The Digital Journalist
Reuven Frank:
Some Things I Remember

by Ron Steinman

March 2006

I first met Reuven Frank in 1959. It was the start of a long history of mostly ups and a few downs. Our initial casual meeting developed into my relationship with a man who would be responsible for many of the best years of my career. This is a piece about my memory of some of those times, of stories I never told anyone, newly revealed. In 1995 my partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, Eileen Douglas, and I embarked on a book project that would be a look inside the TV news business. Reuven Frank graciously agreed to an interview. The book was never published. This is the first time we are publishing excerpts from that interview. I will intersperse parts of that interview with my memories in the hopes the reader will come away with a more complete picture of Reuven Frank, the man whose likes, unfortunately, we will never see again.

It was on a Sunday in late 1959. I was working on the film assignment desk at NBC News. One of my jobs was to get the raw, undeveloped film to where it could be processed and edited. Along with his duties as producer of "Huntley-Brinkley," Reuven also produced a weekly half-hour show called "Chet Huntley Reports." An early version of a news magazine show, it was on at 2 p.m. each Sunday. In those days we called that time slot the ghetto. I do not know how many people watched, but it could not have had a big audience. One day Reuven came to me and offered me a job in Washington as David Brinkley's assistant. Surprised and delighted, I accepted. It was the start of a long, and for me a remarkable and sometimes tempestuous relationship. If not for that relationship, I have no idea what my life would have been. A year after joining David Brinkley, I wrote a letter of resignation to Reuven saying that I found it difficult to work for Mr. Brinkley, that I was young enough and I would look elsewhere for work. Fortunately, for me, Reuven told me he could not accept that and he brought me back to New York as a writer on the "Huntley-Brinkley" show.

Reuven Frank at NBC News, Saigon, after the Tet Offensive.

Ron Steinman
I was still a newcomer in news with a background not nearly as deep as Reuven's had been.

Reuven: I got out of high school in '37. That was a time of the rise of Hitler, which is an important thing in the lives of people like me. We heard about it at home and stuff like that. The foreign correspondent became a person. News became a thing. Newspapers other than The New York Times developed foreign bureaus. It looked great to me. And, at home, of course, there was always something to read. You were always discussing world events at home. You were always interested. I could always write well and I guess I have a short attention span, which is what you need in journalism. It's a fear of boredom, I think, [that] motivates most people in journalism. Certainly motivated me.

Under Reuven's tutelage, I soon graduated to producing and writing segments for "Chet Huntley Reports," traveling to places such as Guatemala and Recife in northeastern Brazil. My world had rapidly expanded. I was not a very good writer and Reuven showed wonderful patience with me. I turned in many drafts of every script I wrote until I satisfied him that I was starting to understand how words and pictures worked together on the screen. His favorite question about much of what I wrote in those years was, "Is this fact or fancy?" Sometimes I had to bite my lip before I answered. When I did, often only a second later, I was positive about what I really meant. He emphasized both directly and subtly "pictures are the point of television reporting." It was a lesson I never forgot. As a writer, he taught me the meaning of silence, and how to find exactly the right sound bite to compliment the pictures to make the story come to life.

Reuven Frank, President of NBC News

Reuven: In 1950 I made it to night city editor of The Newark News. Then I got a call from an old classmate, Gerry Greene, who later became a successful novelist. He called me in July in '50 and said there are jobs up here. Up here being 106th Street and Park Avenue. That is where NBC Television News was, near Pathe Labs, so they could get the film developed. I said I was not interested. He said, "You're insulting me. You work nights; you sit around all day listening to a new baby cry. The least you can do is come up here and look at it." That seemed reasonable to me. We walked into what seemed to be a theater. Fifty or 60 seats and a screen. And raised at the back was a platform, chest-high, and seats behind it with two guys sitting at the platform, and on the screen was 35-millimeter negative silent film rolling. It was something in the current news. The guy in the back was saying to the other guy in the back, "we could take that and do this and take this and do that." And I said, "That's a wonderful way to live."

Eileen Douglas: You were in love with pictures even before you knew it.

Reuven: I used to do picture stuff when I was on the city desk in Newark. I had nominal control of the first edition as night city editor. And I put crazy pictures on the front page that would never make it to the second edition.

Eileen: So you were made for television even before there was television.

Reuven: I loved working in the editing room. Manipulating the pictures. It was great. Telling the story. Making it a story. The rules, I guess, are very, very old. They are as old as communication. The first person who put it into writing, I guess, was Aristotle, right. You've got to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I used to say interesting is more important than important. If it's not interesting, it can't be important because you can't communicate. I also said that being interesting can be an objective fact. That's what we are trained to do. Important is subjective. It's something we leave for historians a half century from now. We don't know what's important.

Yet, in writing or composing a script, importance had validity for Reuven because he, and thus his staff, had first to deal with craft, and not history. The audience cared that our stories be interesting. If interesting, they would have significance, and then perhaps importance, at least for historians.

Reuven: Someone quoted me as saying, "'Once upon a time' are the four most important words in history."

Ron: I heard you say it a hundred times. I've heard you say it looking at scripts I turned in to you. You'd say, 'Once upon a time' and walk away.

My favorite Reuvinism is from the memo he wrote to NBC when it was considering changing the 15-minute show to a half-hour. I recall the buzz in the newsroom when people walked around scratching their heads over it. He wrote, "Film is a symbol, not a fact." Many asked what did he mean. When you think of it, it makes sense, and it made us think. That is all that matters.

In the early 1960s, years after Reuven joined NBC News and started to have an immeasurable effect on broadcasting, I had the good fortune to work on documentaries with him. In time, I ran bureaus for him around the world. We traveled to many parts of the globe together and shared pasta in Rome and risotto in Milan. We were in Hamburg for good beer and Munich for good desert. In Saigon we went to the Blue Diamond in Cholon for cracked pepper crab, the best in the world. In Asia, Reuven willingly ate with me on what we called "the economy," meaning meals in local restaurants where few Westerners ever ate. In Amsterdam where he and I researched several documentaries, including one about the Dutch Royal family, I estimate we consumed gallons of pea soup, one of his favorite foods, to help ward off the always-damp winter. We ate at Harvey's in Washington when it was perhaps the only good restaurant in town. We shared meals with the staff of "Huntley-Brinkley" at NBC headquarters in New York where sometimes as many as 10 of us ate at the same table. None of us wanted to figure the bill, but someone did and it was always fair. We had wonderful filet of sole at Wilton's in London and steak and fried ice cream at Jimmy's in Hong Kong. During the Vietnam War, he brought me to San Francisco in 1967 for a conference on coverage. Of course, we dined at Ernie's, as almost everyone always did. All those meals were not frivolous but part of the life we lead covering events around the world.

Reuven Frank at NBC News, New York

Working with Reuven allowed me to cover many important breaking stories and to be on the ground or in the control room for special events. After many stories abroad, Reuven would reward me with an expensive pipe. Yes, along with two packs of cigarettes a day, I smoked a pipe, though now I wonder why and how. But I did, and Reuven made sure my collection grew over time. I no longer smoke but I still have the pipes, in a treasured spot in my home, many of which are from Dunhill's in London.

One of my proudest moments was when Reuven referred to a few of us on his staff, including George Murray and myself, as his Ginger Boys. We were some of the people who went out and did things for him, people he could trust.

Reuven: 'Ginger Boy.' It's a British term. People who liven things up. Come in with unorthodox ideas. And there weren't many. Three or four. Five. I'd see something and it wasn't going very well and I'd ask people, 'What do you think we ought to do?' Just get an idea running around because it's so easy to forget what you're there for. It's so easy not to have fun in your work. I've been very lucky. I got in at the right time. I got out at the right time. I was never known for timing, but look at that. And I was never bored. I just was never bored.

We had differing loves of music. I preferred jazz, particularly hard bop. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis were in my pantheon of musicians. Reuven leaned more to classical music, mainly the Romantics, where I then favored Stravinsky, Villa Lobos, and of course, Mozart and Beethoven, whom we both loved. But he welcomed Duke Ellington into his heart without hesitation. Once I produced and wrote two half-hour shows on Castro's Cuba for "Chet Huntley Reports" that we built entirely from still photos and interviews. To my surprise, Reuven hired a great jazz bassist and composer, Eddie Safranski, to score the two shows and then record them with a big band. We went to rehearsals and then we cut the disc. It never happens anymore in today's TV. I can still hear Safranski's artful mix of jazz and Cuban beats echoing in my head. Somewhere among my artifacts, I have a 12-inch vinyl disc that I will listen to, if I can find it.

One day on an airplane together to Europe, we discovered that we were avid readers of mysteries, particularly those of Ross McDonald, which featured an angst-ridden detective, Lew Archer. We would exchange these novels and discuss less the mystery and more the psychology behind the stories.

During the Vietnam War when I was bureau chief in Vietnam, Reuven supported my almost every move, especially during the Tet Offensive, when he gave me everything I asked for and needed. Sometimes we clashed over what I thought were my wishes for the bureau, and the needs of my staff, but he was helpful in unexpected ways. My staffers from Asia – meaning the Vietnamese, the South Koreans and the Japanese – came to me once with a proposal that NBC deposit part of their salary into stateside accounts. I agreed and recommended to New York it be done. Those who ran business affairs at NBC were against it. They said it would be too much paperwork, and did not understand how important to morale agreeing to do it would be. I went over their heads directly to Reuven and he unhesitatingly agreed. Suddenly, what NBC then called local staff felt themselves part of the greater family. When the war ended and most of our Vietnamese staffers fled, they had money in America to fall back on as they settled into a new life. None know that Reuven was responsible for their nest egg.

In 1973, I returned from London. I became General Manager of News Specials and was responsible for a series of 90-minute specials almost every Friday night on the Watergate Hearings. For those who did not know Reuven well he could present a formidable front. His image as a creative and innovative leader, coupled with a towering intellect, made it difficult for many to approach him directly. Few were equal to him. Few really approached him head-on. Except for one: my wife Josephine. And here is how and why.

Winter 1974, I was in Washington for a live hearing on Watergate. Because of a terrible ice storm Lois Marino, Reuven's longtime assistant, and I could not get out of Washington. National Airport had closed. All the phone lines were down. It was the era before cell phones. Lois and I managed to get to Union Station but the trains also were not running. There we sat until the storm abated. We got on a train and arrived back in New York at dawn and first light. I finally arrived home many hours later and learned from Josephine that she had been on the telephone with Reuven through most of the night. She was still new in America – we had only returned from London less than a year before – and she did not know many people at NBC News in New York. She was worried about me so she called Reuven perhaps as many as 10 times throughout the night. He always answered the phone, was always a gentleman, and was always kind and reassuring. She wanted to call him at 6:00 a.m. to tell him I had finally arrived. I suggested we wait until later that day. The following day at work, I went to see Reuven to thank him for holding Josephine's hand. He rose from his chair; I thought he was slightly embarrassed. Then he said, "I could do nothing less. I wish I could have done more." He nodded, turned from me, exited his office and ambled away.

After running three foreign bureaus, my job as head of news specials proved too tame for me. I had to be hands-on. Stuart Schulberg, then the executive producer of "Today," knew my unhappiness and offered me a job as the Washington producer for the show. Of course, I accepted. I went to tell Reuven that I was unhappy, that I needed work that would give me greater satisfaction than an executive position at headquarters. He said nothing, turned from me in his swivel chair and then turned back. His immediate silence told me how furious he was with me. I hated that, but I decided to hold firm and not back down. He told me to take the job if I wanted but warned — with quiet control — that the bigger things he had in store for me would have to wait, if they were to come at all. In some ways, it was the end of an affair. We had a rift. I believe I disappointed him. In all the remaining years, and there would be many, we never discussed the issue. I moved up the chain on "Today," eventually returned to New York from Washington and ran into Reuven frequently. We would nod and go our separate ways. We hardly spoke after that day for more than 10 years, then only sporadically.

Years later when Reuven was president of NBC News, Tom Pettit, a correspondent and a good friend, had become his number two. I became one of the senior producers in news covering breaking stories. I was back in Reuven's good graces, but we still never really returned to our former relationship. I applied for jobs with him on several of his productions and he turned me down. It was only years later, after we were both gone from NBC News, that we started talking regularly again.

When he was writing his memoir, "Out of Thin Air," he called me frequently for my thoughts and memories, especially those during the Vietnam War. When I wrote my memoir of the Vietnam War, he graciously read my manuscript and offered suggestions. My favorite was his catch concerning a line I wrote about the bags we used for shipping film. They were red. They had a big "NBC NEWS" stenciled on them. They were sturdy, built to withstand long flights and rough handling. I called them onionskin bags. Reuven gently reminded me that they were replicas of onion bags, not made of onionskin, but composed of durable, almost indestructible plastic. I know this seems like a flimsy detail, but it was one only Reuven could catch.

The last few years were some of the best when, with a number of his former producers, we met with him for lunch every six weeks or so at a Chinese restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Reuven ate little, remarking that the reason he did not eat much was that he thought the food was not very good. He told me more than once, "At least they let us sit as long as we want." Which they did. Over the last few years, there were the occasional phone calls and there were e-mails, both in Reuven's pithy style. There is much more I can tell. There are many more stories I can relate. For now these will have to do while I catch my breath and realize he is no longer with us. Though he died at 85, he remained young in mind and spirit. Now, I as well as the others who sat with him at that table in the Chinese restaurant, have only good memories. Thank you, Reuven, for all those enjoyable, fruitful and superior years at NBC News.

ADDENDUM: Here now is a selection of some of the things he said to us in our 1995 interview. Some of these I had heard before from Reuven, others were new. All are worth repeating.

* "Time constraints of broadcasting are something no human being could even get used to. It's much worse than railroads. Trains are known to be late. Broadcasting you can't. It's split second. If you read news, it's split second."

* "Everybody would talk about the famous occasion when Walter Cronkite reduced a 15-minute script to the size of the print of The New York Times, and it filled a column and a bit. Somebody asked about it and I said, 'Well, I don't know. Sonnets from the Portuguese wouldn't even take that long. It depends on what you're doing.'"

* About being in the news business, he said: "It beats working in a bank. I don't know about being a pharmacist. It's something that never occurred to me. I think it beats the academic life. It's constantly involving if you are the kind to go into it for that reason. Very few people make the money that you read about, but if you are reasonably honest with yourself, you'll have a wonderful time."

* "The rules of news are primarily negative. And I guess they do involve trust and faith. You don't lie. You don't tell the truth in such a way that you knowingly leave the wrong impression. You don't mislead in anyway. You don't pretend. The rest of it depends on your audience. Depends on your competition. Depends on you. Who you are. And it's all very subjective. I don't believe in objective. Objective is a guy in a white coat. It should be fair in broadcasting where the reach is so great. Although that is being revised now with so many outlets. In the days when the three networks had a virtual monopoly, you had to be careful. But you shouldn't let fair lead you to being gutless."

* Eileen: "I almost got the feeling that you could consider people in news a brotherhood, or priesthood."

"A priesthood," Reuven said. "I think any group, any professional group, particularly one where there's so much oral tradition feels that way. An outsider doesn't really understand. And it's true of doctors, of sociology professors, of carpenters. It's very hard to explain because a lot of people don't really give a damn . . . and why should they."

* On management: "I was always, by the way, one who resisted change. Whatever it was, that was fine with me. The only time I can be credited with change is when I was faced with a situation where there was nothing. So, I had to figure it out. I had to invent something. I was always a company man, even though I hated management. One thing I learned in management and it's the only thing I ever learned in management. A lousy decision is better than none. Every decision was involving something that went on the air at a specific time. However long it took, it was going on whether you were ready or not. And the ready-or-not feeling of broadcasting is a great stimulant. The best time I ever had was the 1960 conventions. I always had a good time, except for management. And even sometimes there, but not too often. In management, you just have to get things done. Tell people to do things. Some worked very well. Some things I just had to get done because you get it done. Those were the rules."

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.