GENTLEMAN OF THE NEWS MEDIA
I began with NBC News as an apprentice cameraman in 1952 when television started to expand. People were intrigued by the magic box and became attracted to kTV news no matter how shallow he gathering of current events. The first notable TV anchorman was John Cameron Swayze. His Camel News Caravan for NBC was extremely popular.
Few good newsmen and commentators were left in radio. Chet Huntley was one. For years I’d tune in whenever possible to listen to Chet. His commentaries, philosophies were electrifying. He approached stories from an oblique angle; always insightful, thoughtful and thought provoking, with humor and wry delivery. One day I learned that Chet would join KNBC as commentator and reporter for local interviews and have a 15 minute piece each Sunday. By then I had become on of three full-fledged cameramen for network and local news. I told the desk to make me available for whatever Chet needed. I was a fan.
When Chet arrived at the office we became instant friends. We talked about his radio commentaries, and how jealous enemies wrongfully dubbed him communist. Though it was a rugged fight, news media colleagues and friends came forth in his behalf. Reason finally prevailed and put that preposterous rumor to rest.
The desk assigned me to shoot Chet’s first reports and most of his filmed interviews. I used varied close camera angles of Chet interviewing guests to spice up stagnant sessions, cutting away for angles of his subjects reacting. Chet appreciated my creative efforts as mine was never the static two or three angles used by most in those days. He proved to be a natural in his first exposure to this new medium. He build a rapport with the camera and learned quickly over the next few months how to use film to his advantage. Chet sincerely cared and believed in what he was doing. So did I. In fact, everyone in the department loved him.
Unbeknownst to us, the network wanted to replace Swayze with someone who could measure up to the preeminence of Edward R. Murrow on CBS. They combed the country secretly viewing local shows for potential prospects. In Los Angeles a scout saw Chet’s reports and immediately sent the film to New York and Chet was on his way. I was proud thinking it was my footage they sent. Chet approached me at a dinner party at his home and asked if I’d like to transfer to New York. He said he’d work it out if I was interested. While I was extremely flattered and enjoyed working with him tremendously, I didn’t want the confinement of the concrete jungle. I told him my roots were in Los Angeles. He understood. We both were westerners.
While Chet was busy learning the network ropes, he was also trying to settle down in New York. On occasion I’d see him on TV filling in for Swayze. Chet was visually at east with the network spotlight and his presence was overwhelming. I had a great deal of respect for Swayze as an anchor, but Chet was a journalist. He wrote his own copy. He knew the depths of stories. Rumors were ever increasing that Chet would take over Swayze’s show, it was just a question of time.
In 1956 the Republicans held their convention in San Francisco. I looked forward to the assignment because Chet was scheduled to come out from New York to cover it along with Washington’s David Brinkley, an amusing man with succinct quips and memorable, quirky voice patterns that commanded attention. The weren’t a team as yet, but NBC would pair them together again at the Democrat’s Chicago convention.
I was selected to shoot “wild camera;” silent hand-held footage of general activity around the convention center: personalities, politicians, side bar and human interest stories, which included having to negotiate the impossible San Francisco real estate with unwieldy equipment. It was exhausting. I barely got to say hello to Chet. He and Brinkley were busy establishing sound and picture systems for NBC feed. Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite were doing the same for CBS.
After we shut down one night, a group of us had a late dinner and much too much to drink. I showed up at the convention hall the next morning with a royal hangover. I felt awful and found a corner where I could watch the proceedings. David spewed his wealth of political knowledge in his own inimitable form, and Chet lent his usual philosophical approach with humor. CBS was dull.
Frank McCall, a real honest-to-God newspaperman, had been enlisted by New York to lend journalistic credibility to the fledgling TV news operation. He was true individual subjected to working in a gaggle of eastern intellectuals with no practical knowledge of news of any kind. Sloppily attired, Frank was a typical old-time news man who could hold his booze, and he really appreciated my predicament. I told him I could certainly use a Bromo. A double Bromo.
Frank whispered cautiously, “How about Alka Selzer?” I told him I didn’t think it was good, but agreed anything would help. Shortly he returned with water and several packets of Alka Seltzer, warning me that Alka Seltzer executives were on the other side of the room talking sponsorship with NBC News chief, Bill McAndrew.
Later Frank quietly asked what I thought of the idea of NBC possibly teaming Huntley and Brinkley on a news show. I thought about it briefly and said, “No way. Brinkley’s not a sustainer.” Well, so much for my commercial wisdom.
After the conventions Chet and David returned east victorious over CBS. Shortly thereafter NBC paired them off once again to create TV’s historical Huntley-Brinkley Report with Huntley positioned in New York, Brinkley in Washington. A huge success, it lasted 14 years until Chet retired to his Montana ranch.