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.
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.