I remember very well the first story I ever reported that appeared on “World News Tonight.” It was early July 1986 and I had been a correspondent for exactly one week. I was assigned a story about drug testing in professional football. I wrote my script and submitted it to The Rim, the show’s executive producer and senior producers who vet the stories the correspondents write.
To my shock, they kicked it back with changes. So, I re-wrote the story and handed it in again. One of the senior producers read it over as I stood alongside him, and then he proceeded to grill me about various aspects of the story. As I answered, he took out a pen and scribbled more changes on my script. I walked away, revised it again and brought it back again. I had never undergone an editorial process anything remotely like this in my four previous years in local television in New York or five years as a newspaper and wire service reporter. I was both embarrassed and impressed.
Finally, having run the gauntlet of script approval, I went into the tracking booth — a small chamber about the size of a telephone booth — to read the narration while an editor recorded it. I settled down to start, but there was knock on the door. I opened it. There stood Peter Jennings, apologizing for interrupting me and then asking if he could look at my script. I handed it to him. He read it in a matter of seconds and offered some suggestions that, even in my innocence, I realized immediately were no more suggestions than what was written on the stone tablets Moses received on Mt. Sinai.
That was my introduction to ABC News. It was daunting, exciting and thrilling. I couldn’t sleep that night I was so energized. The thing that just blew me away was how seriously everyone took the news. It was as if it was a sacred trust that to be revered, burnished, respected. It was the Big Leagues.
Over the course of the next 25 years, I had the honor to work with some of the greatest journalists in America. Many are well-known, a veritable pantheon: Peter, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson, Ted Koppel, Sam Donaldson and the late, great David Brinkley who was so old-school he required the young men who worked on his show to wear ties and the women to wear skirts. Behind the scenes, there was and is an army of brilliant executive producers, field producers, camera people, sound techs, senior producers and editors.
In 1986, we carried beepers and called the office from pay phones. We rarely did live shots because they were technically difficult. Taped stand ups were the standard. And, imagine this: There was no email. As far as content, the evening news relied heavily on government officials to tell stories. The president was covered every single day. Aesthetically, there was much less attention paid to the “look” of a story. Many stories opened with a wide shot of a press conference showing the person who was about to speak walking out from the wings, followed by a cutaway of a photographer at the new conference, then a the soundbite from someone speaking to reporter. If you started a story that way now, you would be shot at dawn.
In my quarter-century (strange as it sounds to say), I have worked in bureaus in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and New York again. I have had many opportunities to report overseas. I’ve covered two wars (both in the Gulf), snowstorms, heat waves, trials, sports stories, the Catholic Church pedophile priest scandal, the legalization of same sex marriage, murders, Dr. Kevorkian, three presidential campaigns and a story about a guy who owned a barbecue shack in Iowa who claimed he made the hottest hot sauce on earth (two people who sampled it ended up in the emergency room).
I don’t want this sound like an autobiographical obituary. There is that tendency when one reminisces. But reflecting back over 25 years, I feel, as Lou Gehrig put it, like the luckiest man in the world. Because of ABC News, I became — I hope — a better, smarter journalist. I have been given a front row seat at some of the great events of my lifetime. I love to talk to people and ask questions and my career has given me license to do that and get paid for it. I have witnessed some of the wonders of human behavior and seen some of the consequences of the awfulness and madness of which mankind is capable. My 25 years at ABC News have given me a window on the world. For that I will always be grateful.