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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I-Missed-It News

Even the most experienced producers, assignment editors, and reporters blow it occasionally. Anyone who lived through CBS’ woeful coverage of Princess Diana’s death knows that even the big boys choke on a big one from time to time. No one’s immune. Certainly not me!

I always felt I had good news judgment, something you either have or you don’t. It cannot be taught. Yet in May of 1987, I made one of my biggest blunders. It was a Saturday morning, and the Miami Herald had just published their expose about presidential candidate Gary Hart, and his no-longer-secret tryst with celebrity wannabe Donna Rice. It was a salacious story. I hate salacious stories! The Ten O’Clock News was not a tabloid, and I was adamant about it. Still, the assignment desk sent our only weekend reporter out to pursue this ode of infidelity, and the manager on duty agreed it was the story of the day. Everyone agreed, except me. I’m glad I was overruled. Boy, did I blow it! I hated the freaking story, but the public gobbled it up, and soon Gary Hart was out of the race, throwing the democratic challenge for the nomination into turmoil… and ultimately handing the White House to the first George Bush. Yeah, I’d say it turned out to be an important turn of events. I’d say that was probably my biggest brain fart in my nineteen years in the newsroom.

(Gary Hart & Donna Rice:
Too Much "Monkey Business")

But I wasn’t alone! I’m about to name names, which doesn’t mean these producers weren’t good at what they did. It just means they, too, blew it on occasion. First, Rob Puglisi… and what came to be known (thanks to Dangerous Dan Slade) as “The Killer Cheese Incident”. It was June 14, 1985, the day a TWA plane carrying 80 Americans was hijacked by Lebanese extremists. A U.S. Navy diver was murdered; dozens of Americans were taken hostage, and held captive for weeks. The story was quickly unfolding, and was turning into a huge international crisis. How much time did it receive on The Ten O’Clock News that night? Thirteen seconds. Thirteen seconds!! The ultimate afterthought, after five minutes devoted to a Jalisco cheese recall that didn’t even reach into South Florida. After the newscast, a frowning Solon Gray spoke up and said, “Rob, I’m not pleased with our coverage of the hijacking”. It was the talk of the intern party that night at Monty Trainer’s, and of course the hijacking/hostage crisis would go on to dominate, and lead, the news for weeks. Hindsight is 20/20, they say. Rob made a lot of good decisions, but that sure wasn’t one of them!

(Click image to view full screen)

Now turn the page to June 13, 1994. Evy Woods rushes out of the feed room, to inform us that a body has been found at O.J. Simpson’s home. Howard Bernstein, who was producing the 5PM show, turned to Evy and told her, “Okay, I heard you, keep me informed.” A little while later, he added the story to the show… in the 6th block! With all the other celebrity news! Evy came out and argued her case, telling Howard that she thought the story deserved to be higher in the show. Evy would have made a good attorney, because she convinced Howard to move the story up, and to book a satellite window to carry a live report. Good move. (Of course, the Associated Press going ga-ga over the story might have helped convince him as well.)

It all reminds me of a line from Steve Boyer, the one-time WCIX intern who worked his way up to become assignment manager in 1988. After we got completely killed by the other stations on what turned out to be an important story, Boyer turned to news director Larry Wallenstein and said, very calmly, “We out-thunk ourselves”. That line has stayed with me all these years.

The truth is, all news people occasionally outthink themselves. It’s how we recover, and how much we learn, that determines our worth to a news operation. It’s how we grow, evolve, and how flexible we allow ourselves to be.

I still hate that sleazy Donna Rice story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're still right about that story. It was an early warning sign of the cheap, sensationalized journalism that has become the main fare of the mainstream media, rendering it useless to serious, thinking people. Since that story, Senator Hart has continued to lead an exemplary life of prescient and brilliant public service. Just last week, for example, he was in Moscow meeting with President Medvedev paving the way for a thaw in our relations with Russia. And, this year marks his 50th wedding anniversary to his only wife, Lee.