A Party of Hate and Fire


(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered so far in my career. Each one has taught me something about myself or the profession.)

Fire changes things. It makes food better. It makes dark nights brighter and warmer. It also destroys and frightens. That is what this story is about, the night I was an uninvited guest at a Ku Klux Klan cross- lighting.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Lakeview Terrace, there isn’t much excitement. It’s a neighborhood of blue- collar values, soccer games for the kids after school and usually quiet evenings. It was December 3rd, 1983 and I was working for KCBS-TV. As the investigative reporter for the station, our team was digging into a story that was both dangerous and exciting. I had been approached by a man named Peter Lake. Peter was a freelance journalist with a taste for danger. His previous claim to fame was locking himself in a cage underwater to videotape a killer shark. This next assignment would be more dangerous for him and for us.

Peter had infiltrated a national group of white supremacists. The Aryan Nation group was headquartered in Hayden Lake, Idaho but its tentacles stretched nationwide. It was affiliated with the local Ku Klux Klan chapters including the one in southern California headed by Grand Dragon Tom Metzker. Peter had become the groups videographer and had convinced the members he could be trusted. He was our person “on the inside” while we worked to expose the tactics of this hate group from the outside looking in.I have already written about my face to face encounter with Pastor Richard Butler, the head of the Aryan nation group. He was competing with leaders of the Klan, the Aryan Brotherhood and other smaller hate groups for members and money and attention. (http://tvnewsmentor.com/the-blue-eyed-enemy/) But, on one evening in Lakeview Terrace they all came together to make a statement about their power to terrify.

Peter Lake sent word to me that they would all meet in the backyard of a supporter and light 3 crosses on fire. Cross-lightings have been used for decades to frighten blacks in the south. The crosses would be lit in the front yard of a black family or the supporter of that family. It was meant as a warning. This ceremony in Los Angeles was meant to send a message too, Lake told us. He said they wanted Blacks, Jews and Asians in the area to know they were not welcome. The crosses were scheduled to be doused with gasoline and lit just after sundown. I left the station in Hollywood with photojournalist Eliot Fons. We had worked together many times before, but we didn’t know what to expect tonight. Lake told us that we would have to park several streets away and make our way to the hillside backyard by climbing up a steep slope in the back of the property. If we were seen the ceremony organizers would be angry and he would not be able to protect us. He warned us to be careful.

Eliot and I made it to the property line as the sun was starting to set. We could see several men getting ready to pull ropes and lift the 3 big, wooden crosses into holes dug in the ground. We hid in some thick bushes, trying to remain quiet. We saw them douse the sheet-wrapped hay bundles with gasoline and tie them to the crosses. We also saw our “insider” Peter Lake videotaping it all up close. If they only knew. We stayed hidden in the bushes, just 20 yards from the crosses. When it got dark, the men began coming out of the house and heading to the ceremony location. Some were dressed in leather jackets or t-shirts. We could see their faces. Others were covered head-to-toe with traditional Klan robes and masks. They gathered in a circle around the crosses. I heard the voice of Pastor Butler welcome everyone and thank them for the show of support. It was hard to hear everything from our spot in the bushes, but every few seconds there was cheering and applause. Then several men set the crosses on fire. We could feel the heat. The cheering got louder and louder. We didn’t dare even breathe. Some of the men were assigned as security and they had spread out along the properly line. They had rifles and sidearms. One of them was standing about 15 feet in front of us with his back turned. Eliot had propped his camera next to a log and pointed it at the ceremony. Any movement by us might tip them off.

Then, suddenly, some of the men started running. There were shouts of “police, run for it!” It seems the Los Angeles Police Department had been tipped off about the cross-lighting ceremony, too. Officers were crashing the party and making arrests. We didn’t hesitate. Eliot grabbed his camera and I had the microphone and we jumped out the bushes and began videotaping the chaos and arrests. We had our LAPD press passes around our necks and we managed to stay out of the way for a minute or two, but then we were both grabbed from behind and handcuffed. I tried to plead with the officer and show him my pass, but he didn’t have time to negotiate. He pushed me toward another officer who led me and Eliot to a row of squad cars on the street in front of the house. A sergeant finally came over and we were able to reason with him. He checked our press passes and ordered the handcuffs removed. Then he asked, “what the hell were you guys doing here and how did you know about it?” I said, “same way you did sergeant, someone tipped us off.” He took my business card and warned that the department might want to see our videotape. I warned him back that it would take a subpoena. He was not happy.
Peter Lake was arrested that night, but the video he shot and the video Eliot got hiding in the bushes helped us show the real story of hate that night in southern California.

That was just one of a series of stories we did about the Aryan Nation and the Klan. Peter stayed in the group for another several months, reporting back to us daily and sharing video. I had always read about the life of blacks in the South. To me it was a story in a history book, because I had never lived it. Now I had, albeit in a different way. Now I could appreciate the fear felt by those who are the targets of these hate groups. I will never forget the feeling of the heat on my face as those crosses burned.

Biscuits and Gravy


(I am writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about myself and the profession)

Sometimes it’s not the story that you remember, it’s the food.

In the late 1970’s, I was a young reporter working for WTHR-TV in Indianapolis. It was December of 1977 and the coal miner’s union decided to go on strike. Southern Indiana is full of coal mines and miners, so this became a major local story.

We left the station very early one very cold morning heading for the union coal mine. It was dark when we left and all we had was coffee to keep us awake and warm. WTHR Photojournalist Pat Thatcher was a veteran and I was glad to have him manning the CP-16 film camera. We knew the miners could be a difficult bunch, especially when they were on strike. Many didn’t see the media as their friend. Many were just tough, hard-working coal miners who didn’t like outsiders from Indianapolis invading their neighborhoods.

We made great time and arrived near the mine entrance about an hour before the first scheduled shift change. That is when the first picket lines were supposed to appear and when we could get our first reactions. Pat and I were sitting in the news car with the engine running and the heater going full blast. It was below freezing. He turned to me and said, “I’m hungry, let’s get something to eat”.
He put the car in gear and headed back toward the main road. He said, “I am dying for some hot biscuits and gravy!” I had no idea what he was talking about. I had never heard of biscuits and gravy! I said, “what the hell is that?” Pat looked at me like I was crazy, “you have never had biscuits and gravy?” Nope, I said. Don’t know what they are but I am willing to try anything. Growing up in Wisconsin, we had cheese curds and beer for breakfast sometimes, but never biscuits and gravy. It’s traditionally a southern dish and this was my first time living outside of Wisconsin, so I was learning all kinds of new things. We pulled into the snow-covered parking lot of the café and, with a sly smile, Pat said wait here I will get you some biscuits and gravy.

This coal miners strike was a big deal. It was not just Indiana miners’ this was what they called a “wildcat” strike of miners in several midwestern states. It was clear the union leadership had little control over the men and that made it dangerous. This was life and death for the workers and no one knew how far they would go to make their point.

I saw Pat push the door open and walk toward the car. He was carrying a brown paper bag, like the kind we used to get at the grocery story. He jumped in and set the bag between us. “Let’s get back to the mine road,” he said, then we will dig in. The car filled with the smell of sausage. That’s what it smelled like to me. During the short ride back to the mine, Pat again was amazed that I had never tasted biscuits and gravy. He said it was a staple in his home growing up and it reminded him of his family.

We stopped at the mine entrance. No one was there yet. Pat opened the paper bag and handed me a plastic fork and a Styrofoam food container. It was hot on the bottom, but it felt good in the cold. I opened the lid and, for the first time, saw biscuits and gravy. It was gray. OH! It smelled great, but it was just a pile of gray slop. Pat said, “dig in” and I did. Cautiously at first, but after the first couple of bites I was hooked. It was delicious! A young man from Wisconsin who moved to Indiana was now becoming more of a southern food lover.

We finished our breakfast and just as the cars of the striking miners began to arrive. We put on our caps and gloves and got our gear from the truck and began working. Our stomachs were full.

The strike was very violent. It lasted over 3 months. During another one of our trips to cover the strike action, the tires on our news vehicle were slashed in a union headquarters parking lot. The miners were feeling the pressure and didn’t want the media to see it. The strike lasted more than a year.

It was a good story but mostly, that day, it was a good breakfast. It’s one I will never forget.

The O.J. Interview: What you didn’t see

(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about the profession or myself)

Yes, I Interviewed O.J. Simpson! And yes, I have an opinion about who killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. First, let me share with you the story of how I got the chance to sit down with the man accused and then acquitted of murder. I was living in Elizabethtown, Kentucky where my family and I had just purchased a radio station. It was a major change of life after living and working in Los Angeles for the past 15 years. I went from major market news anchor to local radio station owner. It was a real challenge and we loved it.

It was just before Christmas of 1995. The big story that fall was the Simpson trial. He was found not guilty. Johnnie Cochran said about the bloody glove, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The jury did.We had the entire staff of WRZI radio at our rented home on the north side of Elizabethtown. It was the first radio staff Christmas party. We were excited and proud and just getting to know our new family.

About an hour into the party my phone rang. When I answered I heard the voice of a man who I had played golf with in L.A. Tony Hoffman was known as the “King of Infomercials”. He planned and produced those half hour TV ads that sold all kinds of products from kitchen devices to hearing aids. Tony knew I had left L.A. for Kentucky and the radio business, but he said he had a job offer for me. He wanted to know if I was interested in interviewing O.J. Simpson. I didn’t know what to say. My house was full of my new work family and that was the priority now, but the prospect of sitting down with one of the most sought-after news makers in the past decade was too much to ignore. The deal was simple. Tony had been hired by Robert Kardashian to produce a video. Some of the video would include O.J. leading viewers on a tour of his Rockingham mansion and talking about the night Nicole was killed. However, most of the video would be a 90-minute, unedited, uncensored interview with Simpson. The video would be sold by mail-order directly to people interested in hearing his story. I hung up the phone and was stunned. I went back to the party, but my mind was elsewhere.

The next morning, I called my friend and former agent, George Bane. He was the man who managed my TV news career in Los Angeles for the previous decade and a half. I trusted him. He said it was a great opportunity but only if we controlled the interview. We needed to make sure it was journalistically sound.

There was no Facebook in 1995. YouTube was not on the radar. This pre-produced video to distribute journalism was going to be controversial. We just didn’t realize HOW controversial. George negotiated the deal. 90 minutes with O.J. and I controlled the questions. They agreed. We wanted just two camera people, O.J. and me in the room so no one could give him any signals about answers. I wanted it just to be me and him, face to face. Also, we needed to be able to ask anything. Again, agreed. I was hired by Tony Hoffman’s production company as a freelance journalist to interview the man everyone wanted to interview. The plans were made for a trip to Los Angeles in early January. It was difficult, but I had to keep quiet about it in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The story would get out soon enough that a local radio station owner was about to make headlines again.

I arrived in L.A. and went to the Holiday Inn at Sunset Blvd. and the 405 freeway. I spent the evening studying court transcripts and videos. This was probably going to be the first time and, maybe the only time, O.J. Simpson would be questioned directly about what happened. I wanted it to be good. The next morning there was a knock on the door. The man said the driver was ready to take me to O.J.’s Rockingham estate. When I got downstairs, there was a van with the windows blacked out. Reporters had gotten word that there was to be an interview, but they didn’t know who was going to ask the questions. The secret didn’t stay a secret for long. Rockingham was a zoo. In the den just off the kitchen, the TV production crew had the table and the lights ready to go. There were still photographers from People Magazine. They got exclusive access to the video shoot. George Bane, my agent, went down the hallway into the production room next door to the room used by Kato Kaelin. We heard all about it during the trial. I sat down at the small table to wait for O.J. To my left in a glass case was the Heisman Trophy.

He came in. We said hello. I shook his hand. I won’t go into everything in the interview. It’s available for you to see on YouTube. I hope you watch it. It’s good journalism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biwNu5IXI2M

After the interview I was exhausted. My agent took a video copy to put in his safe to ensure O.J.’s people would not edit it in any way before it’s release. We were confident our interview was solid and credible. I asked him if he killed his wife and Ron Goldman. If you watch the interview you can look into his eyes and decide for yourself if he’s lying. I was shuttled to the airport. The plane took off and several hours later I was back in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. It was only the beginning of a swirl of controversy. My small-town radio station became “ground zero” for the controversy over why I agreed to do the interview instead of allowing a major TV network to do it. I agreed because I was given access. I did the right thing. I got the scoop.

Geraldo Rivera was very angry, maybe jealous. Dateline did a story about how I allegedly “sold out” and allowed “the killer” O.J. to make money off the video. I reminded them that he was acquitted. I had to respect the jury’s decision. I just wanted people to have the chance to hear him answer some hard questions.

Someday I will write an ethics essay about this project and the journalism ethics involved. For now, I just wanted you to know what happened. It was a tornado of demands for interviews. It was regular people calling to say I sold out. It was the people of Elizabethtown wondering, sometimes out loud, what the hell was going on at that new radio station on Dixie Highway.
George Bane always used to tell me, “make a splash”. I had done that.

Now, when I am asked “so, did O.J do it?” I have an answer. When we see each other next time, I will tell you that story.

Jesus or Superman?


(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about myself or the profession)

If you want humanity, ask a human question. I learned that lesson in a very embarrassing moment in 1985 while working as a reporter for KCBS in Los Angeles.

It was midday on a Thursday and the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles issued a press release. A new archbishop had been named and it was a big deal. A bishop from Fresno was going to be the new leader of the church in southern California. The assignment desk called me and ordered me back to the station to prepare for a flight to Fresno to interview Bishop Roger Mahony. He was born in Hollywood and grew up in the San Fernando Valley and would now face the biggest challenge of his life.

Photojournalist Larry Greene and I headed to the airport and landing two hours later in Fresno. We rented a car and heading for the bishop’s office. He greeted us with a big smile. He was one of those people who made you feel instantly comfortable, yet he was all business and he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the media attention. I had prepared the best I could with the limited time I had. We had a great research department at KBCS headed by Lorraine Hillman. She prepared a file of background information about Mahony and his roots in the Los Angeles area. I also read about the controversies facing the church and how they might affect local Catholics. I was ready when we hit the ground in Fresno.

Larry set up the lights and camera in Mahony’s small office while he was out of the room. When he walked in and sat down, the lights came on and the camera rolled. We talked about his background and how he would make the changes some say were necessary in the Los Angeles diocese. We talked about women in the priesthood and immigration. He had just learned of his new job hours earlier and he told me he was just getting his head around his new assignment. He was nice and direct, but there was something missing in the interview. Yet, after about 15 minutes of questioning I said, “thank you Bishop Mahony” and turned to Larry to ask him to turn off the camera. He said “no, not yet”. Larry had one more question. I was shocked! Larry had a great sense of humor and was always pulling practical jokes and I feared this was another one in front of the new archbishop. Larry said, “Bishop Mahony, if Jesus and Superman were in a fight who would win?” It was classic Larry and I was mortified. It turned out to be a brilliant question. For the first time in the interview Mahony’s face lit up. With a huge smile and said, “well, I never really thought about it, but I would have to say Jesus because that’s my job.” His smile was as genuine as his answer. We laughed together. It showed him as a real person and not a religious leader in a black robe.

Larry accomplished what I could not accomplish with my prepared questions. He exposed the humanity in a man who is trained to be restrained and professional. Larry asked a human question and he exposed the real person. If you want humanity, ask a human question. That is what I learned that day.

Archbishop Mahony led the church in L.A. for more than two decades. Every time I saw him, I remembered Larry’s question and Mahony’s answer. It reminded me to break the barrier of what is expected and ask the unexpected.

Don’t Ever Ask a Question!


(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about myself or the profession)

The advice I got was, “Never ask the Pope a question!”

In 1987, we were preparing for a trip to the Vatican to shoot an 8-part series about the changing Catholic Church. The Pope was coming to the United States later that year, including a stop in Los Angeles. We were working with the press office at the Vatican, hoping to get an audience with Pope John Paul II while we were in Rome. The odds were good, we were told.

One of the rituals when you visit the Vatican as a reporter is a meeting with the Vatican Press Office for an orientation. There are several “official” rules and some “unofficial” rules the press attache’ will never tell you. For instance, you can get access to some secret areas of the Vatican if you make friends with some of the Vatican guards. They are the men who are dressed in the wild costumes and appear to be protecting doors and passageways. They are NOT ceremonial. They are highly trained security agents, but they are also the friendliest people in the Holy City. I worked for CBS News and we had CBS pens and keychains with us. The Vatican guards loved to get the swag to take home to their children. So, when we wanted access to a secret area, we just gave the guards some of the CBS marked trinkets and they worked like magic. We were in.

The major “official” rule, I was told, was how to talk to the Pope if we ever got the chance to meet him. Never ask the Pope a question, they said. So how was I supposed to talk with him? The press representative helping us said Pope John Paul II was very open and friendly, but very busy and always meeting people. So, he said, if we get the chance to be face-to-face with him during an audience or while he is blessing people in Vatican Square, just make a statement and hope it begins a conversation. I call these sport questions. If you listen to a sports reporter talking to athletes after a game they say, “Your defense really stepped it up today.” It’s not a question, it’s a statement and the player or coach agrees or disagrees and goes on to elaborate. You do the same with the Pope.

On our third day at the Vatican, we were privileged to attend a papal mass in St. Peter’s Square. There were thousands of people standing inside the barricades trying to get a glimpse of the Pope. They had been waiting for hours. The Press Office gave us access to the area near the altar where the Pope would walk and bless people lined up along the railing. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with visitors from all over the world. The Pope was their spiritual leader. Some were crying, just happy they were able to get this close to the man they call their “Father”. Larry Greene, the legendary CBS photojournalist, was next to me on the left as the Pope moved toward us along the railing. Larry had the shot and I had the opportunity, but I could not ask a question. I had to get the Pope to talk with me and look directly into the camera. As he got closer, I saw that he was reaching out and touching some of the people. When it got to me, I grabbed his hand and looked directly into his eyes. Larry had the camera rolling and we were both just inches from the leader of the Catholic Church. I said, “Holy Father, we are from Los Angeles, California and the people there are looking forward to your visit in a few months.” He stopped. He smiled and said, “I am truly looking forward to visiting with all of you in Los Angeles. Please give everyone there my blessing. I will be with them soon.” He gave us his blessing, let go of my hand and moved on down the railing. If I had asked a question, I am told, he would not have answered. But, because I made a statement, the Pope was comfortable delivering a message to the viewers I was there representing.

What is interesting, and other reporters will agree, is that when you are in the “moment” and doing your job you don’t think about the consequences or significance of it. We were working hard. We were in a huge crowd. We were trying to make sure we got what we needed to tell the story. I didn’t realize how that moment, holding the Pope’s hand and talking with him, would stay with me and affect me.
I was raised a Catholic and the Pope was always a mythical figure living in a mystical place called Vatican City. Now, I had met him. I tell my friends that there is something special about a Pope because you do feel you are in the presence of something more than just a leader of men.

I didn’t ask the Pope a question. Sometimes you must know the rules and sometimes the rules work for you. And, if you must break the rules, it’s always good to be able to say the Pope is your friend.

Do We Need Political Diversity in the Newsroom?

When I began my career as a journalist we were taught to keep our political views to ourselves. We were entitled to believe what we wanted and vote for the candidate of our choice, but we didn’t share that with anyone. We registered as independents because we wanted to avoid the appearance of bias. We didn’t put political bumper stickers on our cars. We worked in newsrooms that were apolitical because that was our job. There was no need to choose reporters or anchors or producers for their politics.

For decades we have fought for, begged for, demanded, and forced sexual and racial diversity in newsrooms in America. This kind of diversity made reporting better. It was “fair” when all sides were heard and represented. It made us smarter. Today, unfortunately we have strayed from the path of personal objectivity and it may be time to demand political diversity in our newsrooms. I have worked in newsrooms where the room was filled with people who openly discussed their liberal political views and argued against including opposing views in news stories. They dismissed those views and people as “being out of the mainstream” or “just plain nuts”. I have been told by consultants that we should “craft” our stories more for the liberal or conservative view based on audience research. I have also worked with reporters, producers and managers who were open about their conservative political views and they, too, brought their bias to the daily rundown of stories. Maybe, political diversity in hiring would help change that.

It is our fault people don’t believe our reporting. We have let the viewers and readers down. No one took credibility away from us, we abandoned it. This does not mean we have to make apologies for political liars and frauds. It is also wrong for national leaders to call the media the enemy. But, we need to tell the truth and there is truth on both sides of the political aisle. The American people see the media now as having an agenda. Too many reporters are letting a personal agenda slip into their work. We need to admit that. I was always told the appearance of bias is just as destructive as real bias. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you think others see you as fair? That is the most important question.

When you understand the history of broadcast journalism, you can understand how we got to this dangerous moment. When broadcast stations began hiring consultants and using research to grow audiences, we started down a road that led us to “shaping” the news to fit the viewers. We were told NOT to cover stories because the viewers didn’t care about it. We knew, as journalists, that the story was important, but we ignored it. When viewers found out they had been misled or left out they began to rebel. That one reason why it is so easy for many to believe we are the enemy.

It is easy to blame the person in the White house or corporate broadcast leaders for creating a climate where viewers are again condemning the messenger instead of the message. The blame and the solution are in our hands. Maintain the appearance of credibility. Demand the same from those you work with. Don’t pretend that what you say on social media on your personal pages doesn’t affect your credibility. The idea of political diversity is sarcasm. We don’t want to see a time when newsrooms are forced to hire 3 Republican reporters and 3 Democrat reporters based on a quota to insure the appearance of fairness. We don’t want to be asked how we voted in the last election before we are offered a job as a journalist. Be part of the solution and start now.

Too Tired to be Scared


(I have been writing stories about the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about myself or the profession)

If you have ever been in an emergency landing in a jetliner you would remember it, right? Well, I don’t.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II came to the United States and began a 7-day tour of 8 U.S. cities. I was chosen by KCBS-TV in Los Angeles to travel with the Pontiff and file reports from each city. It was going to be a grueling work trip with long hours and difficult conditions, but it was also exciting. It was not the first time I had covered the Pope. In fact, earlier in the year we went to the Vatican to do a preview series on the Catholic church and I got the chance to meet the Holy Father. That was amazing. (I have another story coming soon about the meeting)

This historic papal trip began in hot and rainy Miami. Each stop had a different theme but each one had the same general outline. The pope would arrive, meet local government and church officials and then hold a huge mass for people who had been waiting in line for hours to get near their religious leader. In all, we would end going from Florida, to South Carolina, to Louisiana and on to San Antonio. Then the trip took us to Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco and finally Detroit. Our KCBS team had a spot on the pope’s media plane, so we were on a tight schedule and traveled with him everywhere. It was in New Orleans that I had an experience I can’t remember, but will never forget.

The stop in New Orleans was a tough one. The Pope had his event at an arena in the suburbs, but our “live” shot location was downtown on the roof of an old brewery. By the time we finished it was long after midnight. We didn’t get any sleep because the flight leaving for San Antonio was leaving in just a few hours. We made it and I collapsed into my seat on the TWA L1011. I immediately fell asleep.
When I woke up in a sleepy haze and looked around the plane it was nearly empty and we weren’t moving. We were still on the tarmac! I glanced to my right and saw one of the other reporters sitting in a seat across the aisle and asked, “Where are we?” She said, “New Orleans.” I was confused. I had been asleep for nearly 3 hours and we were still on the ground in Louisiana and the rest of the reporters and crew on board were gone. We should have been on the ground in San Antonio.

I got up and went to the front of the plane and found some other reporters playing cards. I said, “what are we doing here?” One of them looked at me puzzled and said, “did you sleep through that?” He told me that during take-off from New Orleans the plane started shaking and the pilot declared an emergency. He said, “we made one circle in the air and landed hard. It was an emergency landing!” He told me it would be another hour for repairs before we could try to take off again.

I had slept through the entire emergency landing! I was too tired to be scared. So, now I tell the story about my close call during my coverage of the Pope, but I don’t remember any of it. We took off again heading for Texas. There were many parts of that exciting assignment I remember, but I regret being too tired to remember this one.

(BTW…I also covered the Pope in 1979 while working for WTHR in Indianapolis and again in 1993 while working for KCOP in Los Angeles)

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts

(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have told or people I have met during my career, so far. Each one taught me something about life and the profession)

Bill Dean was a character and he told me something one day in the newsroom that I will never forget.

Bill was my news director in the late 1970’s at WTHR in Indianapolis. He was a veteran who began his career working with Al Primo and the original Eyewitness News in Philadelphia. Bill was eccentric. He scoured the newspapers for stories and ads for vodka on sale. He drove a Boss 302 Mustang and he kept the keys in his pocket. In fact, it was the sound of those keys jingling that always told us Bill was nearby. His nervous energy was transferred to the hand in his pocket where he shook those keys constantly. Bill Dean was a gem and he would have done anything for us.

The newsroom was filled with reporters, some veteran but most of us were young. This was my second job out of college and I was honored to work in the 24th TV market in the nation. I had to work hard every day just to keep us with the others who had years of experience. Bill was always there to help me.

It was late afternoon on a Thursday and I was at my desk in the open newsroom. We still used typewriters to compose our scripts and I was struggling to meet my deadline. I don’t remember the specific story, but it was complicated and my notebook was filled with names and numbers. I had to, somehow, distill it all into a TV news story in the next 90 minutes. I was panicking.The newsroom was frenetic. Reporters, producers, photographers and the support team were racing to get the news on-the-air. I was the only one, it seemed, who was sitting still and staring at my notebook. I was frozen, my fingers were on the typewriter keys but they were not moving. Then I heard his voice. Bill Dean had come out of his office and was standing near the newsroom door behind me. He yelled, “Becker! Are you gonna make the show?” That’s all I need, I thought! Now I have the boss pressuring me, too. I yelled back, “I hope so. It’s a complicated story.” Then Bill spoke the words I will never forget and that I share with young reporters. He said, “Becker, don’t confuse me with the facts, just tell me a story!” He turned and walked away.

I took a deep breath and thought about what he had just yelled across the newsroom. “Just tell me a story”, he said. OK, I can do that and I began writing. As I did, the words just flowed and I began weaving in the information and facts I had spent the day gathering. It was a story, not a report. It had people in it and a plot. Bill had freed up my mind to get past the facts and create something that would help viewers understand the issue.

I now consider them magic words of advice. They worked for me that day in the WTHR newsroom, they work for me today and I have had some of my colleagues with whom I have shared this story say those words of wisdom work for them too when they get stuck. “Don’t confuse me with the facts, just tell me a story!” is a quote that inspired me to call myself a storyteller.

The facts are crucial to every story. We must get them right and they must be put in context. But, it is also our job to weave them into the story that viewers and readers can understand and appreciate. That is what Bill Dean taught me with his words yelled across the newsroom.

Frozen By Fire


(I am writing stories about stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one has taught me something about myself or my profession)

Once you see something horrible, you can never erase it from your memory. In 1984, I worked for KCBS in Los Angeles and didn’t know that the images and stories of what happened in Mexico that November Monday morning would stay with me forever.

When I got to the newsroom, I was immediately told to get ready to fly to Mexico City. A huge liquified petroleum gas facility near Mexico City had exploded and the fireball created burned through a nearby slum neighborhood. It was horrible. The death toll was rising by the hour.

When we landed, we discovered it would be a 45-minute drive to the disaster zone. The boys selling newspapers on the curb along the way were yelling the headline, just two words, “Fuego Mortal”, or “Deadly Fire.” 40,000 people lived in the town of San Juan Ixhauatepec, a poor suburb of Mexico City and home to the largest liquified petroleum gas plant in the country. Most of the men living in town were either farmers or they worked at the gas plant. As we got closer we were forced to stop and walk. The roads were jammed with people. Some were walking out with shocked and stunned looks on their faces. Some carried knapsacks or blankets tied at the top. Others were walking with us heading into the fire zone. They were scared. They needed to find their loved ones. We came over the top of a Hill and saw the valley below. There was no color. Gray smoke was billowing from the fires still burning at the plant in the distance. The neighborhood next to it was gone except for the walls of charred homes. These were not big houses, they were adobe shacks with wooden doors and plywood roofs.

Police were trying to keep people away, but it was no use. It was imposible to secure the huge area and local officials told us they didn’t know how they were going to get to and identify the dead. This was a huge crime scene, but we were waved on in and that is when the story changed. We didn’t come to the story, it came to us in a very dramatic way.

We started walking down one of the burned out streets. Everything was touched by the flash fire. The trees were black and bare. The cars were gray and gutted. Even the seats were gone. Just springs remained. We walked up to a man sitting on the curb in front of one of the houses. We asked him in Spanish, “Is this your house?” He said no, it was his brother’s house. “Where is he?”, I asked. He said he was inside and gestured me to walk in the front door. There was no door. It had been burned from the hinges. The man followed behind me and my photographer led the way. As we approached the end of the hallway entrance the photographer stopped and turned to the room at the right. I slipped behind him and saw a family frozen by fire. The sofa was just a metal frame and on it were 3 bodies. They were black, charred remains of three humans caught in the conflagration. They had no time to move. The fire came like a flash flood.

I just stood there not believing my eyes. I turned to the man who we met outside and he nodded and said in Spanish, “That’s my brother and his family. They had no were to run.” Back outside again, we kept walking and found children looking for their missing parents. We found women sifting through the black dust looking for mementos. In virtually every house or back yard we saw bodies. They were burned beyond recognition. It was hard to tell if they were men or women. We could tell the children only because they were smaller. The real story I want to share is what I saw in the eyes of those we met wandering the streets here. They were emotionally stunned, just like we were. They were seeing death everywhere and becoming immune to it.

There is no accurate count of how many died in this industrial accident. The initial number was 248 people killed. We went back to the neighborhood several years later to investigate reports that the government buried more than one thousand victims in a hillside nearby. The houses were being rebuilt. The people were moving back in and, surprisingly, the huge liquid petroleum plant was still there, back in operation right next door.