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Monday, August 16, 2010

The Intern

Some people refuse to take “no” for an answer.

Some people see only possibilities, and potential results.

Along the way they encounter doubters, teasers, and haters. They get talked about, scorned, and vilified… but they become immune to the roar of the crowd. The reward is great, and so is the risk, but they can see what’s waiting at the finish line, and run, sometimes recklessly, toward it. I worked with such a person at Channel 6. He wasn’t my boss, or one of my paid colleagues. He was an intern.

I was the weekend producer -- a thankless job, if there ever was one. In terms of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I was everybody in the WJM newsroom except for Ted Baxter and Gordy The Weatherman. It felt like I had a million things to do, every day, with very little help. We had no night reporter. We had no night assignment editor. We didn’t even have anyone to help the three of us in the newsroom (yes, just three of us!) answer phones from irate viewers, wondering why their favorite contestant on Star Search didn’t win, or some other similar drivel. We needed help… badly… and management’s solution was to have interns work the night assignment desk. Usually they had no training. Some had no skills. It was a nightmare.

But then… he showed up: a know-it-all kid with an obnoxious streak. The kind of kid that was probably a bully-magnet for most of his life.

But this wasn’t school. It was the real world, and a real assignment desk in a major market newsroom. The Intern walked into our party like he was walking into a yacht. He had no clue about our limitations as a shoestring operation, and he didn’t care to hear it.

When President Ronald Reagan took an interest in 7-year-old transplant patient Ronnie DeSillers, who then moved to the top of the organ transplant list (not once, not twice, but three times), DeSillers became a national cause célèbre. After the boy died and his mother, Maria, was accused of misusing the funds meant for her son, every station in town was hot on her trail.

We asked The Intern to try to get some kind of statement from Maria DeSillers. Not good enough for him! Before we knew it, he had set up a live satellite interview (utilizing our sister station in Pittsburgh), for Beverly Counts Rodrigues to conduct on The Ten O’Clock News. An EXCLUSIVE live interview.

Management was gob-smacked.

Other times there were exclusives, such as a civil disturbance in Naranja Lakes that the police really didn’t feel like talking about. We had it, and nobody else did. The Intern again. There was some exclusive involving Panamanian President Eric Delvalle, the details of which I can’t remember nearly 24 years later. And the time a former Apollo astronaut who’d passed through town changed his plans… at The Intern’s insistence… so we could talk to him live on the air, instead of settling for a vacuous soundbite from questions fed to him by a cameraman. Our paid assignment editors didn’t always have that good a success rate!

Believe it or not, there was a downside to this. All interns leave after a matter of months. Management was now convinced that we didn’t need to hire any weekend assignment desk help. They used this as proof that interns were good enough to man the desk, even though most just didn’t have the know-how. Most wound up having to ask me, or Beverly, what to do, and of course that wasn’t their fault. He spoiled them. And in a way, he spoiled us too.

The intern’s name was Jeff Liebman, and after his time at Channel 6, he moved on to a real job at WTVJ Channel 4 (which didn’t last long, but it was a foot in the door). He is now the news operations manager at WDIV-TV in Detroit, overseeing a newsroom that includes former WCIX reporter/producer Rod Meloni.

The entrance of CBS into the picture in 1989 would bring more staffing, and much higher expectations. But the network infusion would not signal the first time someone came in believing that he or she could make a difference… and instead of just demanding a better newscast, actually took initiative to personally make it better.

While he came to Channel 6 to learn, along the way he taught us a lesson.

It’s been a long and winding road for Liebman. I can bet you he still doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

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