I spent last night in a little box. I was in one of a thousand little boxes filled with faces of people with whom I once worked or who had worked in the same place as me at some point. It was billed as the CNN 40th Anniversary Virtual Reunion. Five years ago for the network’s 35th, we gathered in person and snacked on premium hors d’oeuvres in an Atlanta hotel ballroom while getting an up close look at how everyone’s aged, been preserved, thickened, thinned, dyed, dried, shrunk, grew, lost a step or lost their hair.
On this night, through the miracle of Zoom and a Herculean effort by selfless CNN alumni who wouldn’t let a silly little pandemic spoil the party, we celebrated the network’s fourth decade.
In the “gallery view” on Zoom it appeared as if this was the Brady Bunch open gone mad. I swiped through pages and pages of these little boxes trying to pick out familiar names with faces, in some cases, no longer familiar looking, but I was relieved to see my fellow relics still alive.
I honestly don’t have much of a taste for reunions. I’ve never attended any for my high school or colleges, but I make an exception for CNN. You can say what you want about the network’s current programming, but as our former CNN president Tom Johnson implored us in one of the breakout chat room last night, “don’t bash the network in public.” But why would I? My 20 years there made everything possible after my employ there ended in 2001. The standards we held concerning accuracy, ethics, teamwork and unselfishness define who I am today. I’ve brought all those tenets to each of my subsequent jobs and to my life.
We always say CNN is a family. Dysfunctional at times, chaotic at others, but always supportive, even after we’ve moved on. That’s because we know what we created. Before the media landscape changed with the advent of the internet, social media and the move by news networks to largely opinion and bullshit machines, we were all about telling stories…not just talking about them. I took great pride in my writing…still do. I wasn’t ever much of a TV personality and that was fine. But sending crews out to shoot, report and feed stories is expensive. Talking heads on a set to blab about stories is cheap and today cheap is good. The cost is the future of journalism–fairly and responsibly informing the public skillfully and effectively.
So it was fun to see old friends, even in little boxes, reminisce and trade some old war stories. For me, it wasn’t so much, though, to remember and embrace the “good old days,” but for us also trade the knowledge gained through our years at CNN and beyond, at some point you celebrate what we’ve accomplished together, knowing all that thinking outside the box brought us together inside them on this glorious night.
While we’re all waiting for the world to spin back on its axis and people aren’t getting sick or afraid of breathing in public, I thought it might be fun to kill some time thinking back to one of life’s most uncomfortable episodes–that horrible first day on the job.
You know how it is…you don’t know where anything is, everyone in the office is giving you the eye wondering if you’re OK or a jerk or if you’re gonna try to steal their job or be an ass-kisser or slacker. Your main challenge is delicately asking where the washroom is and where the office supplies are hidden. Some wiseass gives you directions to the washroom, but after you memorize every turn and finally find the door as you’re about to explode, you discover the schmuck didn’t add that you need a key to enter. Sound familiar?
I’ll start with a couple of my most memorable/horrible first days, and then I invite you to join the fun by adding yours in the comments.
The date was November 30, 1981. My first day at CNN in Atlanta. I was hired as one of the first producers to launch their second network which was known at the time as CNN2. It later morphed into Headlines News and now HLN.
I had been working as a producer, reporter, anchor at KGUN in Tucson, Arizona. If you know anything about Arizona, it’s extremely laid back. No one gets dressed up, much. Especially producers.
Well…I saunter into the crazy, busy CNN headquarters on my first day figuring I’d wear my “producer clothes.” In Arizona that meant casual pants, an open-necked button down shirt and comfortable shoes. Psych. I look around and everyone else is wearing serious business clothes. Women wearing dresses. Men in dress shirt, ties, jackets, polished, black shoes. I’m already marked as a rube from out west. My boss kindly takes me aside and whispers, “you may have noticed there’s a bit of a dress code.” Well..yeah…would have been nice if someone told me in advance. But that wasn’t the worst thing about my first day. That would happen momentarily.
The boss said we should go out onto the newsroom floor and learn how the national assignment desk worked. So I go up to the first guy I see on the desk. He’s a big, balding, bearded volcano about to erupt. I introduce myself and ask if he could take a moment to explain how things work. Cue the eruption.
“YOU WANNA KNOW HOW THE FUCKIN’ DESK WORKS! WATCH THIS!!!!,” he screams at me. He picks up the tie-line to the DC bureau and starts screaming at the producer on the other end using the most vile language one could muster. This goes on for about 20 seconds. He slams down the phone, glares at me and screams, “THAT’S HOW THE FUCKIN’ ASSIGNMENT DESK WORKS. NOW GET THE FUCK OUTTA MY FACE!!!!” I took that as a most instructional lesson, took my leave and, you know, I never got the guy’s name or saw him again, which was just fine. Boss later asks me if I got the lay of the land on the national desk. I told him about the “guidance” I was given and just grinned, replying “yeah, that’s pretty much how it works.”
First day number 2. August 23, 2005. My first day at what was then DaimlerChrysler and now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It was my first corporate job. Hired away from The Detroit News to ghost write and manage a blog for the head of corporate communications. Cool job.
I’m led up to the sixth floor PR offices at corporate HQ and plopped in my new boss’s cube for all the first day stuff. First thing I was told was to look at my new badge.
“See your badge? It’s green. That means you’re a contractor not a REAL employee. REAL employees have blue badges.” I feel welcome already. Then the next indignity.
“Come with me. Let’s look out the window. You see those parking decks close to the building. You can’t park there. Those are for REAL employees. See that surface lot..somewhere beyond the horizon? That’s where contractors park. So that’s where YOU park. It’s not too long a walk…except when it’s raining, snowing or the wind is howling. Then…it sucks. Welcome to the company!!”
I became a REAL employee about 13 months later but always hid my blue badge. It was out of consideration for the other green badged contractors who were still trudging into the office from the corporate back forty. They would also call me bad names.
The reaction from my mother made no mistake about her feelings. “Who did this to you!?!” she shouted over the phone.
I calmly replied no one “did this” to me. I asked for the transfer from Atlanta up to Detroit. It would be a big promotion. She still wasn’t happy since my parents had only retired to Florida from NYC the year before, putting them a lot closer to us and to two of their grandchildren.
It was 1989. I had worked at CNN since November, 1981 in Atlanta, first as a producer on the launch team for what was then called CNN2 and is now a far different network called HLN. Over the next 7 years I moved over to CNN as a producer, supervising producer, correspondent and fill-in anchor but what I really wanted to do is run a bureau. In the spring of ’89 that opportunity opened up when the incumbent Detroit Bureau Chief-Correspondent won his long-sought transfer to the bureau in Rome.
Not many people wanted to move to Detroit. They feared being murdered immediately upon arrival or finding their cars, wheel-less perched on milk boxes. Not me. I grew up in NYC. I loved cities, their energy, cultural mix, history and odds of covering some important and exciting stories.
So I applied…and got the job. It didn’t disappoint me. As a regional bureau we covered all of Michigan, Ohio, eastern Canada and wherever else the national assignment desk sent us. The Detroit Bureau staff was welcoming and we worked together very well.
This month marks 30 years since we hauled our kids and our stuff up I-75..and parked in Detroit.
My introduction to some of the players in Detroit, however, was, well, not quite as smooth as my start at the bureau. I was asked to give a talk introducing myself to the public relations community at a luncheon. If you know me, you know I’m a pretty short guy. Well..the fellow who introduced me was even shorter! Me, being the wiseass I am, came up to the mic, next to the unfortunate guy, looked down at him and cracked, “I think I’m gonna like it in Detroit!” The audience got the joke and laughed. My fellow shrimp did not, and promptly sulked in his seat. OK…note to self: “Detroiters are height-sensitive.”
It wasn’t long before the late, great J.P. McCarthy invited me onto his morning show on WJR. He promptly took me to task for what he felt was the national media’s obsession with beating up on Detroit I explained CNN had no such obsession, but you couldn’t simply ignore what was really happening. But things took a more positive turn when he asked me to tell an anecdote about Ted Turner, since there were a lot of bigwig corporate executives in his audience. I told him about Ted showing up in the Atlanta newsroom in his blue terrycloth robe on a Saturday morning and cajoling with the staff. We all loved him. J.P. liked that story and over the years invited me back a few times and I was very honored to be a guest during his last week of programs before he retired. Each time, he wanted another Ted Turner story. I always came prepared.
I also love Detroit because the folks are not only welcoming, but blunt in just the right way. My first week in Detroit I was assigned to an auto sales story and was scheduled to interview the head numbers cruncher at Ford. He was weeks way from retirement and feeling a little feisty.
“You know anything?” he barked at me.
“I’m new on the beat so I’m open to learning,” I humbly replied.
“Well, listen to what I say, report it accurately, don’t write any bullshit and we’ll get along fine. So ask me some questions and they better be good ” he, um, advised.
A year or two later I ran into the gentleman at a press event and he smiled as he came over to me and said, “I gave you serious shit when you were new but you more than proved yourself.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
We always thought Detroit was just another stop on the road. My wife and I met at college in Oswego, N.Y., got married a few months after graduating and had lived in Central New York State while I started my broadcasting career at a couple of radio stations, then we took off for Tucson, Arizona to earn our Masters degrees and where I got my first TV job at KGUN, first as weekend weather guy, then reporter, then producer, until I got the tip about the job at CNN.
We loved Atlanta and were actually looking for a larger house as our family grew, but then Detroit happened. Sure..three-year contract for the new position, then who knows?
But CNN renewed me a few more times until they closed the bureau in 2001 and I was laid off along with about a thousand other people. What to do?
Well, there was zero talk about leaving Detroit. We actually lived in the suburbs but we loved the area, Michigan and the people. We became avid fans of all the sports teams, attended games and took advantage of all the area had to offer.
Luckily I had a pretty good reputation in town and I quickly won the National Auto Writer position at the Associated Press, then was recruited by The Detroit News to be the General Motors beat writer and jumped to corporate when the head of PR at DaimlerChrysler started a blog and wanted an autowriter to ghost write and manage for him. Sweet job! That job morphed in an 11 year stay at the automaker where I was the first head of digital communications pioneering the concept of “corporate journalism” with my wonderful, creative team.
In 2016 I decided to retire, but leave Detroit? Leave Michigan? What the hell for? All the things our family enjoys are right here…so we sold the home we had lived in since 1992 and moved exactly 2.5 miles away to another house that had a lot of the features missing in the old one. I’ve been blessed with just enough freelance opportunities to keep me sufficiently out of my wife’s hair and around enough to be of use when called upon.
The bottom line is America has Detroit all wrong. It may be the country’s best kept secret. Great people, culture, major league sports, awesome restaurants, any kind of recreation nearby..even fowling. Look it up. For us, it’s been home for 30 years and we hope to remain here until the grim reaper comes calling….or the Detroit Lions win a Super Bowl. Hmm. Here to stay.
There aren’t many scenarios where one would not only enjoy working the graveyard shift but actually look forward to dragging in their sleep-deprived butts at an hour when most people are tucking their sleepy selves into bed for some proper slumber.
But for two, brief, fleeting, wonderful years, I was blessed with this paradox. The only reason it was so, was because of a hilarious genius named Peter Vesey.
At the time I was co-producing CNN’s morning show called “Daybreak.” The newcast aired from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. which meant we reported to work at the cruel hour of 1 a.m. to prepare it. When our executive producer moved on, Peter replaced her. His reputation as a brilliant broadcast journalist preceded his arrival and the team was excited for the chance to work with Peter and learn from him. We never anticipated he would also make working while others were sleeping so much fun.
Our pre-show meetings instantly transformed from robotically listing available stories, reporter packages and expected satellite feeds to uproarious discussions filled with Peter’s humor, logic and spot-on guidance while he constantly challenged us to try new production methods, accelerating the show’s pace, sharpening our writing and above all, creating a newscast that engaged and informed our viewers that hooked them to the screen.
We had fun critiquing the material, to the extent of Peter’s ability to create verbal caricatures of several correspondents. One, in particular, made every piece sound like an industrial film, intoning like a mechanical voice. We were sometimes a little cruel in our critiques but all in good fun while honestly assessing their strength and worthiness to make air.
In the control room, he ruled calmly and decisively while tossing in crackling bon mots to keep the crew loose and engaged.
Peter took a personal interest in all of us, always inquiring about our lives, families, health and career goals. He also didn’t take any shit. Anchors with an attitude were quickly shut down. Officiousness was dealt with an immediate smackdown. My favorite example:
The supervising producer sat across from Peter. There was perhaps one-foot between them. This was the 80’s so there was an attractive Trimline wall phone at each work station. One-inch separated Peter and the supervisor’s wall phone. Peter’s phone rang and when he picked it up, the voice on the other end of the line was the supervisor… only inches away. Instead of saying “hello,” Peter reached over to the supervisor’s phone, yanked it off the wall and tossed in in the trash and said, “what was it you wanted?” I’ve never stopped laughing about this in 30 years.
There weren’t many food options in the middle of the night and I’m a crappy eater anyway, so I gravitated towards the emaciated Polish sausages available at the small cafeteria located in the odd atrium that separated CNN from CNN Headline News. Of course, Peter silently took note of my foolish food choice and parked it away for future use. That came to pass when I moved on from Daybreak to a reporting position. Near the end of our shift Peter announced the team had a little going away gift for me. He brought out a rectangular cake pan covered in foil. Oh…a going away cake..how cool. Oh sure, there was a nice cake with vanilla frosting…and a big, fat raw Polish sausage sticking out of the middle. It brought tears to my eyes.
But now my eyes are tear filled again and my heart broken with the news Peter passed away after a short illness.
I hadn’t spoken to Peter in many, many years and a couple of months ago the director on our show passed along his number to me and said Peter would welcome a call. I didn’t make it. Believe it or not, I simply felt shy about it. Peter would have set me straight…and asked if I was still eating those stupid sausages. I would have welcomed that.
Being based in Detroit for CNN I didn’t have much of an opportunity to cover many hurricanes, but when Hurricane Andrew was done with Florida and crossed into the Gulf of Mexico, my crew and I were assigned to intercept it.
We had been covering a big flower show in Columbus, Ohio when the call came. After apologizing to our PR handlers, they nicely provided us with big golf umbrellas emblazoned with the flower show logo in its purple and white color scheme, which we stashed deep into our Anvil cases. We promised to come back and finish the story when we returned from our hurricane coverage.
After rushing back to Detroit to load up additional gear, we flew to Houston and made our way to Galveston, awaiting Andrew’s arrival. By the next morning we learned the hurricane was tracking further east and told to keep driving till “you and Andrew meet.” In Lake Charles, La, we picked up field producer Kelly Rickenbacker who had covered more than 20 hurricanes for CBS, so we were in good hands. Kelly turned out to be the difference between winning and losing a deathmatch competition with none other than Dan Rather.
Heading east on I-10, we could feel ourselves getting closer to the storm. In Lafayette, we got out to shoot some video and were forced to take cover under our Ford Econoline van when a metal building was blown apart by winds, sending its razor-sharp section of aluminum through the air. Some cut right through trees. We were avoiding them slicing through our bones.
Further on, our national assignment desk in Atlanta instructed us to reach a town called Abbeville where a satellite truck was parked. “Just get out, get in front of the camera, and be ready to tell when you’ve seen for the last hundred miles or so.” Having done that we were back in the van when Kelly learned of major destruction in the town of Jeanerette. He also learned Dan Rather and a crew from the program “48 Hours” was aiming for that town too. The issue? Police had cut off access roads to the Jeanerette but it was clear we needed to get in and tell the story, with the added incentive to get there before Rather and Co. and get our story on the air.
Upon reaching the first roadblock, Kelly suddenly affected an accent that was a little bit of honey, a smidgen of sweetened ice tea, bolstered by the taste of a perfectly fried biscuit. That seemed to be the dialect that spoke to the heart of sheriff’s deputies who were otherwise unimpressed with our plight. They smiled at Kelly, shook his hand, and moved aside the sawhorses blocking the road to Jeanerette. Kelly kept up his act at least two more times and we suddenly found ourselves in the Jeanerette city limits where the affects of Andrew were all too obvious.
We grabbed some shots on our way into town, stopped at a shelter, all the while asking lots of pertinent questions, along with “you see Dan Rather here?” None had. We blasted away shooting as much as we could in the short time we had before hightailing it to Morgan City where the CNN satellite truck was parked, from which we’d feed in our story for the 6 p.m. show.
Knowing there would be no time to look at our video, I kept an informal log of what our videographer Chester Belecki had shot in Jeanerette and while tucked in the back seat of a very crowded minivan..Kelly had taken the big van separately..I scratched out a script and recorded the track into the camera.
Boom..we edited the piece in the satellite truck and fed it in time to make our deadline…beating Dan Rather by at least two hours..and most everyone else. Victory in hand, the desk instructed us to go on to New Orleans, get some sleep, and go home.
Postscript. The poor flower show umbrellas died a quick death after five minutes in the hurricane winds. We did go back to finish the story…about why the much-publicized show was a financial failure.
On this Mother’s Day, 2017 I’m reflecting back on how my late, wonderful mother affected me in my work life.
It started in the 1960’s when I had my first job folding laundry at Mel’s Laundromat on Union Turnpike in Queens, NY. It was in a strip of stores that ranged from Glen Oaks Pharmacy where Richie the owner and pharmacist kept the store guarded by a massive German Shepherd who would sometimes snuggle up to your crotch while you were shopping….to Sol and Lefty’s candy store/luncheonette that served as a lunch counter, candy stand, place to get your school supplies and bookie joint. Yes..it was always safe to shop at Sol and Lefty’s because there was always one of NYPD’s finest on site…to place a bet. In between there was Ray’s Anchorage/old man’s bar, the Cracker Barrel supermarket a dry cleaner and deli. Mel’s was closer to the north end of the strip where Sol and Lefty’s was located.
Mel was a crappy boss. He was crazy and yelled a lot and made sure half the machines didn’t work right so customers would have to toss in extra quarters. I was 8 years old and even so, the 25 cents a day he paid me seemed like a screw job. My mother gave me my first workplace advice at that point. “Edward,” she said, “try not to work for assholes.” But I was young and impetuous and I didn’t obey that sage advice, for more than 40 years.
Later, as a teenager, I worked at a day camp in tony Great Neck, Long Island where the skinflint owner paid us 25 bucks a summer plus tips, but you had to pool your tips. Mom advice number two. “Pool your tips? What? So the lazy schlemiels can get some of your money? Screw ‘em! Toss in five bucks and pocket the rest. You earned it.” Smart mommy.
When I started my career as a broadcaster it was at a truly crappy station in Fulton, New York. Fulton is about a half hour north of Syracuse, which puts it squarely in the area commonly known as “Nowhere.” The station was located in a field in a concrete block building next to the transmission tower. Occasionally, the St. Bernard that lived in the farm that surrounded the station would walk up to the door, bang it with his massive head and wait for belly rubs. We always complied. When I brought my parents to see where I worked, my mother offered work advice number 3. “Edward, make sure your next job isn’t in such a shithole.” I dutifully obeyed and moved on to another station, in Auburn, N.Y. which was located in the top floor of an office building and had the best studios and equipment.
For the benefit of time and space I’ll skip ahead to when I eventually landed a job at CNN in Atlanta. My parents were duly impressed but were not familiar with either Atlanta or Georgia. This precipitated mom job advice number 4. “Edward,” she intoned, “this is a big deal. Do whatever they say, try your hardest, show them what you’ve got and whatever you do, do NOT start saying ‘y’all.’” I did everything she said and lasted two decades at the most manic place I had ever worked.
My last fulltime job was a Chrysler. I was hired to manage and ghost write a blog on behalf of the head of PR. This was 2005. My parents just could not fathom exactly what it is I was hired to do. Despite many explanations, blogging and social media did not compute with them. They attempted to send emails via the ghastly WebTV service, which was so slow, snail mail would arrive faster. It only frustrated my father who received a lot of useless “forwards” from other alta cockers at their Florida condo community. My father would respond to each and every one with “please don’t send any more of this stupid shit.” It got him elected to the condo board of directors and captain of the shuffleboard team.
It also led to my mother’s final work advice: “Edward,” she said patiently. “I really don’t know what the hell you do or why you do it but if it pays better than the laundramat I’m happy for you.” It did, indeed, pay much better than the laundramat, and led to a nice management job, an office and free coffee…which only proves, you should always listen to your mother.
Since taking on a part-time position as a video reporter at Automotive News I’ve found myself filling in every few weeks for the regular anchor of our daily afternoon newscast, AutoNews Now. I hadn’t anchored any sort of newscast since 1988 when I anchored Newsnight Update for awhile on CNN. If you’re not familiar with that show, that’s because it aired 1:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Eastern time and was aimed at west coast viewers and those in other time zones working off a hard night of drinking bad muscatel.
The absence of 29 years from the anchor desk was quite an awakening, especially when it comes to that thing called a teleprompter. Oh, I guess technically I’m supposed to spell it TelePrompTer since it’s a brand name that’s become generic like Kleenex for tissues.
My first anchor experience was in the late 1970’s at KGUN-TV in Tucson, Arizona where I’d occasionally handle “Good Morning Tucson,” the local cut-ins during “Good Morning America.” Back then the prompter was simply a little conveyer belt onto which the operator loaded the script pages end to end. The operator would then use a little thumbwheel to get the conveyer belt moving, passing each page under a small camera, which sent the image of the script to a monitor placed under the anchor’s camera lens, reflecting it onto a two-way mirror over the lens so the anchor could look directly into it and make people believe they either memorized the whole thing or made it up on the spot.
This simple technology worked for a long time, but had it’s limitations. At KGUN the prompter was located next to a door that led from the studio to the parking lot. Every time someone went in or out during a newscast, all the script pages would go flying off the belt and the poor operator was stuck trying to gather them up and place them back on the belt in the correct order. This almost never was successful causing the anchor to deliver such non sequiturs as “A plane crash near Phoenix today resulted in lower than expected attendance at the 4H Club’s bake sale. The city council voted unanimously to plead guilty to sexual harassment charges.”
By the time I anchored at CNN the technology had actually not changed one bit. The difference at CNN is, due to the nature of its 24-hour broadcast schedule, scripts were constantly being written and delivered to the prompter and the rest of the crew just moments before they were to be read.
One night the scripts were running particularly late and the production assistant charged with delivering the scripts was running like crazy and became completely unhinged. In her rush she simply tossed the pile of scripts to the prompter operator and, as you might expect, they immediately were shuffled out of order. All I could see from the anchor desk was a young person behind the prompter mouthing, “oh crap oh crap oh crap!” while the fallen pages remained on the ground.
I should interject at this point, anchors are also provided hard copies of scripts just in case there should be an unfortunate prompter problem. The trick is, turning the pages of your hard copy in sync with the prompter so, if needed, you can dive down to the hard copy and continue reading. It’s tougher than it looks and many anchors simply use their hard copies as placemats for the coffee and danish they bring on the set, just out of view.
Now fast forward to 2012. By then I was head of digital communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. A good part of my duties involved setting up a video operation at the automaker and that included having a small studio built for recording and transmitting executive interviews. The long time gap since my last studio experience became quickly apparent when the prompter was installed. I looked high and low but couldn’t find the conveyer belt/camera apparatus. When I asked someone about it, the much-younger person laughed at me as she said, “are you, like 100?” before explaining prompters had long before moved to the digital age where all you had to do was load a Word file of the script into a laptop that’s connected to the monitor/two-way mirror set up on the camera.
This worked very well except for when, in the spirit of teamwork, I ran the prompter for one of our Italian executives who needed to record a message totally in Spanish. Not being able to understand a word of the script I just kept moving the lines up at the executive’s pace. He finally stopped in frustration and said to me, in perfect English, “you suck!” Ah, the joys of multi-linguilism.
I retired from FCA at the end of July, 2016, but was offered the part-time job I have now at Automotive News, which I enjoy very much. Every so often, as I mentioned at the start, I fill in for our regular anchor. The first time he showed me the studio the issue of the prompter came up. He smiled as he handed me the thumb-operated controller and informed me there weren’t enough people on the team to have a prompter operator so anchors were on their own.
If you watch any of our newscasts, you’ll notice we keep one hand, the hand operating the prompter, out of view. I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty well. It just takes a little practice. It seems to be a problem for some of our viewers however, since they have no idea what’s going on under the table and it’s prompted a few to ask some inappropriate questions. Let’s just say my thumb’s pretty busy.
Like many people beaten to boredom by the endless Oscar ceremony, I went to bed early and missed the monumental screw up in announcing the wrong movie as best picture. So I’ve already wasted half my morning reading about it and watching the clips. It also got me thinking about mistakes I either made or affected me.
I have two brief examples, both of which occurred while I worked at CNN. I was producing the morning show, then called “Daybreak,” back in the 1980’s. There had been a train wreck in Oregon. It wasn’t fatal, but it was a mess and there was fear hazardous fumes were leaking from some of the tanker cars. It was a pretty slow news day so it led the hour. Our assignment desk jumped into action to get us someone on the phone they identified as both a witness and employee of the railroad. Remember that word “witness.” We were about to witness another disaster from the control room. During that era, CNN was still located in a former Jewish Country Club across the street from Georgia Tech. The newsroom was the old gym and it was a completely open floorplan. The writer and producer work stations, assignment desks, satellite desk, anchor set and control room were within a shout from each other…no walls. Someone from the assignment desk yells “got a phoner with a witness!” We quickly arrange to put the guy on the air and I tell the anchor, through her earpiece who she’ll be speaking with.
Anchor: “We have with us now on the phone (guy’s name)…a witness to the Oregon train wreck. Tell me sir. What does it look like from your vantage point?
Guy on phone: “Well, considering I’m about 350 miles away, pretty small!”
Anchor: “Thank you sir. Goodbye.”
Then there was the time I was assigned a story on the 40th anniversary of the Ford Edsel. I must have missed a key note in the background material before interviewing the grandson of the failed car’s namesake.
Me: “How did you grandfather feel about the car being such a failure?”
Edsel Ford II.: “He didn’t really care. He died before the car was produced. Would you like to ask that question again…a different way?”
Which I did…after many apologies and my shooter confirming he had the whole thing on tape and would make “good use” of it.
James Nichols, the brother of convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator, Terry, died last week and that brought back all sorts of memories, since I got to know James a bit, covering his case for CNN. Indeed, covering James Nichols ranged from boring to blasphemous to hilarious.
I was on my way back from vacation when news that the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. At the time, it was the worst case of domestic terrorism in the U.S.
The next day I returned to work as CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and Correspondent and was catching up on story planning and paperwork when late that afternoon we got a call that the FBI had raided a farm in Decker, Michigan and that the raid was connected to the OKC bombing. We dropped everything and drove the 90 minutes up to Michigan’s Thumb area to what amounted to a four-corners surrounded by farms. We quickly found out the farm on the northeast corner was owned by James Nichols, brother of Terry, who was arrested in connection with the bombing and that they were both friends with Timothy McVeigh, who was eventually convicted and executed for carrying out the bombing. The feds were looking for bomb-making materials on the farm and found some, since it also came out McVeigh stayed at the farm on and off and actually exploded some small bombs there.
They laid siege on the Nichols farm and while the scores of media staking out the place from a short distance it came out they arrested James Nichols as a material witness. Of course, every news organization was anxious to learn more about him.
We landed an interview with a guy who ran the local grain silo and knew Nichols. This was big stuff so Larry King’s producers booked us. I was told “just take your time with the guest. Find out as much as you can about Nichols. Don’t rush the interview.”
I get on the air during King’s show and start to lead the guest through how he knew Nichols and could he tell us about him and what we had heard were strong anti-government views. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two before Larry King broke in and barked, “yeah, but sir…just tell me. Is this guy a nutcase?” The next time I spoke was 20 minutes later to thank the guest. King took over the interview with the one motive…to find out if James Nichols was a nutcase. The guest insisted he wasn’t but King didn’t believe it.
In further pursuit of the story we contacted Nichols’s friend Phil Murawski who lived down the road. He said he’d be glad to do the interview but “first I have to be interviewed by the FBI and eat a sandwich.”
Nichols was arrested and taken to Milan Federal Prison in Milan (MY-lan), Michigan. That’s where I first got a look at him. I was one of the pool reporters covering his arraignment, held in a prison day room. What struck me was his voice. I expected a growling, angry voice and what I heard was a high-pitched squeaky squawk. Book, cover, no match. Honestly, the most memorable aspects of that day were being treated to a prison lunch of de-boned chicken wings–we were told prisoners could make weapons out of the bones..and meeting AP reporter Brian Akre who was also in the coverage pool. Over the years we would always joke “we met in the joint.”
The feds finally dropped the charges and I caught up with him again at his farm. This time we had an actual conversation. He had written a book alleging his it was the Federal government and not his brother or McVeigh who had carried out the OKC bombing. That’s why he agreed to the interview..to help publicize the book that no publisher would touch. It was during that interview he uttered a phrase that stuck with me and my crew to this day. In his screechy voice he hollered, “we was frauded upon!”
He seemed to enjoy speaking with us, especially because he was enamored with our rather attractive female sound tech. This worked to our advantage because we were dying to get inside that farmhouse the feds had been so interested in. So….our sound tech flashed a big smile and asked if she could use the washroom. No problem! She did use the washroom and took a quick peek around but there really wasn’t anything worth noting. If anything, James was very neat.
After that day, we pretty much forgot about James Nichols. He was just another character you run into as a reporter, but every once in awhile when we thought we’d been screwed somehow a member of the crew would smile and announce, “we got frauded upon!”
Thanks for that, James Nichols. RIP
The South likes to do things its own way. Screw Punxsutawney Phil. Deep in the heart of biscuit and grits country, the rodent with the lowdown on how much longer winter will last is named for the man who surrendered to Gen. Grant in the Civil War. Yes..it’s General Lee who’s rousted from his roost and grabbed by the scruff of his furry neck as a couple of good old boys who imbibe for breakfast decided whether or not the sleepy soldier saw his shadow. At least, that’s how it was when my assignment manager at CNN’s Southeast Bureau in Atlanta tossed this one in my lap. I duly showed up at 5:45am at the Yellow River Wildlife Ranch in suburban Snellville to wait for the big moment. To keep us reporters, um, engaged until then, there were bottles of something alcoholic, along with dozens of ham, bacon, egg and sausage biscuits. By the time poor old General Lee was poked until he came out of his slumber and investigated who the hell was bothering him, we were pretty well loaded and larded. It was dark when he emerged from his faux plantation home but the Yellow River boys insisted he saw his shadow. Fine. Six more weeks of winter in Atlanta just means six more weeks of spring. Oh, they had snow once or twice in the 8 years I lived there. I think it totalled a quarter inch, which sent the Georgia peaches into a hissy fit.
Personally, I think the whole groundhog thing is a ruse. A better gauge might be whether or not Ryan Gosling looks in the mirror and sees his five o’clock shadow. He’s Canadian, you know. It’s always winter to him.
Epilogue: You don’t see me in the package above. I did shoot a standup but a prissy anchor had it killed. I was in front of groundhog pelt nailed on the wall of the cabin across from General Lee’s enclosure. I said “…and if the ground hog is wrong….” and turned towards the pelt. Some people just have no sense of humor.