david-brinkley

My Brief Life on the Rim

Accepting ABC News Anchor Frank Reynolds’ invite to Washington gave a professor a behind-the-scenes look at TV journalism, a lesson in the strength of the Wabash alumni network, and a shadowy 15 minutes of fame.

by Tobey Herzog H’11
This isn’t a basketball story; it’s a networks story—alumni and television news. More to the point, it’s a story about my unlikely appearance on ABC’s World News Tonight on three consecutive nights in May 1983.

A few weeks ago I offhandedly remarked to WM Editor Steve Charles, “I taught my Introduction to Mass Communications class for six years at Wabash and realized one day I really did not know what I was talking about.”

As many news sources claim when shamed by their own words, “My quote was taken out of context and misinterpreted.”

What I meant to say: One day in 1982, I realized that although I knew a lot about print and broadcast journalism from reading articles and books, I lacked “real-world” experience in the field. Emmy- and Peabody-Award-winning network news anchor Frank Reynolds ’46 started me on a yearlong sabbatical journey to change that.

 

My journey began on November 20, 1982, with Reynolds’ Wabash visit to deliver a lecture on “Journalist as Public Servant.” That evening I escorted him to dinner at the Lambda Chi house, his residence during his one year attending Wabash, where the brothers promptly handed him his overdue house bill from 1941. Later I introduced his lecture and afterward drove him to his hotel room. In the car, I excitedly mentioned that while growing up in central Illinois I had regularly watched Chicago’s local newscasts, particularly those of the CBS and ABC affiliates where Reynolds was the star anchor before moving to the network. Then during a lull in the conversation, I let drop that I had been teaching a new course at Wabash—Introduction to Mass Communications—and was eager to learn more about the behind-the-scenes workings of broadcast journalism. Despite being visibly exhausted by the evening’s activities, Reynolds attentively listened to my starstruck ramblings, and as he stepped out of the car, he casually said, “Why don’t you come to Washington in May and spend a week observing how a network news show is actually produced? The process is often chaotic, but you will learn a lot about the limits and strengths of television journalism. Write to me.”

Driving home late that evening, I wondered if Reynolds’ invitation was serious. Weeks later when I wrote to him, Frank Reynolds, the admirable Wabash man, was true to his words. Tobey Herzog was going to Washington.

 

In late May 1983 I arrived at ABC’s Washington news bureau where Reynolds “tri”-anchored the nightly network news, along with Max Robinson in Chicago and Peter Jennings in London. I was given my credentials and ushered to the busy fifth-floor newsroom, also the location for the evening-news set. Here I met the senior producer who introduced me to various people, gave me a tour, and assigned me a desk in the newsroom.

Although anxious to meet Reynolds, I was beginning to feel somewhat comfortable in this unfamiliar setting. And then the producer’s unexpected words: “Frank had an accident about a month ago—a broken leg. The network has kept this quiet. He is off the air indefinitely and won’t be able to meet you. Since April 21, David Brinkley and other on-air talent have been substituting on the evening news. Frank has, however, called various editors and producers to set up a detailed schedule for your time with us.”

During the next five days, Reynolds was, indeed, the gracious and conscientious host in absentia, phoning occasionally to make sure everything was proceeding exactly as planned for my introduction to broadcast journalism. Each day began with my seat “on the rim”—a mid-morning meeting in a room with a semicircular desk manned by various editors, producers, and often the Washington anchor, all facing a bank of TV monitors with live feeds from similar news groups in Chicago and London. The purpose was to assemble a tentative lineup of stories for the evening broadcast of World News Tonight. Logistics, news value, availability of video, reporter assignments, competition to get a story on the air, and tentative story length were all part of the deliberations in assembling the broadcast. Following the rim meetings, I spent my days observing production briefings for individual stories; talking with newsroom writers, editors, and producers; and tracking numerous changes in the evening’s lineup of stories and story scripts.

On my first evening, as I was leaving for my hotel, one of the producers suggested that I stay for that evening’s newscast. “Since your desk is directly behind the set for World News Tonight, you can observe firsthand how Mr. Brinkley handles the on- and off-camera demands of going live as a network anchor.”

At 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, I was at my desk. A dour David Brinkley at the anchor desk said, “Good evening and welcome to World News Tonight,” and we were off.  About half way through the telecast I happened to glance at the monitors that were circling the newsroom and tuned to the broadcast.

Suddenly, disbelief.

On-screen, in the distance behind Brinkley, was the very small and mostly obscured image of my facial profile being beamed live across the country. Even more unnerving, as I slowly moved my chair back and forth behind the anchor desk, my movements were occasionally captured by one of the multiple cameras on the set.

After the broadcast ended, I sorted through my feelings about my brief appearance on national television—shock, embarrassment, giddiness at my good fortune. I hurried back to the hotel and called my wife, Peggy. My first words were, “Make sure you videotape tomorrow night’s evening news. Don’t ask why; just do it.”

Tuesday evening arrived; Brinkley and I took our respective seats; and the newscast proceeded. The writers and editors sitting near me were focused on their work and didn’t seem to notice that every few minutes I would roll my chair from the desk to a spot about three feet away and then back. As I glanced at the monitor, occasionally my movements and profile were once again appeared on camera. Won’t my family be amazed to see Dad on national TV, I thought.

I rushed back to the hotel room and called home. “Did you see me on the national news tonight; did you tape the show?” Long pause on the other end, then Peggy’s halting words: “I . . . forgot. I was at Rob’s [our oldest son] junior high track meet, and I forgot to set the VCR.”

In despair, I yelled, “Make sure you tape the newscast tomorrow night; I’m on the national news!”

I was crestfallen—no videotape for posterity, no videotape to impress my students. How long could I keep rolling my chair before someone in the newsroom or control room figured out what was going on? Surely my exaggerated actions would attract someone’s attention. Perhaps with the busy working newsroom as a backdrop to Brinkley, no one noticed; or worse, no one cared. Undaunted, I knew that because of previous commitments, Wednesday evening would be my last opportunity to get my face on the evening news.

After a long day of Wednesday meetings, I arrived at my news desk a half hour before the live telecast to rehearse my strategy. I would limit my rolling-chair movements, maybe once every two minutes, and not linger too long at the end of my imaginary three-foot tether. I didn’t want to draw undue attention to myself, but I would angle my head slightly more toward the camera. Once World News Tonight began, Brinkley and I performed flawlessly.

After the show ended, I hurried to the hotel and called Peggy. “Did you tape it?” I excitedly asked.

Peggy’s response has been the punchline of numerous retellings of this story: “I looked for you but couldn’t pick you out in the newsroom. I do have a question, however. What was up with that crazy guy rolling his seat back and forth in the background?”

Over the years, her words were repeated in one form or another to multiple generations of Wabash students viewing the grainy videotape in our Introduction to Mass Communications class.

I have to admit, despite this ego-deflating episode, my last two days at ABC were fulfilling. I chatted briefly with Peter Jennings, newly arrived from London to co-anchor Thursday’s evening broadcast. On Friday, after a lengthy background check, I toured the White House press wing and walked outside to watch President Reagan perfunctorily wave to staffers as he departed on Marine Helicopter One for the Williamsburg Economic Summit. During my last few hours at the White House, I unexpectedly found myself crammed into a small press cubicle with ABC’s Chief White House Correspondent Sam Donaldson, who with his characteristically blunt words and acerbic tone told me that “only by working as a journalist and not observing as a professor would I really understand broadcast journalism.” On a more upbeat note, the day ended with a lengthy cordial conversation with ABC correspondent Bettina Gregory, who shared with me the tribulations of being a female network correspondent.

 

I returned to Wabash with a wealth of information and memorable encounters. These five days at ABC News became the foundation for a year-long broadcast-journalism sabbatical, providing me with the vocabulary, experiences, and questions I needed later to spend four months as a visiting researcher at WCCO-TV Minneapolis, a CBS affiliate, and four months on-site with the United Kingdom’s BBC-TV. A year later teaching my mass-communications course, I illustrated for students the requirements for becoming knowledgeable critics of print and electronic journalism, the necessity of consulting multiple sources for news stories, and the truth in Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that “the medium is the message.”

Finally, my students and I discussed the importance of networks—the media’s essential roles in a democracy and the influence and generosity of the Wabash alumni network for students and faculty alike.

 

I carried with me on my year-long immersion trip one regret: I could not thank Frank Reynolds in person, only in a letter. He died from bone cancer on July 21, 1983, two months after my ABC visit. Among those paying tribute was CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather: “The Reynolds competition was always class all the way. If you went up against Frank Reynolds, you knew that you were going to be beaten some of the time, but you would never be beaten unfairly.”

Frank’s networks legacy continues through his son Dean Reynolds ’70, CBS News correspondent and member of the Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse initiative’s advisory committee. His visits to campus bring that real-world experience and opportunity to a new generation of Wabash students and faculty.

And if one of those opportunities ever leads to a desk in a television newsroom, remember—chair rolling is not part of the job description.

 

Tobey Herzog is Professor Emeritus of English at Wabash.