Paul Hornung: The Handoff Didn't Work

 

News of the death of Paul Hornung, sometimes called the Golden Boy of 1950s and 1960s football, brings to mind my first encounter with him at WBBM-TV, the CBS-owned station in Chicago. (Hornung died Nov. 13 in Louisville. He was 84.)

In something of a coup, Channel 2 general manager Edward Kenefick, who played football at Notre Dame, added Hornung to the station’s sports staff after he retired from his stellar career at Notre Dame and the Green Bay Packers. Next, he talked retired Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy into joining Horning to do Sunday night critiques of Chicago Bears games. It was a bold move into new territory that didn’t please the Bears.

Hornung couldn’t type and knew nothing about television production. Neither did Leahy. They needed a producer-writer to pull it all together for them. Somehow, I have no idea how, I was picked.

One problem: in those days I knew as little about football as they knew about TV.

On launch Sunday the three of us sat in a conference room watching the Bears game. While the two of them talked football – “It’s a third-down game” -- and shared Notre Dame memories between plays, I took notes. Every so often Hornung would turn to me and say “we will want that play.” Duly noted.

Obviously, this didn’t work. Mercifully, by the next week I was replaced by another producer (Bob Harris), who understood the game and appreciated the legends he was working with.

Together they put launched a Sunday night success – a hit with fans if not the Bears.


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.


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.

Nov. 25, 1987: Farewell to a Mayor -- and a Job

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

In 1987, Nov. 25 fell on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the Chicago Bureau of NBC News was down to a skeleton staff for the holiday weekend.

When news broke that the Mayor had collapsed of a massive heart attack in his City Hall office, the only correspondent in the office was James Makawa, who admitted he knew nothing of Chicago government and politics. Barry G. Hohlfelder and I were the only producers. We had already cleared our desk. The losers in a major downsizing of the Bureau, it was our last day.

When Barry, whose desk was closer to James’, saw the look of sheer terror on James’ face, we knew if this story was going to get on NBC Nightly News, the two of us had to write and produce it. We split the story: Barry took care of the afternoon’s developments. Since I had done a number of stories about Washington, dating back to his election in 1983, I focused on the background. We teamed up with two editors.

This, to use a favorite phrase, would be a “crash and burn” of epic proportions. Normally our stories were pre-fed over telco lines to New York during the half hour before Nightly News went on the air. To give us an additional half hour, the program made the highly unusual decision to order a satellite -- a big, expensive deal in those days.

Bill Wheatley, the executive producer, called me: We had 2 minutes, 30 seconds. We were the entire second segment. Just be there.

We were, with a story we could all be proud of.

We gave each other high fives, and accepted compliments from New York. I headed to the airport to catch up with Elaine and members of our ski club for a weekend on the slopes of Vail.

The following Monday Barry and I would return to the local side (WMAQ-TV, Channel 5) from whence we had come some eight years previous.

But first, time chill and reflect on our perfect swansong.


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.


An Iranian Hostage Flashback

A story this week jumped out of the headlines and took me back 35 years – to Christmas Eve 1980.

The headline: After all these years, the 52 Americans taken hostage at the U. S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held captive for 444 days will finally get compensation.

In 1980 I was in my first full year of working as a field producer in the Chicago Bureau of NBC Network News, doing stories that appeared on NBC Nightly News and Today. Each bureau was assigned to keep in touch with the families of hostages that lived in their area. Some would not talk at all, others did from time to time. By far the most cooperative with us were the wife and parents of Staff Sgt. Mike Moeller, who was in charge of the Marine detachment assigned to provide security at the embassy.

For Christmas, wife Elisa joined her in-laws, Keith and Doris Moeller, in their Loup City, Nebraska, home. Hopes were high that following the defeat of Jimmy Carter and impending inauguration in January of Ronald Reagan, the Iranians would at the least release video of some of the hostages – a sort of holiday gesture. So correspondent Norma Quarles, a crew of two and I flew to Nebraska on the chance the family would see their loved ones Christmas morning.

After meeting with the family, we retired on Christmas Eve to our very small rooms in a very small motel in a very small town a long way from friends and family. The price of working in network news.

Christmas morning the family's hopes were dashed, no video, we returned to Chicago emptyhanded.

Our inconvenience was nothing compared to the agony of uncertainty the hostages and their loved ones lived with those 444 days. And once back home, the adjustment process was often difficult. Elisa and Mike divorced within a year. Both remarried and divorced again.

After reading this week's news, I searched the internet for an update, and found a year-old story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Mike, retired and back in Loup City, kept his experience to himself for decades. He did not grant interviews until last year, when spoke up in support of the compensation bill. Such silence is not uncommon.

Elisa, who lives in Nevada not far from their two adult daughters, says she has health issues and struggles with post-traumatic stress.

My lost Christmas eve was nothing compared to their life-long issues.

 


Flashback: Braun, the Leak and the Nudes

Carol Moseley Braun’s  campaign for mayor of Chicago reminds me of one of the most bizarre situations I ever encountered in a television control room.

Scene I

In September 1992, mid-term elections were in full swing. In Illinois, there was particular interest in the race for an open seat in the U.S. Senate.

I was producing the 6 p.m. news at WMAQ-TV/Channel 5, the NBC-owned station in Chicago.

Paul Hogan, one of the station’s best reporters, was breaking the biggest story of the Senate campaign.

At issue was whether Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic candidate, had violated Medicaid rules in handling her mother Edna Moseley’s finances. Hogan’s report questioned whether a $28,750 inheritance check Braun’s mother had received in 1989 had been reported to the Illinois Department of Public Aid as income, and a portion of it used to offset the Medicaid (taxpayer) dollars funding Moseley’s residence in a Chicago nursing home.

Braun scheduled a Noon news conference to address the biggest controversy of her campaign and at Channel 5 we were going to cover it live. It was my responsibility to produce this live special report.

While out of the ordinary, such “cut-ins” had a certain routine to them that we all experienced from time to time – assembling a technical crew, stage hands and an anchor, and establishing live communications to the remote site. Next, determining the right moment to interrupt regularly scheduled programming and, from that point on, essentially to shape the coverage, and decide when to return to regular programming – all subject to ample input and second guessing from news executives in the newsroom.

I was going through my usual mental checklist when I walked into the control room.

 

Scene II

There was nothing ordinary about what I encountered.

As I opened the door, four or five members of the technical staff were frantically trying to tape plastic sheeting to the ceiling to block a water leak. It wasn’t a gusher, but it was a serious enough drip that it could have damaged equipment in the control room.

My producer’s position in the control room was directly in front of this, so I could not easily tune out their conversation.

A second, unavoidable distraction for all of us was what we saw on the wall of video monitors.

By design, two or three showed video from the other control room where a talk show – likely Jerry Springer – was being taped. The subject of this particular episode was nudists – and three or four of them, male and female, sat looking directly at the camera concealing nothing – private parts, not yet masked in post-production, were on very public display in the control room.

Anyone who works in live television learns to put aside distractions and focus in what at times can be chaotic situations. And that’s just what we did.

Still, the scene in the control room was unique -- one I will never forget. 

Footnotes

Moseley Braun reimbursed the state for $15,000 and state officials quickly closed the case. On election day, Braun became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She would serve one term.

 

Click here for a collection of Chicago Tribune stories about the Medicaid controversy posted by Eric Zorn in his Change of Subject column.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Blizzard of ’67 Still the Worst

I can reach that conclusion because, unlike most readers of this blog – even those who grew up in Chicago – I was in the work force when the Blizzard of 1967 (Jan. 26-27, 23.0 inches) struck. I was a year and a half out of college and just three months on the job as a producer-writer, and occasional reporter, at WBBM-TV/Channel 2.

Since the snow started to fall at 5 a.m., most of us were at work, but as the day wore on it became it became increasing difficult for the film crews (yes, it was film) to move around. And the next morning was even worse. Cars couldn’t go anywhere. Snowmobiles weren’t available. A measure of our desperation, I even tried, unsuccessfully, to call a suburban stable to see if a horse-drawn sleigh might be an option. I smile at that thought now.

Downtown ground to a halt. One image of the storm of 1967 I will never forget is, after the second evening, walking with John Drury (then anchoring the 5 p.m. news that I produced) down the middle of a deserted Michigan Avenue and across Daley Plaza on our way to our train stations.

A comparison of this storm and the one 44 years ago is not as much about the measure of the snowfall as it is about how much times have changed.

In 1967, the snowmobile was in its infancy, certainly not a tool for emergency service. This week, the Chicago Fire Department had 50 snowmobiles at its disposal and used them 100 times -- on Lake Shore Drive and in the neighborhoods to transport the sick down side streets that ambulances could not navigate.

In 1967, almost all cars were rear wheel drive. The VW Beetle had a rear engine but that made it no better on slippery roads. If there was a front wheel drive car – maybe Saab – it was the exotic exception. Only a handful of special-purpose vehicles had four wheel drive. Today, the combination of front wheel, 4WD and AWD, and hi-tech traction assists, reduces the chances a motorist will get stuck in snow. Also, ABS helps motorist keep control of their vehicles.

While residents living on side streets may wonder where the snow plow is, rest assured, the city has a lot more snow plows today than it did 44 years ago – and a much better game plan.

I’ll leave it to a meteorologist to explain satellites and computer models that have made it easier to more accurately forecast and predict storm tracks. Snow plows and salt trucks can be readied. Employers, employees, students – people in general  -- have the option to prepare for the big blasts.

Technology that helps us make near real-time decisions – cell phones, the Internet, GPS – were not an option in 1967. We were at the mercy of the Bell System’s landlines that could become overloaded and fail.

We’ll learn from this storm. The fiasco that left hundreds of motorists stranded for hours on Lake Shore Drive will be dissected and, no doubt, spun by bureaucrats, elected officials and political candidates. Changes will be promised – some likely made.

In the meantime, motorists should take a look in the rear view mirror. Three multiple-vehicle crashes in 30 minutes along a one-mile stretch of Lake Shore Drive suggests that part of the responsibility rests with motorists who were driving too fast for conditions, following too closely behind the vehicle in front or distracted by texting.

Current technology cannot protect us from the bad judgment of lead-footed, impatient, distracted drivers – and the havoc they may cause.