• Old saying in the business: “Sports is the toy store of journalism.” If that’s true, then what’s news about entertainment?
• Would there be no turning back? Would the journalism gate-keepers ever let me back into the hard news fraternity?
• I’m a part of CNN at its post-Gulf War peak
During my time in broadcasting, entertainment news became so popular it birthed several syndicated TV shows such as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Hard Copy, shows that devoted daily half-hours to the latest showbiz news. This gave rise to the term “infotainment,” which had a second meaning as an epithet often aimed at television journalism in general, to disparage it.
From my days doing news at FM rock radio stations through my time at network radio I had always trod in that demilitarized zone between hard news and soft news. Because radio stations playing music in those days still included news in their programming, I was assigned to report on rock concerts and interview musicians in between covering breaking news such as the US intervention in Lebanon and the Grenada invasion. In a bio I wrote for the video production company I formed after leaving CNN I described myself “as at home in a combat zone as he is on a Hollywood red carpet.”
What really worried me at the time was: if I took a job that had anything to do with covering entertainment, would there be no going back? Would the journalism gate-keepers ever let me back into the hard news fraternity? Or would I be irredeemably tainted with the sugary-sweet scent of soft news? Turns out, it didn’t really matter.
Frank Radice produced a daily half-hour show on CNN called “Showbiz Today.” We had gotten to know each other out in the field, when he worked for ABC’s “Nightline.” Even after I had left ABC, he would call me up every once in a while and ask me to appear live on the show as a “music industry expert.” For example, on the day the Grammy nominations would be handed down, I’d go on his show and be debriefed by the anchor, Laurin Sydney: Who were the big surprises? Who got snubbed? Who did I predict would be the big Grammy winners?
Frank decided to have an “expert” on every day of the week. One day someone would hold forth on new movies, another day about television, and Thursdays would be mine to talk about trends, controversies or personalities in pop and rock music. I’d pick the week’s topic, write up a piece, and fax it to a producer at the NY bureau who would assemble some music video or file footage to go with it. I’d put on a sport jacket and go into the studio for the 5:30 PM broadcast. I’d set the story up in conversation with with the anchor, Laurin; they’d roll the taped piece and come back live to Laurin and me for a short Q and A. (It was called a “doughnut” – live talk surrounding the “hole” of the taped package.)
Then word came from the LA bureau that Frank was going to be leaving the show and his replacement was a guy named Scott Leon, who’d be relocating from CNN in LA to NY
Scott let me know he’d been watching my appearances and liked my work. After he got settled in, he took me to lunch one day to offer me a full-time correspondent’s job. He said his on-air staff was pretty great, made up of some sharp, attractive people who could do terrific interviews with movie stars at press junkets, but few of them had much experience with hard news or breaking news. He wanted me to be the guy whose phone would ring before dawn with the word that some celebrity had been arrested or hospitalized overnight – and would know how to swing into action and get the story up on CNN as quickly as possible. He liked what he saw in my resume´.
There was a slight hitch, though. I was to replace a NY-based correspondent who had been doing most of the music coverage; Scott was not a fan of his work. But shortly after offering me the position, Scott apologized and explained that he had missed the renewal window in the 13-week cycle common to broadcasting contracts and would not be able to dismiss the guy for another three-plus months. Could I wait that long? I was married at that time and my wife worked full time, so I said I probably could, and continued to do my once-a-week appearances on the show. Awkward: the guy who didn’t know I was set to take his job came up to me one day in the newsroom to tell me his father watched the show and thought I was doing really well.
For the next twelve years, spanning the nineties, I had a most amazing time as a CNN correspondent. “No heavy lifting,” is how I used to describe covering showbiz news. Sure, I did indeed get the late-night calls when a celebrity was arrested or fell ill and I’d have to “crash” a piece on deadline. But most of the time I was sent to movie junkets in far-flung places, reported on major pop culture social flashpoints, and interviewed just about every musician I admired — and some I didn’t.
Alright, occasionally there were mornings like the one where I sat in a TV van on Central Park West with the temperature in the teens, waiting for twice-an-hour live shots reporting on the hospitalization the night before of Michael Jackson on the eve of a live pay-per-view special. While shivering outside waiting for my stand-up I tried to think of a different way – every half-hour – to say, “Well, there’s been no new word from the hospital this morning, but here’s what we know from last night.”
Scott Leon was a terrific executive producer to work for. (His background in radio news had to have something to do with the simpatico we seemed to have.). In addition to overseeing Showbiz Today, he produced a weekly fashion program, “Style with Elsa Klensch” and between the two staffs of fashionistas and celebrity stalkers it was a toss-up as to how many divas he had to deal with.
The thing that really endeared me to Scott was his news philosophy. In keeping with the CNN mission of that time, he insisted on covering entertainment news no differently from, say, business news. Compared to the syndicated competition like Access Hollywood, we did far fewer puff pieces and far more reporting on trends and issues at the intersection of pop culture and society in general. I felt good about the segue I had made into showbiz news.
The Showbiz Today talent bookers who were the “middlemen” between correspondents and the entertainers we would interview and/or profile would tell me sometimes that a certain musician – or their publicist – had requested specifically that I get the assignment. Now, I wasn’t naïve; that’s what any good publicist does to butter up a media person. But more than once a PR rep would marvel that I had actually listened to a new album before interviewing the musician. It was hard to believe that some reporters, who- if they did any research or prep at all – would only read the press notes provided by the label. (Of course, that’s why the notes were created.) But I wanted to have a real conversation with the interviewee and thought it was the least I could do, out of simple respect, to familiarize myself with the work.
In the CNN bureau across the street from Madison Square Garden my office-mate was Bill Tush, an original employee of Ted Turner’s Superstation in Atlanta. Bill is an irrepressible wit. On days when we didn’t have a piece in the show we would go ‘round the corner to an Irish pub to drink lunch and crack wise about everything and everyone. Back in the office afterward, Bill would turn on Bob Ross’s painting show and fall asleep to the soothing descriptions of “happy little trees.” I would surf the web with the high-speed connection CNN had in the early ‘90s that beat anything Prodigy or AOL offered for home computers. That was on the days neither of us had a piece in the 5:30 show. On other days we actually worked, honest. It was the merger of CNN’s parent company Time-Warner with AOL that brought my days at CNN to an end in 2001. In order to service debt, cutbacks and layoffs followed and Showbiz Today was cancelled.
My favorite CNN New York story was one I didn’t witness because it happened before I arrived there. Ted Turner was showing his new bride, Jane Fonda, around the bureau. Fonda was at the height of her fame as host of workout videos on VHS cassettes. Ted and Jane ran into Laurin Sydney. The Showbiz anchor was one of the many blonde women Turner seemed to like to hire and flirt with. She was coming out of her office with an armful of empty Evian water bottles for recycling when Turner encountered her and introduced her to Fonda.
“What are you doing drinking all that water, darling?” he asked Laurin. “You’re in great shape.”
“Why thank you, Ted,” said Sydney. “I do Jane Fonda every day. And, come to think of it . . . . so do you!”
After a pause, during which Laurin says she saw her whole career passing in front of her eyes, Ted and Jane fell out laughing.