Thursday, December 4

"Strawberry Fields Forever"

Do you know what sea glass is? It's ordinary glass, discarded glass—usually from broken bottles—that's made extraordinarily beautiful by being pounded by surf and sand for many years. You turn it in over your hand and it looks somehow different from each new angle. It's captivating.

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was gunned down by deranged "fan" Mark David Chapman in front of his apartment building, the Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West. I've been turning that event over in my mind, trying to see if I can find beauty or meaning there. I can't. But after more than a quarter-century I have a new perspective.

A year ago today I wrote about my role (almost non-existent) in covering the story—and more particularly about WABC-TV’s role in breaking the story for the world. I wrote how Eyewitness News found out about the killing and passed it along to the network: ABC, which was carrying Monday Night Football had Howard Cosell make the announcement.

I repeated the story of Eyewitness News 6PM producer Alan Weiss, who was hurt in a motorcycle-versus-taxi accident in Central Park, was in the Roosevelt Hospital emergency room when Lennon was brought in. Alan, badly injured, was still able to get to a phone and call the news desk. If you’ve got a second you might want to scroll down to December 8, 2007, and read that post.

A few weeks ago, at the Eyewitness News 40th reunion, I ran into long-time WABC photographer Peter Berman. He and I have been sharing memories since. When we communicated about the night of the Lennon killing he told me a side of the story I hadn’t heard before. I asked him to write it down for inclusion here.

He agreed, with some reluctance. I have to repeat here what Peter said to me: his version doesn't contradict Alan's, it adds to it. He wants it made clear that he doesn’t dispute Alan’s story in any way. He’s not trying to claim any “credit” for breaking the Lennon story (and credit isn’t a word he or Alan or any of us at EWN would think about using). He just had a unique perspective. Like looking at sea glass, he saw the event from a different angle. It makes for fascinating reading, and I thank him for allowing me to share "the rest of the story" (forgive me) with you.

John Lennon & Mark David Chapman

at the Dakota

It was the end of the night shift at WABC TV and my partner, who will remain nameless, and I were packing up our video gear for the night. I had just been made a staff video journalist at Ch7 in October of that year after doing the requisite vacation relief stint. 1980 was the start of the change over from film to video in TV news and the video crews were almost all assigned to the night shift because we had live trucks. In those days video was one step away from being prehistoric. All of the broadcast cameras were in two pieces. There was the video camera and the video recorder which recorded both picture and sound. We used 3/4 inch Sony U-matic tape decks that were very cumbersome and heavy. The cameras weren't much better, they were plumbicon tube cameras that weighed almost as much as the recorder. The big difference was that it was better balanced on your shoulder. The other difference was that the camera people almost all had a swagger and an inflated ego. You needed both to survive the urban combat situations in the news business on the streets of New York.

Mixed in with some very talented video journalists were some not so talented people who were a fact of life. If you had one of these people as a partner you very likely did what seemed like two jobs. On December 8th I was partnered with one of the slackers. Our equipment was kept in cages in the basement of the Ch7 building on the corner of 67th and Columbus Ave. The newsroom where the production staff worked was on the 4th floor and there was a telephone that connected the assignment desk to the crews in the basement. My partner and I were waiting for a call from Neil Goldstein, our night time assignment editor, for a "good night".

Neil was one of the most creative people in the entire TV news business at the time. No one knew the tri-state area like Neil. He knew every police precinct, every hospital, every government building and every public relations person in the city. Throw in knowing the streets better than a Hagstrom map. Neil could smell a huge story a mile away. One of Neil’s jobs was to listen to the police scanners in addition to managing all of the night crews and reporters. The phone in the basement rang and my partner and I looked at each other and had that knowing look....time to go home! It was Neil, but it was not a "good night". Instead when I picked up the phone I heard Neil franticly barking orders to hurry up and get over to the "Dakota.”

The "Dakota" was one of the best known celebrity apartments in the city. Everyone in our building knew exactly where it was....the corner of 72nd St. and Central Park West. Only 5 blocks north of our building. In the short time that I had known Neil I had never heard him so frantic. "Get over to the Dakota now!" I heard again, “somebody has been shot and we need to check it out.” My partner and I ran upstairs to the parking lot where the live trucks were kept. We threw our equipment in the truck and drove like crazy up to 72nd St.

Just as we arrived on the scene we saw a very small crowd of people, a police car with its lights flashing and police officers carrying John Lennon into the back seat of the car. My partner and I leaped out of the truck. I ran to pick up the camera and start shooting the action but my partner started to argue with me that it was his turn to shoot and he wasn't going to give up the camera. The people at the scene were yelling at us that "it was John Lennon in the police car and he had been shot". Seeing the action unfold in front of us I instantly decided not to argue and let my partner shoot. There was one problem though, my partner for some unknown reason refused to let me turn on the portable light so that he could have a useable picture. I watched in vain as the police car with John Lennon's body pulled away in a hurry to get him to the closest hospital.

As soon as the car was out of sight I ran back to the truck and called Neil on the two way radio to tell him that the victim of the shooting was John Lennon. There was a pregnant pause as the news sunk in and moments later Neil started to bark out orders. From that moment and for the next couple of days night blended into day and day into night. My partner and I worked non-stop around the clock for two to three days. We went to every location that was part of the story, the Dakota, the hospital, the 20th precinct, back to the Dakota. We did live shot after live shot for both WABC and ABC Network. I worked with so many reporters that I stopped counting after the first couple. There was a coffee shop across the street from the Dakotas and the owner and his staff were godsends. Food, restrooms, short breaks. Sooner or later everyone working on the story ended up at this coffee shop.

As the word spread about the shooting of one of music's legends, the crowds began to grow. Soon the numbers of people were growing to enormous proportions. People were in tears, I remember people bringing flowers to the cr
ime scene to pay homage to Lennon. Eventually there were piles of flowers overflowing onto the sidewalk. There were people who were in a state of shock and just stood and waited outside the now infamous Dakota, not knowing what they were waiting for, just waiting and hoping that the news wasn't true. Their hero, their icon, the man who wrote "give peace a chance" was now dead. Not since the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr. did I witness such an outpouring of public grief.

I will never forget that night and the days that followed. I was actually living a part of history, this was the brutal reality of what the dark side of the news business was all about. I still get teary eyed when I hear Lennon's music, when December 8th comes around, when I see footage of him and the other "mop heads". So much talent, senselessly lost to the world for ever. I will always have a connection to John Lennon, I just wish it could have been in a more positive way.

Some postscripts. Peter says that Neil later told him as soon as Peter had given him the word it was John Lennon who was shot, his next call was from Alan Weiss at the hospital. Neil, of course, was the one who passed along the word to the network. All these years later I find that Neil had two sources, not just one—and that both were impeccable. Again, I don’t see any dispute here: neither Peter nor Alan could have known what the other had witnessed. I don't think they ever got around to comparing notes on what happened that night. I haven't talked to Neil.

Neil Goldstein has had a very successful career in news. He wound up as news director for the CBS O-and-O in Miami—my successor, twice-removed I think. Along the way he was ND for WJBK in Detroit, WNEW in New York, and most recently for WDIV, the Post-Newsweek station in Detroit. Lately he’s been behind Post-Newsweek’s new venture, Its Beta is up and running and worth a look.

Neil was, during his Eyewitness News days and for awhile after, married to WABC Reporter Tracy Egan—who had a long career that eventually took her back to her hometown, Albany. Neil and Tracy have a daughter, Bridget Blythe, who reports and anchors at WKBW in Buffalo and is the spitting image of her Mom.

Peter Berman recently retired after a long careeer at EWN. He's got his own photo/video service. If you go to and click on "Events," you'll find some pictures he took at the reunion. Peter continues to help his wife, Julie Eckhert, run her business: she's one of the best-known and most respected talent coaches and career consultants in TV news:

Mark David Chapman was up for parole earlier this year—and was rejected. This picture, the most recent I could find, was taken in 2003. He’s up for a parole hearing again in 2010. He's a born-again Christian.

Me? For me it’s been a “A Long and Winding Road."