Friday, November 12, 2010

A Backstory to History

On Monday, November 14, 1977, Walter Cronkite began the CBS Evening News by reporting, “Not since the founding of the modern state of Israel – not as far as we know – has a leader of Israel met with a leader of Egypt. But now all obstacles appear to have been removed for peace discussions in Jerusalem between Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin.”
The first two segments of that Monday broadcast were dedicated to the interviews Cronkite had conducted that morning, first with Sadat, then with Begin; it was left to the two leaders to tell their sides of the story, with a lot of gentle prodding and strong reporting by Cronkite.
            The next morning, on page one, under a four-column headline, The New York Times’ lead story began, “President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt said today that he was prepared to address the Israeli Parliament within the next week once he had received a formal invitation from Prime Minster Menahem Begin of Israel.” It went on to report that Begin would ask the U.S. ambassador to Israel to convey the invitation.
            The source of this news came in the third paragraph – “both interviewed on CBS News” – and the name of the interviewer, Walter Cronkite, was in the fourth paragraph.
Over the next two years, the diplomatic dance between Sadat and Begin proceeded, with starts and stops in Cairo and Jerusalem, Camp David and Washington. It culminated with the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the first by any Arab nation with the Jewish state.
But the genesis of this story was an obscure wire service dispatch that I had seen the Friday before the November 14th interviews. I was one of three writers for Cronkite on the CBS Evening News then, with responsibility for international and U.S. foreign policy news. Shortly after 7 p.m., as most of the staff was preparing to leave for the weekend, I gave one last look at the wire service teletypes. There it was, some Canadian diplomats citing a rumor that Sadat had told his parliament that he would be willing to go to Israel to talk peace.
There was something about this brief story that intrigued me, and I showed it to Walter. We discussed whether a short item should be inserted into the West Coast feed of the Evening News, but because Sadat had said versions of this before, we felt more information was needed. Walter, who had been headed out the door, took off his coat and told his producers to start setting up a satellite interview with Sadat for Monday morning; technology back then was much more laborious, and things like that took time.
That evening and over the weekend, Walter, Executive Producer Bud Benjamin and I discussed what questions to ask. No one at the time thought that we also should line up an interview with Begin.
The Monday morning interview with Sadat began routinely enough with exchanges of small talk, but it quickly moved into substance. I was sitting immediately to the right of Walter, out of camera range, when Sadat said, “I’m just waiting for the proper invitation.” As I jumped out of my seat to go into the adjoining network newsroom to telex the CBS News bureau in Tel Aviv, Walter turned and mouthed to me the words, “Get Begin.”
When Walter demanded something, it happened, and an interview with Begin was set up for later that morning. But because there was no satellite available immediately, camera crews taped Begin and Walter at their respective desks, talking to each other via telephone.
All of us knew it was a big story, but we did not know where it would lead. Three days passed, and early Thursday morning Walter and I played tennis. As we got into a cab to return to the Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York, the driver said to us, “Wow, isn’t it something? Sadat’s going to Israel this weekend.”
And that’s how we learned about what became history. I was booked on a fight to Israel that Thursday night, with Walter following the next day, via Cairo, where he accompanied Sadat on the visit.
            In his autobiography, “A Reporter’s Life,” Walter said that he “did not deserve the praise and glory heaped upon me” for bringing Sadat and Begin together. My apologies Walter, but I beg to differ; it was your involvement, your reporting, that made this happen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A lesson learned

             For better or for worse, and in all modesty, a decision that I helped make 33 years ago today changed the way that television networks now report the news.
            It was late afternoon on Tuesday, August 16, 1977, when the bulletin bells on all the wire service Teletype machines at ABC News, CBS News and NBC News began sounding with word that Elvis Presley had died.
            With less than three hours until air, the constant in each of the three newsrooms was a scramble to put together a report for that evening’s network broadcast.
I was one of three writers on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite at the time, and I recall some interesting, and surprisingly passionate, debate about whether Presley’s death should lead the broadcast. Some argued for it, while others – saying that Elvis was a has-been – argued against it as the top story.
Those were the days when the gatekeepers of the news, those of us who helped decide what the audience learned each evening, cared more about what we thought was important than about what the viewers would prefer to know.
Add to this mix the fact that Roger Mudd was substituting for Cronkite that evening, and, as one of the top producers on the broadcast at the time told me, since none of the day’s major stories “involved Capitol Hill, Roger didn’t give a damn.”
But this being television, the real problem with the Presley story was picture; we had a lot of file footage, but we couldn’t use it.
Colonel Tom Parker was Presley’s agent, and his organization owned everything Elvis, and would demand huge payments for use of any film or tape that contained the icon’s image. Parker, who had successfully sued news organizations for violating this right, couldn’t be reached that afternoon, and the CBS lawyers said we could not use file footage without Parker’s permission.
There were two other important news stories that day: Former President Ford endorsed then President Carter’s plan to turn over the Panama Canal, and then Soviet leader Brezhnev wanted to mend relations with the United States.
In the debate over the lead story, I was on the non-Elvis side, arguing that he was old news, that the developments involving the Panama Canal or Brezhnev were much more important to the grand scheme of things. Our argument prevailed, and the CBS Evening News on August 16, 1977, led the show with the Panama Canal story, followed by the Brezhnev story.
We relegated the death of Elvis Presley to Roger Mudd reading a thirty-second voice-over at the top of the second segment, after the commercial, using some file footage from the Ed Sullivan Show.
Boy, were we wrong.
The other network news shows both led with Elvis’ death, and they used a lot of file footage. Producers at those networks later explained that they didn’t care about possible lawsuits, they just wanted to report the story. It turned out that no lawsuits ever were filed, and overnight ratings of the three broadcasts showed that millions of viewers at 6:32 p.m. switched from the CBS Evening News to a network that was reporting Presley’s death.
That night, the CBS switchboard was besieged by viewers complaining about our abbreviated coverage, and in the days following Presley’s death the Evening News received sacks of letters condemning us for our elitism. We learned then that there are some stories that should lead the broadcast not because of their importance to world events, but because of their relevance to the audience.
It was a lesson I took with me when, a decade later, I became News Editor of the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw: Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987, at the age of 88, six years after he had last performed. There was no debate, we led the program that evening with Astaire’s death. I don’t remember what other news there was that day, but I do know that no one complained about our decision.