THE TRICYCLE PRINCIPLE KEEPING OUT OF THE STORY
Well, one time the cameraman with whom I've worked all these years, Izzy Bleckman, and I were in his room at the Holiday Inn somewhere, I can't remember where, watching the local evening news as we frequently did before going out to supper. And there was a story on there about a children's tricycle race. It was a very appealing story about youngsters peddling away, trying to go fast. And as we watched, Izzy said, "You know, before this story's over, that guy is going to ride a tricycle. That reporter." And I said, "No, he wouldn't! It would just ruin it! It would turn an attractive story into a kind of joke." And we watched. And sure enough, at the end, the camera was close up, and this guy says, "Joe Dokes, Eyewitness News," and the camera widened, and he was on a child's trike, and he turned and peddled awkwardly away. And Izzy and I just looked at each other. And there was born the tricycle principle, which is very simple for a reporter. And it is simply, where possible, don't ride the tricycle. Keep yourself out of the story. The people who are watching it are not interested in you, they're interested in this tricycle race and these cute children. That is a principle that is violated more than ever, it seems to me. I understand why it is. Our young reporters want to get themselves on the air, they want to be part of the story, if possible. I think that's just the wrong way to do it. I think one should leave oneself out of the story. In my "On the Road" stories, I frequently didn't even appear. I tried not to appear, and if I did appear it was for some good reason. Mainly that the story wouldn't work as well without a little on-camera piece.
Ideally, the reporter in television, I think, should be like the old-fashioned newspaper reporter. The guy standing in the corner making notes. I remember a famous story from the 1964 Goldwater campaign. Many of Barry Goldwater's supporters were neurotic when the press came in. They thought there was a great media conspiracy against their candidate. I think it's Tom Wicker of the New York Times who told this story, could have been somebody else. But he said at some rally, a woman sidled up to an aide to Senator Goldwater, and said, "I think you should know this, there's a man over there writing down everything he's saying." (laughs) That was Tom Wicker, or that was the reporter. That's the proper role of the reporter. The guy who's leaving himself out of the story, and standing in the corner writing down everything that's going on.
I'm afraid I'm innocent of any journalism courses in college or elsewhere. I suppose sometimes it shows, but everything I learned, I learned on the job.
WORDS, PICTURES, AND THE OLD DAYS
Well, I left The Charlotte News 37 years ago, and found that in doing a television story I could pretty well leave my notebook home. The necessity for remembering great amounts of information which is common for a newspaper reporter usually doesn't exist in television. You only needed a notebook to get the spelling of the guy's name right. And in television even that doesn't matter very much as long as it's pronounced correctly. Unless there's gonna be a "super," I believe we didn't have supers, back in those earliest days. So I quickly learned that one had to be succinct. Instead of taking notes, you sort of took impressions. I think the most important thing for the television writer is to be there when the film or tape is shot. I guess it's all tape today. In the old days, we would do stories on film and ship them with a script and a narration and everything without ever processing the film. So I always had to hang over the cameraman's shoulder. I wanted him never to shoot anything when I wasn't there, because otherwise, how could I write to it? I would even ask him sometimes, "How wide are you here?" so that I could get an idea what the picture was. That's what I used my notebook for, was writing down the shots. So that in writing the story later, which of course involves editing the story on paper, I would know exactly what the picture was I was writing to. I think there's no more principle more important than that. One always writes with a picture in mind. Every single sentence I ever write when I'm doing a television story is to a picture I know is there. Nowadays, you can be sure it's there. You can sit in a screening room and watch the tape, before you ever start writing.
LEARNING THE TRADE OF JOURNALISM
I know that I am better off having covered the courthouse and the police beat. And then forced to write two to three paragraph stories about minor episodes. You learn that way to just please give the news, don't embroider it. And that's the basic thing. Something just popped into my head. This last week, I was in North Carolina talking to a couple of blacksmiths, an elderly blacksmith and his son. And his son, who is now a master himself, said that his father put him through the old regimen. The old European way of learning to be a blacksmith. The apprentice stood on the opposite side from the master, and the master, by gesturing with his hammer lightly, would show the apprentice where to do the hard pounding. And for four years, the apprentice stayed on that side of the anvil. And for that four years, he didn't say a word. He said nothing. And probably journalists ought to learn that same way. Before you can become a journeyman, you should go through a long apprenticeship in which you don't say anything, you just learn the immutable rules of good reporting. There are rules for reporting just like there are rules for blacksmithing. 2 + 2 = 4 and that's that! Don't argue about it.
DON'T REHEARSE INTERVIEWS
I think it is important not to rehearse, even slightly. When you pull up into the yard of a man who has a windmill collection, he knows why you're there. And naturally he comes out of his house and starts talking about windmills. I finally got to the point of saying, "Look, let's not talk about it yet. Because I don't even know you yet, I don't even know what the weather's been like around here for the last week." So get off on the weather, or his family life, or how long he's lived in this neighborhood, or just anything except the subject of the story for that short time that it takes the camera crew to get ready to really go to work. Because if you talk about the subject of the story before the camera's rolling, he's gonna tell you all the good stuff then, and it's never quite as rich or as eloquent, as fresh, the second time. So there should never be a second time, you should always be sure you're rolling the first time that the guy tells you. The second time is never as good. I think the essence of a good interview is that the reporter is genuinely curious about it. I had good luck in that way. I never had to do a story I didn't want to do. All those years on the road, mother CBS would let me pick my own stories. I did hundreds and hundreds of them. Every one of them my own choice, not one of them an assignment from somebody else. So if I ran into somebody I didn't like or really wasn't interested in, I just didn't do the story. Go on to the next thing. I think it helps if the reporter has a certain sympathy for the subject, cares about it. I'd hate to have to do a story about something I didn't care about. I was lucky, I never had to.
THE DIRTY WORK OF REPORTING HARD NEWS
The good reporter will come up with his own ideas; very rarely does the star of the reporting staff, the real experienced old-timer get sent out on some story he doesn't want to do. I guess reporters can look forward to that. Heaven knows, when I was working on the newspaper, I got sent on stories all the time that I didn't wanna do. A man had been killed in a gunfight in a bar, and I had to go just hours later to that man's house and ask his wife for a picture of him. I hated all that. I was embarrassed, to tell you the truth. So I suppose that I didn't really have the reporter's instincts. "On the Road" was perfect. Unlike most reporters, I could always go back to the scene of the story and be welcomed. Many reporters, as you know, really wouldn't be welcomed back.
OVERCOMING SHYNESS TO DEAL WITH A TRAGEDY
Well, I was a little bit shy and reticent as a young reporter. I really did not want to intrude on people's lives. Which, I'm afraid, natural-born reporters do all the time and without very many qualms, so that makes me not a natural-born reporter. I was always a little diffident and even embarrassed. I forced myself to overcome it covering the scene of a plane crash. I forced myself to go into the terminal and talk to friends and relatives who were waiting for that plane to land safely, and who were now beginning to understand that those friends or relatives were dead. I didn't want to do it. The cameraman said that was required, I was going to have to talk to them. And I was surprised to find that some of them, not all of them, but some of them really did want to talk. It relieved the tension, it gave them a chance to ask me what I knew. They all thought that I knew a lot more than they did, naturally, since I had a press card dangling around my neck. So a lot of my young reticence wasn't justified. Actually, I have found that all along. Sometimes I've been very reluctant to knock on the door, and go ahead and plunge into a story, not wishing to disturb people. It's always better to knock on that door and take the chance of a rebuff. Sometimes it's led to wonderful stories once you can get over that one little hurdle of stepping in where you think you may not be wanted.
FINAL WORDS: CHOOSE SOMETHING BETTER THAN TV TO WRITE FOR
I think the best thing a person interested in television journalism can do is develop a very wide-ranging knowledge of, an alternative might be to become an expert, a specialist in some field. But the kind of reporter I always have been benefits from knowing something about Darryl Strawberry's batting average, and how many runs batted in he has for the Dodgers, something about what really happened to Custer at the Little Big Horn, something about chemistry, and something about navigation on the high seas. You see what I mean. Kind of a wastebasket of the mind, into which you can delve, rummage around and find little bits of knowledge that come in handy. I think you can learn most of what you need to know about reporting by going out and doing it. But if you don't gain that curiosity about history and science and sports and the world at large, then you'll never be a really good reporter. I'm sure of that. Writing is the key. But to tell you the truth, I wouldn't advise a really good writer to get into television news. There's very few opportunities for good writing in this field. The form has become so short, by and large, that it would be unsatisfactory to a really skillful young writer who would be better off writing for magazines or writing books. Or even working for a wire service, for heaven's sake, that would be more satisfying than doing little minute-and-a-half stories on television. Good writers we need, but I could never urge them to take up the field; they probably ought to take up some other field. I don't see any hope that the word will ever be very greatly honored in some of the local station managers, for example.
...I watch CNN 'cause I'm apt to get into a hotel room at two o'clock in the morning, and that's the news that's on, so I tune in. And I don't remember very many examples of good writing on CNN. I can think of some perfectly horrible writing I've heard...(laughs)
HANDY HINTS FROM AN OLD GEEZER WHO KNOWS EVERYTHING
Well, after you have a little experience I think you learn to watch the story develop as you shoot it. It's always a mistake to go in with a very well developed idea what the story is by the way, or how it's going to turn out in the end. It's gonna, you don't know how it's gonna turn out. And you must always be nimble enough to change directions from your preconceived idea if that's the way the story bounces. One should never try to mold the story to a preconceived notion of what it's gonna be. But I think that after you've gained a little experience, you learn to edit the story in your head as you go along. Not only do you look for a lead, but you think well, what he's saying now is useless, maybe I can change the subject and get him onto something more interesting. And after a while, you suddenly realize, well, my goodness, we've had this story, we're done, we have as much as we can possible squeeze into three or four or five minutes, and it's gonna be fine. No use taking this fellow's time anymore. I think you have to think that way, or you end up shooting cassette after cassette after cassette, which inexperienced reporters sometimes do because they're afraid of missing something. After a while you get to the point where you go, oh well, it's done now. And sometimes, it was done after 10 or 12 minutes of shooting.
Well, that's just a matter of experience, I think, and developing a feel for the story. I'm talking like an old geezer who knows everything.
WALLY'S FAMOUS SIGN OFF
Really you know, Walter's sign off frequently immediately followed my story. So on those nights, when he said, "And that's the way it is," he may have been talking about something perfectly peaceful and amusing.
# # #