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One Reporter's Opinion: The Story of the Evening News

Friday, 24 May 2002 12:00 AM

With questions being asked about the future of the Evening News, and talented newsmen like Ted Koppel and those left over from the old school of electronic journalism, I'd like to share with you how the Evening News began.

It was the last day of August, first day of September, 1939. I had recently joined NBC New York. The chief announcer, Pat Kelly, told me to dash to the newsroom. Abe Schechter, the news director [a true pioneer of radio news who became the first VP of news for NBC and, during WWII, senior PR officer for Gen. MacArthur] sent me to a bank of teletype machines, where I began reading bulletins as they came in.

Those bulletins concerned Adolf Hitler's pronouncement that he had lost patience in attempting to deal with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the British government; that he was going to move on his road of conquest; that the troops would march, the tanks would roll, the planes would fly; that the Blitzkrieg would be on.

I read the bulletin cold and flawlessly, little aware that over my shoulder stood David Sarnoff (RCA president), John Royal (NBC VP) and Niles Trammel (NBC president) - all of the bigwigs of NBC.

When I had finished, David Sarnoff called me to his office and said that he wished to assign me to a 15-minute newscast on WEAF. Prior to that time - prior to WWII - NBC had not had a regularly scheduled 15-minute newscast. Most news reports were either five minutes or bulletins as they broke. These were the days before Cronkite and Murrow, Huntley and Brinkley and all the rest.

My initial broadcast was one of the first sponsored. As I recall, RCA and Alka Seltzer picked up the tab.

Lowell Thomas (one of America's foremost commentators) asked me to join him at Fox Movietone News. They put out two newsreels a week, and I became one of their commentators. David Sarnoff decided to use Movietone News in what was to become the Camel newsreel, sponsored by Camel cigarettes.

Edmund Reek was the producer of Movietone News and contracted with Sarnoff to present an evening newsreel. I suggested to Ed Reek that Ed Thorgerson, the sports and special events reporter, and I host the newsreel along with the film Movietone News was providing. Reek did not agree. I predicted that NBC would do exactly that ... and they did.

Enter John Cameron Swayze, who became the commentator on the Camel News Report - it was before the teleprompter; it was black and white television. Swayze was unique; he had a photographic memory and with the help of a few notes, was able to report the 15 minutes of news. He was succeeded by Huntley and Brinkley. Remember "Good night, Chet ... Good night, David"? And then, of course, Tom Brokaw, who is with us to this day.

And there you have it - in color - the story of the Evening News. I remember. I was there at the beginning. What might have been had Thorgerson and I been allowed to report the Camel newsreel in person? Oh, well ... maybe next time.

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With questions being asked about the future of the Evening News, and talented newsmen like Ted Koppel and those left over from the old school of electronic journalism, I'd like to share with you how the Evening News began. It was the last day of August, first day of...
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2002-00-24
Friday, 24 May 2002 12:00 AM
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