My CloseUp partner Tony Batten had been a reporter on the innovative PBS series The 51st State, about life in New York City, produced in the early Seventies by New York station WNET. He won several awards for a 1972 piece about a gang murder in the South Bronx. Public television was making an effort to include more African-Americans in its staffing and producing. Some great programs were created, but it was difficult to get enough stations to carry them to attract underwriting.
The problem, many public broadcasters thought, was the narrowness of vision. Tony was part of a second generation of “minority” broadcasters, devoted to the idea of multiculturalism. KCET developed Interface, which focused on the interaction between various cultures in everyday life. Tony was the host.
ABC was Tony’s first (and last) foray into commercial television. When Pam took him off the army show, Tony approached PBS with an idea for a multicultural television news magazine. WETA, the public television station in Washington DC, picked up the idea and Tony asked me if I wanted to take an on-air job in Washington as a co-host. There would be three of us: an African-American, a white and an Asian woman. The new show would be called F.Y.I.
ABC’s journalistic integrity seemed in doubt. Profits were going to be increasingly important and journalism would suffer. I thought Public television would be a more comfortable base and the idea of being on air intrigued me.
My last interview to secure the job was with WETA’s station manager. We chatted about this and that and then out of the blue he asked me, “Are you still political?” It was almost fifteen years since my illegal trip to North Vietnam, but some search of my name conducted by WETA must have turned up my radical background. I denied having any political interests.
Leaving New York was difficult. I loved the city even when it was “a terrifying place” as one business magazine recently put it with incredible exaggeration. I was sure I’d go back, but as of 2017 I’ve been in Washington thirty-seven years.
Tony, Linda Chen and I were the mod squad of television news, a cliché of the time. I loved the fieldwork but the show was under-funded and there was not enough money for much real journalism. The studio pontificating made us all uncomfortable and I hated being recognized in restaurants. But we dealt with substantial issues and got some great press. On February 18th, 1979 we did what I believe is the first national television story on the damage Agent Orange did to U.S. servicemen who handled it, at a time when the Pentagon was in full denial. The many letters of gratitude from suffering veterans made me feel there was still some point in being a journalist.
FYI visited Almeda County in California in October of 1978 to assess the impact of Proposition 13 (limiting California property tax income). We tackled rising health costs in April of 1979 (they had quadrupled between 1965 and 1977) and the melt down at Three Mile Island in May.
FYI wasn’t funded for a second season and I considered moving back to New York when I got a call from Barbara Cohen. At the time she was news director of National Public Radio (NPR). They were looking for a producer for their flagship program All Things Considered, approaching its tenth anniversary. One of Barbara’s headhunters, Larry Josephson, gave her my name. I had never listened to the program and I took a crash course over the next week, keeping copious notes. It was an intelligent program with a sense of humor, but ATC’s editorial policy seemed to me to be narrow and timid.
ATC’s upper middle class, editorial voice spoke for centrist liberals working within the power structure. It pretty much excluded the majority of working Americans in the rest of the country and certainly activists on the left and right who were trying to change things. I told Barbara I’d like to open the show up and broaden its editorial dialogue. I wanted reporters from all over the country and I wanted the views of conservatives and progressive liberals.
A tight-knit group of people, self protective of the show’s ethos, produced ATC. At my first editorial meeting, after introducing myself, I asked, “What’s going to be on the show today.” One of the show’s hosts at the time, Susan Stamberg, looked at me with disdain and intoned, “All Things Considered is not a show, Christopher, it’s a program.” I was cocky in those days and I thought the distinction between “show” and “program” was pure snobbery. I snapped back, “Well, that’s the first thing that’s going to change.”
There were problems carrying out my vision for the show. To include more reports from the rest of the country we had to find reporters across the country that met our broadcasting standards. We also had to make room for more stories in our show-clock and that meant cancelling or shortening the stories of our regular correspondents. Bitter, angry battles were fought with staff reporters on an almost daily basis.
It would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for the launching of Morning Edition on November 5th, 1979. When the commercial, CBS producers that Barbara hired to produce Morning Edition failed to come up with a decent public broadcasting show, she fired them and raided All Things Considered for her Morning Edition staff. At the time it seemed like a disaster, but in fact it forced me to hire most of my own people. I reached out to producers from Pacifica and other independent stations around the country. I got the people I wanted and the loyalty I needed. My big loss was Bob Edwards, whose mellifluous voice went to Morning Edition. It was a good move. Bob was as reassuring as a warm cappuccino in the morning. I still miss his calm, brilliantly ordinary approach to the new day.
To help solve the problem of regional reporters, we took ATC on the road and held news workshops in Austin, Anchorage and San Francisco. We arrived a week to ten days early, worked with local reporters to upgrade their skills, and produced local stories, then broadcast ATC from these remote locations. It was great publicity and helped train a new generation of excellent journalists.
It was on a remote in Austin, Texas, that I began to fully appreciate Frank Mankiewicz’s leadership. His support for a morning news show was brilliant. It brought NPR national attention, although the cost almost bankrupt NPR. As one wag put it, “Frank Mankiewicz put NPR on the map and almost took it off again.”
It was Mankiewicz’s relationship to his staff that made him special. Cocaine use was rampant in the United States in the early eighties and NPR was no exception. At the final dinner in Austin after one of our remotes, one of my producers returned from the men’s room with white powder on his mustache. Someone at the table commented, “Is that powdered sugar on your mustache?” Mankiewicz was at the head of the table,. but he didn’t say a thing. When we returned to Washington a rumor spread through NPR that the feds were about to conduct a raid. NPR cleaned up immediately. Frank never said a word.