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13 - I Become an Airhead

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

Ultimately, in 1982, I left the Herald to work for the Los Angeles CBS affiliate, then called KNXT. Network owned and operated. Connie Chung was a local anchor. She was not stuck up like some of the other on-air talent. Even though she was a celeb who would draw autograph-seeking fans when she showed up for a story.

The main reporter I got to work with was Jim Mitchell. I went into TV with more than a hint of print reporter arrogance. I had seen many TV reporters reading my Herex stories before doing their on-air stints, and making it seem like they had done the reporting. They were better looking than us ink-stained wretches. But I questioned if there was much beneath their great hair. Like at the press conference after Natalie Wood drowned, where a TV reporter asked the coroner what thoughts were in her head when she died.

Jim Mitchell, however, was solid. He had good instincts and knew how to make a story visual. Working with Jim I produced segments on LAPD SWAT, with the premise “Did they kill people unnecessarily?” The answer was no, SWAT actually did a better job of containment and capture than regular LAPD officers. It was a clever subject I had come up with, as we had lots of great footage in the library of dramatic SWAT moves. And I got to go along and watch them do all kinds of cool SWAT training.

The piece was nominated for a local news Emmy. And the facts do seem to bear out the premise. From 1972 to 2005, there were 3,371 SWAT missions and the LAPD reports, “Of those, only 31 resulted in the death of a suspect.” Less than one in a hundred sounds like pretty good stats considering they are called in high risk situations.

Never on the air but equally important in teaching me how to tell a story visually was Irwin Safchik, a chain-smoking TV veteran.

His obituary from 1999: Irwin Safchik, 72, former news editor of NBC’s trendsetting “Huntley-Brinkley Report” of the 1960s and later a Los Angeles television producer. Known as a hard-edged newsman who resisted TV’s move toward fluffy features, Safchik began his career with the old International News Service during World War II. He moved into television news in its infancy and earned kudos for his work with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Later, Safchik served as executive news producer and then news director at KNBC-TV Channel 4. Fired in 1980 for his adherence to traditional news stories rather than lighter fare, Safchik went to Channel 2, now KCBS-TV, as news producer. Later, he also produced segments for NBC news magazine shows. He taught broadcast classes at USC and Cal State Northridge and ran the news operation for KCSN-FM (88.5), the school’s student station. For the NBC network and KNBC, Safchik directed crews covering 14 national political conventions, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights protests. On Wednesday in Sherman Oaks, of cancer.

When Irwin left CBS, I followed him to NBC, where I worked briefly on White Paper, their ill-fated attempt at a 60 Minutes knockoff. It didn’t last long, and neither did my career in TV news.

Then to USA Today. For someone who prides himself on his writing, working for USA Today was ill advised. They had a crimped, cramped style and overzealous editing. I remember writing one story where the daytime editor said he didn’t like my lede, so he wrote a new beginning paragraph. He went off duty and the evening editor said, “You buried the lede,” cut the other editor’s paragraph, and so the story read the way I had originally crafted it.

What I remember fondly from my work was being sent back to LA with a small suitcase that held a typewriter that you could plug a phone into, and then write a story that was beamed up to a satellite and then to headquarters. Very high tech in the pre-Internet days.

I lasted at USA Today less than six months, and a few weeks of that was orientation at headquarters in Roslyn, Virginia. I was let go and told it was “not a good fit.”

But I had been working on something that was a lot closer to my heart.


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