Stopping Monsters with a Story
In my 39 years in journalism, I’ve worked with, met, read or seen many who I’d call heroes. I could write about people working this instant. Or pick one per decade. I’ve gone with those who were my heroes at the beginning of my career, since they shaped my view of what a reporter is and does. I have probably passed some of that on to Coleridge Taylor. Those named are not to slight those would come later, but show how my foundation was built, sometime in unorthodox fashion.
It’s probably telling my first hero was a fictional journalist, in that I would come full circle and write a fictional journalist myself. Kolchak hunted scary monsters. The 1974-75 TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” probably featured the first reporter I ever paid attention to, though, to be honest, I was more interested in the monsters—even if from behind the couch. I was 14. There was some point when I started noticing how the disheveled hero, played by Darren McGavin, would go off chasing a vampire or poltergeist with only his tape recorder and slender Kodak 110 camera. He believed he could stop monsters with a story. That lesson must have leaked into me somehow.
Edward R. Murrow
About a year or so after “Kolchak,” I’d become actually interested in journalism. I’d also become fascinated with the McCarthy era witch-hunts of the 1950s. I read in TV Guide—bible of our household—that a new Museum of Radio and TV had opened in New York. I took the train to the city, went to the museum and checked out Murrow’s “See It Now” shows on McCarthy. I delved into McCarthy’s career covering World War 2 for radio, discovering exploits of his that fascinate me to this day. To understand, you have to remember there were no live satellite feeds, no way even for Murrow to have his producer in his ear telling him what was going on. No Teleprompter. At night with the Blitz on, Murrow would stand on the roof of the BBC’s Bush House. His means of getting his live report back to the U.S. was short-wave radio signal. And hope. He had no idea if he was talking to CBS New York, an audience or no one at all. He would narrate the bombing of London with powerful, descriptive language. No script. No idea a bomb wasn’t coming down on him. He was reporting blind in a way modern broadcast journalists and their audiences can hardly understand.
Round about the time Murrow had me convinced broadcast journalism was the way to go, I found the NBC newsmagazine show “Weekend.” It wasn’t easy. NBC ran the show once a month Saturday nights at 11:30 pm when Saturday Night Live was off. Dobyns hosted and did much of the reporting and writing. The approach was jaunty, distinctive, quirky—all attractive to a teenager who didn’t think every story had to be drop-dead serious. Reports went where the facts went, rather playing out as good guy versus bad guy with ambush interview at the end (see “60 Minutes”). I still have the TV Guide article in which “Weekend” executive producer Reuven Frank and “60 Minutes” honcho Don Hewitt debated the best way to tell TV stories. For three years, up until my high school graduation and into college, I told people I was getting a journalism degree so I would be hired as a producer on “Weekend.” The show was cancelled the fall of my sophomore year of college. Ah, innocence.
William Allen White
Early in my professional career, I became co-founder and co-owner of a weekly newspaper, The Peekskill Herald. I’ve never worked harder or longer or learned more. Everything I did later in my journalism career was touched or helped in one or the other by what I learned at the Herald. To this day, as I travel around, I pick up the local weeklies and small dailies in towns I visit. They each have their own personality and will always tell you something interesting about the place you’re visiting. That’s why small papers are the only ones not being crushed by the Internet. Bloggers in basements won’t cover your planning board. White (1868-1944) bought the Emporia Gazette in 1895 and edited the small daily in Emporia, Kansas, to the highest standard. The White family is still running it. He won a Pulitzer—that doesn’t happen often at little papers—for his editorial writing on the First Amendment:
You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. That is the history of the race. It is proof of man’s kinship with God. You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice.
White wrote strong attacks on the Ku Klux Klan starting in the twenties, ran for governor to promote his cause and formed a committee to battle the America First faction before World War 2.
But for me the most amazing thing he did was write an editorial about his sixteen-year-old daughter four days after she died. It is neither obit nor tribute but a glad story of a glad life. It’s hard to write a boring story on deadline. I don’t know how White did it, and did it without tears blurring the letters he struck on his typewriter. That’s heroic.