My reaction to the Capitol siege: Bean Soup!

Watching the siege on the Capitol Wednesday, January 6, my mind turned to Senate Bean Soup because I once had the privilege of enjoying it in a Senate dining area.

When John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan, March 30, 1981, the NBC Network News operation in Washington asked for additional support. A field producer in the Network Bureau in Chicago, I was dispatched to help out.

One day I was assigned to link up with a Washington-based crew to cover a Senate hearing. Before the afternoon session, the crew suggested we eat lunch in a Senate dining area frequented mostly by Senate staff members open, as a courtesy, to members of the news media. (It was off limits to the general public.)

A tradition, bean soup has been on the Senate menu since about 1905, served every day. I had to have it.  As I tasted the soup, for a moment I was no longer a journalist but a citizen in a bit of awe at the privilege of getting a modest behind the scenes glimpse of the inner workings of our democracy. And what a special place the Capitol building is. What it stands for.

Watching a mob with no respect for -- maybe no understanding of -- democratic processes storm the Capitol and enter the Senate, just made me shake my head.

We have lots of work to do trying to bridge the gaps in our highly polarized nation. Mob violence is not the answer. We must talk this through peacefully, not over a beer in bar, but over a bowl of Senate Bean Soup at the Capitol.


Carol Marin: To very early memories

Carol Marin

A bit of background for readers who do not live in Chicago:

Carol Marine retired November 6 after four decades in Chicago television, most of it at NBC-owned WMAQ-TV. During that long career she set the gold standard for journalism excellence.

After the announcement of her retirement, well deserved tributes poured in. Instead, I chose to write this more personal trip down memory lane. (No idea if she had read it; she’s been very busy.)

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Carol, it was always a pleasure working with you. Tons of people have paid well-deserved tributes to your contribution to broadcast journalism in Chicago.

But, for old time’s sake, take a moment to reflect on the beginning at WMAQ-TV, in the late 1970s. I produced the first newscast you co-anchored (with Mike Jackson). Before your debut ND Paul Beavers told me that Mike, as the familiar face, should lead for the next few weeks. Almost immediately you asked me why. I explained what Beavers had said.

Soon I got a message from Beavers: “Never mind.”  You had talked to him. You and Mike began sharing reading lead stories.

I was always flattered that you picked me to be the first producer in your unit. It didn’t last long, because I got an offer to move over to the network side – the beginning of a great eight-year experience.

I’ve always appreciated that you wanted Don Moseley to join you but initially there was no writer’s slot open, so he had to remain in Tennessee. In the end, all three of us won: I got a dream job as field producer for the network, and you and Don teamed up to do amazing, great journalism in Chicago – for decades.

Enjoy the next phase of your life.


Armstrong Walked. At WBBM-TV we sat

Where was I when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon? Sitting in a control room at WBBM-TV at the end of a frustrating day.

My assignment that day was to produce the 10 p.m. news which was scheduled to air about the time of the space walk.

In those days, news producers were given two pieces of guidance by station management.

First, produce the newscast, even if scheduled for preemption. It would be too embarrassing to lose a network feed – more likely in those days – and not be able to broadcast the normally scheduled local news.

It was hard to get excited about going through the motions, but that was our job.

On the day of the spacewalk, a film editor, who shall remain nameless, announced shortly after arriving for his shift that he was leaving. When reminded we had to prepare a newscast, he stormed off in a huff and slammed the door to his editing room. It had a smoked glass window – and slammed the door so hard it shattered into a thousand pieces. Just steps from the entrance to the newsroom.

The second piece of guidance: If the newscast is delayed, it can’t run past 11 p.m. Station management was unwilling to pay overtime to the technical crew.

So, we sat in the control room. Watched the walk. And went home – leaving behind one broken window.


Where I get my news

At social gatherings, like parties this holiday season, I’m often asked where this retired broadcast journalist gets his news.

So, here’s where I go to for quality journalism:

In print:

  • The New York Times, Monday-Friday home delivery, which gives us unlimited online access. It’s still the gold standard.
  • Chicago Tribune, online only. Not what it once was, but certainly the better than the other Chicago daily.
  • Crain’s Chicago Business, online only. The political coverage of Greg Hinz is exceptional.

The nice feature about having online access, we can read all three publications wherever we are whenever we want on whatever device is handy.

On TV:

  • CBS This Morning. At 7 a.m. it starts with 19 minutes uninterrupted news – and just quality news. Weather only when it’s news.
  • NBC Evening News. The latter half is much softer than when I was a Field Producer working on stories that aired on the program in the 1980s – but its still a good product. Also, I’m a firm believer in seeking the news from different sources. So, CBS in the morning and NBC in the evening.
  • The PBS NewsHour. The program is often weak on production values, struggles to keep on top of breaking news, and picks some stories that I could do without. On the other hand, it offer offers insightful background from knowledgeable experts.
  • Local news from two channels, mostly from CBS2 (WBBM-TV) and NBC5 (WMAQ-TV), where I produced newscasts at various times over three decades.

We record all three programs – TiVo at home, off-air DVR in our RV -- so we can view whenever it’s convenient.

Where I do not get my news:

  • Online – from Facebook and similar feeds where the truly fake news stories are most likely to get published.
  • On cable – I don’t watch any of the three so-called “all news” channels. I have better things to do with my day. More important, at 6 p.m. all three go out of the news business and turn to political pundits looking not to enlighten but to shout each other down. Facts be damned. They only contribute to our current, unhealthy polarization.

A Journalists Unexpected Journey

IMG_2180Behind this picture with Tom Brokaw, taken at the University of Iowa, April 2017, is an amazing, exciting and totally unexpected experience.

During a visit to the campus in October 2016, I took University Librarian John Culshaw up on an invitation to tour the Library. Elaine and I had met John in June 2015 when he sat down next to us at an Iowa Foundation dinner in Chicago.

We were shown large areas where students could plug in a laptop and study -- or whatever. Nearby were whiteboard-equipped conference rooms where students could collaborate on projects. And nearby were librarians to help find relevant material on line or in stacks.

Next stop, the Special Collections area. I had asked about James Van Allen, head of the Physics Department. Beginning in 1958 he was able to put instruments on early satellites that identified what is known today as the Van Allen Radiation Belts. When I arrived at Iowa just after these discoveries, Van Allen was a very big man on campus. We got to see an example of his handwritten notes and pictures of the tiny devices packed into satellites.

When I mentioned that Elaine  was a Trekker, they surprised her with a pair of ears worn by Spock in the first Star Trek television series. Very soft and made of latex, they discolored and lost their shape under the intense heat of studio lights. The Library has a large collection donated by Nicholas Meyer, an Iowa graduate, who co-wrote and directed two Star Trek film series and wrote a third. Elaine was delighted.

At the final stop, we entered a locked room where John, a smile on his face, gave us an off the record tip: In three weeks Tom Brokaw would announce on NBC’s Today show that he has given his archives, some 50 boxes, to the Library. But we could get a peak at two unsorted boxes. The first contained the galley proof (when a book is in type but still subject to review before printing) of Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation.

The second box held Tom’s NBC reporter’s notebooks from the 1980s.

Wait!

I had reporter’s notebooks, too, from the same period when I was a Field Producer in the Chicago Bureau of NBC News. And I had saved maybe 200 scripts, most written by the correspondents I was working with.

As Elaine put it, the eyes of John and two members of the Special Collections staff lit up. I had something they wanted.

What I could help illustrate was how teams of four of us -- four or five in Chicago at any given time -- were necessary to deliver the stories Tom introduced in a timely manner. We often flew on chartered aircraft. And this was before satellites, internet, cellphones or laptops.

In February, John and Mary Rettig, a director of development for the University Foundation – herself a librarian – dropped by our house to pick up my modest three boxes.

The April event was an annual Friends of the Library program. Tom was the guest speaker. The evening started with an invitation to about 30 of us to attend a private, pre-program mixer, including the portrait opportunity.

Tom and I are both Iowa alumni. He spent his freshman year (1958-1959) studying, as he puts it, beer and coeds. He dropped out. In 2010 the University awarded him an Honorary Ph.D. (In 1964 Tom earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota.) I started at Iowa in the fall of 1961, studying journalism, and earned a B.A. with Honors in 1965.

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The second day of our Iowa City visit was an amazing behind the scenes visit to the upper floors of the University Library.

 

Library Conservator Giselle Simon offered proof my boxes had arrived.  One was on prominent display (most certainly not by coincidence). She expressed appreciation for the good condition of the notebooks and explained how storage boxes are sized to keep documents stable while in storage.

 

At the last stop, we listened in as Tom made an oral history recording for the Library. Elaine called it one of her most interesting experiences of the visit.

 

Tom spins a great yarn, with a capacity to bring it to a humbling moment. Like when he broadcast extended live coverage from Berlin as the Wall was opened to East Germans. In an era before VCRs and DVRs, when he arrived home, he learned his wife had been out with friends for the evening and missed this historic moment.

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This session was especially interesting to me. There is talk of my taking a turn at recording an oral history, too. I really look forward to the opportunity.

This journey is not over.


Trump and the Rural Vote

The most telling result of the 2016 presidential election was the urban/rural split.

In Florida, rural counties voted Republican in higher numbers than in recent presidential elections. The increase was not offset by softer Democratic turnout in urban areas. The same was true in Wisconsin and other swing states.

Rural America has been in decline for decades: larger, more efficient farms equal fewer farm families, which leads to smaller towns with less local business on Main Street, reduced school enrollment and a shrunken tax base to pay for teachers and computers.  To make matters worse, the local manufacturing plant – the ticket off the farm – may have closed, for any number of reasons.

At home, reasonable broadband may not an option, making it more difficult for students to do their homework and parents to operate the family farm or start a small business -- or just be plugged into the rest of America.

Because I grew up in Iowa, produced stories of struggling farmers and factory workers for NBC News in the 1980s, see rural Wisconsin from our getaway property, and small town America during our RV travels, I may have an idea of where they’re coming from.

Trump voters are not all deplorables. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, writing of his pro-Trump hometown in rural Washington state, said in his Nov. 10 column, “The voters are not all bigoted monsters, but well-meaning people upended by economic change.”

Washington, the two major political parties and the mainstream media didn’t understand their frustration and anger. In contrast, Trump offered a message they could relate to: To hell with Wall Street and the Democratic party. Drain the swamp in Washington. They liked what he said at his rallies – and they voted for him.

The slim majority who voted for Clinton may not like it. Trump voters may eventually find his promises empty and turn to anger.

But at this one moment, rural America has sent a message to the rest of the country.


Bruce Rauner’s fowl problem

The Republican who would be governor of Illinois does not know the difference between a chicken and a grouse, has a problem with math and apparently could care less about conservation.

In mid-June he stood beside three caged domestic chickens to decry wasteful spending on an effort to save the greater prairie chicken – a member of the grouse family – from extinction in Illinois. In a wire story he is quoted saying “We have plenty of chickens in our state…”

Not prairie chickens. They’re a whole different fowl and an important link to the state’s heritage.

In the 1880s they numbered in the millions in Illinois. Then farmers plowed under more and more prairie grassland – the natural habitat for this ground bird – to plant corn and soybeans. By early this year, only about 40 survived, on two parcels of land near Newton that make up the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area.

The bird’s spring mating ritual is an amazing sight to see and hear, something we went the extra mile to experience in April 2012. It wasn’t easy, but wife Elaine is an avid birder.

The mating dance begins one half hour before sunrise. We had leave our RV campsite to drive about 30 miles in pre-dawn darkness along unfamiliar roads with only a printout of directions (no GPS). Elaine said I didn’t have to make the journey, but I figured it was best if she navigated and I drove. Because I grew up in Iowa, rural roads don’t intimidate me, even in darkness.

We arrived at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources “office” – a modest old farm house – just in time. In part because it was the middle of the week, we were the only visitors. (On weekends during mating season getting into special blinds requires reservations.) The two DNR employees led us to scopes at the edge of the field. What we saw made it worth the early alarm clock.

I don’t have the photographic equipment to capture the mating dance, but here in a YouTube post is an example of what we saw and heard. Turn the audio all the way up. The best “dances” are at 2:45 and 3:45.

Those are the endangered species Rauner showed so much contempt for. His target was the cost of flying 91 prairie chickens from Kansas to enlarge the Illinois population and increase its genetic diversity.

Rauner put the price at over $100,000. In truth, the cost of the flights was a $7363. And none of that was actual tax dollars.

Here’s the big picture that Rauner either ignored or didn’t bother to understand.

This is the first year of a planned three year $519,230 program to bolster the state’s prairie chicken population. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides $337,500. The state’s share is $181,730, most of which goes toward ongoing work at the natural area and DNR salaries. Both the state and federal dollars come not from income or sales taxes but from outdoor enthusiasts through hunting and fishing licenses and other user fees earmarked for conservation.

In other words, the dollars are coming from people who appreciate the need for conservation of our scarce, often threatened natural resources. If Rauner wins the November election, we can only hope he respects this covenant – and does not become the governor who killed off the last of the  state’s prairie chickens.

 

 

 

 


Where Have All the Copy Editors Gone?

Two experiences in the last few days make one wonder if they’re extinct.

Most obvious is NBC initially announcing on Saturday the death of Neil Young – er, make that Neil Armstrong – not just any astronaut, the first man to walk on the moon.

The Web site ultimateGuitar assured music fans that 66-year-old rocker Neil Young is very much alive.

The Chicago Tribune passed the story with a headline that started “Whoops! …”

At the time the Trib was chuckling at NBC’s mistake, the newspaper was ignoring it’s own Whoops!

In a Friday, August 24, version of a story about bad gasoline shipped from BP’s Whiting, Ind., refinery that was gumming up engines, reporter Robert Channick wrote that the bad gasoline was midgrade and premium. To the contrary, and correctly, an accompanying picture, credited to Warren Skalski, showed a BP pump in which premium was the only choice. The regular and midgrade buttons were taped over. The problem was with regular and the the midgrade blend.

One would hope that a copy editor, if not the reporter himself, would notice the discrepancy between picture and story and seek clarification.

I followed the gas gaff with particular interest because I encountered BP’s offer of premium at regular price ($3.93) at a station on the Indiana Toll Road Thursday afternoon.

Even after I flagged the mistake on Friday, the incorrect copy appeared on the Web site well into Saturday. (Here’s the picture, the story has been updated without, as far as I can tell, a correction.)

The ultimateGuitar was quite forgiving of the Armstrong gaff. Pressure under deadlines, you know, it’s a competitive business.

This retired journalist is not as kind.

A second pair of eyes by a skilled copy editor or, in the case of TV, producer should catch these mistakes.

Where have all the copy editors gone?

Bought out. Fired. Laid off. And the survivors who still do some copy editing are so hurried, overworked and distracted by other tasks that it’s easy for mistakes to get published or broadcast.

The bottom line dictates a leaner, less accurate product. Good journalism be damned.

Reader and viewer beware!


U. of Iowa Gift Alters Image of Frank “Action News” Magid

When I read the news, I was shocked: Frank Magid’s name linked to a writing program at the University of Iowa.

Magid earned degrees in sociology from Iowa (1956 B.A., 1957 M.A.) and immediately hung out a shingle in nearby Marion, Iowa, announcing the creation of Frank N. Magid Associates.

For half a century, for better or worse, no one had more influence in shaping local TV news. He advised station managers looking for a quick cure to low ratings from “the news doctor” on the format, content and presentation of their newscasts.

He often prescribed “Action News,” a fast-paced format big on what I came to call Blood, Bang and Burn – crashes, shootings and fires. The anchors should be friendly, engage in happy talk and cut and color their hair just so.

From my experience – I frequently worked in the newsroom of Magid-advised stations -- no emphasis was placed on writing. Good reporting and writing were, at best, afterthoughts. Magid’s service wasn’t about the message, it was about the delivery of it.

After his death in February 2010, his wife, Marilyn, also and Iowa graduate (1957 B.A.) donated $1 million to the University through the Frank N. Magid Undergraduate Writing Center Fund, which helped the school launch last fall a program offering an Undergraduate Certificate in Writing.

Open to undergraduates regardless of major or college, it requires a commitment of at least 21 semester hours of writing courses. It’s the kind of program that will allow students to develop the critical thinking and writing skills so important to success – and which so many undergraduates lack.

In announcing the program, the University’s newsletter quotes Marilyn:

“’…in all the years in the business, he realized that writing was an inadequacy among many job applicants and clients. Frank always believed that a key component of an excellent liberal arts education – and any successful career – is learning to communicate effectively.’”

To this day, I detest “Action News” as hostile to the good journalism needed to encourage civic engagement and an informed electorate. That is part of the Magid legacy.

But I have a more nuanced appreciation of the man behind the concept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


DePaul Basketball: The Half-Told Story of Two Very Different Games

DePaul blew a 17-point first half lead and, despite a gritty effort that forced overtime, lost to No. 19 Louisville 90-82. The Blue Demons fell to 11-15 and 2-12 in the Big East.

That’s the game that garnered news coverage Saturday.

Ignored by the media, however, was the amazing comeback of that other DePaul basketball team.

The women, down 14 points to Big East opponent West Virginia at the half, opened the second half with a 14-0 run to tie the game, and didn’t let up. They outscored the Mountaineers 53-25 in the second half en route to a 77-63 victory.

West Virginia is not ranked, but it entered the game with a five-game winning streak, including three defeats of ranked teams. Last weekend it upset Notre Dame, to end the Irish’s 21-game winning streak.

The Blue Demons (20/24 in the polls, with a PRI ranking of 18) have won 20 games this season (for the fifth year in a row) against 7 losses. They’re 8-5 in the Big East with three conference games to play.

Amazingly, DePaul, devastated by key injuries and forced regroup in January, is winning with just seven players. In a reference to the movie of the same name, coach Doug Bruno calls them the Magnificent Seven.

That’s the story dedicated fans, like Elaine and me, find only because we know where to look in the niches of the Web where women’s college basketball is actually reported.

The larger sports media is missing a great story.

Too bad.