Monday, November 10

I Witnessed It!

Anchor Rose Ann Scamardella, Reporter/MC Bob Lape, Creator/Honoree Al Primo

Tavern on the Green

November 9, 2008

New York Times Photo


I had another of my perfect “Tying My Shoes” Forest-Gump moments Sunday night. I arrived early at Tavern on the Green in New York for the Eyewitness News 40th anniversary party: a combination family reunion and tribute to the founder of EWN, Al Primo, who brought the format to Channel 7 forty years ago this month. Think about it: Al is still a very young 69—which means he was 29 when he dreamed up a way to present words and moving pictures on TV that changed the way the world looks at TV news. Wow!


Ironically, I left WABC 25 years ago this month after three years there. I guess you could say I helped write 7.5% of WABC’s EWN history. Still, if you’ve read any of my blog, you know that my time at Eyewitness News looms large and remains vivid in my memory.


So I went Sunday night to honor Al Primo, and to see whom I remembered from the old days, and who remembered me.


And boy, did I get my ticket stamped! Boy, did I come away feeling great!


I’ve written here about the trials and travails that have faced broadcast news in recent years. I have expressed dismay at the state of my chosen art—disdain for some of the people now in the biz—despair for its future.


My own recent past has been (to continue the alliteration) discouraging. The skills I spent so many years learning and the craft I so desperately wanted to master don’t seem to count for much anymore. I looked at my early career—and in those days people had careers, not just jobs—as my apprenticeship. The day I first set foot in the WABC newsroom the apprenticeship came to an end. I remember walking into EWN in 1980 and saying to myself, “Pinocchio, you’re a real boy at last!” Does anyone feel that pride starting a new job anymore?


One of the reasons for my occasional bouts of despair is that I’m not sure my career, in its recent incarnations, has had much meaning or has made much of a difference. But, I thought, maybe for my 7.5% of EWN’s history I did something important.


So I walked into Tavern on the Green Sunday night, and was talking to organizer/host Alan Weiss, when Jim Murphy came over to say Hi. He was a young producer when I left. I know he’s doing something important now, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what. So I said, “Jim, what are you up to these days?” And he said, “I’m Executive Producer of Good Morning America.”


Uh . . . yeah . . . knew that . . . you’re Diane Sawyer’s boss . . . I knew that. Trust me. I knew that. I was just leaning over, TYING MY SHOES!


And I did know that! I did know that he had produced the CBS Evening News before that. It was just that seeing him in an old context, picking up a conversation we had been having a quarter-century ago, left me struggling to focus on a new context. Tying my shoes, indeed!


So I was red-faced. But he was gracious, and a friend.


I had other, less embarrassing moments.


Lou Young was a terrific, aggressive young reporter way back when. Now he’s at WCBS. He told me that in his frustrating rookie days, when he was a GA (general assignment) reporter and had to take his marching orders from the desk every day, he came to me discouraged that he wasn’t getting bigger stories. He recalled me saying, “You want to be a star? Anyone can go out on a ‘10’ and come back with a ‘10.’ I need you to go out on ‘3s’ and come back with ‘7s.’” He’s remembered that for 25+ years. He said he quoted it to someone just the other day. Do you know what that means to me a quarter-century later?


Ticket stamped!


Did I ever tell you about Howard Doyle? Howard was Executive Producer when I got there—the single most powerful day-to-day driving force behind what we put on at 6:00 every night. He bled EWN, and when it came to setting the news agenda every day he ran roughshod over the newsroom. He could be a demanding tyrant. Benevolent? Hardly. He was the gatekeeper, the arbiter of all things EWN, and he played the game for keeps every day. He was the original “Go Hard or Go Home” guy!


Trouble was he didn’t think the news desk shared his daily vision. It was common for him to come to the morning news meeting and completely toss out the desk’s planning. Trust me—it’s tough to have a staff that (eventually) numbered 245 stop—turn on a dime—and move off in a new direction. Tough to restart the day, every day, at 10:00 a.m. One reason Howard felt the need to bigfoot the desk was that the assignment editors didn’t have their own manager. Lots of assignment Indians, no chiefs. Jim Topping hired me to supervise the desk and get it on the same page as the EP.


I read between the lines. I decided it was my real job to earn Howard Doyle’s trust and respect.


I thought I did. I know we worked well together. He was my real teacher as I tried master Eyewitness and The Big Apple at the same time.


So Sunday night I saw Howard for the first time in 25 years. And he told me I was one of the most honest, decent pros he ever worked with. I’m not ashamed to say I got a lump in my throat. I can’t remember a compliment ever meaning more.


I forget from time to time how truly blessed I’ve been. People I really respect seem to respect me.


Lou and Howard are the two I’ll name here. One of the themes of the evening seemed to be that we were all family who shared a great adventure. Maybe, through the mists of memory, the tough times fade. I know that I’ve had co-workers in recent years that I haven’t particularly cared for or respected. There’s another post here somewhere in which I talk about one reporter who gave 100% effort 50% of the time—or was it 50% effort 100% of the time? Either way, Howard Doyle would have had him knee-capped out on Columbus Avenue and his body left in a dumpster behind Chips!


Not many slackers at the old Circle 7. And as I looked around that room Sunday night I realized that I cherished every person there: more names than I’d dare try listing, for risk of leaving someone important out: and they were all important.


I think—I hope—I got a chance to tell them how much they mean to me. Just being remembered by so many broadcasting giants—just being in their figurative and literal embrace—was a wonderful high. Brilliant men and women who dedicated themselves, who had a calling. Where are the young people today who want to pay that price?



I wrote a letter to my nephew “Fritz” last year as he was getting ready to leave high school: one of those go forth and be a man letters. I told him that, in the final analysis, I wished for him the blessings I’ve had so far. I told him my epitaph could read, “He had it pretty much his own way pretty much of the time.”


After Sunday night I can die a happy man!


And there’s this. You can’t get decent corned beef in Scranton, PA. So on my way out of NYC Sunday night I took a chance—and found a parking space 25 feet from the front door of the Carnegie Deli, and no line at the counter!


Don’t tell me there’s no God!

3 comments:

Jeffers66 said...

It's funny. When I walked away from TV news last century, I said I'd never look back. I got my life back, at last! Yet I find myself thinking about some of the great people I worked with, and how much I learned from the "real" journalists that were forced to mingle with the pretty people. My appreciation for them grows with each passing day. Maybe through my blog I can express my admiration for the good guys, along with disdain for the dumbasses. It's therapeutic, as I'm sure you've discovered.

Jeff Lemlich, WCIX/WFOR, 1980-1999

Anonymous said...

Back when you were working at Eyewitness News, there was a sense you were creating something special.
Roger Grimsley and Bill Beutel were not hired because thye were pretty faces -- especially Roger. They were communicators. They knew their material and could relay it to viewers.
Many newscasters and off-camera personnel today jump from market-to-market only superficially learning their craft, there is no sense of inventing a medium because nobody is willing to take a chance and depart from the established conventions.
Who today would hire a bald, bad-toupee-wearing, Jewish lawyer, with a nasal New York-accented delivery, with a penchant to use $10 words to report sports? Yet Al Primo hired Howard Cohen (Cosell) and got one of the greatest sportscasters ever.

growler said...

What Eyewitness News did for you, Paul, you did for Newswatch 16. You gave us a sense that we were providing a real service to our neighbors in Northeastern and Central PA. You built a sense of camaraderie that survives to this day among our staffers from the ‘80s. I don’t know of anyone in management who has addressed their staff using the word “team” who has been as earnest and accurate as you were when you would speak to the NW16 staff. At the end of the day, walking out the door, when you said, “Good night, team. Be well,” there was no doubt that you were, indeed, wishing us well, and that we were all a TEAM.
Elden Hale certainly deserves a huge chunk of credit for NW16’s creation and success, but the “magic” that was created in the organization will always be your legacy.