Paul Miller's series about
        his career in network news


Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller was an assistant foreign news editor for CBS News in New York from 1977 to 1981, when Walter Cronkite was the undisputed king of television news, and when 60 Minutes, the brainchild of producer Don Hewitt, was at the beginning of its long reign as the No. 1 rated prime-time news show. Later, Miller was assistant foreign editor at NBC News, and spent four years as that network's bureau chief in Israel.

Cronkite and Hewitt died in the summer of 2009, which left the whole country nostalgic for the days when there was no MSNBC or Fox News. For Miller, the memories were mostly about airplanes crashing on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, a nightclub on fire in Kentucky, and dolphins being slaughtered by Japanese fishermen ....

When Cronkite, Hewitt and Miller were in the house


Published: August 28, 2009

I WAS just 23 years old when I was suddenly elevated from copy boy to assistant foreign editor at the mighty CBS News, which was something like going from bat boy to shortstop for the New York Yankees. 

Copy boys don’t exist any more, because computers have made printed wire copy obsolete, but 30 years ago there were seemingly endless rolls of it piled up on ancient teletype machines in the middle of the CBS newsroom, waiting to be delivered to industry legends such as Douglas Edwards, Charles Osgood, Dallas Townsend and Hughes Rudd, not to mention Mike Wallace, Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite. There were also phones to answer, typewriter ribbons to change, and videotapes to hustle. The newsroom was staffed 24 hours a day, so the hours could be strange. And the starting pay was minimum wage.

But the surroundings were undeniably glamorous and powerful, so even the lowest-level jobs were in great demand and regularly attracted the offspring of American royalty. During my years in network news, Harry Truman’s grandson stayed awhile on the copy desk. So did a young man whose parents were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And a nephew of John F. Kennedy.

Somehow, I managed to get my job without knowing anybody. Fill out a form, politely badger the person you gave it to, knock on doors without an appointment — these are the techniques I used, and the same ones I advise would-be journalists to employ today. In other words: “If you can’t get in to see the person who’s hiring, you don't have what it takes to be a reporter anyway.”

Words to work by

My stint as a copy boy at CBS News headquarters on the west side of Manhattan started early on a Monday morning, after a quick interview with a top editor the previous Friday. And the foreign desk promotion I got a few months later came just as suddenly.

The assignment was supposed to be temporary while a more senior foreign editor was on sick leave. But once they showed me to the beat-up metal desk just outside the Cronkite studio where I would start my shift every morning at 3 o’clock, I ended up staying four years. And I only left to take the same position across town at NBC News — at double the salary. Looking back on it, it seems like I couldn’t possibly have had any idea what I was up to. And if I did a good job, it must have been because I had enough sense to heed the words of wisdom some of the old-timers gave me:

“Just remember, son, they’ll never write on your tombstone that you saved the company money.” And, “If you want to make Cronkite happy, get him exclusives about animals or fires.”

The first rule pretty much summed up the guiding ethic of network news in the 1960s and 1970s. With the founders of the networks still in charge — Bill Paley at CBS and David Sarnoff at NBC — and profits from entertainment programs sky-high, the network news divisions simply weren’t expected to make money. While news executives had budgets they were supposed to adhere to, spending guidelines went right out the window when big stories broke. And if saving money wasn’t anybody’s priority at CBS News, being first and best on important news stories certainly was.

And that’s where Cronkite, and the second rule, came in.

What god does all day

This is how CBS News was organized in the 1970s: The president, Richard Salant, was in charge of everything. Beneath him were the various vice presidents and division heads, including executive producers of the news broadcasts, bureau chiefs around the nation and the world, and technical people such as studio directors and engineers. 

But off to the side of the organizational chart was Walter Cronkite, whose worldwide fame, huge viewing audience and close relationship with Paley made him the de facto boss of everybody. And everybody knew it. 

Each morning, Cronkite would arrive at his glass-walled office adjacent to the small studio at 524 W. 57th Street where his program originated. Closing the door behind him, he would read the morning wire copy and newspapers. And then he would begin doing what he did most, which was talk on the phone. Among the underlings who scrambled to cover the news throughout the world and package it for each edition of the CBS Evening News, there was a lot of speculation about who might be on the other end of the line.

Sometimes, the grapevine said, he was talking to the president (of the United States). He was also known to converse with the heads of movie studios, CEOs of large companies, and various celebrities. 

But while he may have been busy contacting sources on the phone in his office, Cronkite was aloof from the news gathering process going on around him. Just once during the five years I worked there did Cronkite approach the foreign desk (which was no more than 30 feet from his office) with a personal suggestion for a story — and that was when he was putting on a little demonstration for a TV Guide reporter at his elbow.

Even if what Cronkite did all day was a bit of a mystery, we all knew it had to be something important, and we had a concise way to sum up the awe-inspiring activities of the godlike man we all worked for: “He’s being Walter Cronkite.”

It wasn’t as if the Most Trusted Man in America, as he was also known, couldn’t be disturbed or consulted. During the day, the producer of his program would occasionally solicit his opinion about a top news story. A senior executive might want to go over plans for an upcoming political convention or election. The head writer would sometimes give Cronkite an early look at a few pages of the script being prepared for his nightly broadcast. Etc., etc.

And then, in the early evening, Cronkite would move to his anchor desk, rehearse a technical point or two, read through the entire script for his show (prepared on special typewriters with letters a half-inch high), ask for last-minute changes, and even make a few handwritten alterations to the script himself.

Meanwhile, back in the videotape area, the evening’s reports from far-flung correspondents were ready for playback, and in the control room the various camera angles and simple graphics of the day were being prepared.

At precisely 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, the Cronkite show began its live broadcast. And at exactly 6:58:50, the show ended.

Sometimes, before the studio lights were turned off, there were changes to make, news updates to add, or flubs to be fixed before the CBS Evening News could be rebroadcast to the Mountain and Pacific time zones. But if everything was OK with his show, Cronkite immediately returned to his office, where he watched the 7 p.m. local broadcast of the Huntley-Brinkley or John Chancellor report on NBC News. (He paid no attention to the fledgling ABC Evening News, which in those days was the only other nationwide evening news program.) 

Unfortunately, if Cronkite believed NBC had scooped him on something important, there was hell to pay. And I played a key role in the biggest news coverage disaster of them all.

A back-up Learjet?

On March 27, 1977, a KLM 747 collided with a Pan Am 747 on a fog-shrouded runway at the remote city of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. With 583 fatalities, it remains the worst aviation disaster in history.

I was manning the weekend foreign desk at CBS that Sunday morning, and as soon as the first wire reports arrived, it was apparent this was going to be a huge story, which presented a typical challenge for me as duty foreign editor: To coordinate coverage of a major news event that happened far from a CBS News bureau and, in this case, far from any international news organization.

After consulting with my boss, foreign editor Sid Feders, who was at home enjoying his weekend, I set about contacting Spanish and Portugese networks to see what immediate coverage they might be expecting. And then there were CBS News correspondents and camera crews to be pulled from their bases in Rome and London, and private jets to be chartered to take them as quickly as possible to the Canaries. Meanwhile, a videotape editor and a producer had to find commercial flights to Lisbon where a “feed point” for the Tenerife story could be established. I also had to make arrangements for videotape and narrations from the news crew on Tenerife to be flown back to Lisbon, where they could be edited and transmitted to New York in time for the weekend edition of the CBS Evening News, which in those days was anchored by Morton Dean.

Once all this planning was communicated to producers of the Sunday news show, and a satellite feed time was booked, I could sit back and watch our coverage beat the pants off the competition on Sunday night. Details of the emerging story were increasingly tragic, but a complex (and expensive) operation is very satisfying when it comes off without a hitch. However, there was no time for self-congratulation, because Feders, who had joined me in the newsroom, and I had a bigger obligation. In the scheme of things at CBS News, it didn’t really matter how well we did on Sunday night. Instead, our foremost obligation was to make Cronkite look good on Monday, and that was where we failed.

It happened because of a mechanical breakdown in the Learjet we hired to ferry videotape from Tenerife to Lisbon on Monday. This was not an unanticipated problem. Aircraft weren’t as reliable in 1977 as they are today, and Feders had reminded me of the possibility of a mishap.

“Then do we want to send a backup Learjet to Tenerife to protect the Cronkite show?” I asked him on Sunday afternoon.

“How much will it cost?” Feders wanted to know.

“$25,000,” I told him. That was too much money for Feders to spend without getting the OK from his immediate boss, CBS News vice president Bill Small. Consulted at his home, Small gave a quick answer: No backup charter.

He was to regret that decision. On Monday, despite the best efforts of our crews in the Canaries and Lisbon, without a working jet we had no new video for the Cronkite show beyond what had already been on the Sunday evening news and the Monday morning show. Meanwhile, Monday night’s NBC Nightly News and even (god forbid) ABC’s evening news show had incredible, heartbreaking new footage of the smoldering wreckage of two huge aircraft on the cursed runway, and rows and rows of coffins inside a hangar at the Tenerife airport. Cronkite was professionally embarrassed — and livid — when he watched his competitors’ broadcasts.

The next thing I knew, Cronkite had gone to Small and demanded that Feders be fired, which Small declined to do, because he knew the decision not to send the backup charter was his.

Within a few months, both men had been forced out of their jobs at CBS News. And for years afterward, news coverage mishaps at CBS were rated on a scale from One-a-rife to Tenerife.


A call to a stranger, and drama on the airwaves


Second in a series

Published: September 4, 2009

WHEN IT’S the middle of the night, and more than 150 people have just been killed in a night club fire near Louisville, Ky., how do you get immediate eyewitness accounts from 650 miles away?

It was May 29, 1977, and I was filling in a shift as copy boy on the CBS Radio newsdesk. As the youngest, most inexperienced person there, it wasn’t even remotely my job to try to answer the question. But, to the astonishment of the senior editors and anchors on duty that night, I answered it anyway.

If you’re a news junkie at all, you’re familiar with the “Hourlies” on the CBS Radio Network. Still a mainstay of radio news, these five-minute broadcasts are carried on hundreds of local stations across the country. You know ... “Bong!” right on the hour, followed by a high-energy musical signature that hasn’t changed in maybe forever, and then an anchorman says, “CBS News ....”

Happening right now

At the beginning of my network news career, when the 24/7 ubiquity of the Internet wasn’t even on the horizon, radio news had a special niche among the national news media. While newspapers provided an in-depth look at what had happened the day before, and evening newscasts offered the top stories of the same day, radio news broadcasts were the only thing that could tell you what was happening at the moment.

Furthermore, 30 years ago at CBS, the network’s rich legacy of groundbreaking radio broadcasts during World War II (“This is London ....”), meant that radio news still had a very prominent, and respected, role.

For the people who put those CBS Radio hourly newscasts together in the mid-1970s, upholding the tradition required thoroughness, accuracy and immediacy — not easy things to achieve under intense time pressure. Especially in the middle of the night.

The difficulty wasn’t that these radio editors, writers and anchors weren’t seasoned veterans. One of the editors I assisted, Marian Glick, had famously taken Dan Rather’s Nov. 22, 1963, telephone call from Dallas, reporting the death of President John F. Kennedy almost a half-hour before the White House confirmed it or any other news media had it.

Some of the superstar radio announcers I worked with were Dallas Townsend, Charles Collingwood, Douglas Edwards and Eric Sevareid, who could all brag about being former colleagues of Edward R. Murrow himself. Despite being on top of the world as anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite still did daily radio commentaries. And an up-and-comer on the radio side was Charles Osgood, who not much later was the first at CBS News to get a $1-million-a-year salary after Roone Arledge tried to lure him to ABC News, and the bosses at CBS decided they couldn’t afford to let him go.

Among all those news bigshots, I was one of about a dozen copy boys (also called desk assistants), working eight-hour shifts in a 24-hour-a-day newsroom, whose principle job was to tear rolls of copy from teletype machines relentlessly printing the collected, worldwide output of the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters, and deliver them to the waiting typewriters of people who knew what they were doing.

This continuous stream of copy was vital, because at the time, CBS Radio’s hourly newscasts largely consisted of wire stories rewritten into punchier, briefer versions suitable for the radio, supplemented with occasional on-scene reports from CBS News correspondents, along with telephone interviews (called “actuality”) done by radio editors at the CBS studios on Manhattan’s W. 57th Street (which is where we all worked).

A bulletin comes in

I had just started my shift a few minutes after midnight when the wires machines came to life with urgent news: “Louisville, Ky., May 29, 1977 (UPI) — Fire broke out at a crowded supper club last night, killing more than a dozen in the crowd, according to fire officials.”

As soon as I heard the bells announce the first bulletin, I tore the copy from the machine and delivered it to the senior editor and anchorman on duty, who read the brief dispatch and immediately began debating what to do with it.

“Get the Chicago bureau on the phone,” the editor, Harry Poloshjian, told me.

“And call the Louisville affiliate,” suggested the overnight anchorman, Doug Poling.

I did as I was instructed. But nobody answered in the Chicago bureau, and the overnight DJ at WWKY said, “We don’t know any more than you do.”

I reported these dismal results to my bosses, who resigned themselves, for the upcoming Hourly at least, to rewriting copy from the wires, which had at least begun to provide a few more details.

“AP — Bulletin — May 29, 1977, Louisville, Ky., — Fire officials say casualties may be as many as 100 in a deadly fire in the crowded Beverly Hills supper club in the community of Southgate last night ....”

I delivered the latest copy and went back to my desk, waiting for more copy from the teletype machines and unsure what to do next.

And then I had a thought. What was the phone number of the Beverly Hills Supper Club? Maybe, just maybe, somebody would answer the phone there .... ?

I looked in the phone book for the area code for Louisville, 502, and then dialed it along with the number 555-1212, which was the way you got long distance directory assistance in those days.

Of course, there was no answer at the devastated night club. But then I had another idea, which proved to be brilliantly random. I began dialing made-up numbers in the same area code and exchange, hoping one of the numbers would eventually reach somebody who knew about the fire, or at least lived near the night club.

On just my second scattershot attempt, a sleepy voice said, “Hello?”

“I’m very sorry to bother you, sir, but I’m calling from CBS News in New York. There’s been a bad fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Louisville, and I was just wondering ... is there an all-night business near the club you could help me find?”

“Beverly Hills club you say?” the unknown man said, perking up, and then speaking to somebody else. “Honey, this guy says it’s CBS on the phone, and there’s been a fire, and he’s looking for some all-night business near the Beverly Hills place. What’s that? You’re right ….”

And then he spoke to me again. “I’ll tell you what, we went there just the other week, and there’s an all-night gas station right by their driveway. Let me get you the number.”

Incredibly, just one more phone call and a few seconds later, I was able to tell my editor to pick up line two, because there was a man at a gas station available for actuality about the fire.

“Oh my God, the flames!” the man’s recorded voice was saying to a nationwide radio audience a few minutes after that. “It’s bad I tell you, the place was crowded, and it’s terrible to see all those cars in the parking lot ....”

After the Hourly, when the excitement had died down a bit, the anchorman came out of the studio and said to the editor, “Where’d that guy come from?”

And the editor said, “Miller found him.”

And the anchorman said, “How the hell did he do that?”


How Cronkite got his dolphin exclusive

- The art of tricking the competition


Third in a series

Published: September 11, 2009

ALMOST AS soon as I was hired at CBS News in the fall of 1976, I figured out that the organization’s chief purpose was to keep Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News on top. If some higher goal turned out to be served in the process, that was fine, too. But the ratings were what mattered most.

Cronkite had dominated the evening news time period since 1967. By the early 1970s, he was the undisputed king of television news, with the power to shape the national agenda, from helping create the environmental movement, to ending the Vietnam War. But it was by no means taken for granted at CBS that he’d stay that way.

NBC’s Nightly News, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and later by John Chancellor, was formidable competition. And ABC’s World News Tonight, with the ambitious and free-spending Roone Arledge at the helm, was up and coming.

So the correspondents, writers and producers who provided the worldwide coverage for CBS News knew very well what they were supposed to do when they went to work each day: Come up with scoops for the Cronkite show. And when I was barely out of college, I provided a really good one, not by covering an important news story myself, but by tricking the competition into foregoing one.

Blood in the water

I was working the overnight shift on the foreign assignment desk at CBS News headquarters in Manhattan in the late winter of 1978 when a brief story moved on the news wire from Japan.

“AP, February 24, Tokyo — Fishermen in the southern city of Katsumoto killed as many as 100 dolphins this morning because they said the mammals were depleting stocks of yellowtail in the Sea of Japan, which the fishermen depend on for their livelihood.”

The story went on to tell how the fishermen, to protect their catch, drove the dolphins into a narrow bay and speared them by hand in the shallow water near the beach.

It was 2:30 a.m. in New York, and the domestic assignment editor on duty that night, Dave Kooistra, and I quickly recognized this wire story as one the animal-loving Cronkite would probably want for his show, which was then 16 hours away.

These days, when even trivial news stories are given instant live coverage almost anywhere in the world, 16 hours sounds like an eternity. But in the 1970s, satellite feeds were rare — and even nonexistent from remote places such as the southern Japanese island of Iki.

Furthermore, on that particular morning, the nearest CBS News bureau, in Tokyo, was essentially unmanned. Correspondent Bruce Dunning and his camera crew were in Hong Kong working on a story about refugees fleeing communist Vietnam.

So with the Tokyo bureau empty, and with all the higher-ups at CBS News asleep in their Manhattan apartments, it fell to me to figure out how to get the dolphin story for Cronkite.

I called the Tokyo bureau, where a longtime local employee was keeping the place open while his bosses were out of town. He answered the phone in traditional Japanese fashion.


“This is Paul Miller, calling from the foreign desk in New York,” I told him. “There’s a story on the wires about fishermen slaughtering dolphins in Katsumoto. Do the Japanese networks have any decent coverage?”

While I posed the question, I was also leafing through the latest overseas flight guide to see what flights might be available in the next few hours from Tokyo to the mainland United States or, at least, to Hawaii. If a videocassette could be shipped on one of those flights and make it to a domestic feed point at a CBS affiliate in time for the Cronkite show, that would be a major advantage.

“Yes, one of the stations has very good coverage,” the Japanese bureau staffer told me. “There’s a lot of blood in the water.”

“OK, that’s what I was hoping for,” I told him, demonstrating my highly refined journalistic instincts. And then: “There’s a flight leaving for Honolulu in two hours. Do you think you can get a tape on it?”

“It might be possible, but I have to hurry,” he said, quickly hanging up the phone.

Satellites cost a lot of money

It’s quaint to recall how things worked in those days. International satellite transmissions for American television began in 1965 with a live broadcast, in all its grainy, black-and-white glory, of the funeral of Winston Churchill from St. Paul's.

Eleven years later, on the day the dolphins in southern Japan met their abysmal fate, things had advanced quite a bit. But still, the capability of CBS News and the other networks to transmit video and audio from faraway lands depended on a network of just a few satellites over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. These small satellites, in their geosynchronous orbits, received uplinks from earth stations pointed at them from various spots around the globe. The satellites (we called them “birds”) then retransmitted the signals back to earth, where earth stations at Jamesburg in upper Carmel Valley and Andover, Maine, equipped with 30-foot parabolic antennas, received the tiny signals from space, amplified them and passed them on, via phone company cables and microwave links, to the headquarters of the various television networks in midtown Manhattan.

Not only was the process of satelliting video and audio cumbersome, it was also expensive. A transmission from Japan to New York, for example, might cost $5,000 for an initial 10-minute minimum, and $300 for each additional minute.

To avoid duplication of the steep upfront charges, the networks would often share satellite transmission times. If each network had a three-minute package to send to New York, for example, they could share a ten-minute window for $5,000, which would then be split three ways, rather than book separate windows at $5,000 apiece.

This arrangement saved a lot of money, but it also had profound implications for journalistic competitiveness. Each morning, the CBS, NBC and ABC foreign editors would compare notes about the satellite bookings their networks were planning, which become a left-handed way of figuring out what stories the competition probably had. We all knew it, and we used it to our advantage whenever we could. At least, that’s what I did.

‘What about CBS?’

My boss, foreign editor Brian Ellis, who had replaced Sid Feders after the Tenerife runway disaster nine months earlier, would usually come to work about 8 a.m. Even as he took off his coat, I’d start briefing him on overnight developments — what the London, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg and other bureaus were up to, important stories that were beyond the reach of bureau personnel, the coverage foreign broadcasters might be able to provide, and which among all these stories seemed to be candidates for that night’s Cronkite show.

I was excited when I told him about the dolphin story, and especially that a tape of the slaughter was on its way to Honolulu and would be there in plenty of time to be picked up from the airport, taken to CBS affiliate KGMB and fed to New York for the evening news.

“The video is supposed to be dramatic ... gruesome, even,” I told Ellis. “I’m sure Cronkite will want it.”

“What about the other networks?” he asked. “Are they feeding from Tokyo today?”

“NBC and ABC have asked me already, and I told them we won’t be taking a bird from Japan,” I said. "I get the feeling they won't be satelliting, either."

“OK, good. Let’s hope it stays that way,” Ellis replied.

This is what this brief conversation actually meant: Since our videotape would be in Hawaii, we could feed it over the domestic CBS network for free, without anyone catching on. Meanwhile, the producers of the evening news shows at NBC and ABC knew about the dolphin story, but they didn’t have a tape on its way to Hawaii, and they were having trouble making up their minds whether to spend the money for a satellite feed from Tokyo to get it.

I could just imagine the conversations the other producers had with their foreign desks: “What about CBS? Are they going to do the dolphin story?” ... “No, Cronkite’s passing.” ... “OK. I’ll pass on it, too, then.”

But Cronkite wasn’t passing. He had compelling video of the dolphins being corralled into shallow water by grim-faced fishermen, who then callously speared the helpless mammals as they thrashed and struggled to get away. Cronkite and his producers were very moved by the video, and as soon as they saw it being fed from Honolulu, they decided to feature it prominently on the CBS Evening News. Dunning offered to do a narration from Hong Kong, but Cronkite preferred to handle it himself.

The other networks must have been very surprised when they saw the dolphin story on our newscast. Even more importantly, after the footage was played for Cronkite’s huge audience, an international outcry erupted against killing dolphins to protect fisheries — a practice that, before the CBS Evening News that February night, was unknown to the outside world. With remarkable swiftness, there were speeches at the United Nations, legislation had been introduced in Congress, and several impassioned environmental groups were formed. It’s a movement that persists to this day.

Of course, the outcry would have been just as great — even greater, perhaps — if all the networks had played the video of scores of intelligent dolphins being killed by humans.

But only Cronkite had it. And it was a big scoop.

I was happy about that, of course. At CBS, I received hearty congratulations for my enterprise. Not long after, the bosses at NBC News offered me a job on their foreign desk. And they offered to double my salary.


Cronkite's momentous question: 'How soon are you prepared to go?'


Fourth in a series

Published: September 18, 2009

WHEN NBC News made me Tel Aviv bureau chief in the summer of 1981, I headed overseas expecting my four years in the Middle East to be eventful. But I had no idea how tumultuous the news that lay ahead would be — a war in Lebanon, riots over the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, invention of the suicide bomb, and constant, violent protests in Gaza and the West Bank.

The stories we covered were usually tragic, with innocent people regularly losing their property, their families and their lives to forces beyond their understanding and control.

Early one Sunday morning in December 1983, for example, we had the sad duty to report that 252 U.S. Marines on a peacekeeping mission in Beirut were killed when a suicide bomber exploded a truck packed with TNT at the gates of the Marines’ barracks. The explosion took out the support columns of the building, collapsing it on the sleeping soldiers inside. U.S. guards on duty that morning saw the truck speeding toward them and might have been able to halt its advance, except that, because the Marines’ mission was peaceful, the guards were carrying unloaded weapons.

The NBC correspondents I worked with and I dutifully reported what we knew, unaware that the conflict between Middle Eastern terrorists and our country would go on for decades.

Ironically, just a few months before, as many as 2,500 Muslim men, women and children were ruthlessly massacred by Lebanese Christian militiamen, who blamed their victims for their country’s long civil war. The video that arrived in the Tel Aviv bureau from Beirut that day was gruesome beyond belief, making it difficult for us to isolate a few minutes suitable for broadcast during the dinner hour back home in the United States.

Looking back, it seems like not much has changed in the Middle East. However, the region occasionally produces a bit of optimism, and my first brush with news from the area wasn’t a tragedy at all, but something that seemed to presage an era of peace for the Jewish state and the surrounding Arab nations that had vowed to destroy it. The story was about an unforeseen diplomatic breakthrough between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin. And Walter Cronkite was the person who instigated it. With a tiny bit of help from me.

Interviewing heads of state

In the fall of 1977, just a few months into his term, President Jimmy Carter was taking an active role in trying to bring peace to the Middle East, where all-out wars in 1949, 1956, 1967 and 1973 were only the high points of violence that had gone on for decades.

But while Carter was working through diplomatic channels, urging the convening of a peace conference in Geneva, Cronkite and his executive producer, Bud Benjamin, had the idea to take a more direct approach.

No leader of an Arab nation had ever been to Israel, and Egypt had long been at the forefront of Arab hostility toward its Jewish neighbor. Still, rumors were flying that Sadat might be willing to meet with Begin, and I got a call from Benjamin while I was working the Sunday foreign desk at CBS News headquarters in New York.

“Ask the Cairo bureau to put in a request for Walter to interview Sadat tomorrow,” the soft-spoken Benjamin said. “And book a bird for 10 a.m.”

Satelliting from a Third World country was an uncertain business in those days. Even more unlikely: That a head of state would grant an interview on such short notice. I had serious doubts it could be pulled off.

But before I went home Sunday, word came from Cairo that Sadat had agreed. He would even go to Egyptian TV for the interview, since a live hookup from his office wasn’t possible.

Monday morning, the entire CBS newsroom stopped for a few minutes as Cronkite took his anchor chair. In front of him, a TV monitor showed the smiling face of Sadat, whose voice was being fed from a distance of 5,600 miles to a tiny speaker in Cronkite’s ear. At the other end, Sadat couldn’t see Cronkite (two-way satellites were never done and hardly exist even today), and it was an ordinary phone call that enabled Sadat to hear the famous anchorman’s voice. (A telephone provided by Egyptian TV had been dismantled by a Cairo bureau soundman, who attached alligator clips to the phone’s wires, sending Cronkite’s audio into a small piece in Sadat’s ear.)

With all the technical aspects working smoothly (they often didn’t), it was time for the interview to commence. Nobody had the slightest idea how important it would turn out to be.

Cronkite began by asking Sadat what his preconditions would be for an Israeli visit, to which Sadat responded with a long list of familiar Arab complaints about the actions — if not the existence — of the Jewish state.

Cronkite then asked Sadat again if these were conditions that had to be met before he would consider going to Israel.

Sadat: “No, they are my conditions for peace. I am ready to go to Israel any time.”

Cronkite: “If you get a formal invitation, how soon are you prepared to go?”

Sadat: “Really, I am looking forward to fulfill this visit in the earliest time possible.”

Cronkite: “That could be, say, within a week?”

Sadat: “You can say that, yes.”

‘Find out where Begin is!’

As soon as the interview concluded, Benjamin rushed from the Cronkite studio to the foreign desk, where I sat with my colleague, Scotti Williston, and my boss, Brian Ellis.

“Get the Tel Aviv bureau to find out where Begin is and see if you can arrange an interview for Walter right now!” Benjamin instructed. That was our cue to start scrambling.

The Israeli prime minister, it turned out, was attending a function at the Tel Aviv Hilton, which made things a bit easier for us. He agreed to talk to Cronkite, but satelliting from the hotel was impossible, and there was no time to get Begin to Israel’s sole feed point, at its earth station in the hills overlooking Jerusalem.

So we arranged a phone call from Cronkite to Begin that afternoon. A video crew from the Tel Aviv bureau taped Begin’s video and audio from a conference room at the Hilton, while Cronkite sat at his anchor desk, holding a telephone to his ear.

Cronkite: “Sadat hinted to me this morning that he thought it might be possible that he would be going to Israel, if the invitation was forthcoming, within a week or so. Do you think that’s realistic?”

Begin: “Well, if President Sadat is ready to come next week, I will have to postpone my trip to Britain ... and I will, during the week, transmit a letter from me to Sadat, inviting him formally and cordially, to come to Jerusalem.”

A few hours later, the separate interviews were assembled into a blockbuster CBS Evening News that stopped the world in its tracks and helped end 30 years of war between two seemingly implacable neighbors.

The very next Saturday, a jubilant Sadat stepped from his airplane into the balmy evening air at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, where Begin greeted him warmly.

The international press quickly acknowledged Cronkite’s role in bringing the two leaders together, even as a crush of reporters from around the world rushed to Israel to cover the totally unexpected visit.

Two years later, Sadat and Begin signed the Camp David peace treaty ending hostilities between their nations — a peace that holds today. The men, along with President Carter, received worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Prize for their accomplishment.

However, there was also a dreadful price. In 1981, when I was newly arrived in Israel as bureau chief for NBC News, one of the first stories I covered was the assassination of Sadat at the hands of Egyptian extremists who opposed their nation’s treaty with Israel.

Many lives were undoubtedly saved by the peace agreement he struck with Begin. But Sadat paid for them with his own.


First class travel, war and plenty of bribes


Fifth in a series

Published: September 25, 2009

IMAGINE FLYING first class to a glamorous, international capital — Tokyo, perhaps, or Moscow or Ankara. En route, with Siberia or Greenland shining in the moonlit darkness beneath the wing, a fetching stewardess in a stylish uniform serves you Champagne and caviar, while you keep an eye on the $10,000 in your pocket.

When you land, you’re met by a driver with a Mercedes or BMW who takes you to one of the city’s best hotels, whereupon you occupy a suite, put the driver on standby for several days, and hire an accomplished young lady to be your translator/assistant as you prepare for your hastily arranged tour of a border conflict zone or a meeting with the country’s head of state.

The life of James Bond, you say? Or a wealthy venture capitalist? In fact, that was my life as an overseas network news producer in the 1980s. Except there was more: My colleagues and I sometimes flew on the supersonic Concorde. And the translator’s real job was usually to spy on us.

A room with a view

After five years on the CBS and NBC News foreign desks in New York, in the summer of 1981, at the tender age of 27, I was promoted to bureau chief in Tel Aviv. For most of the next four years, I stayed on the ground in Israel, covering that country’s never-ending political controversies and military conflicts. But during the occasional periods of quiet in Jerusalem, I became part of the NBC News globetrotting corps of journalists — correspondents, producers, cameramen, soundmen and videotape editors who jetted off at a moment’s notice to God-knows-where in search of the latest breaking news. There were about 100 of us, based in a dozen foreign bureaus around the world, and if the Brokaw show wanted the story we were sent to get, expense was usually no object.

Several times, for example, a camera crew and I were dispatched to Istanbul for the sole purpose of keeping an eye out for Soviet naval movements through the Bosphorous.

In those Cold War days, trouble anywhere in the world usually merited sabre rattling at sea by the leaders of the world’s superpowers, who would dispatch their latest warships to the waters off the coast of Lebanon, Pakistan or wherever, for the sole purpose of making their military presence felt.

Because of its country's unusual geography, the Russian navy’s quickest route from its bases in the Black Sea to the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean was through the Bosphorus — a narrow, Turkish waterway separating Europe from Asia and passing through the heart of the exotic city of Istanbul.


Turkey was, and remains, a staunch U.S. ally, so traveling to Istanbul presented no difficulty for American journalists. It’s also one of the world’s most glamorous cities, combining the refined attributes of Europe with some of the most intriguing culture and cuisine of Asia. So we loved to go there.

Furthermore, keeping an eye out for Soviet destroyers or cruisers passing through the Bosphorus was an almost ridiculously cushy assignment.

I was a quick study, so in just a few months working foreign news, I had become quite adept at picking hotels for the establishment of NBC News temporary bureaus, and it didn’t take long to identify a prime viewing point: The Istanbul Sheraton had a perfect location overlooking the narrowest part of the strait, and its modern architecture meant it had large, floor-to-ceiling windows.

On many assignments, we wondered if the rooms we were given were reserved for foreign journalists — and therefore bugged. And the translator/assistants we hired sometimes made no secret of their true purpose.

“I’m here to keep an eye on you,” they would say. Wherever we went, and whatever we did, the intelligent young ladies who accompanied us, and whom we paid $100 or so per day, would report our activities to the Ministry of Information. This was true not only in hostile countries, but in friendlies, such as Turkey.

When my crew and I checked in to the Istanbul Sheraton for our stakeouts, I’d take a one-bedroom suite for myself, with separate rooms for my cameraman and soundman. The living room of my suite, with a wide view of the Bosphorus, became our headquarters. We’d mount our video camera on a tripod and take turns ordering room service and keeping an eye out. (While one of us was on duty, the others could tour the Blue Mosque or the Grand Bazaar.)

Of the three trips we made to Istanbul for this purpose, we found what we were looking for twice. The setting was picturesque and a bit unreal — like something out of a Graham Greene novel or a Paul Theroux travelogue — but there was no mistaking the existential significance of the imposing, grey-green warships with large red stars on the side, bristling with missiles and laden with heavily armed soldiers, that suddenly came into view.

Once our videotape was satellited to New York, Tom Brokaw could tell our viewing audience back home on NBC Nightly News, “Soviet ships headed for a possible confrontation with the U.S. Navy today, passing through Istanbul on their way to ....”

The high life

Whether in London, Belfast or Cairo, we always stayed at the best hotels, carried lots of cash, rode in chauffeured cars, and enjoyed plenty of late nights at the bars in the company of women who thought we were fascinating.

The drinks flowed freely, because the hotels usually cooperated in disguising bar tabs as phone calls or laundry bills, which meant the NBC accounting department reimbursed them, no questions asked.

The indulgences were justified, so it was believed, because of the unforgiving deadlines we served, and the dangerous circumstances we frequently worked under — risking our lives in Beirut or Somalia for the sake of a minute and thirty seconds on the evening news. If you’re going to be shot at in the morning, why not get drunk the night before?

And there were other perks for people like me. As a bureau chief and former New York assignment editor, I had an unusual amount of sway over which producers, correspondents and crews got sent on which stories.

One memorable assignment in the early 1980s involved traveling to Tokyo for a summit of western prime ministers and presidents.

My itinerary turned out to be round-the-world, all first class. I started in Tel Aviv, and then flew to Paris, Moscow and Tokyo via Air France. After the summit, I connected through New York and Paris on my way back to Tel Aviv. (As usual, on the way home, I supplemented the first-class airfare NBC provided with a few hundred dollars of my own to fly on the Concorde.)

In the meantime, a young lady friend of mine who worked in another NBC bureau and I coordinated our schedules so we could share the Tokyo assignment — easy to do when you’re the one who’s making the assignments. She even booked the hotel rooms for the 30 or so NBC News staff members who covered that particular summit. Little wonder, then, that I found myself in the room adjoining hers.

In the suite that served as the temporary NBC bureau, however, a swashbuckling cameraman from Washington took notice of my friend and began openly flirting with her during the off-duty hours between presidential photo ops and news conferences. I was annoyed.

But not for long. Soon, my associates on the New York assignment desk were calling with the regrettable news that one of our camera crews would have to be broken off for a late story in Alaska.

My handsome competitor was on the next plane out.

‘Your share will be $1,000’

War is hell. Everybody knows that. But it’s also chaos — the kind of chaos that makes accounting difficult, and which therefore presents unusual opportunities to make money. Quite a few of my fellow journalists became very adept at taking advantage.

During the Lebanon War in the summer of 1982, I was surprised at how casually a bribe could be offered to me. With the Israeli army surrounding Beirut, and with all satellite communications from the country cut off, it became the responsibility of the Tel Aviv bureau to figure out how to get video out of Lebanon. And with the military and political situation fluctuating, we had to constantly invent new strategies. Competition among the networks was fierce, and it was a challenge to stay on top.

One day, the president of an Israeli charter company came to my office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya (a town which was known for its small airport). He was a former fighter pilot in the Israeli air force and obviously knew how to navigate — in more ways than one.

“I have important friends,” he told me. “I can land at the Beirut airport every day, if you want, and fly direct to Herzliya.”

This was a remarkable offer. A daily charter flight from Beirut to the airport that was practically out my window would be a major coup for NBC, giving us an important advantage in getting the most up-to-date footage from the fighting in Lebanon to Brokaw and the Today Show.

“How much?” I asked the pilot.

“$3,500 for each trip,” he answered. The Israeli currency was the shekel, but his quote was in U.S. dollars. And that wasn’t the only thing he offered with complete confidence.

“Your share will be $1,000,” he told me. Back home, that kind of kickback would land you in federal prison. But this wasn’t exactly Kansas.

For some reason, I turned down the bribe, and even negotiated a better price from the pilot for his charter flights. Later — after the front lines shifted and the Beirut airport closed, even to my friend with the military connections — I began to feel like a sap for being so honest.

With no way to fly out of Beirut, but with the news from Lebanon still the biggest story in the world, it became necessary to hire boats to ferry video from Beirut to Cyprus. I wasn’t involved in those negotiations, but I soon learned the sordid details.

For several weeks, the owner of a high-speed motorboat made a special arrangement with the NBC, CBS and ABC bureau chiefs in Beirut. They would share one trip every afternoon to Larnaca for $5,000, but they would each get a separate receipt for $5,000, which meant they could skim off $10,000 per day in profits. The people in New York who paid the bills had no idea, of course, how much a wartime charter was supposed to cost.

Later, when the airport reopened and it became possible to fly from Beirut to Cyprus, an NBC producer on duty in Lebanon created his own mini airline. He hired a small plane and a local pilot for $1,000 a day, and then chartered it right back to himself (and his network) for five times as much. Good profit!

No free lunch

But there was a price for all the extravagance my colleagues and I enjoyed, and the corruption some of them engaged in.

In 1986, NBC was bought by General Electric, and one of the first things the company did was send its auditors to look at several years of everybody’s expense reports. If they found something amiss on yours, but considered you a valuable employee, they gave you the chance to pay the money back. Otherwise, they fired you on the spot.

And looking at the colossal expenses that came with running bureaus in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg, Moscow, Tokyo and Hong Kong, GE had a simple solution: Except for London, they closed them. And a lot of experienced people lost their jobs.


An invasion and its censorship problem


Sixth in a series

Published: October 2, 2009

THE ISRAELI military officer was angry, and he demanded an explanation, so I gave him one. But what I told him was a lie — one that would have gotten me kicked out of the country or thrown in jail if he had known the truth. In the view of this very stern soldier staring me in the face, I would have deserved harsh punishment for endangering his country’s security during time of war.

To myself, my actions were justified because I was protecting the integrity of news coverage of an important international story. But looking back, it was really just hubris that led me to lie, and to rationalize doing so.

Now, with a lot more experience under my belt, and the humility that invariably accompanies it, I regret what I did. Except for the part where I tricked CBS and ABC. That part was fun.

A lot of responsibility

In August 1981, having switched networks just the summer before, I was suddenly named NBC News bureau chief in Tel Aviv. I was 27 years old, and the assignment was a very impressive one. The Middle East made front-page news almost every day, and NBC’s Israel office was one of its biggest overseas operations — three reporters, a producer, five camera crews, a video tape editor, an engineer, office staff and me. Altogether, more than 30 people worked at the Tel Aviv bureau, and I was their new boss.

It was going to take awhile just to figure out who was who, much less make sure we covered the breaking news every day and satellited it to New York to meet the deadlines for the “Today Show” and “Nightly News.” With the six-hour time difference from New York, I would be starting work early and finishing just before midnight five or six days a week for the next four years.

But I had no idea I was in for such a wild ride covering constant tragedy and heartbreak. At one point, I worked 63 days in a row without a single day off.

The roller coaster started with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981. At a military parade honoring Egypt’s independence, one of Sadat’s own soldiers ran up to the reviewing stand where Sadat sat and shot him in the head, along with several high-level officials sitting nearby. The soldier, it turned out, was fanatically opposed to the peace treaty Sadat had signed with Israel two years earlier. My NBC News colleagues and I covered Israel Prime Minister Begin’s trip to Egypt for Sadat’s funeral.

Soon after, it was Begin’s turn to fulfill one of the key obligations of that treaty by completing Israel’s pullout from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had captured from Egypt in 1967. But Israeli settlers weren’t in any mood to leave. In March 1982, a series of riots broke out in the town of Yamit as Israeli soldiers sprayed their countrymen with fire hoses, handcuffed them, and dragged them from modern apartment buildings Israel had built for them just a few years before. The buildings were then blown to bits before the land was returned to Egypt.

Rockets on the border

While peace was settling in over Israel’s southern border, the opposite was happening in the north. The formerly peaceful nation of Lebanon had been thrown into chaos by a civil war that began in 1975, with Christians and Muslims competing for political power. But it was a group of armed foreigners — the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yassir Arafat — that gained the upper hand. With Lebanon’s security in tatters, PLO fighters occupied West Beirut and set up bases in Southern Lebanon which they promptly used to fire rockets into Israeli towns.

It was a situation no nation could tolerate for long. And on June 6, 1982, Israeli launched a massive invasion into Lebanon, aiming to push the PLO far enough from the border that the civilians of Israel’s northern towns would be safe in their beds.

The invasion succeeded brilliantly, and within a few days, Israeli troops were occupying the hills overlooking Beirut airport. The whole world was astonished. And the speed of the Israeli occupation left us scrambling to come up with new ways to get news coverage of the war to viewers back home.

From behind the Israeli lines, which now stretched across Lebanon to the Syrian border, it was just a matter of driving video and audio from reporters and crews in Lebanon back to the bureau in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. In fact, because of the relative short distances involved (123 miles from Beirut to Herzliya), most of the NBC News journalists who worked the Israeli side of the Lebanon war were able to get back to their own homes every night, and bring their videotapes with them.

(A noteworthy example was the day cameraman Yossi Greenberg stopped his brand-new rented Volvo on a small highway in southern Lebanon to capture some video of a nearby town. While he was away from his vehicle, an Israel tank convoy came down the same road. With orders not to stop under any circumstances, the convoy simply drove over the Volvo, flattening it like a pancake. Greenberg then turned his camera on what remained of his car, hitched a ride with another news crew back to Tel Aviv, and presented me with the license plate.)

But the other side of the war — the Beirut side — was a completely different story. Because of the fighting, the Lebanon earth station was out of commission, and during the months the war lasted, NBC and the other networks used trucks, airplanes and ships to ferry video to the nearest accessible feedpoint, which could be Israel, Syria or Cyprus.

However, one of the countries used to transmit video from Beirut was involved in the war, and had a stake in how it was depicted to the world. Was the invasion of Lebanon an Israeli war of aggression, or of defense? When viewed in the short-term, the hostilities were undeniably initiated by the PLO. But they would say that Israel started the fight by being created in the first place. It depended on your point of view.

Thus, Israeli military commanders, who as far as I knew had paid no attention to our little office before it became a de facto feedpoint for news coverage from the Beirut side of the Lebanon war, suddenly decided they needed to monitor everything we were up to.

And this is how I found out what they had in mind:

I was sitting in my office one day in late June, talking to the foreign desk in New York on the telephone about a piece we were working on for “Nightly News,” when my receptionist summoned me.

“Paul, I think you should come to the front office right away.”

“Is there a problem?”

“Maybe,” the receptionist told me. “The censor is here.”

And he stayed for the next three months. During that time, my relationship with the various representatives of the censor’s office ranged from hostile to tense. And it would have been much worse if they’d known how much I was hiding.


'Your conversation has not been approved'


Seventh in a series

Published: October 9, 2009

THE ISRAELI censors who suddenly started showing up at the NBC News Tel Aviv bureau after the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 didn’t waste any time letting my colleagues and me know what our new routine was going to be.

NBC correspondents and camera crews were following the Israeli army as it moved along a wide front to push the Palestine Liberation Organization and its rocket positions away from the Lebanon-Israel border. Every evening, as the video arrived in the bureau, it would have to be screened for the censor, who would let us know which shots could be transmitted to New York and which could not.

Similarly, all scripts for either radio or television had to be submitted for approval. And even the substance of phone conversations would have to be cleared in advance. 

As journalists for a prestigious American network, we were accustomed to foreign governments taking a great interest in what we did. But this was something new. Should we cooperate ... or resist?

I was bureau chief, so it was up to me. But I had never dealt with a censor before. It had been a long time since any NBC News crew had been subject to routine censorship, and even my bosses in New York weren’t sure how to proceed. Furthermore, since I was certain our phones were bugged, I had to be guarded whenever I spoke to anyone who wasn’t standing right in front of me.

We worked under very tight deadlines, and the censor’s interference was certainly going to make it much more difficult to meet those deadlines. The initial requirements were simple enough, but still resulted in a lot of haggling as the censors nitpicked our choice of shots and the subtleties of English words.

“No video that shows a body of water,” they told us. “And you can’t use any picture that has more than three tanks.”

At first, these military rules — intended to deprive the PLO of intelligence about Israeli troop movements and positions — were complied with in the edit rooms at the Tel Aviv bureau, where video that wasn’t cleared by the censors was omitted from our daily reports for the “Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News.”

And pretty soon, our camera crews in towns such as Sidon and Tyre started integrating the ground rules into their video as they recorded it. During the early stages of the war, censorship wasn’t that big a deal.

But the Israeli invasion was so successful — Beirut itself was reached in just a week — that it quickly turned into an occupation. And as news of the Israeli army’s stunning success began to sink in around the world, opposition to the Lebanon War began to spread. When the war became a political problem instead of a military one, the censor’s role changed, too.

Soon, the uniformed men and women who spent four or five hours in our office every day were not limiting their restrictions to video that showed what the Israeli military was doing or where it was. Instead, they started forbidding us to report anything that might cast Israel in a bad light.

Shots of Lebanese civilians begging for food at a United Nations aid station in Tyre, for example, were banned. A protest on the West Bank couldn’t be shown — or even mentioned — to our viewers back home. And anything that conveyed the PLO’s point of view was also forbidden.

My colleagues and I began to chafe under the restrictions and plot ways to get around them. On more than one occasion, we smuggled forbidden video out of the country. From time to time, we managed to leave a line or two in a script that we had been ordered to remove.

We were never caught — partly because we always pretended to be fully cooperating. Since our phone calls were monitored, we couldn’t even tell our bosses at Rockefeller Center in New York what we were up to.

One day, I was on the phone at my home, discussing an upcoming feed with the producer of the weekend edition of “NBC Nightly News.” Suddenly an unknown voice interrupted our talk.

“This is the censor. Your conversation has not been approved.” And then, click.

I called the producer right back. “Now I see what you’re dealing with,” he said.

A controversial news conference

The ultimate test of my ability to do my job despite the censorship came one day in July 1982, when PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat held a news conference in Beirut to demand international ouster of the Israeli army from Lebanon. The Israelis were guilty of genocide against the Palestinian people, Arafat claimed.

The NBC News bureau in Beirut — unable to get its video out any other way — sent the tape of Arafat’s remarks to me. But as soon as I screened it, I knew the censor would prohibit us from transmitting it. So I decided not to show it to him.

When that night’s satellite feed to New York began, I told the Nightly News videotape room to start recording without disclosing what was about to be fed. And then, holding my breath, I took my chances by sending a few choice segments from the Arafat interview up the line. I was breaking Israeli law, and I knew it.

The censors monitored all our transmissions and had the ability to pull the plug. But, somehow, they didn’t. New York got the Arafat interview just fine.

In those days, the networks shared satellite feeds, which meant the producers of the CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight in New York were watching the Israel satellite come in, and saw our Arafat video. But their Tel Aviv bureau chiefs had shown their video of the Arafat news conference to the censor, who told them they could not send it. Refusing to be scooped, the ABC and CBS producers in New York demanded their Israel bureaus feed the Arafat video anyway, which they did.

The next day, there were serious repercussions for those other networks. ABC and CBS had directly countermanded the censor’s orders, and they were banned from satelliting for a week. But when the censor who had screened our various video segments the night before arrived at my office demanding an explanation for the Arafat videotape, he was in a different situation.

“Why didn’t you clear the Arafat interview with me last night?” he asked sternly.

“I did show it to you, and you didn’t raise any objections,” I lied.

He paused. “Well, don’t do it again,” he warned.

And for the next week, we had the Israel-to-New York satellite hookup all to ourselves.


'I hear something, but it sounds like gibberish'

- When you’re on live, there’s no telling what will go wrong


Eighth in a series

Published: September 28, 2012

IN EARLY September, when I was on MSNBC to talk about my post-Republican-convention interview with Clint Eastwood, I made a rookie mistake. I forgot to fix my gaze on the camera.

Which was weird, because while I was with NBC News in the 1980s, and even when I was news director at Salinas TV station KCBA in the early 1990s, I was the producer on hundreds of live television broadcasts.

In other words, the rules were quite familiar to me: When you’re being interviewed by someone right in front of you, you never look at the camera, but when you’re being interviewed by someone you can’t see, you always do.

In the darkened studio in Mountain View where I went for my MSNBC live shot, they even duct-taped a happy-faced Pac Man figure to the top of the camera lens to give me something to focus on. But while anchor Alex Witt asked me questions about what on earth Clint was up to when he pretended an empty chair was the President of the United States, and when he said Obama wanted Republican candidate Mitt Romney to do something unmentionable to himself, I couldn’t see her, because remote live shots never have two-way video. The circumstances were ridiculously familiar to me, but I still let my eyes occasionally wander off into nothingness. When I watched myself on DVR later, I was embarrassed.

Not that a guest with a wandering gaze constituted a live shot disaster. Not by a long shot. A live shot disaster is a sportscaster showing up to cover an event that has already ended, and a prime minister completely unable to hear a superstar anchorman trying to ask him tough questions in front of millions of viewers.

‘Can you guys re-enact the fight?’

From my first day working with Craig Kilborn in April 1990, I knew he was a TV genius.

When I hired him to be the sports anchor at KCBA as part of the team that would start up that station’s news department, he had never been on air except as a college basketball announcer. Still, I was looking for a sportscaster who could cover the highlights for sports fans but also make baseball, football and basketball interesting to people who didn’t care about them, and Kilborn’s good looks and spontaneous wit made him the perfect candidate. I guess I made a good choice, because Kilborn later became host of “Sportscenter” in the early days of ESPN, anchored “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central before anybody ever heard of Jon Stewart, and was picked by David Letterman in 1999 to take over the “Late Late Show” on CBS after the departure of Tom Snyder.

But when he was still wet behind the ears, Kilborn and I had a lot of fun cooking up segments for small-town TV — me as the seasoned veteran with tons of network experience, and him as the out-of-the-box newcomer with nowhere to go but up.

KCBA was just getting off the ground as a Fox affiliate, and the first thing Kilborn and I did was put on post-game shows for the station’s broadcast of Oakland A’s baseball games.

Later, when we launched KCBA’s regular newscasts, I had a big news department to run and two-plus hours of live TV to fill every weekday, which meant Kilborn, everybody on the staff, and I had a lot of improvising to do.

One morning in October 1990, during the meeting to go over stories for that night’s news show, Kilborn said his lead was probably going to be a heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas between Evander Holyfield and Buster Douglas. But HBO had exclusive pay-per-view rights to the fight and wouldn’t give anyone access to highlights until long after it was over. Because the fight was scheduled to start at 10 p.m., just as our late newscast went on the air, I suggested he do his sports segment from a local sports bar, where he could describe the blow-by-blow action on HBO as it was being seen by the bar’s presumably boisterous customers. It would be the closest thing to highlights we would get while we were still on the air.

So Kilborn, a camera crew and a live truck were dispatched to the bar, and everything seemed in order while news anchor Kirstie Wilde and weatherman Sandy Lydon carried the show through the first 17 minutes.

Unfortunately for us, Holyfield knocked out Douglas in the third round, which meant by the time Kilborn was ready to go on, the fight had been over for several minutes, and the bar was emptying out.

The quick-thinking Kilborn saved the day, though, by convincing some of the bar’s patrons to stick around until he started his sports segment. And he asked two of them to recreate the sudden knockout sequence. It was hilarious — and brilliant.

Making fun of Bryant Gumbel?

The outcome was much worse eight years earlier when I was bureau chief for NBC News in Israel.

At the time, the biggest controversy in the world was the September 1982 massacre of Palestinian Muslims in a refugee city on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, by Christian militiamen who resented the presence of the Palestinians in their country. Israel, which had occupied parts of Lebanon during the summer to stop the relentless shelling of its northern towns, was blamed for letting the massacre happen. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, were the chief scapegoats, and were therefore highly sought-after for questioning by American reporters.

A few weeks after the terrible events, we landed an interview with Begin for the “Today Show,” which would give anchor Bryant Gumbel the opportunity to press him about the massacre. For the live interview, Gumbel would be at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, backed up by dozens of top-rate technicians and producers, while Begin would be at his office in Jerusalem with just me and my four-man crew. Still, as bureau chief in Israel, it was my job to make sure everything went smoothly at our end. It sounds scary, but it was routine stuff for TV journalists working overseas.

Except that, as everybody in my position knew very well, “routine” meant anything could go wrong and probably would.

For starters, we weren’t allowed access to the prime minister’s highly secured office until a half-hour before the interview was to begin, which was barely enough time to set up the camera and get the expensive video and audio links back to New York working. And, as usual, the trickiest part was getting the audio from 30 Rock to Jerusalem. To save money, we usually set up that part of the broadcast, which we called the IFB, by using an ordinary phone line — an arrangement that was never very reliable.

While my cameraman, soundman and engineer worked feverishly to get all the technical aspects in order, and with the prime minister nowhere in sight, I tested the inbound audio myself with the control room in New York. Five minutes before our “hit” time, everything seemed ready to go.

The interview was scheduled to begin at seven minutes and 30 seconds past the hour, and with just a minute or so to spare, Begin walked in and sat in his chair. I greeted him as the cameraman set up his exposure and focus, and the soundman attached Begin’s microphone and earpiece.

With everyone in their places and with the “Today Show” in a commercial break just before the interview was to start, I urged everyone to concentrate.

“Mr. Prime Minister, can you say a few words so New York can get a mike check?” I asked.

“One, two, three, four ....” the prime minister said in his heavily accented English. Good! He knew his stuff.

“And, New York, can you ask Bryant to say a few words to the prime minister so we can make sure his IFB is working?” I asked urgently. No more than 30 seconds remained before we were to be on live across the United States.

“Good morning Mr. Prime Minister. This is Bryant Gumbel in New York. Can you hear me?” a familiar voiced asked.


“I hear something, but it sounds like gibberish,” Begin said.

In New York, Gumbel and everyone in the control room laughed, thinking the prime minister was making a sly joke.

“Ask him again, please,” I said. “I need to know if the IFB is working.”

But it was too late. The director was already counting us down.

“Standby, please,” he said.

And before you could say, “technical difficulty,” Gumbel was reading the lead-in to the Begin interview, the prime minister’s face was on live, and Gumbel was asking his first tough question about Israel’s responsibility for the Beirut massacre.

“Mr. Prime Minister, what do you think you should have done to prevent it?” Gumbel asked.

But with the whole country watching, Begin just sat there, silent. Painfully silent.

“OK, we seem to be having some difficulty with the satellite from Jerusalem, so let’s go to Fred Francis at the Pentagon ....” Gumbel said. And as soon as the video was clear, we started scrambling.

It turned out that when Begin sat down, the thin plastic tube feeding audio to his ear was crimped in his suit jacket. He couldn’t hear a thing. After we straightened it, the interview was able to resume right away.

But it took several weeks for my heart, and my reputation, to recover.


Israelis love peace, but they also love to argue


Ninth in a series

Published: December 28, 2012

FROM 1981 to 1985 I was bureau chief for NBC News in Tel Aviv, and came away from the experience realizing that the country is unfairly maligned almost constantly. Even my own network did it.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, for example, was characterized as practically a war crime by most media outlets, even though the Israelis only did what any nation would do if its border towns were being shelled every night by terrorists operating freely in a lawless neighboring country.

Likewise Israel’s policies in the West Bank, its victories in the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars and almost everything it did in the Gaza Strip. I could never figure out why the Jewish State was held to a higher standard than anybody else. No matter what the nation did, it was judged harshly not only at the United Nations (which operated practically like a lynch mob where Israel was concerned) but also in the New York Times and on NBC Nightly News.

But if Israelis were inexplicably criticized for their insistence on not being driven into the sea (as many Arab leaders promised, and continue to promise, to do), and were always being called warmongers when they, in fact, yearned for peace as much as anybody, I also found that quite a few common beliefs about them were spot on. Foremost among these was that Israelis loved to argue, and they hated to back down. And since most of the people who worked for me in the Tel Aviv bureau were Israelis, I learned to turn these qualities to my advantage, especially when it came to beating CBS and ABC on important stories.

‘All reporters must leave’

In the Spring of 1982, Israel was about to give up the Sinai town of Yamit, which had been built on sand dunes by the Israeli government in the mid-1970s to solidify its hold on land captured from Egypt in 1967.

In just a few years, Yamit had become a thriving place with about 4,000 residents, but Prime Minister Menahem Begin agreed to give the Sinai town back to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace accords. According to the deal, Yamit had to be evacuated. Even the buildings were to be demolished.

Most residents of of the town agreed to leave when the government in Jerusalem told them they had to. However, there was also a group of determined settlers who regarded Yamit and the entire Sinai Peninsula — where Moses roamed with the Israeli people for 40 years and where he received the Ten Commandments — as part of the God-given Land of Israel, and they swore not to give up their homes. As the April 1982 deadline for evacuation approached, it became clear that these settlers would have to be bodily dragged from Yamit, and that there might even be bloodshed.

Obviously, it was a story NBC Nightly News and the Today Show would expect us to cover, and to cover well. But we also knew that the image-conscious Israeli government would try to keep reporters and TV crews away from Yamit so the world wouldn’t see the ugly scenes likely to occur there.

With the expected deadline a little more than two months away, I had a planning session with the reporters and camera crews in the NBC bureau. The cameramen who worked for me were all Israelis, so you might expect them to want to follow their government’s edicts and stay away from Yamit if they were told to. But if you did, you would be getting the Israeli character all wrong. They loved to beat the system and were always trying to come up with ways around the Israeli government’s news coverage restrictions.

“‘So how do we do it?’” I asked. “How can we be there when the settlers are dragged from Yamit?”

“Why don’t we just tell them, ‘We’re not leaving’?” cameraman Peter Sela asked. “They can’t make us.”

But that presumed we would have a crew in Yamit when the crackdown came. Since we didn’t know its date, there was no guarantee we wouldn’t be kept outside the perimeter and miss the entire evacuation.

“We could live there,” Sela suggested.

And that’s what we did. With New York’s approval, I rented a small apartment in Yamit, and for two months my camera crews took turns living it in. When the government ordered all news men out of the town, my crew refused to comply, as I knew they would.

“What can I do?” I asked the Israeli government’s spokesman, who had conveyed the order for journalists to leave. “You know how stubborn my people are.”

The other networks didn’t have the same access we did, and when the settlers in Yamit were dragged from their homes by Israeli border police and army, NBC News had the only video. Which means we had another nifty scoop.

And the consequences for breaking the Israeli government’s coverage ban? Nil.

‘Don’t go below 5,000 feet’

We almost ran seriously afoul of government security forces again a few months later. In June 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Army’s threat to the country’s northern border.

The invasion was astonishingly successful, and in just a few days forces wearing the Star of David had reached the hills on the outskirts of Beirut. With the PLO cowering in rundown buildings near the Beirut airport, Israeli forces shelled them at will. Meanwhile, at the UN and in Washington, a solution was frantically sought. There were rumors President Ronald Reagan would send U.S. Marines to Beirut as peacekeepers, to protect civilians and provide security as the PLO withdrew under Israeli pressure. But were the rumors true?

One day in early July, an idea popped into my head. What if we chartered a small aircraft and sent a camera crew out to search the Mediterranean for a U.S. Navy ship with Marines on board?

There was a war on, of course, and sending a plane out to look for armed ships — even American ones — was an exceedingly dangerous proposition. What if they shot the plane down?

But, again, my Israeli camera crews were eager for the challenge. Rafi Kornfeld and Dubi Duvshani got the assignment, and they weren’t scared a bit. They couldn’t wait to (literally) fly in the face of authority.

As it turned out, their hubris was justified. Sure enough, about 30 miles off the Israeli coast, a U.S. Navy helicopter carrier was brimming with choppers and soldiers waiting for orders to land in Beirut. As our tiny plane approached, a controller on the ship ordered the plane not to go below 5,000 and asked it to identify itself. The pilot said it was a news crew from American television, and the Navy man courteously agreed it could overfly the ship, as long as it didn’t go too low.

When the airplane and crew returned to base, we were all elated. And Tom Brokaw was able to open his Nightly News broadcast with a big exclusive: “Tonight, American Marines are just off the coast of Lebanon ....”


When you find out your colleague was a spy


Tenth in a series

Published: May 10, 2013

LIKE EVERY other American born since 1950, I was raised on some very basic and universally acknowledged notions of our country’s history.

Near the top of the list of things written in stone was that the McCarthy era was a shameful period of paranoia, witchhunting and blacklisting based on fabricated or imagined allegations, and that the man it was named for, former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was one of our greatest villains — a man who saw communists everywhere and who publicly vilified hordes of perfectly innocent people for no other reason than his own personal gratification.

What a surprise, then, to find out that one of the most prominent broadcasters of the McCarthy era, and a man I looked up to 25 years later when he was at the height of his career and I was just a kid hanging around the CBS newsroom, had actually been a spy for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

A real spy for the USSR? Was that even possible?

The newsman’s name was Winston Burdett, and for many years he was a familiar, comforting presence on the radio and on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” reporting from Rome, where he especially gained distinction for his coverage of the Vatican.

To me, as a young assistant editor on the CBS News foreign desk from 1977 to 1981, he was a friendly, but intimidating, voice on the other end of numerous international telephone calls. My job was to coordinate news coverage among the CBS News bureaus around the world and serve as a liaison between what the correspondents in those bureaus were covering and what the producers of the various programs — especially the Cronkite show — wanted them to cover.

Burdett was just one of the broadcasting giants who had me in awe. There was Cronkite, of course, whose program I nominally worked for, but who only spoke five or six words to me in the three-and-a-half years I toiled no more than 30 feet from his desk. The other old-timers were friendlier. Douglas Edwards, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Dallas Townsend, etc., etc. — these men had actually worked with Edward R. Murrow, for God’s sake. And there I was at their elbows, hearing stories about the old days, and learning the ins and outs of what made CBS News great, from its long tradition of ground-breaking and comprehensive broadcasting, to the minutiae of covering news in the field and delivering it to the public at home.

I don’t remember the McCarthy era coming up much, but if it did, it could only have been with scorn. Nobody mentioned that one of the people we put on the air every day had worked, in his youth, to help overthrow the government of the United States in favor of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It wasn’t that Burdett’s role was a secret. He admitted it — first, in a letter to his bosses at CBS in March 1951, and later to the FBI and in testimony to a congressional committee. But 25 years later, with the McCarthy era neatly put in its “national embarrassment” cubbyhole — an era of hyperventilated accusations, not actual spying — nobody talked about it, and Burdett was allowed to continue his broadcasting career in peace. He died in 1993.

Secrets revealed

The 1990s, however, also happened to be the time when quite a few of the Soviet Union’s secrets started to emerge. The USSR collapsed in 1990, and there was brief access to some of its Stalin-era espionage archives. In 1993, a former KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev, was permitted to copy some of those documents, which he turned into a book, “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.”

And in 1995, the United States declassified more than 2,500 cables which had been intercepted in the 1940s and early 1950s between Soviet agents in this country and their handlers in Moscow. Decoding those cables had been called the Venona Project, and several books examined their revelations in detail, including “Venona — Decoding Soviet Espionage in America,” by John Haynes and Harvey Klehr.

Lo and behold, the secrets that were suddenly spilling out of Moscow and Washington revealed that Joseph McCarthy and his supporters, while they unfairly targeted some people who were innocent, actually grossly underestimated the extent of Soviet espionage in the U.S. government. Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Dexter White, Laughlin Currie and Laurence Duggan were just the most prominent names among hundreds of American citizens who not only gave Moscow the atom bomb, but a very long list of other diplomatic, military and industrial secrets, helping Stalin enslave his own people, send millions to their deaths by violence or starvation, conquer Eastern Europe, start the Korean War, and nearly bring the world to a nuclear Armageddon. And these American traitors did so not because they were paid, but because they believed Soviet communism was a better form of government than American capitalism and democracy, and they wanted it to succeed and spread.

Even during the notorious period from August 1939 to June 1941 — when Stalin had a peace pact with Hitler, helped himself to half of Poland, and made it possible for the Nazis to conquer Europe and launch the Holocaust — the Americans stayed loyal to the communist dictator.

It was in the book by Haynes and Klehr that the name Winston Burdett popped up. The book revealed that in 1937, as a young reporter for the left-wing newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle, Burdett joined the Communist Party of the USA, which was controlled and funded by Moscow, and which was used to attract supporters among the American public, and especially from its universities and labor unions. The CPUSA was also used to recruit spies, and Burdett soon agreed to become one.

According to the declassified Venona documents, he was told by his handlers to volunteer for an assignment for the Brooklyn Eagle to Finland, where he would pretend to be a disinterested journalist, but where he would actually gather intelligence to help the USSR defeat Finland after the Soviets invaded it in November 1939. Later, with World War II raging across the European continent, Burdett also travelled to Romania, Turkey and other front-line countries on behalf of the Soviet government.

His journalism cover was so effective — he was a very good reporter, after all — that he drew the attention of Murrow, who recruited Burdett as a CBS radio correspondent in 1942. Burdett then broke contact with Moscow and embarked on an apparently legitimate journalism career. (He was certainly doing a good job, and was much admired, when I knew him in the 1970s.)

But Burdett’s past haunted him. In 1951, CBS was under pressure to purge its ranks of known communists, and the network’s owner, Bill Paley, asked every employee to sign a “loyalty oath,” disclosing whether he had ever been a “member of a group which advocated the overthrow of our constitutional form of government, or which has adopted a policy approving of acts of violence to deny other persons their rights under the United States Constitution, or of seeking to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means.”

‘An idealistic guise’

For most employees, having to answer such a question was a silly annoyance. But Burdett’s answer to the momentous question on the CBS loyalty oath was, “Yes.”

He had joined the Communist Party and helped it unionize newspaper workers in 1937 when he was 24 years old, he said in an accompanying letter to his CBS bosses, because “to a young person, Communist notions present themselves in an idealistic guise.”

Since then, he said, communism had become “as abhorrent to me as anyone I know,” but that he had only realized after his period of youthful foolishness what the Communist Party was “in fact, all about, and how dishonest it was, both morally and intellectually.”

He apologized for embarrassing CBS, but he also called his story “rather banal,” and said his role as communist union organizer had been harmless.

In fact, he was covering his tracks: Only later did he admit to the FBI and to a Congressional committee that he had been much more than a simple member of the Communist Party; he had been a hostile spy in the middle of a war.

In his 1955 congressional testimony, Burdett made a full confession and identified numerous other members of the Communist Party of the USA in the 1930s, including some in prominent positions in the media, academia and politics. Because he “came clean,” CBS decided not to fire him, and it may have been the furor over naming names that led to his exile to the Rome bureau for the rest of his career. FBI documents from the time show J. Edgar Hoover himself probably made the decision not to prosecute him.

As the decades passed, what had been a notorious story in the 1950s was forgotten. On a recent trip to New York, I asked several of my CBS colleagues in the 1970s who also knew Burdett whether they’d ever heard anything about his espionage career.

They all said, “No.”

The McCarthy era has its place firmly set in the history books. But those books, it turns out, are wrong. And so was what we thought we knew about our colleague, Winston Burdett.