Friday, September 4, 2009

Salute to Charlie Gibson: Scene Stealer

I was sorry to hear that Charlie Gibson was stepping down as anchor of "ABC World News." I think he is a good anchor and I know he is a good journalist. I also believe he is a nice guy with a pretty normal life for a man who achieved so much as a public person.

He's not really retiring, in spite of what the press releases say. He's leaving ABC because they've decided to replace him with Diane Sawyer and they're doing that because "ABC World News" isn't getting the ratings that Disney executives want to see. It's the way the TV business goes.

Charlie Gibson figured in what was, perhaps, my nearest Brush With Greatness during my years as a Washington reporter. Fortunately, with the passing of the years, I have been able to forgive him for the incredible success he achieved at my expense.

It was a Monday night and I was reporting for our 11 p.m. news at WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington D.C. I was in my thirties and in my prime. But it was a slow news night and especially slow because on Monday nights, ABC-TV aired "Monday Night Football," which meant that our 11 p.m. news didn't always air at 11 p.m. It depended upon when the football game ended. And that night it looked like it was going to be a late one.

I had filed my story for the late news and it was almost midnight when I asked the producer if he needed me to stay. No, go on home, he said. The show was all ready to go and the crew was just waiting for the game to end. My story was in the can. Not much big news breaks in the nation's capitol after midnight. Everyone is up much too early Making Decisions to Change the World to stay up late causing trouble.

I took about three steps toward the door and then I heard the assignment editor tell me to wait. "Bomb scare at the capitol," he said. "Take a crew and head down there."

Oh what a drag, I was thinking. We'll head down there, get about half way there, the thing won't turn out to be anything and they'll call us back. Meanwhile it will be 1:00 a.m. before I get home to bed.

We hopped into a news van with a microwave dish on the top and we began the circuitous drive from NW Washington DC to Capitol Hill. After about twenty minutes I said to the photographer, who was driving; "Odd isn't it, that they haven't called us back?"

He just nodded and on we drove. When we arrived at the capitol we knew why. There were fire trucks everywhere, police vehicles of all kinds, and yellow crime-scene tape around a section of the Capitol of the Free World.

The police captain in charge gave us a quick briefing: a bomb had actually gone off on the House side of the capitol, in a bathroom. Only one member of Congress had been working late in his office and he had heard the explosion but had not been injured. The police had no idea who had placed the explosives there. Since this was decades before 9/11, it was assumed some wacky Serbo-Croatians or One-Worlders or Neo Nazis were at the root of it, but police "were investigating." Still, it was an awful breech of security and suggested that something worse might be in the offing.

Robin doing a live report at the Capitol in Washington D.C.

Since all the other news stations had completed their newscasts and sent everybody home, our program was the only one with the story. I reported the lead story that night on our ABC affiliate, going live from the capitol, gave the details, and the anchors threw back to me several more times during the half-hour newscast, for updates. I was higher than a kite from the adrenaline rush of it all.

Then, during a break, a young woman stepped up with a notebook and said she was a producer for "Nightline" and said that Charlie Gibson, who covered Congress for ABC News was on his way in a cab from Chevy Chase to report on the story for "Nightline," but, if Charlie didn't get there in time, would I mind going live for a little Q and A with Ted Koppel, the legendary "Nightline" anchor.

"Why, yes," said I, with my calmest poker face on. "I can do that."

My cameraman and my producer were over the moon with the joy of it all and underneath my veneer of calm, so was I. Wow, what a chance. I was going to do a report on the network and people all over the country would see it and the network might even want to offer me a job and then I would be a huge success and then I would go on to become ... the mind races at moments like that.

I looked down at the yellow legal pad I always used when I was going live on television and I made some notes. I practiced what I would say. It was in the zone, if you know what I mean, and I was ready to go. Ask me anything, Ted. I'm there.

At about one minute before "Nightline." I looked around and saw no Charlie Gibson. The "Nightline" producer and I conferred and she briefed me on how it would go. Ted would open the show, intro me and then toss to me live at the capitol. I stepped in front of the camera with about forty-five seconds to go and let the photographer set his light and focus. The producer checked the live feed, and spoke to me in my earpiece, giving me a countdown to air time.

I looked up. With 30 seconds to go there was a movement in the crowd surrounding the police tape, inside which I was operating. A cab had pulled up. The crowd parted. Out stepped tall, genial, surefooted Charlie Gibson. Charles-Bloody-Gibson had found the only Iranian cab driver in the District of Columbia who knew where the capitol was. Bloody hell.

He beamed as he walked over and shook my hand.

"Hi Robin. Brief me."

In fifteen seconds, or less, I told him what had happened. The name of the congressman who had heard the bomb go off, what police were speculating. What would happen tomorrow. Who the police spokesman was. What were the officials' next steps. What Congress would do in the morning.

"Thanks kid," said Charlie, as he took the microphone from my hand and stepped in front of my camera. The cameraman glanced over at me for a nano-second and shrugged in sympathy and then turned back to the work at hand.

I stood and watched Charlie go live on "Nightline." He was really good, with all that info I had given him. He didn't even use one written note. He just chatted away with Ted like the pro he was. I hated him. Really bad.

My Brush With Greatness had been somewhat abortive. I could have killed Charlie's cab driver for being so bloody efficient. If that driver had taken just fifteen seconds more to make the drive from Chevy Chase ...

I did manage to recover from this terrible blow and continue my successful career in television news. Still, I've been aware ever since how much can change in a person's life with the passage of just a few seconds. Charlie's life and mine were always different, so our paths would have been unique no matter what had happened that night. And, you never know what heartache you might have been spared when you miss what appears to be the chance of a lifetime.

Still, when I feel like a good laugh, I remember Marlon Brando, sitting in the back of that cab with Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront and I think how funny it is that Marlon's speech is just the one I wish I could have delivered to Charlie Gibson, after that night at the capitol when he gave me that one-way ticket to Palookaville:

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley. It was you."

(With apologies to Budd Schulberg, Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, and of course to Charlie Gibson, who is a genuinely nice guy.)

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Devon C. said...

So with all of the old solid news anchors being replaced with old solid news anchors, where are the new and up-coming ones?

Robin Chapman said...

This is only my opinion, but I believe we are seeing the end of the nightly newscasts on the three traditional networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. I think eventually all the news will be on all news cable channels, and the traditional networks will put talk shows or entertainment programs in the present news time slots. It may not happen this way, but that is my guess.