Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller was an assistant foreign news editor for CBS News in New York from 1977 to 1981, when Walter Cronkite was the undisputed king of television news, and when 60 Minutes, the brainchild of producer Don Hewitt, was at the beginning of its long reign as the No. 1 rated prime-time news show. Later, Miller was assistant foreign editor at NBC News, and spent four years as that network's bureau chief in Israel.
Cronkite and Hewitt died in the summer of 2009, which left the whole country nostalgic for the days when there was no MSNBC or Fox News. For Miller, the memories were mostly about airplanes crashing on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, a nightclub on fire in Kentucky, and dolphins being slaughtered by Japanese fishermen ....
When Cronkite, Hewitt (and Miller) were in the house
By PAUL MILLER
Published: August 28, 2009
I WAS just 23 years old when I was
suddenly elevated from copy boy to assistant foreign editor at
the mighty CBS News, which was something like going from bat
boy to starting shortstop for the New York Yankees.
Copy boys don’t exist any more, because computers have made
printed wire copy obsolete, but 30 years ago there were
seemingly endless rolls of it piled up on ancient teletype
machines in the middle of the CBS newsroom, waiting to be
delivered to industry legends such as Douglas Edwards, Charles
Osgood, Dallas Townsend and Hughes Rudd, not to mention Mike
Wallace, Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite. There
were also phones to answer, typewriter ribbons to change, and
videotapes to hustle. The newsroom was staffed 24 hours a day,
so the hours could be strange. And the starting pay was
But the surroundings were undeniably glamorous and powerful,
so even the lowest-level jobs were in great demand and
regularly attracted the offspring of American royalty. During
my years in network news, Harry Truman’s grandson stayed
awhile on the copy desk. So did a young man whose parents were
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And a nephew of John F.
Somehow, I managed to get my job without knowing anybody. Fill
out a form, politely badger the person you gave it to, knock on
doors without an appointment — these are the techniques I used,
and the same ones I advise would-be journalists to employ today.
In other words: “If you can’t get in to see the person who’s
hiring, you don't have what it takes to be a reporter anyway.”
Words to work by
My stint as a copy boy at CBS News headquarters on the west
side of Manhattan started early on a Monday morning, after a
quick interview with a top editor the previous Friday. And the
foreign desk promotion I got a few months later came just as
The assignment was supposed to be temporary while a more senior
foreign editor was on sick leave. But once they showed me to the
beat-up metal desk just outside the Cronkite studio where I
would start my shift every morning at 3 o’clock, I ended up
staying four years. And I only left to take the same position
across town at NBC News — at double the salary. Looking back on
it, it seems like I couldn’t possibly have had any idea what I
was up to. And if I did a good job, it must have been because I
had enough sense to heed the words of wisdom some of the
old-timers gave me:
“Just remember, son, they’ll never write on your tombstone that
you saved the company money.” And, “If you want to make Cronkite
happy, get him exclusives about animals or fires.”
The first rule pretty much summed up the guiding ethic of
network news in the 1960s and 1970s. With the founders of the
networks still in charge — Bill Paley at CBS and David Sarnoff
at NBC — and profits from entertainment programs sky-high, the
network news divisions simply weren’t expected to make money.
While news executives had budgets they were supposed to adhere
to, spending guidelines went right out the window when big
stories broke. And if saving money wasn’t anybody’s priority at
CBS News, being first and best on important news stories
And that’s where Cronkite, and the second rule, came in.
What god does all day
This is how CBS News was organized in the 1970s: The president,
Richard Salant, was in charge of everything. Beneath him were
the various vice presidents and division heads, including
executive producers of the news broadcasts, bureau chiefs around
the nation and the world, and technical people such as studio
directors and engineers.
But off to the side of the organizational chart was Walter
Cronkite, whose worldwide fame, huge viewing audience and close
relationship with Paley made him the de facto boss of everybody.
And everybody knew it.
Each morning, Cronkite would arrive at his glass-walled office
adjacent to the small studio at 524 W. 57th Street where his
program originated. Closing the door behind him, he would read
the morning wire copy and newspapers. And then he would begin
doing what he did most, which was talk on the phone. Among the
underlings who scrambled to cover the news throughout the world
and package it for each edition of the CBS Evening News, there
was a lot of speculation about who might be on the other end of
Sometimes, the grapevine said, he was talking to the president
(of the United States). He was also known to converse with the
heads of movie studios, CEOs of large companies, and various
But while he may have been busy contacting sources on the phone
in his office, Cronkite was aloof from the news gathering
process going on around him. Just once during the five years I
worked there did Cronkite approach the foreign desk (which was
no more than 30 feet from his office) with a personal suggestion
for a story — and that was when he was putting on a little
demonstration for a TV Guide reporter at his elbow.
Even if what Cronkite did all day was a bit of a mystery, we
all knew it had to be something important, and we had a concise
way to sum up the awe-inspiring activities of the godlike man we
all worked for: “He’s being Walter Cronkite.”
It wasn’t as if the Most Trusted Man in America, as he was also
known, couldn’t be disturbed or consulted. During the day, the
producer of his program would occasionally solicit his opinion
about a top news story. A senior executive might want to go over
plans for an upcoming political convention or election. The head
writer would sometimes give Cronkite an early look at a few
pages of the script being prepared for his nightly broadcast.
And then, in the early evening, Cronkite would move to his
anchor desk, rehearse a technical point or two, read through the
entire script for his show (prepared on special typewriters with
letters a half-inch high), ask for last-minute changes, and even
make a few handwritten alterations to the script himself.
Meanwhile, back in the videotape area, the evening’s reports from far-flung correspondents were ready for playback, and in the control room the various camera angles and simple graphics of the day were being prepared.
At precisely 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, the Cronkite show began
its live broadcast. And at exactly 6:58:50, the show ended.
Sometimes, before the studio lights were turned off, there were
changes to make, news updates to add, or flubs to be fixed
before the CBS Evening News could be rebroadcast to the Mountain
and Pacific time zones. But if everything was OK with his show,
Cronkite immediately returned to his office, where he watched
the 7 p.m. local broadcast of the Huntley-Brinkley or John
Chancellor report on NBC News. (He paid no attention to the
fledgling ABC Evening News, which in those days was the only
other nationwide evening news program.)
Unfortunately, if Cronkite believed NBC had scooped him on
something important, there was hell to pay. And I played a key
role in the biggest news coverage disaster of them all.
A back-up Learjet?
On March 27, 1977, a KLM 747 collided with a Pan Am 747 on a
fog-shrouded runway at the remote city of Tenerife in the Canary
Islands. With 583 fatalities, it remains the worst aviation
disaster in history.
I was manning the weekend foreign desk at CBS that Sunday
morning, and as soon as the first wire reports arrived, it was
apparent this was going to be a huge story, which presented a
typical challenge for me as duty foreign editor: To coordinate
coverage of a major news event that happened far from a CBS News
bureau and, in this case, far from any international news
After consulting with my boss, foreign editor Sid Feders, who
was at home enjoying his weekend, I set about contacting Spanish
and Portugese networks to see what immediate coverage they might
be expecting. And then there were CBS News correspondents and
camera crews to be pulled from their bases in Rome and London,
and private jets to be chartered to take them as quickly as
possible to the Canaries. Meanwhile, a videotape editor and a
producer had to find commercial flights to Lisbon where a “feed
point” for the Tenerife story could be established. I also had
to make arrangements for videotape and narrations from the news
crew on Tenerife to be flown back to Lisbon, where they could be
edited and transmitted to New York in time for the weekend
edition of the CBS Evening News, which in those days was
anchored by Morton Dean.
Once all this planning was communicated to producers of the
Sunday news show, and a satellite feed time was booked, I could
sit back and watch our coverage beat the pants off the
competition on Sunday night. Details of the emerging story were
increasingly tragic, but a complex (and expensive) operation is
very satisfying when it comes off without a hitch. However,
there was no time for self-congratulation, because Feders, who
had joined me in the newsroom, and I had a bigger obligation. In
the scheme of things at CBS News, it didn’t really matter how
well we did on Sunday night. Instead, our foremost obligation
was to make Cronkite look good on Monday, and that was where we
It happened because of a mechanical breakdown in the Learjet we
hired to ferry videotape from Tenerife to Lisbon on Monday. This
was not an unanticipated problem. Aircraft weren’t as reliable
in 1977 as they are today, and Feders had reminded me of the
possibility of a mishap.
“Then do we want to send a backup Learjet to Tenerife to
protect the Cronkite show?” I asked him on Sunday afternoon.
“How much will it cost?” Feders wanted to know.
“$25,000,” I told him. That was too much money for Feders to
spend without getting the OK from his immediate boss, CBS News
vice president Bill Small. Consulted at his home, Small gave a
quick answer: No backup charter.
He was to regret that decision. On Monday, despite the best
efforts of our crews in the Canaries and Lisbon, without a
working jet we had no new video for the Cronkite show beyond
what had already been on the Sunday evening news and the Monday
morning show. Meanwhile, Monday night’s NBC Nightly News and
even (god forbid) ABC’s evening news show had incredible,
heartbreaking new footage of the smoldering wreckage of two huge
aircraft on the cursed runway, and rows and rows of coffins
inside a hangar at the Tenerife airport. Cronkite was
professionally embarrassed — and livid — when he watched his
The next thing I knew, Cronkite had gone to Small and demanded
that Feders be fired, which Small declined to do, because he
knew the decision not to send the backup charter was his.
Within a few months, both men had been forced out of their jobs at CBS News. And for years afterward, news coverage mishaps at CBS were rated on a scale from One-a-rife to Tenerife.
A call to a stranger, and drama on the airwaves
By PAUL MILLER
Second in a series
Published: September 4, 2009
WHEN IT’S the middle of the night, and
more than 150 people have just been killed in a night club fire
near Louisville, Ky., how do you get immediate eyewitness
accounts from 650 miles away?
It was May 29, 1977, and I was filling in a shift as copy boy on the CBS Radio newsdesk. As the youngest, most inexperienced person there, it wasn’t even remotely my job to try to answer the question. But, to the astonishment of the senior editors and anchors on duty that night, I answered it anyway.
If you’re a news junkie at all, you’re familiar with the “Hourlies” on the CBS Radio Network. Still a mainstay of radio news, these five-minute broadcasts are carried on hundreds of local stations across the country. You know ... “Bong!” right on the hour, followed by a high-energy musical signature that hasn’t changed in maybe forever, and then an anchorman says, “CBS News ....”
Happening right now
At the beginning of my network news career, when the 24/7 ubiquity of the Internet wasn’t even on the horizon, radio news had a special niche among the national news media. While newspapers provided an in-depth look at what had happened the day before, and evening newscasts offered the top stories of the same day, radio news broadcasts were the only thing that could tell you what was happening at the moment.
Furthermore, 30 years ago at CBS, the network’s rich legacy of groundbreaking radio broadcasts during World War II (“This is London ....”), meant that radio news still had a very prominent, and respected, role.
For the people who put those CBS Radio hourly newscasts together in the mid-1970s, upholding the tradition required thoroughness, accuracy and immediacy — not easy things to achieve under intense time pressure. Especially in the middle of the night.
The difficulty wasn’t that these radio editors, writers and anchors weren’t seasoned veterans. One of the editors I assisted, Marian Glick, had famously taken Dan Rather’s Nov. 22, 1963, telephone call from Dallas, reporting the death of President John F. Kennedy almost a half-hour before the White House confirmed it or any other news media had it.
Some of the superstar radio announcers I worked with were Dallas Townsend, Charles Collingwood, Douglas Edwards and Eric Sevareid, who could all brag about being former colleagues of Edward R. Murrow himself. Despite being on top of the world as anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite still did daily radio commentaries. And an up-and-comer on the radio side was Charles Osgood, who not much later was the first at CBS News to get a $1-million-a-year salary after Roone Arledge tried to lure him to ABC News, and the bosses at CBS decided they couldn’t afford to let him go.
Among all those news bigshots, I was one of about a dozen copy boys (also called desk assistants), working eight-hour shifts in a 24-hour-a-day newsroom, whose principle job was to tear rolls of copy from teletype machines relentlessly printing the collected, worldwide output of the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters, and deliver them to the waiting typewriters of people who knew what they were doing.
This continuous stream of copy was vital, because at the time, CBS Radio’s hourly newscasts largely consisted of wire stories rewritten into punchier, briefer versions suitable for the radio, supplemented with occasional on-scene reports from CBS News correspondents, along with telephone interviews (called “actuality”) done by radio editors at the CBS studios on Manhattan’s W. 57th Street (which is where we all worked).
A bulletin comes in
I had just started my shift a few minutes after midnight when the wires machines came to life with urgent news: “Louisville, Ky., May 29, 1977 (UPI) — Fire broke out at a crowded supper club last night, killing more than a dozen in the crowd, according to fire officials.”
As soon as I heard the bells announce the first bulletin, I tore the copy from the machine and delivered it to the senior editor and anchorman on duty, who read the brief dispatch and immediately began debating what to do with it.
“Get the Chicago bureau on the phone,” the editor, Harry Poloshjian, told me.
“And call the Louisville affiliate,” suggested the overnight anchorman, Doug Poling.
I did as I was instructed. But nobody answered in the Chicago bureau, and the overnight DJ at WWKY said, “We don’t know any more than you do.”
I reported these dismal results to my bosses, who resigned themselves, for the upcoming Hourly at least, to rewriting copy from the wires, which had at least begun to provide a few more details.
“AP — Bulletin — May 29, 1977, Louisville, Ky., — Fire officials say casualties may be as many as 100 in a deadly fire in the crowded Beverly Hills supper club in the community of Southgate last night ....”
I delivered the latest copy and went back to my desk, waiting for more copy from the teletype machines and unsure what to do next.
And then I had a thought. What was the phone number of the Beverly Hills Supper Club? Maybe, just maybe, somebody would answer the phone there .... ?
I looked in the phone book for the area code for Louisville, 502, and then dialed it along with the number 555-1212, which was the way you got long distance directory assistance in those days.
Of course, there was no answer at the devastated night club. But then I had another idea, which proved to be brilliantly random. I began dialing made-up numbers in the same area code and exchange, hoping one of the numbers would eventually reach somebody who knew about the fire, or at least lived near the night club.
On just my second scattershot attempt, a sleepy voice said, “Hello?”
“I’m very sorry to bother you, sir, but I’m calling from CBS News in New York. There’s been a bad fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Louisville, and I was just wondering ... is there an all-night business near the club you could help me find?”
“Beverly Hills club you say?” the unknown man said, perking up, and then speaking to somebody else. “Honey, this guy says it’s CBS on the phone, and there’s been a fire, and he’s looking for some all-night business near the Beverly Hills place. What’s that? You’re right ….”
And then he spoke to me again. “I’ll tell you what, we went there just the other week, and there’s an all-night gas station right by their driveway. Let me get you the number.”
Incredibly, just one more phone call and a few seconds later, I was able to tell my editor to pick up line two, because there was a man at a gas station available for actuality about the fire.
“Oh my God, the flames!” the man’s recorded voice was saying to a nationwide radio audience a few minutes after that. “It’s bad I tell you, the place was crowded, and it’s terrible to see all those cars in the parking lot ....”
After the Hourly, when the excitement had died down a bit, the anchorman came out of the studio and said to the editor, “Where’d that guy come from?”
And the editor said, “Miller found him.”
And the anchorman said, “How the hell did he do that?”
- The art of tricking the competition
By PAUL MILLER
Third in a series
Published: September 11, 2009
ALMOST AS soon as I was hired at CBS
News in the fall of 1976, I figured out that the
organization’s chief purpose was to keep Walter Cronkite and
the CBS Evening News on top. If some higher goal turned out
to be served in the process, that was fine, too. But the
ratings were what mattered most.
Cronkite had dominated the evening news time period since 1967. By the early 1970s, he was the undisputed king of television news, with the power to shape the national agenda, from helping create the environmental movement, to ending the Vietnam War. But it was by no means taken for granted at CBS that he’d stay that way.
NBC’s Nightly News, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and later by John Chancellor, was formidable competition. And ABC’s World News Tonight, with the ambitious and free-spending Roone Arledge at the helm, was up and coming.
So the correspondents, writers and producers who provided the worldwide coverage for CBS News knew very well what they were supposed to do when they went to work each day: Come up with scoops for the Cronkite show. And when I was barely out of college, I provided a really good one, not by covering an important news story myself, but by tricking the competition into foregoing one.
Blood in the water
I was working the overnight shift on the foreign assignment desk at CBS News headquarters in Manhattan in the late winter of 1978 when a brief story moved on the news wire from Japan.
“AP, February 24, Tokyo — Fishermen in the southern city of Katsumoto killed as many as 100 dolphins this morning because they said the mammals were depleting stocks of yellowtail in the Sea of Japan, which the fishermen depend on for their livelihood.”
The story went on to tell how the fishermen, to protect their catch, drove the dolphins into a narrow bay and speared them by hand in the shallow water near the beach.
It was 2:30 a.m. in New York, and the domestic assignment editor on duty that night, Dave Kooistra, and I quickly recognized this wire story as one the animal-loving Cronkite would probably want for his show, which was then 16 hours away.
These days, when even trivial news stories are given instant live coverage almost anywhere in the world, 16 hours sounds like an eternity. But in the 1970s, satellite feeds were rare — and even nonexistent from remote places such as the southern Japanese island of Iki.
Furthermore, on that particular morning, the nearest CBS News bureau, in Tokyo, was essentially unmanned. Correspondent Bruce Dunning and his camera crew were in Hong Kong working on a story about refugees fleeing communist Vietnam.
So with the Tokyo bureau empty, and with all the higher-ups at CBS News asleep in their Manhattan apartments, it fell to me to figure out how to get the dolphin story for Cronkite.
I called the Tokyo bureau, where a longtime local employee was keeping the place open while his bosses were out of town. He answered the phone in traditional Japanese fashion.
“This is Paul Miller, calling from the foreign desk in New York,” I told him. “There’s a story on the wires about fishermen slaughtering dolphins in Katsumoto. Do the Japanese networks have any decent coverage?”
While I posed the question, I was also leafing through the latest overseas flight guide to see what flights might be available in the next few hours from Tokyo to the mainland United States or, at least, to Hawaii. If a videocassette could be shipped on one of those flights and make it to a domestic feed point at a CBS affiliate in time for the Cronkite show, that would be a major advantage.
“Yes, one of the stations has very good coverage,” the Japanese bureau staffer told me. “There’s a lot of blood in the water.”
“OK, that’s what I was hoping for,” I told him, demonstrating my highly refined journalistic instincts. And then: “There’s a flight leaving for Honolulu in two hours. Do you think you can get a tape on it?”
“It might be possible, but I have to hurry,” he said, quickly hanging up the phone.
Satellites cost a lot of money
It’s quaint to recall how things worked in those days. International satellite transmissions for American television began in 1965 with a live broadcast, in all its grainy, black-and-white glory, of the funeral of Winston Churchill from St. Paul's.
Eleven years later, on the day the dolphins in southern Japan met their abysmal fate, things had advanced quite a bit. But still, the capability of CBS News and the other networks to transmit video and audio from faraway lands depended on a network of just a few satellites over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. These small satellites, in their geosynchronous orbits, received uplinks from earth stations pointed at them from various spots around the globe. The satellites (we called them “birds”) then retransmitted the signals back to earth, where earth stations at Jamesburg in upper Carmel Valley and Andover, Maine, equipped with 30-foot parabolic antennas, received the tiny signals from space, amplified them and passed them on, via phone company cables and microwave links, to the headquarters of the various television networks in midtown Manhattan.
Not only was the process of satelliting video and audio cumbersome, it was also expensive. A transmission from Japan to New York, for example, might cost $5,000 for an initial 10-minute minimum, and $300 for each additional minute.
To avoid duplication of the steep upfront charges, the networks would often share satellite transmission times. If each network had a three-minute package to send to New York, for example, they could share a ten-minute window for $5,000, which would then be split three ways, rather than book separate windows at $5,000 apiece.
This arrangement saved a lot of money, but it also had profound implications for journalistic competitiveness. Each morning, the CBS, NBC and ABC foreign editors would compare notes about the satellite bookings their networks were planning, which become a left-handed way of figuring out what stories the competition probably had. We all knew it, and we used it to our advantage whenever we could. At least, that’s what I did.
‘What about CBS?’
My boss, foreign editor Brian Ellis, who had replaced Sid Feders after the Tenerife runway disaster nine months earlier, would usually come to work about 8 a.m. Even as he took off his coat, I’d start briefing him on overnight developments — what the London, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg and other bureaus were up to, important stories that were beyond the reach of bureau personnel, the coverage foreign broadcasters might be able to provide, and which among all these stories seemed to be candidates for that night’s Cronkite show.
I was excited when I told him about the dolphin story, and especially that a tape of the slaughter was on its way to Honolulu and would be there in plenty of time to be picked up from the airport, taken to CBS affiliate KGMB and fed to New York for the evening news.
“The video is supposed to be dramatic ... gruesome, even,” I told Ellis. “I’m sure Cronkite will want it.”
“What about the other networks?” he asked. “Are they feeding from Tokyo today?”
“NBC and ABC have asked me already, and I told them we won’t be taking a bird from Japan,” I said. "I get the feeling they won't be satelliting, either."
“OK, good. Let’s hope it stays that way,” Ellis replied.
This is what this brief conversation actually meant: Since our videotape would be in Hawaii, we could feed it over the domestic CBS network for free, without anyone catching on. Meanwhile, the producers of the evening news shows at NBC and ABC knew about the dolphin story, but they didn’t have a tape on its way to Hawaii, and they were having trouble making up their minds whether to spend the money for a satellite feed from Tokyo to get it.
I could just imagine the conversations the other producers had with their foreign desks: “What about CBS? Are they going to do the dolphin story?” ... “No, Cronkite’s passing.” ... “OK. I’ll pass on it, too, then.”
But Cronkite wasn’t passing. He had compelling video of the dolphins being corralled into shallow water by grim-faced fishermen, who then callously speared the helpless mammals as they thrashed and struggled to get away. Cronkite and his producers were very moved by the video, and as soon as they saw it being fed from Honolulu, they decided to feature it prominently on the CBS Evening News. Dunning offered to do a narration from Hong Kong, but Cronkite preferred to handle it himself.
The other networks must have been very surprised when they saw the dolphin story on our newscast. Even more importantly, after the footage was played for Cronkite’s huge audience, an international outcry erupted against killing dolphins to protect fisheries — a practice that, before the CBS Evening News that February night, was unknown to the outside world. With remarkable swiftness, there were speeches at the United Nations, legislation had been introduced in Congress, and several impassioned environmental groups were formed. It’s a movement that persists to this day.
Of course, the outcry would have been just as great — even greater, perhaps — if all the networks had played the video of scores of intelligent dolphins being killed by humans.
But only Cronkite had it. And it was a big scoop.
I was happy about that, of course. At CBS, I received hearty congratulations for my enterprise. Not long after, the bosses at NBC News offered me a job on their foreign desk. And they offered to double my salary.
Cronkite's momentous question: 'How soon are you prepared to go?'
By PAUL MILLER
Fourth in a series
Published: September 18, 2009
WHEN NBC News made me Tel Aviv
bureau chief in the summer of 1981, I headed overseas
expecting my four years in the Middle East to be eventful.
But I had no idea how tumultuous the news that lay ahead
would be — a war in Lebanon, riots over the Israeli
withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, invention of the
suicide bomb, and constant, violent protests in Gaza and
the West Bank.
The stories we covered were usually tragic, with innocent people regularly losing their property, their families and their lives to forces beyond their understanding and control.
Early one Sunday morning in December 1983, for example, we had the sad duty to report that 252 U.S. Marines on a peacekeeping mission in Beirut were killed when a suicide bomber exploded a truck packed with TNT at the gates of the Marines’ barracks. The explosion took out the support columns of the building, collapsing it on the sleeping soldiers inside. U.S. guards on duty that morning saw the truck speeding toward them and might have been able to halt its advance, except that, because the Marines’ mission was peaceful, the guards were carrying unloaded weapons.
The NBC correspondents I worked with and I dutifully reported what we knew, unaware that the conflict between Middle Eastern terrorists and our country would go on for decades.
Ironically, just a few months before, as many as 2,500 Muslim men, women and children were ruthlessly massacred by Lebanese Christian militiamen, who blamed their victims for their country’s long civil war. The video that arrived in the Tel Aviv bureau from Beirut that day was gruesome beyond belief, making it difficult for us to isolate a few minutes suitable for broadcast during the dinner hour back home in the United States.
Looking back, it seems like not much has changed in the Middle East. However, the region occasionally produces a bit of optimism, and my first brush with news from the area wasn’t a tragedy at all, but something that seemed to presage an era of peace for the Jewish state and the surrounding Arab nations that had vowed to destroy it. The story was about an unforeseen diplomatic breakthrough between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin. And Walter Cronkite was the person who instigated it. With a tiny bit of help from me.
Interviewing heads of state
In the fall of 1977, just a few months into his term, President Jimmy Carter was taking an active role in trying to bring peace to the Middle East, where all-out wars in 1949, 1956, 1967 and 1973 were only the high points of violence that had gone on for decades.
But while Carter was working through diplomatic channels, urging the convening of a peace conference in Geneva, Cronkite and his executive producer, Bud Benjamin, had the idea to take a more direct approach.
No leader of an Arab nation had ever been to Israel, and Egypt had long been at the forefront of Arab hostility toward its Jewish neighbor. Still, rumors were flying that Sadat might be willing to meet with Begin, and I got a call from Benjamin while I was working the Sunday foreign desk at CBS News headquarters in New York.
“Ask the Cairo bureau to put in a request for Walter to interview Sadat tomorrow,” the soft-spoken Benjamin said. “And book a bird for 10 a.m.”
Satelliting from a Third World country was an uncertain business in those days. Even more unlikely: That a head of state would grant an interview on such short notice. I had serious doubts it could be pulled off.
But before I went home Sunday, word came from Cairo that Sadat had agreed. He would even go to Egyptian TV for the interview, since a live hookup from his office wasn’t possible.
Monday morning, the entire CBS newsroom stopped for a few minutes as Cronkite took his anchor chair. In front of him, a TV monitor showed the smiling face of Sadat, whose voice was being fed from a distance of 5,600 miles to a tiny speaker in Cronkite’s ear. At the other end, Sadat couldn’t see Cronkite (two-way satellites were never done and hardly exist even today), and it was an ordinary phone call that enabled Sadat to hear the famous anchorman’s voice. (A telephone provided by Egyptian TV had been dismantled by a Cairo bureau soundman, who attached alligator clips to the phone’s wires, sending Cronkite’s audio into a small piece in Sadat’s ear.)
With all the technical aspects working smoothly (they often didn’t), it was time for the interview to commence. Nobody had the slightest idea how important it would turn out to be.
Cronkite began by asking Sadat what his preconditions would be for an Israeli visit, to which Sadat responded with a long list of familiar Arab complaints about the actions — if not the existence — of the Jewish state.
Cronkite then asked Sadat again if these were conditions that had to be met before he would consider going to Israel.
Sadat: “No, they are my conditions for peace. I am ready to go to Israel any time.”
Cronkite: “If you get a formal invitation, how soon are you prepared to go?”
Sadat: “Really, I am looking forward to fulfill this visit in the earliest time possible.”
Cronkite: “That could be, say, within a week?”
Sadat: “You can say that, yes.”
‘Find out where Begin is!’
As soon as the interview concluded, Benjamin rushed from the Cronkite studio to the foreign desk, where I sat with my colleague, Scotti Williston, and my boss, Brian Ellis.
“Get the Tel Aviv bureau to find out where Begin is and see if you can arrange an interview for Walter right now!” Benjamin instructed. That was our cue to start scrambling.
The Israeli prime minister, it turned out, was attending a function at the Tel Aviv Hilton, which made things a bit easier for us. He agreed to talk to Cronkite, but satelliting from the hotel was impossible, and there was no time to get Begin to Israel’s sole feed point, at its earth station in the hills overlooking Jerusalem.
So we arranged a phone call from Cronkite to Begin that afternoon. A video crew from the Tel Aviv bureau taped Begin’s video and audio from a conference room at the Hilton, while Cronkite sat at his anchor desk, holding a telephone to his ear.
Cronkite: “Sadat hinted to me this morning that he thought it might be possible that he would be going to Israel, if the invitation was forthcoming, within a week or so. Do you think that’s realistic?”
Begin: “Well, if President Sadat is ready to come next week, I will have to postpone my trip to Britain ... and I will, during the week, transmit a letter from me to Sadat, inviting him formally and cordially, to come to Jerusalem.”
A few hours later, the separate interviews were assembled into a blockbuster CBS Evening News that stopped the world in its tracks and helped end 30 years of war between two seemingly implacable neighbors.
The very next Saturday, a jubilant Sadat stepped from his airplane into the balmy evening air at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, where Begin greeted him warmly.
The international press quickly acknowledged Cronkite’s role in bringing the two leaders together, even as a crush of reporters from around the world rushed to Israel to cover the totally unexpected visit.
Two years later, Sadat and Begin signed the Camp David peace treaty ending hostilities between their nations — a peace that holds today. The men, along with President Carter, received worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Prize for their accomplishment.
However, there was also a dreadful price. In 1981, when I was newly arrived in Israel as bureau chief for NBC News, one of the first stories I covered was the assassination of Sadat at the hands of Egyptian extremists who opposed their nation’s treaty with Israel.
Many lives were undoubtedly saved by the peace agreement he struck with Begin. But Sadat paid for them with his own.
First class travel, war and plenty of bribes
By PAUL MILLER
Fifth in a series
Published: September 25, 2009
IMAGINE FLYING first class to a
glamorous, international capital — Tokyo, perhaps, or
Moscow or Ankara. En route, with Siberia or Greenland
shining in the moonlit darkness beneath the wing, a
fetching stewardess in a stylish uniform serves you
Champagne and caviar, while you keep an eye on the $10,000
in your pocket.
When you land, you’re met by a driver with a Mercedes or
BMW who takes you to one of the city’s best hotels,
whereupon you occupy a suite, put the driver on standby
for several days, and hire an accomplished young lady to
be your translator/assistant as you prepare for your
hastily arranged tour of a border conflict zone or a
meeting with the country’s head of state.
The life of James Bond, you say? Or a wealthy venture
capitalist? In fact, that was my life as an overseas
network news producer in the 1980s. Except there was more:
My colleagues and I sometimes flew on the supersonic
Concorde. And the translator’s real job was usually to spy
A room with a view
After five years on the CBS and NBC News foreign desks in
New York, in the summer of 1981, at the tender age of 27,
I was promoted to bureau chief in Tel Aviv. For most of
the next four years, I stayed on the ground in Israel,
covering that country’s never-ending political
controversies and military conflicts. But during the
occasional periods of quiet in Jerusalem, I became part of
the NBC News globetrotting corps of journalists —
correspondents, producers, cameramen, soundmen and
videotape editors who jetted off at a moment’s notice to
God-knows-where in search of the latest breaking news.
There were about 100 of us, based in a dozen foreign
bureaus around the world, and if the Brokaw show wanted
the story we were sent to get, expense was usually no
Several times, for example, a camera crew and I were
dispatched to Istanbul for the sole purpose of keeping an
eye out for Soviet naval movements through the Bosphorous.
In those Cold War days, trouble anywhere in the world
usually merited sabre rattling at sea by the leaders of
the world’s superpowers, who would dispatch their latest
warships to the waters off the coast of Lebanon, Pakistan
or wherever, for the sole purpose of making their military
Because of its country's unusual geography, the Russian
navy’s quickest route from its bases in the Black Sea to
the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean was through the
Bosphorus — a narrow, Turkish waterway separating Europe
from Asia and passing through the heart of the exotic city
Turkey was, and remains, a staunch U.S. ally, so
traveling to Istanbul presented no difficulty for American
journalists. It’s also one of the world’s most glamorous
cities, combining the refined attributes of Europe with
some of the most intriguing culture and cuisine of Asia.
So we loved to go there.
Furthermore, keeping an eye out for Soviet destroyers or
cruisers passing through the Bosphorus was an almost
ridiculously cushy assignment.
I was a quick study, so in just a few months working
foreign news, I had become quite adept at picking hotels
for the establishment of NBC News temporary bureaus, and
it didn’t take long to identify a prime viewing point: The
Istanbul Sheraton had a perfect location overlooking the
narrowest part of the strait, and its modern architecture
meant it had large, floor-to-ceiling windows.
On many assignments, we wondered if the rooms we were
given were reserved for foreign journalists — and
therefore bugged. And the translator/assistants we hired
sometimes made no secret of their true purpose.
“I’m here to keep an eye on you,” they would say.
Wherever we went, and whatever we did, the intelligent
young ladies who accompanied us, and whom we paid $100 or
so per day, would report our activities to the Ministry of
Information. This was true not only in hostile countries,
but in friendlies, such as Turkey.
When my crew and I checked in to the Istanbul Sheraton
for our stakeouts, I’d take a one-bedroom suite for
myself, with separate rooms for my cameraman and soundman.
The living room of my suite, with a wide view of the
Bosphorus, became our headquarters. We’d mount our video
camera on a tripod and take turns ordering room service
and keeping an eye out. (While one of us was on duty, the
others could tour the Blue Mosque or the Grand Bazaar.)
Of the three trips we made to Istanbul for this purpose,
we found what we were looking for twice. The setting was
picturesque and a bit unreal — like something out of a
Graham Greene novel or a Paul Theroux travelogue — but
there was no mistaking the existential significance of the
imposing, grey-green warships with large red stars on the
side, bristling with missiles and laden with heavily armed
soldiers, that suddenly came into view.
Once our videotape was satellited to New York, Tom Brokaw
could tell our viewing audience back home on NBC Nightly
News, “Soviet ships headed for a possible confrontation
with the U.S. Navy today, passing through Istanbul on
their way to ....”
The high life
Whether in London, Belfast or Cairo, we always stayed at
the best hotels, carried lots of cash, rode in chauffeured
cars, and enjoyed plenty of late nights at the bars in the
company of women who thought we were fascinating.
The drinks flowed freely, because the hotels usually
cooperated in disguising bar tabs as phone calls or
laundry bills, which meant the NBC accounting department
reimbursed them, no questions asked.
The indulgences were justified, so it was believed,
because of the unforgiving deadlines we served, and the
dangerous circumstances we frequently worked under —
risking our lives in Beirut or Somalia for the sake of a
minute and thirty seconds on the evening news. If you’re
going to be shot at in the morning, why not get drunk the
And there were other perks for people like me. As a
bureau chief and former New York assignment editor, I had
an unusual amount of sway over which producers,
correspondents and crews got sent on which stories.
One memorable assignment in the early 1980s involved
traveling to Tokyo for a summit of western prime ministers
My itinerary turned out to be round-the-world, all first
class. I started in Tel Aviv, and then flew to Paris,
Moscow and Tokyo via Air France. After the summit, I
connected through New York and Paris on my way back to Tel
Aviv. (As usual, on the way home, I supplemented the
first-class airfare NBC provided with a few hundred
dollars of my own to fly on the Concorde.)
In the meantime, a young lady friend of mine who worked
in another NBC bureau and I coordinated our schedules so
we could share the Tokyo assignment — easy to do when
you’re the one who’s making the assignments. She even
booked the hotel rooms for the 30 or so NBC News staff
members who covered that particular summit. Little wonder,
then, that I found myself in the room adjoining hers.
In the suite that served as the temporary NBC bureau,
however, a swashbuckling cameraman from Washington took
notice of my friend and began openly flirting with her
during the off-duty hours between presidential photo ops
and news conferences. I was annoyed.
But not for long. Soon, my associates on the New York
assignment desk were calling with the regrettable news
that one of our camera crews would have to be broken off
for a late story in Alaska.
My handsome competitor was on the next plane out.
‘Your share will be $1,000’
War is hell. Everybody knows that. But it’s also chaos —
the kind of chaos that makes accounting difficult, and
which therefore presents unusual opportunities to make
money. Quite a few of my fellow journalists became very
adept at taking advantage.
During the Lebanon War in the summer of 1982, I was
surprised at how casually a bribe could be offered to me.
With the Israeli army surrounding Beirut, and with all
satellite communications from the country cut off, it
became the responsibility of the Tel Aviv bureau to figure
out how to get video out of Lebanon. And with the military
and political situation fluctuating, we had to constantly
invent new strategies. Competition among the networks was
fierce, and it was a challenge to stay on top.
One day, the president of an Israeli charter company came
to my office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya (a town
which was known for its small airport). He was a former
fighter pilot in the Israeli air force and obviously knew
how to navigate — in more ways than one.
“I have important friends,” he told me. “I can land at
the Beirut airport every day, if you want, and fly direct
This was a remarkable offer. A daily charter flight from
Beirut to the airport that was practically out my window
would be a major coup for NBC, giving us an important
advantage in getting the most up-to-date footage from the
fighting in Lebanon to Brokaw and the Today Show.
“How much?” I asked the pilot.
“$3,500 for each trip,” he answered. The Israeli currency
was the shekel, but his quote was in U.S. dollars. And
that wasn’t the only thing he offered with complete
“Your share will be $1,000,” he told me. Back home, that
kind of kickback would land you in federal prison. But
this wasn’t exactly Kansas.
For some reason, I turned down the bribe, and even
negotiated a better price from the pilot for his charter
flights. Later — after the front lines shifted and the
Beirut airport closed, even to my friend with the military
connections — I began to feel like a sap for being so
With no way to fly out of Beirut, but with the news from
Lebanon still the biggest story in the world, it became
necessary to hire boats to ferry video from Beirut to
Cyprus. I wasn’t involved in those negotiations, but I
soon learned the sordid details.
For several weeks, the owner of a high-speed motorboat
made a special arrangement with the NBC, CBS and ABC
bureau chiefs in Beirut. They would share one trip every
afternoon to Larnaca for $5,000, but they would each get a
separate receipt for $5,000, which meant they could skim
off $10,000 per day in profits. The people in New York who
paid the bills had no idea, of course, how much a wartime
charter was supposed to cost.
Later, when the airport reopened and it became possible
to fly from Beirut to Cyprus, an NBC producer on duty in
Lebanon created his own mini airline. He hired a small
plane and a local pilot for $1,000 a day, and then
chartered it right back to himself (and his network) for
five times as much. Good profit!
No free lunch
But there was a price for all the extravagance my
colleagues and I enjoyed, and the corruption some of them
In 1986, NBC was bought by General Electric, and one of
the first things the company did was send its auditors to
look at several years of everybody’s expense reports. If
they found something amiss on yours, but considered you a
valuable employee, they gave you the chance to pay the
money back. Otherwise, they fired you on the spot.
And looking at the colossal expenses that came with
running bureaus in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo,
Tel Aviv, Johannesburg, Moscow, Tokyo and Hong Kong, GE
had a simple solution: Except for London, they closed
them. And a lot of experienced people lost their jobs.
An invasion and its censorship problem
By PAUL MILLER
Sixth in a series
Published: October 2, 2009
THE ISRAELI military officer was
angry, and he demanded an explanation, so I gave him
one. But what I told him was a lie — one that would have
gotten me kicked out of the country or thrown in jail if
he had known the truth. In the view of this very stern
soldier staring me in the face, I would have deserved
harsh punishment for endangering his country’s security
during time of war.
To myself, my actions were justified because I was
protecting the integrity of news coverage of an
important international story. But looking back, it was
really just hubris that led me to lie, and to
rationalize doing so.
Now, with a lot more experience under my belt, and the
humility that invariably accompanies it, I regret what I
did. Except for the part where I tricked CBS and ABC.
That part was fun.
A lot of responsibility
In August 1981, having switched networks just the
summer before, I was suddenly named NBC News bureau
chief in Tel Aviv. I was 27 years old, and the
assignment was a very impressive one. The Middle East
made front-page news almost every day, and NBC’s Israel
office was one of its biggest overseas operations —
three reporters, a producer, five camera crews, a video
tape editor, an engineer, office staff and me.
Altogether, more than 30 people worked at the Tel Aviv
bureau, and I was their new boss.
It was going to take awhile just to figure out who was who, much less make sure we covered the breaking news every day and satellited it to New York to meet the deadlines for the “Today Show” and “Nightly News.” With the six-hour time difference from New York, I would be starting work early and finishing just before midnight five or six days a week for the next four years.
But I had no idea I was in for such a wild ride
covering constant tragedy and heartbreak. At one point,
I worked 63 days in a row without a single day off.
The roller coaster started with the assassination of
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981. At a
military parade honoring Egypt’s independence, one of
Sadat’s own soldiers ran up to the reviewing stand where
Sadat sat and shot him in the head, along with several
high-level officials sitting nearby. The soldier, it
turned out, was fanatically opposed to the peace treaty
Sadat had signed with Israel two years earlier. My NBC
News colleagues and I covered Israel Prime Minister
Begin’s trip to Egypt for Sadat’s funeral.
Soon after, it was Begin’s turn to fulfill one of the
key obligations of that treaty by completing Israel’s
pullout from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had captured
from Egypt in 1967. But Israeli settlers weren’t in any
mood to leave. In March 1982, a series of riots broke
out in the town of Yamit as Israeli soldiers sprayed
their countrymen with fire hoses, handcuffed them, and
dragged them from modern apartment buildings Israel had
built for them just a few years before. The buildings
were then blown to bits before the land was returned to
Rockets on the border
While peace was settling in over Israel’s southern
border, the opposite was happening in the north. The
formerly peaceful nation of Lebanon had been thrown into
chaos by a civil war that began in 1975, with Christians
and Muslims competing for political power. But it was a
group of armed foreigners — the Palestine Liberation
Organization, headed by Yassir Arafat — that gained the
upper hand. With Lebanon’s security in tatters, PLO
fighters occupied West Beirut and set up bases in
Southern Lebanon which they promptly used to fire
rockets into Israeli towns.
It was a situation no nation could tolerate for long.
And on June 6, 1982, Israeli launched a massive invasion
into Lebanon, aiming to push the PLO far enough from the
border that the civilians of Israel’s northern towns
would be safe in their beds.
The invasion succeeded brilliantly, and within a few
days, Israeli troops were occupying the hills
overlooking Beirut airport. The whole world was
astonished. And the speed of the Israeli occupation left
us scrambling to come up with new ways to get news
coverage of the war to viewers back home.
From behind the Israeli lines, which now stretched
across Lebanon to the Syrian border, it was just a
matter of driving video and audio from reporters and
crews in Lebanon back to the bureau in the Tel Aviv
suburb of Herzliya. In fact, because of the relative
short distances involved (123 miles from Beirut to
Herzliya), most of the NBC News journalists who worked
the Israeli side of the Lebanon war were able to get
back to their own homes every night, and bring their
videotapes with them.
(A noteworthy example was the day cameraman Yossi
Greenberg stopped his brand-new rented Volvo on a small
highway in southern Lebanon to capture some video of a
nearby town. While he was away from his vehicle, an
Israel tank convoy came down the same road. With orders
not to stop under any circumstances, the convoy simply
drove over the Volvo, flattening it like a pancake.
Greenberg then turned his camera on what remained of his
car, hitched a ride with another news crew back to Tel
Aviv, and presented me with the license plate.)
But the other side of the war — the Beirut side — was a
completely different story. Because of the fighting, the
Lebanon earth station was out of commission, and during
the months the war lasted, NBC and the other networks
used trucks, airplanes and ships to ferry video to the
nearest accessible feedpoint, which could be Israel,
Syria or Cyprus.
However, one of the countries used to transmit video from Beirut was involved in the war, and had a stake in how it was depicted to the world. Was the invasion of Lebanon an Israeli war of aggression, or of defense? When viewed in the short-term, the hostilities were undeniably initiated by the PLO. But they would say that Israel started the fight by being created in the first place. It depended on your point of view.
Thus, Israeli military commanders, who as far as I knew
had paid no attention to our little office before it
became a de facto feedpoint for news coverage from the
Beirut side of the Lebanon war, suddenly decided they
needed to monitor everything we were up to.
And this is how I found out what they had in mind:
I was sitting in my office one day in late June,
talking to the foreign desk in New York on the telephone
about a piece we were working on for “Nightly News,”
when my receptionist summoned me.
“Paul, I think you should come to the front office
“Is there a problem?”
“Maybe,” the receptionist told me. “The censor is
And he stayed for the next three months. During that
time, my relationship with the various representatives
of the censor’s office ranged from hostile to tense. And
it would have been much worse if they’d known how much I
'Your conversation has not been approved'
By PAUL MILLER
Seventh in a series
Published: October 9, 2009
THE ISRAELI censors who suddenly started
showing up at the NBC News Tel Aviv bureau after the invasion of
Lebanon in June 1982 didn’t waste any time letting my colleagues
and me know what our new routine was going to be.
NBC correspondents and camera crews were following the Israeli
army as it moved along a wide front to push the Palestine
Liberation Organization and its rocket positions away from the
Lebanon-Israel border. Every evening, as the video arrived in the
bureau, it would have to be screened for the censor, who would let
us know which shots could be transmitted to New York and which
Similarly, all scripts for either radio or television had to be submitted for approval. And even the substance of phone conversations would have to be cleared in advance.
As journalists for a prestigious American network, we were
accustomed to foreign governments taking a great interest in what
we did. But this was something new. Should we cooperate ... or
I was bureau chief, so it was up to me. But I had never dealt
with a censor before. It had been a long time since any NBC News
crew had been subject to routine censorship, and even my bosses in
New York weren’t sure how to proceed. Furthermore, since I was
certain our phones were bugged, I had to be guarded whenever I
spoke to anyone who wasn’t standing right in front of me.
We worked under very tight deadlines, and the censor’s
interference was certainly going to make it much more difficult to
meet those deadlines. The initial requirements were simple enough,
but still resulted in a lot of haggling as the censors nitpicked
our choice of shots and the subtleties of English words.
“No video that shows a body of water,” they told us. “And you
can’t use any picture that has more than three tanks.”
At first, these military rules — intended to deprive the PLO of
intelligence about Israeli troop movements and positions — were
complied with in the edit rooms at the Tel Aviv bureau, where
video that wasn’t cleared by the censors was omitted from our
daily reports for the “Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News.”
And pretty soon, our camera crews in towns such as Sidon and Tyre
started integrating the ground rules into their video as they
recorded it. During the early stages of the war, censorship wasn’t
that big a deal.
But the Israeli invasion was so successful — Beirut itself was
reached in just a week — that it quickly turned into an
occupation. And as news of the Israeli army’s stunning success
began to sink in around the world, opposition to the Lebanon War
began to spread. When the war became a political problem instead
of a military one, the censor’s role changed, too.
Soon, the uniformed men and women who spent four or five hours in
our office every day were not limiting their restrictions to video
that showed what the Israeli military was doing or where it was.
Instead, they started forbidding us to report anything that might
cast Israel in a bad light.
Shots of Lebanese civilians begging for food at a United Nations
aid station in Tyre, for example, were banned. A protest on the
West Bank couldn’t be shown — or even mentioned — to our viewers
back home. And anything that conveyed the PLO’s point of view was
My colleagues and I began to chafe under the restrictions and
plot ways to get around them. On more than one occasion, we
smuggled forbidden video out of the country. From time to time, we
managed to leave a line or two in a script that we had been
ordered to remove.
We were never caught — partly because we always pretended to be
fully cooperating. Since our phone calls were monitored, we
couldn’t even tell our bosses at Rockefeller Center in New York
what we were up to.
One day, I was on the phone at my home, discussing an upcoming
feed with the producer of the weekend edition of “NBC Nightly
News.” Suddenly an unknown voice interrupted our talk.
“This is the censor. Your conversation has not been approved.”
And then, click.
I called the producer right back. “Now I see what you’re dealing
with,” he said.
A controversial news conference
The ultimate test of my ability to do my job despite the
censorship came one day in July 1982, when PLO Chairman Yassir
Arafat held a news conference in Beirut to demand international
ouster of the Israeli army from Lebanon. The Israelis were guilty
of genocide against the Palestinian people, Arafat claimed.
The NBC News bureau in Beirut — unable to get its video out any
other way — sent the tape of Arafat’s remarks to me. But as soon
as I screened it, I knew the censor would prohibit us from
transmitting it. So I decided not to show it to him.
When that night’s satellite feed to New York began, I told the
Nightly News videotape room to start recording without disclosing
what was about to be fed. And then, holding my breath, I took my
chances by sending a few choice segments from the Arafat interview
up the line. I was breaking Israeli law, and I knew it.
The censors monitored all our transmissions and had the ability
to pull the plug. But, somehow, they didn’t. New York got the
Arafat interview just fine.
In those days, the networks shared satellite feeds, which meant
the producers of the CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight
in New York were watching the Israel satellite come in, and saw
our Arafat video. But their Tel Aviv bureau chiefs had shown their
video of the Arafat news conference to the censor, who told them
they could not send it. Refusing to be scooped, the ABC and CBS
producers in New York demanded their Israel bureaus feed the
Arafat video anyway, which they did.
The next day, there were serious repercussions for those other
networks. ABC and CBS had directly countermanded the censor’s
orders, and they were banned from satelliting for a week. But when
the censor who had screened our various video segments the night
before arrived at my office demanding an explanation for the
Arafat videotape, he was in a different situation.
“Why didn’t you clear the Arafat interview with me last night?”
he asked sternly.
“I did show it to you, and you didn’t raise any objections,” I
He paused. “Well, don’t do it again,” he warned.
And for the next week, we had the Israel-to-New York satellite
hookup all to ourselves.
'I hear something, but it sounds like gibberish'
- When you’re on live, there’s no telling what
will go wrong
By PAUL MILLER
Eighth in a series
Published: September 28, 2012
‘Can you guys re-enact the fight?’
From my first day working with Craig Kilborn in April 1990, I
knew he was a TV genius.
When I hired him to be the sports anchor at KCBA as part of the
team that would start up that station’s news department, he had
never been on air except as a college basketball announcer. Still,
I was looking for a sportscaster who could cover the highlights
for sports fans but also make baseball, football and basketball
interesting to people who didn’t care about them, and Kilborn’s
good looks and spontaneous wit made him the perfect candidate. I
guess I made a good choice, because Kilborn later became host of
“Sportscenter” in the early days of ESPN, anchored “The Daily
Show” on Comedy Central before anybody ever heard of Jon Stewart,
and was picked by David Letterman in 1999 to take over the “Late
Late Show” on CBS after the departure of Tom Snyder.
But when he was still wet behind the ears, Kilborn and I had a
lot of fun cooking up segments for small-town TV — me as the
seasoned veteran with tons of network experience, and him as the
out-of-the-box newcomer with nowhere to go but up.
KCBA was just getting off the ground as a Fox affiliate, and the
first thing Kilborn and I did was put on post-game shows for the
station’s broadcast of Oakland A’s baseball games.
Later, when we launched KCBA’s regular newscasts, I had a big
news department to run and two-plus hours of live TV to fill every
weekday, which meant Kilborn, everybody on the staff, and I had a
lot of improvising to do.
One morning in October 1990, during the meeting to go over
stories for that night’s news show, Kilborn said his lead was
probably going to be a heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas
between Evander Holyfield and Buster Douglas. But HBO had
exclusive pay-per-view rights to the fight and wouldn’t give
anyone access to highlights until long after it was over. Because
the fight was scheduled to start at 10 p.m., just as our late
newscast went on the air, I suggested he do his sports segment
from a local sports bar, where he could describe the blow-by-blow
action on HBO as it was being seen by the bar’s presumably
boisterous customers. It would be the closest thing to highlights
we would get while we were still on the air.
So Kilborn, a camera crew and a live truck were dispatched to the
bar, and everything seemed in order while news anchor Kirstie
Wilde and weatherman Sandy Lydon carried the show through the
first 17 minutes.
Unfortunately for us, Holyfield knocked out Douglas in the third
round, which meant by the time Kilborn was ready to go on, the
fight had been over for several minutes, and the bar was emptying
The quick-thinking Kilborn saved the day, though, by convincing
some of the bar’s patrons to stick around until he started his
sports segment. And he asked two of them to recreate the sudden
knockout sequence. It was hilarious — and brilliant.
Making fun of Bryant Gumbel?
The outcome was much worse eight years earlier when I was bureau
chief for NBC News in Israel.
At the time, the biggest controversy in the world was the
September 1982 massacre of Palestinian Muslims in a refugee city
on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, by Christian militiamen who
resented the presence of the Palestinians in their country.
Israel, which had occupied parts of Lebanon during the summer to
stop the relentless shelling of its northern towns, was blamed for
letting the massacre happen. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin
and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, were the chief scapegoats,
and were therefore highly sought-after for questioning by American
A few weeks after the terrible events, we landed an interview
with Begin for the “Today Show,” which would give anchor Bryant
Gumbel the opportunity to press him about the massacre. For the
live interview, Gumbel would be at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New
York, backed up by dozens of top-rate technicians and producers,
while Begin would be at his office in Jerusalem with just me and
my four-man crew. Still, as bureau chief in Israel, it was my job
to make sure everything went smoothly at our end. It sounds scary,
but it was routine stuff for TV journalists working overseas.
Except that, as everybody in my position knew very well,
“routine” meant anything could go wrong and probably would.
For starters, we weren’t allowed access to the prime minister’s
highly secured office until a half-hour before the interview was
to begin, which was barely enough time to set up the camera and
get the expensive video and audio links back to New York working.
And, as usual, the trickiest part was getting the audio from 30
Rock to Jerusalem. To save money, we usually set up that part of
the broadcast, which we called the IFB, by using an ordinary phone
line — an arrangement that was never very reliable.
While my cameraman, soundman and engineer worked feverishly to
get all the technical aspects in order, and with the prime
minister nowhere in sight, I tested the inbound audio myself with
the control room in New York. Five minutes before our “hit” time,
everything seemed ready to go.
The interview was scheduled to begin at seven minutes and 30
seconds past the hour, and with just a minute or so to spare,
Begin walked in and sat in his chair. I greeted him as the
cameraman set up his exposure and focus, and the soundman attached
Begin’s microphone and earpiece.
With everyone in their places and with the “Today Show” in a
commercial break just before the interview was to start, I urged
everyone to concentrate.
“Mr. Prime Minister, can you say a few words so New York can get
a mike check?” I asked.
“One, two, three, four ....” the prime minister said in his
heavily accented English. Good! He knew his stuff.
“And, New York, can you ask Bryant to say a few words to the
prime minister so we can make sure his IFB is working?” I asked
urgently. No more than 30 seconds remained before we were to be on
live across the United States.
“Good morning Mr. Prime Minister. This is Bryant Gumbel in New
York. Can you hear me?” a familiar voiced asked.
“I hear something, but it sounds like gibberish,” Begin said.
In New York, Gumbel and everyone in the control room laughed,
thinking the prime minister was making a sly joke.
“Ask him again, please,” I said. “I need to know if the IFB is
But it was too late. The director was already counting us down.
“Standby, please,” he said.
And before you could say, “technical difficulty,” Gumbel was
reading the lead-in to the Begin interview, the prime minister’s
face was on live, and Gumbel was asking his first tough question
about Israel’s responsibility for the Beirut massacre.
“Mr. Prime Minister, what do you think you should have done to
prevent it?” Gumbel asked.
But with the whole country watching, Begin just sat there,
silent. Painfully silent.
“OK, we seem to be having some difficulty with the satellite from
Jerusalem, so let’s go to Fred Francis at the Pentagon ....”
Gumbel said. And as soon as the video was clear, we started
It turned out that when Begin sat down, the thin plastic tube
feeding audio to his ear was crimped in his suit jacket. He
couldn’t hear a thing. After we straightened it, the interview was
able to resume right away.
But it took several weeks for my heart, and my reputation, to
Israelis love peace, but they also
love to argue
Ninth in a series
FROM 1981 to 1985 I was bureau chief for NBC News in Tel Aviv, and came away from the experience realizing that the country is unfairly maligned almost constantly. Even my own network did it.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, for example, was
characterized as practically a war crime by most media outlets,
even though the Israelis only did what any nation would do if its
border towns were being shelled every night by terrorists
operating freely in a lawless neighboring country.
Likewise Israel’s policies in the West Bank, its victories in the
Six Day and Yom Kippur wars and almost everything it did in the
Gaza Strip. I could never figure out why the Jewish State was held
to a higher standard than anybody else. No matter what the nation
did, it was judged harshly not only at the United Nations (which
operated practically like a lynch mob where Israel was concerned)
but also in the New York Times and on NBC Nightly News.
But if Israelis were inexplicably criticized for their insistence
on not being driven into the sea (as many Arab leaders promised,
and continue to promise, to do), and were always being called
warmongers when they, in fact, yearned for peace as much as
anybody, I also found that quite a few common beliefs about them
were spot on. Foremost among these was that Israelis loved to
argue, and they hated to back down. And since most of the people
who worked for me in the Tel Aviv bureau were Israelis, I learned
to turn these qualities to my advantage, especially when it came
to beating CBS and ABC on important stories.
‘All reporters must leave’
In the Spring of 1982, Israel was about to give up the Sinai town
of Yamit, which had been built on sand dunes by the Israeli
government in the mid-1970s to solidify its hold on land captured
from Egypt in 1967.
In just a few years, Yamit had become a thriving place with about
4,000 residents, but Prime Minister Menahem Begin agreed to give
the Sinai town back to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace
accords. According to the deal, Yamit had to be evacuated. Even
the buildings were to be demolished.
Most residents of of the town agreed to leave when the government in Jerusalem told them they had to. However, there was also a group of determined settlers who regarded Yamit and the entire Sinai Peninsula — where Moses roamed with the Israeli people for 40 years and where he received the Ten Commandments — as part of the God-given Land of Israel, and they swore not to give up their homes. As the April 1982 deadline for evacuation approached, it became clear that these settlers would have to be bodily dragged from Yamit, and that there might even be bloodshed.
Obviously, it was a story NBC Nightly News and the Today Show
would expect us to cover, and to cover well. But we also knew that
the image-conscious Israeli government would try to keep reporters
and TV crews away from Yamit so the world wouldn’t see the ugly
scenes likely to occur there.
With the expected deadline a little more than two months away, I
had a planning session with the reporters and camera crews in the
NBC bureau. The cameramen who worked for me were all Israelis, so
you might expect them to want to follow their government’s edicts
and stay away from Yamit if they were told to. But if you did, you
would be getting the Israeli character all wrong. They loved to
beat the system and were always trying to come up with ways around
the Israeli government’s news coverage restrictions.
“‘So how do we do it?’” I asked. “How can we be there when the
settlers are dragged from Yamit?”
“Why don’t we just tell them, ‘We’re not leaving’?” cameraman
Peter Sela asked. “They can’t make us.”
But that presumed we would have a crew in Yamit when the
crackdown came. Since we didn’t know its date, there was no
guarantee we wouldn’t be kept outside the perimeter and miss the
“We could live there,” Sela suggested.
And that’s what we did. With New York’s approval, I rented a
small apartment in Yamit, and for two months my camera crews took
turns living it in. When the government ordered all news men out
of the town, my crew refused to comply, as I knew they would.
“What can I do?” I asked the Israeli government’s spokesman, who
had conveyed the order for journalists to leave. “You know how
stubborn my people are.”
The other networks didn’t have the same access we did, and when the settlers in Yamit were dragged from their homes by Israeli border police and army, NBC News had the only video. Which means we had another nifty scoop.
And the consequences for breaking the Israeli government’s
coverage ban? Nil.
‘Don’t go below 5,000 feet’
We almost ran seriously afoul of government security forces again
a few months later. In June 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon
to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Army’s threat to the
country’s northern border.
The invasion was astonishingly successful, and in just a few days
forces wearing the Star of David had reached the hills on the
outskirts of Beirut. With the PLO cowering in rundown buildings
near the Beirut airport, Israeli forces shelled them at will.
Meanwhile, at the UN and in Washington, a solution was frantically
sought. There were rumors President Ronald Reagan would send U.S.
Marines to Beirut as peacekeepers, to protect civilians and
provide security as the PLO withdrew under Israeli pressure. But
were the rumors true?
One day in early July, an idea popped into my head. What if we
chartered a small aircraft and sent a camera crew out to search
the Mediterranean for a U.S. Navy ship with Marines on board?
There was a war on, of course, and sending a plane out to look
for armed ships — even American ones — was an exceedingly
dangerous proposition. What if they shot the plane down?
But, again, my Israeli camera crews were eager for the challenge.
Rafi Kornfeld and Dubi Duvshani got the assignment, and they
weren’t scared a bit. They couldn’t wait to (literally) fly in the
face of authority.
As it turned out, their hubris was justified. Sure enough, about
30 miles off the Israeli coast, a U.S. Navy helicopter carrier was
brimming with choppers and soldiers waiting for orders to land in
Beirut. As our tiny plane approached, a controller on the ship
ordered the plane not to go below 5,000 and asked it to identify
itself. The pilot said it was a news crew from American
television, and the Navy man courteously agreed it could overfly
the ship, as long as it didn’t go too low.
When the airplane and crew returned to base, we were all elated. And Tom Brokaw was able to open his Nightly News broadcast with a big exclusive: “Tonight, American Marines are just off the coast of Lebanon ....”
When you find out your colleague was a spy