divisiveness.

Rush is always talking about the "Drive-by Media." The one thing he doesn't mention is what I'm going to call the "Agenda-Driven" media. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I keep hearing the opinion, the one-sided opinion, and nothing that conflicts with that opinion. Agenda-driven.

Here's where it gets more complicated this time around. It was one thing when Rush had hate-s
peech all to himself. It was a bit more worrisome when the Rush wannabes started clogging the radio airwaves and the blogosphere. I thought it was a horrible development when the folks at Fox decided there must be an audience out there for a right-tilting cable news network. Ugggghhh!

Now, this year, in a move I absolutely deplore and condemn, MSNBC has decided that ther
e's an audience to be served and money to be made by tilting left. Hey, that in and of itself is OK. In the world of "narrowcasting" they can pick their target audience and program for it in any way they want. Trust me, if there's money to be made programming strictly to Croatian cross-dressing serial killers, someone will aim a program (or a network) at them.

But here's where it gets ugly. The MSNBC folks decided to drag NBC News along with them. Respected, trusted, voice-of-reason f
olks like Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell have been sitting next to shrill shills like Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews. NBC execs argue that the audience can tell the difference between NBC and MSNBC, between objective journalism and commentary. Like Hell!

Poor Tom. Poor Andrea. Forced to walk like ducks and quack like ducks and dilute their franchise, which u
p to now has been based on fair, factual journalism. I can't blame anyone who wants to see NBC News as tarred with the MSNBC brush. I don't care if MSNBC goes diving for dollars in the media pond. And I didn't mind when Tom and Andrea and Tim Russert were guests on Don Imus' old MSNBC program. Imus never tried to pass his schtick off as journalism, but MSNBC is trying to pass its political activism off as journalism: I think it's dishonest and I think it's called into question NBC's objectivity. Walk like a duck? NBC News is getting soaked.

This is the first Presidential election since 1968 that I've watched from the sidelines, so I think I can speak with some authority about media bias. I just never saw it. Maybe I'm myopic.

"The Meed-ya" make a convenient target for sleezy pols. The Nixon White House practiced "The Mushroom Theory:" Keep 'em in the dark and pile on the manure. Later, I think it was Repubican strategist Lee Atwater
who coined the term "Liberal Media" and made it not just a label, but an accusation. The idea was to keep reporters off balance by accusing them of disloyalty if they had the temerity to ask a question of the candidate. We've seen that carried to a new level this year--with Sarah Palin not being allowed by her handlers to say much beyond name, rank and serial number.

Am I sounding like a liberal? In my defense, let me paraphrase something David Brinkley said years ago. It's easy to mistake journalists for liberals: we both want to ride in
on a white horse and save the world.

I'm sitting this one out--but in close to forty years in TV news, I've written stories, produced newscasts, assigned reporters, coordinated coverage. Print out my body of work and lay it end to end--and you'd never have to buy toilet paper ever! And you'd also never find any trace of a personal opinion.

Now, I've
got opinions. Damn right! You can't spend as much time as I have rubbing up against the major issues of our day as I have and not have formed a personal opinion. What do I think about the race for the White House--or abortion--or the immigration issue--or gay marriage--or capital punishment?


That's because I've always made it my business not to let my personal opinions creep into my work. It
wouldn't be fair. And I know what fair is. Why do some people think it's so difficult to recognize your personal opinion and keep it out of your news copy?

If you look at journalism as a service we provide on behalf of our fellow citizens, than you know why all this talk about liberal media bias infuriates me so. When people talk about the media being unfair, most often their complaint boils down to, "It's not fair that you're asking my candidate tough questions."

Close to forty years and I can honestly say to you that I've never seen or heard any of my colleagues pushing a personal agenda. Oh, I've seen my share of "gotcha" journalism: but I've always l
ooked at it as "bulldog" journalism. When a responsible journalist--and by that I mean someone working for the three TV/radio networks, local affiliates and major newspapers--is on the job, he or she is like a bulldog going after the mailman. If the mailman stands his ground he doesn't get bit. If the pol starts to bob and weave, duck and dodge, and tries to pull away--the bulldog chomps down and holds on. So I've seen plenty of people get bloodied trying to mislead and flee the media--and I regret nothing.

Bias? I never had any political pressure brought to bear on me by my bosses. Just for fun (and for clarification) I recently talked to my old WABC boss, Cliff Abromats, and asked if he was ever made aware of some hidden agenda on the part of his ABC corporate bosses. He told me that there was an agenda alright--but it wasn't hidden: "Get more viewers so we can make more money." Every once in awhile corporate would meddle with a personnel decision, but Cliff told me no one at the netwo
rk level ever told him what stories to cover or how to cover them.

An anecdote I find amusing and telling at the same time. At the height of Watergate I was producing the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts for the old WWJ (now WDIV-TV) in Detroit. Betw
een newscasts, whenever possible, I'd take viewer calls; a "pulse of the people" sort of thing. One night I took two calls pretty much back-to-back.


Next call...


And I thought to myself, I must be doing something right.

In the few years before and the many years since I've never once been asked to or ordered to slant the news. The only political conversations I've had with my general managers have been "cost of coverage" not "kind of coverage." Their concern is that we got bang for our bucks--and covering politics can be expensive. For example, at my last station we covered every minute--every second--of every single appearance by the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates in our area. We blew out a lot of programming (and commercials!) but we felt it was important to give our viewers more than the standard :30 sound bites.
Damn...what was I thinking...I've buried the lead again.


Here's the lead. The friend I lost--after thirty years--accused me of being a lackey for the
conservative establishment. His take was that the owners of the mass media are, for the most part, Republicans; and they have (he's convinced) dictated a kid-glove policy when it comes to covering John McCain and Sarah Palin. He wrote, "How many questionable decisions based on bucks have you made? Are you a newsman or a lackey?" Hmmm. Maybe he's right. I haven't heard anyone in the "MSM," the "Drive-By Media" asking McCain tough questions, now have I?


He wrote, "
The Truth, like the news, is for sale."

I told him to pound sand!

Because--now get this: this comes from a man who worked as a tape editor for several New York TV stations! I guess he didn't check his mailbox the day the political agenda was passed out. He must have missed the auditions for the "media chorus."

I reminded him that I missed the time he nailed his "95 Theses" to the station's (glass) door. But no, he insists, he wasn't a collaborator: "I never had a position of responsibility beyond my individual projects which were never 'HARD NEWS' (that was for you intelligent pundits). I did not have a vote on anything put into the daily broadcast. You on the other had, did, and must share the blame for sucking up to those cretins who signed our checks."

Yeah, he just cashed the checks!

So there you have it. I'm part of the great
conservative media conspiracy! Don't hear that one often, do ya?

I guess truth is in the eye of the beholder.
Me? I'm biased against people who see a media bias under every rock. I'd conspire against them--but I don't know how to organize a good conspiracy! Most journalists can't organize a good three-car parade. The ones I know have a simple mission. They think knowing a lot is better than knowing a little, and they want to give you the information you need to know to make informed decisions this election year.

You gotta problem with that?

Monday, September 22

The Largest

I’ve got another “booth announcer” story. If you know me you’ll get the punch line. I’ll try to keep it short for the rest of you.

Forty years ago next month, while still attending Michigan State, I went to work part-time for WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids as a weekend news writer/producer. When I graduated in June of ’69 I went to work there full-time. It was an incredible stroke of good luck.

News Director Dick Cheverton (I’ve written about him here before, in “Man and Mentor” on April 12th of last year) had built a pioneering broadcast news operation at Channel 8. So good, so dominant, that in 1968 he started Michigan’s first (and for many years only) hour-long television newscast. I’ve also written here before that I produced America’s highest-rated news broadcasts while working for “Chev.” Heady times.

We were justifiably proud of our status, and it showed in our news open—read every night, live, by the booth announcer: “Compiled by the largest television news staff in Western Michigan, this is TV-8 News.”

But in 1974 it was time to move on. I accepted a job producing the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts for WWJ-TV in Detroit. And on my final night, booth announcer Ed Kemp somberly intoned: “Compiled by the largest television newsman in Western Michigan…”

If you know me, you get the joke.

Sunday, September 21

Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

When I got to WABC in 1980, I was surprised that in this almost-brand-new, state-of-the-art building (7 Lincoln Square, on Columbus Avenue) they (we) still had live booth announcers. Surprising for those days.

When TV began, it seemed everything was always going wrong. Every station had someone sitting in a little audio booth for whatever emergency might arise: “We are experiencing technical difficulties: PLEASE STAND BY.” And, of course, commercials needed to be read, live. Programs needed to be opened and closed. At the top of each hour each station was required by the FCC to give a verbal "station identification." So every station had a staff of booth announcers rotating the chore so that the booth could be manned during station hours (back then usually 7:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m.). If you were a radio/TV combo, it was fairly easy: each DJ usually tacked a two or three hour booth shift ointo the end of his workday (and I said "his" because in those days no one trusted a "mere woman" to be THE VOICE for a TV station!).

But after awhile there were fewer technical glitches, fewer emergencies to cover, and it turned out to be easier to pre-record the announcer copy. You dubbed all your audio, including a variety of PLEASE STAND BY recordings, onto audio cartridges. Every master control room had stacks and stacks of prerecorded messages and commercials on audio carts.

Today it’s all digitized. Every station in America still employs a booth announcer—but sometimes he or she isn’t in the building, or even in the same state! The booth announcer does minutes of work a day or week for each station, reading emailed copy into a computer and sending back digital audio files. No muss, no fuss. That’s why the same BIG VOICES can be heard on TV stations all over the country and all around the globe.

Back in 1980, it wasn’t unheard of—but it was unusual—to see, to hear a live booth announcer in the #1 TV station in the #1 market in America.

When I got “the tour” and saw the booth announcer sitting in his little cubicle. Later, as the tour was ending, I mentioned to my guide that it was surprising to see a live booth announcer. “Oh,” he replied, “that’s Fred Foy.” It took a few seconds for the information to sink in. That’s FRED FOY!!!!!!

FRED FOY!!!!!!!

"A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty 'Hi-yo, Silver, away!' The Lone Ranger!”

FRED FOY!!!!! Doing booth work at WABC.

And then it all made sense. The Lone Ranger radio serial got its start in 1933 at the legendary radio station WXYZ in Detroit, and was fed all across America on the ABC radio network. In 1948 a young Fred Foy, not long back from WWII, became the announcer and a stand-by actor on the program. But it was his voice that announced the TV series when it on ABC in the 50s. So it was his voice that introduced the Masked Man and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, to America’s baby boomers: that is, to me.

Fred Foy had also done voice work while at WXYZ for The Green Hornet and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Later he served as the studio announcer for Dick Cavett’s late-night talk show.

Are you old enough to remember?

Here’s a link to Fred Foy recreating the Lone Ranger intro for NPR a couple of years ago: William Tell Overture and all. Foy is in his late eighties now—but you can still hear a strong trace of the “pipes” that he’s been using to tell us about those thrilling days of yesteryear for 60 years!


Fred Foy published a short biography of his life. I mention it because of its terrific title: From XYZ to ABC.

Wednesday, September 17

Before the Beginning

I’m pacing. Back and forth, back and forth, out to the mailbox and back, out to the mailbox and back. I’m waiting for Amazon.com to deliver my copy of Eyewitness Newsman, the new book by Al Primo. It’s the story of his life and times, and of the birth of TV news as we know it today.

I’ve written here before about Al Primo, the man who invented (Created? Founded? Shaped? Fashioned? Formed? Molded? Planned? Instituted?) Eyewitness News. I know I’ve credited him with being the genius behind the kind of story-telling that’s being used in every TV station and cable news operation in the country and on every web site that uses moving pictures and words to tell stories.

Forget the EWN title for a second: it was Al Primo who first said, Let’s stop trying to write newspaper stories and hope we have some pictures that might fit. Let’s use the unique tools available to us to take our viewers by the hand and transport them to the scenes of stories. Let’s work on their behalf, so that through us they can be “eyewitnesses” to the day’s stories. Long before Fox said “We Report, You Decide” Al Primo was determined to give viewers more than just a recitation of the facts, he wanted them to feel the story—or rather, to come away from the TV set with the same feeling they’d have had if they had been at the event themselves.

Al Primo thought that watching TV news should be an experience. It could move you—and anger you—and tickle you—and inform you—and make you indignant, all in the space of a half-hour. And it should be delivered by a recognizable cast of “real people” characters, not by deep-voiced announcers floating above it all.

When he started Eyewitness, first at KYW in Philadelphia, then at WABC in New York, he was mocked as the creator of “Happy Talk” television. Yet today every compelling story you see on TV, from the highest network perch to the lowliest small-market one-man band operation, uses the tools he thought up.

I guess you could say I’m his disciple. Or is that “apostle”, I can never keep the two straight. Doesn’t one word represent the original twelve, while the other refers to followers and teachers? Dunno. Put me down as an acolyte—once removed.

That’s because although I walk, talk, sleep, eat and breathe Eyewitness, and although I worked at WABC, I’ve yet to meet the man.

Although he's been incredibly busy with his syndidcated news program Teen Kids News—go to http://www.teenkids.news.com/--he has been kind enough to answer some of my emails to clarify a point or two about the early days of EWN for my blog.

And he’s been finishing Eyewitness Newsman with Randy Tatano (www.eyewitnessnewsman.com).

In response to some of my questions, some months ago Al was kind enough to forward me a draft of some early chapters. I look at this as “before the beginning," because this goes back before KYW and WABC—back to the start of his career.

In the first chapters (again, an early draft) we read how a fresh-faced Pittsburgh kid, a C+ student, accidentally got into TV 55 years ago, told by his high school guidance counselor (and metal shop teacher) Mr. Berry to forget about college and get a job: "Help out your family and don't take the place of someone who should really go to college."

So he started looking for a job—any job—and wound up, literally by accident, working in the mailroom at Dumont Television’s WDTV. Who knew that WDTV would later become KDKA, Pittsburgh’s juggernaut TV station, and that Al would help invent TV news for Pittsburgh? Or that he would do it alongside another soon-to-be-legendary television personality, Bill Burns.

But I’ll let Al take it from there. He’s a much better story-teller than I am. Remember, this is an early draft—but if this doesn’t send you to the bookstore or Amazon.com, I can’t help you.

This is long for a blog post, but it’s fascinating.

The news department consisted of just three people, News Director/Anchor Burns, News Editor George Thomas and Cameraman Chuck Boyle. I had by now grown comfortable with the thrill and excitement of television and decided to enter the University of Pittsburgh. I had set my sights on journalism and knew in my heart I would commit the rest of my life to it.

I learned the way most reporters do, by making mistakes. Once assigned to get the facts on a bank robbery, I proudly presented Burns with a story that detailed the incident, the suspects, the getaway car, and the ensuing manhunt. The anchor got to the end of the copy, furrowed his brow and gave me a puzzled look. "So, Al… how much did they get?" I sheepishly headed back to the telephone to find out how much money the bank robbers had taken. The errors were silly, rookie mishaps; but once I learned the lessons I never repeated the mistakes.

In the days that followed, I got to go on my first news story, and it was a big one. I had just arrived from my day of classes at Pitt and was casually crossing the lobby when Burns and cameraman Chuck Boyle rushed out. "Come on, kid, we've got a news story, and we need you," Burns said. I was thrilled, but only until we got to a waiting helicopter. There had been a coalmine disaster in Steubenville, Ohio, and this was the quickest way to get there.

I had never been in an airplane before and had never even seen a helicopter. This particular model had a plastic cockpit that allowed you to see the full vista of earth beneath you and watch it grow small and flit in and out of the clouds in front of your very own eyes. The excitement I'd felt about my first story had been rudely shoved to the back burner by heart-pounding fear. My pulse seemed to be keeping pace with the beating rotors of the chopper.

We landed on top of a mountain above the coal mine. Chuck and I dragged the huge camera box down the hill while Burns slowly maneuvered down the mountain with his bad leg.

It was a devastating scene at the coalmine pit. It looked exactly like every old movie about mine disasters and also brought my mother's stories to life. Only this story was staring me in the face.

Because I was there to see it.

I was an eyewitness.

The families gathered just inside the gates. A specific number of men were trapped in the mine, but at that moment I realized there was a life behind every number. The numbers all had names; they were sons and fathers and brothers and best friends who each had a life that touched the people holding vigil. The mothers and wives and children stood silently with quivering lips and the look of despair on their faces. There were priests in attendance and a numbing quiet broken only by the whirl of the fans and elevators. I realized television news gave me the opportunity to weave a tapestry of emotion through the facts by showing and telling the viewer what people felt, not just what I saw.

The press corps, mostly newspaper reporters, were kept behind police lines. One enterprising reporter from the Associated Press, who had obviously covered these kinds of stories before, had ordered up a telephone line from Bell Telephone. He was in constant communication with his office. Something told me that I should be very nice to this guy. I was and it turned out to be very beneficial.

After many, many hours there was a break in the story. Burns and cameraman Boyle had been recording interviews with family members and were in the right place at the right time. They had managed to get close enough to the mineshaft to hear first that rescue workers had reached the trapped miners and they were coming up. Burns was running up the hill toward me, signaling the AP man to come down. I, of course, volunteered to hold his telephone since he obviously had to go down the hill to get the story. As soon as he was out of sight I hung up and called the scoop into KDKA just minutes before the 11 o’clock news. Burns then recorded an on the scene radio report. I went down to "help" the AP man as I saw him heading up the mountain, actually falling on top of him to give Burns a few more minutes to finish his feed.

The miners had all been found, and emerged safely one by one. The dam of emotion burst as the families rushed forward to meet them. As the photographer captured the moment, I realized that film and sound could convey what words couldn't. The footage of a sobbing woman burying her head in the chest of her coal dust covered husband, hanging on for dear life as a tears rolled down her face was an image that burned into my brain. The viewers didn't need to hear a reporter for this part of the story. Words could add nothing more.

That very night I saw the future of the medium and I wanted to be a part of that future. Television news could take the marriage of pictures, sound, copy and reporter involvement and bring story coverage to a new level.

Because television could make the viewer an eyewitness as well.

That night I also learned another valuable lesson. When I had called the station on the AP phone line to pass on the news of the rescue, the producer apparently didn't want to re-write the entire newscast. He simply broadcast the first ten minutes as originally scripted, telling western Pennsylvania that the miners were still trapped when they weren't. He finally went to Bill Burns' taped report at ten minutes past the hour.

The producer was fired. He'd broadcast a story that wasn't true. And in my mind, he'd committed a horrible affront to the people who were hanging on every word for news from the mine. He'd let those people believe their loved ones were trapped or dead when in fact they'd been safe for nearly a half hour. Letting viewers endure the sheer agony of thinking their loved ones were dead for ten gut-wrenching minutes was an unconscionable sin.


What a remarkable story. What a remarkable man. And that's just "before the beginning." I can hardly wait to get my hands on the book, to read about Eyewitness, and about Beutel and Grimsby and Geraldo Rivera and Milton Lewis and John Johnson and all the rest.

Bless you, Al Primo. Thanks for the excerpt. Thanks for Eyewitness. Thanks for my career. Thanks for everything.