Ron Steinman

An Excerpt from “Notebooks” an unpublished manuscript.

Throughout my career, I kept very careful notes, something more than a diary of my life and times growing up. These are some excerpts written by me when I was young. They come toward the end of the book and they are about my first big break in the business. The days and emotions I describe take place over a period of about five months, the crucial time for me in the job.

It was 1959. After spending about 18 months on the film assignment desk at night at NBC News, I was ready to move on, but to where I had no idea. I talked to the few producers who were willing to help me, but for the moment, they could offer me nothing. Then came my breakthrough. October 17, 1960. There is a way! Today Reuven Frank, producer and creator of Huntley-Brinkley, offered me a job as contact man, reporter and field producer-- without title---for David Brinkley in Washington. It means I’ll be Brinkley’s right hand and Reuven’s right hand. It’s the biggest break of my life and career. Naturally I’ll accept. Now I have to sit and wait. We didn’t discuss money. It isn’t that important. Reuven said it’ll be at least the same as I make in my present job. I’ll finally get the experience and credit I need. Reuven knows what I eventually want and I have the feeling he won’t stand in my way. Ironically, Rex Goad, a senior manager, turned me down for an increase today. He said things would change for me. News was going to expand, he said. Be patient---again--- he told me because in several months, or shortly after the first of the year, I’ll be in line for a new job. He said he needs me around the newsroom. So, I had a great day. When I was lowest, one firm offer came my way and I had the hint of another offer to come. I have a chance to be part of a daily newscast, a great place to be. Reuven told me to wait until he gets the papers and what he called “the head-count” in order. I will ask Reuven when he thinks it will happen and how much more money I can expect. Those two questions should be easy to answer. Now, patience will be a virtue.

November 18, 1960
I have an offer to become a unit manager and a faster entry to production. Speak to Reuven for his thoughts about what will be best for me. On the surface, unit managers look better but it does take me out of news just when I am beginning to feel I’m in the right place.

November 25, 1960
Washington is mine. I’ll go through the last interviews with unit managers to keep my options open but I’m going to Washington as David Brinkley’s assistant. Eliot Frankel, Reuven’s number two, says he’s trying to push through the Washington assignment for January 1, 1960. I hope they all tell me soon. I have many things to do before I can leave, including renting my apartment, packing and moving, shutting my telephone, even saying goodbye to my parents.

November 30, 1960
It’s official. I am going to Washington for Reuven Frank, the 6:45 news and to work for David Brinkley. I will be there immediately after the New Year.

December 2, 1960
Len Allen, who is my boss and director of assignments at NBC News, called me to his office today. He congratulated me on my new assignment and told me he was angry with management for not telling him sooner about my good fortune. He said he would like to hold me a week longer into the New Year before I depart for Washington. Len wants me “to break in my successor” and he said he wants “someone with as thorough a grounding in news as I, and my expertise in film technicalities and shipping.” Those were his flattering words. He also said he doesn’t want another desk assistant, copyboy, because none of the present crop is up to my standards. Len Allen wants to go outside to hire “a capable, experienced man from another organization in the newsfilm field.” I told him I would do what he wants but he should speak to Reuven Frank because I’m off to Haiti for my vacation. He said he would waste no time in speaking to Reuven.

I booked myself into the Alban Towers in Washington on Massachusetts Avenue, ten minutes by cab from the bureau at WRC on Nebraska Avenue. Should the new job scare me? New people are strange. I have to destroy their aversions and fears. I’ll need a little time to break them down.

January 3, 1961
I finished my first day of work in Washington. I consider it a mild success, though I’m unhappy with the story I edited. I’m confident I can make it with Brinkley. I have to keep lining up story after story, tossing them in his lap and seeing what he takes. A few more days will tell. I have to start getting around the city, finding an apartment, get to know official Washington.

January 7, 1961
This is the end of my first week. I edited all the Washington film used on the Huntley-Brinkley report. It’s been exciting and educational. Brinkley is a strange man to work for. I’m getting some idea of what he wants and more clearly, what he doesn’t want. I will propose several story ideas Monday.

January 9, 1961

So far Brinkley isn’t that difficult. But I wonder about the job. There isn’t enough for me to do. I’m sure that’ll change. After working ten hours a day at top speed, I find sitting and looking for things to do is nerve-wracking. I get jittery and on edge when my working life is too slow
Though I have done stories in the past, I must now think about the new audience, new angles and a new approach, especially with David Brinkley and his touch. I’m not really Brinkley’s “man” because he has all sorts of women working for him. They do his research. What am I to do with my extra time? There aren’t enough feature stories in Washington. This is a political town. It’s up to me to unmask the politics and find the humor and human interest beneath the beat of politics. I don’t know my way around. New York wants me to go find things to do. I have to start reporting. Brinkley says my story suggestions are old. I’ll find new ones, I say. First I must get cleared to enter the White House and other important locations. Without clearance, I can’t shoot stories. Balls. The barriers seem impossible. Brinkley’s assistants are so damn useless. They aren’t helpful. Worse, they are challenging me to do everything on my own. I will.

January 10, 1961
I’m looking to do a story in Newport News, Virginia, and another story on gambling in a small Maryland town. The cameramen are ready and willing to work with me and for me. They want to shoot some decent pieces and get far away from news conferences and congressional hearings. I’m working harder and doing more.

January 14, 1961
I realize I’m functioning as David’s film director, field producer and film editor. I don’t edit the film but I supervise the film editor and work with him closely. Last Wednesday I was up at five in the morning, flew to Newport News with a film crew to do a piece at Langley Air Force base. I flew back to Washington, edited the piece, gave David a scratch script that he rewrote and we had the story on that night. Thursday I was out at eight a.m. Doing a story in Georgetown. I completed the shooting Friday, planned my editing and rough script. David rewrites everything. Monday I’ll put it together and it’ll air Monday or Tuesday night. The directors are starting to make noise that I’m taking away their work. The camera crews tell me the directors would love my job, though the pay isn’t nearly as good as theirs. David likes directors, but he doesn’t trust their editorial judgment. Knowing that makes my job more interesting.

January 15, 1961

Working for Brinkley is satisfying, but I never know what he’s thinking. He’s painfully shy with me. I don’t know why. Or else he doesn’t want to talk. After two weeks, I wonder whether I’ll make it. No matter, it’s good experience.

The most excitement about the job is that I direct. I tell the cameraman what to shoot and how to shoot it. It means I have to see the sequence of scenes in my head as I watch the story unfold. I’m having a good time doing this. I learn from the cameramen, just as I learn from the film editors. These people are all patient with me because they are having a good time doing these short features, some of which run no more than forty-five seconds. Each day, with each new process, I learn more and undergo a new test of my ability to learn and remember. That is hard to beat.

January 16, 1961

I’m making good progress. Brinkley finally said he likes my work---so far. Without it said, I know I’m on trial. Each day it’s possible I might fail, at least with David and Reuven. Why didn’t they make that clear to me when I came here? Maybe that’s management’s way in news. It isn’t honest. If this doesn’t work, they can return me to New York. In a cardboard box or a pine coffin---it would not matter how.

January 22, 1961
In a note to Brinkley let him know that instead of race relations, he should use integration. A note is easier than a conversation. But Brinkley ignored me, anyway. Call Reuven for a long talk on whether he thinks I’ll be staying because I do want to remain.

January 24, 1961

Tonight I had my first real, fully produced story on the air. Reuven did not like the piece, but David said he did. David said he would let me know what he thinks, that is, whether he wants me to stay by the middle or the end of the week. I want to stay in Washington. Good or bad on last night’s story, I have done other work here that has been good. There are some people who surround Brinkley who would sooner see me go than stay. I have the support of the camera crews and editors but not necessarily the people on the desk, who handle assignments. They don’t understand where I’m coming from and contend I take needed people away from news. But Brinkley rules and I get what I want because I work for Brinkley. The experience is terrific. I need everything I can get from this job. It is goddamned frustrating being dependent on others, most of whom I don’t respect.

January 26, 1961
Despite his not loving my first effort, Reuven told me he is pleased and believes the show is better by my presence. Earlier today David came to the editing room to tell me he wanted me to cut all the film for the show tonight, including the confirmation hearings.

February 2, 1961
Washington continues to be beneficial. I’m producing, reporting, directing and writing, even if the scripts are rough drafts for Brinkley. I’m working hard and doing more than I dreamed. I know I have untapped talent that will take me very far. Others have recognized it. The job can now probably be mine for a few years. I can handle that okay. I have to learn to ignore some New York Huntley Brinkley staff, what they say and how they say it. Some mean well so I’ll practice restraint. I hope I can do it.

Reuven says it’s all but certain that I’ll be staying. He has to sign the final papers. While training I have a great audience in size and value. I work for and with top-flight professionals. It’s not bad.

February 6, 1961
Everything is rolling right along now and I’m still having a ball, working hard, but not playing hard enough. There are too few women here who interest me. It’s a dry time. I want to get into the field more. Editing film, especially committee hearings, no longer excites me and only after doing it for several weeks. Working the way I do now in film is marvelous. It’s clean, good, damn refreshing. The cameramen are starting to understand my needs and I’m developing a sense of style. There isn’t much you can do with style in short features or hard news stories, but I can try to impose some fresh ideas. Clearly my New York producers don’t always like the way I have stories edited. Their attitude is simplistic and stiff but they are in charge so I will comply but only to a point.

February 7, 1961
Now that Reuven Frank has said yes and is putting through the paper work, Brinkley came by to tell me that his decision is “favorable, definite and unequivocal.” He said those words in his best clipped cadence. Don’t anchors talk like people? Anyway, I’ll remain here now to live and work, to learn and create and maybe even write.

I’m looking into stories on the General Services Administration, what it is, why it works or not. I’ll try to do a mood piece about railroads in Maryland and Virginia. I have to call the Labor Department for Arthur Goldberg’s itinerary for a possible profile. I want to do a story about cleaning up the Potomac River, which I gather is something that everyone wants every year.

February 9, 1961
Okay. I’m learning something new every day. My job requires accuracy. I must be perfect in my answers to Brinkley’s questions, whether they are about a news conference, hearing, a story I’m working. It’s his right to know. He has the position and experience. If I don’t give him what he wants, Brinkley is very good at making me feel like a fool. I don’t like the feeling. In the future I’ll write all his instructions. I’ll make notes on everything he says and check them again before I shoot, cover or edit a story. When I report to him, I’ll have no doubts about his wishes and he’ll have all his answers. I must also be positive in what I think of a story, especially a news conference or congressional hearing. My news judgment will develop as I cover more stories. I’ll give him additional information he requests, answer all his questions. I’ll use his suggestions to change the film stories shot especially for him. If I disagree, I’ll keep my mouth shut. I can’t allow him to intimidate me. His tactic is to make everyone around him feel small. I refuse to bite or have him sting me with his sarcasm. He’s quick and clever with words. Words are his business, but I resent it when he attacks me. I can see that we’ll never be friends. I have no intention of becoming his friend. We’ll never have a discussion about anything. He closes himself off to common discourse. He doesn’t want to be my friend. David Brinkley exists hidden in the mordant hole of his self, a steel facade to the world around him. I also know this job won’t last forever.

I now have an apartment in a great location at 1500 Massachusetts Avenue, on the corner of 15th Street. My new home is a very large studio (18x13) with heavily shellacked cork floors, a small Pullman kitchen, a picture window facing the street and a combination dressing room bathroom for only $106.50 a month, including utilities and no security. It has central air conditioning, a necessity for the hot Washington summer. They will paint. There is also a front desk that takes messages, a laundry room and, of course, elevators. It’s mine as quickly as I can move. In more than a week I’ll be in my own apartment. I’ll start feeling more like me when I can live like myself again and finally be out of this deadly hotel.

I’m learning to deal with Brinkley by ignoring him and by staying out of his way when I can. I must get inside him but something tells me I never will. I’ll never get to know him. As a professional, I have to learn to care for myself outside his orbit. He’s forty-one. I am not yet twenty-seven. The bridge between us is light years. This is my lament about the man but not about the job. I see the job lasting no longer than a year. Anything more than that would be fatal.

I have some thoughts on the art of the documentary. I must deal in rhythm. Timing and pace to create a mood and direct the viewer where I want him to go is everything. Sometimes open a sequence hard by using swift cuts. Then pull back wide and build soft dissolves to relieve the audience’s mind by giving them warmth and passion. Always seize the mind. Wrench the heart. Move the soul. Stir the blood. Activate the eyes. Quicken the pulse. Allow the audience to be Lazarus inside himself. Then strike him down. Do it gently or harshly as dictated by the look and feel of the film. Manipulate when you must unless the material defies manipulation. Just in case I ever get the chance to do my own work.

March 9, 1961
I have come to realize that news as news for me is deadly and unrewarding. Washington is probably worse than most places. Although the news constantly changes, it has a pattern that never deviates. Mostly, though, in Washington, it’s about things, not people. When people are not part of the story, the event for me is useless. It is nothing. Reuven Frank and Eliot Frankel say they want stories about people. Brinkley does not. Brinkley wins. Time and patience must be my mantra. David is lazy, brilliant, inventive. Before I edit a piece, I always ask what tack are you taking today. He says he doesn’t know yet. Then he tells me to cut it the way I think best. I call him to look at the edited version and he says that isn’t what he wanted. What do you want, I ask? He shakes his head. I say why didn’t you tell me? He frowns, turns around and walks out of the editing room. Big help. It’s as if he wants me to read his mind. Brinkley does compliment me. He has thanked me twice. I’ll never treat anyone who works for me the way he treats people, especially me. We are from different worlds. Brinkley gets angry with me in public when I want to know what he wants. Other staffers in Washington who know David and his methods ask me how long can I take it? I tell them I have to take it because my future is in a job controlled by the confines of his mind. David is not the center of the world. When I try entering his world as a professional, he seals it off. I’m building friendships out of sympathy. Now I have to build relationships out of trust. I don’t rant, rave or scream at him now. In ten months I might.

March 12, 1961
I want to make films that will sparkle with the zest of life and scream the raw edged, harsh reality of truth. I want them to be gentle, melodic and flowing. The films should possess the spirit of fate. I’m searching through the eye of the camera. I must feel the subject I’m exploring and the camera must have faith in what I’m doing.

March 14, 1961
Television documentaries are almost all alike. The camera work is usually good but not outstanding. I see the same shots and the same rhythm in the editing. There must be a universal template that television producers use. Pacing is limited and unimaginative, except in the use of sound. The talking head rules. We hear what we should be seeing, and the heads talk about what they saw or knew. Film should show and it should have a brief explanation by a voice behind the picture or by a voice on the scene. The on-camera talker should rarely have a role. Documentaries on television rely too much on the ear and not enough on the eye. Television documentaries blaspheme the true film documentary. They are distinct mediums.

Note: By November 1961 after months of the same daily grind with an unapproachable boss, I decided I had my fill of working for David Brinkley. I had learned much under his guidance as strange as it was and I had confidence in my ability and my journalism. I sent a note to Reuven Frank and told him I will resign by the end of the year because Brinkley ignored me and often treated me with disdain. I knew he did that with almost everyone on his staff. I was young, and prepared to move elsewhere, where ever that might be. I did not care. After a long telephone call, Reuven said you can leave Washington but I will bring you back to New York as a writer to work on the Huntley-Brinkley Report in New York. I told Brinkley I was leaving and he merely grunted in his usual open manner, good-bye and good luck. By January 1962, I was back in New York and on my way to what would be for me a long, fruitful, exciting and prosperous career at NBC News.

Ronald Steinman

Ron Steinman began his career at 23 at NBC News and spent 35 years at the network. He moved from copyboy to producing segments and writing for the Huntley-Brinkley Report, first in Washington and then in New York then on to field producer for the newsmagazine show Chet Huntley Reports. He produced documentaries and worked on specials, including space coverage, before being named NBC's Bureau Chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He also served as Bureau Chief in Hong Kong and London before returning to New York to oversee the network's news specials. In 1975 he joined the Today Show where he spent 11 years in a number of senior producing positions in Washington and New York. After leaving NBC News he worked for 5 years as a freelance producer for ABC, among other things, he wrote and produced a series of A&E Biography one hour documentaries on O.J. Simpson, Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Timothy McVeigh, LBJ, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Rockefeller, James Earl Ray, and Jim Jones. He also produced for the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel. He produced 3 of the highly rated 6 part series for the Learning Channel on the Vietnam War called The Soldier's Story, first broadcast in October 1998, and the follow up "Missing in Action.", which has won a National Headliner Award and an International Documentary Festival Award. He is also the author of the book, "The Soldier's Story" published in 1999 by TV Books, and now by Barnes & Noble, and "Women in the Vietnam" published by TV Books in July, 2000. The University of Missouri Press published his memoir "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal" in October 2002. Steinman has won a Peabody Award, a National Press Club award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards, two Chris Awards and been nominated for five Emmies. His latest documentary film,"Luboml: My Heart Remembers,"a Douglas/Steinman Production, aired on PBS' WILW/21 in the New York metropolitan area April 29, 2003 at 10 pm.

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