WASHINGTON — Suppose you want to give a party and invite lots of media stars but you aren't sure they'll attend. How do you get them to come? It's easy: You give them awards. That's what the Washington Journalism Review did with a party to honor the so-called "best in the business," and the ploy worked beautifully.
The CBS corporate jet in New York was loaded up with CBS News executives and Dan Rather himself, who did the news from Washington that night just so he could show up at the party and receive the award as best anchor man. Bill Kurtis came too, to accept an award for "The CBS Morning News."
Apparently CBS executives reasoned that it was so wonderful to be praised rather than be sued that the trip was worth it.
Ted Koppel (best interviewer) and Sam Donaldson (best White House correspondent) won awards for ABC News and, of course, showed up to collect them, as did NBC's Roger Mudd (best political correspondent). For them it was a trip of only a few blocks. The Washington Journalism Review is a magazine of scant means and minor reputation. But it put itself on the map with these crazy awards, voted by a mere 1,000 of the magazine's readers.
Because all the big guys showed up for the party, the meaningless awards now have meaning. And next year, there'll be glittery attendance as well, because everyone will remember all the coverage this year's awards got. It's either a vicious circle or a Mobius strip. Anyway, at least one man who made the trip from New York really deserves whatever miscellaneous awards come his way: Howard Cosell, that shy pussycat who was named best sportscaster.
Cosell arrived at the party with a small entourage that included, he said, his lawyer, to whom he referred all questions about the new ABC Sports contract he just signed. The lawyer didn't say much, and who wants to talk to a lawyer? My conversation with Cosell was interrupted every time someone he knew came toward him and he would bark out something like, "Tom, why do you write such terrible things about Barbara Howar?"
That meant Barbara Howar was in earshot.
Earlier, I asked Cosell why he didn't take part in ABC's coverage of the Super Bowl. "I'll never be identified with the NFL again in any way, shape or form," he said. "I made that quite clear." What did he think of the decision to move O. J. Simpson out of the booth and Joe Theismann in? "I think they're crazy. But that's their business."
He also said of ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge, "Let Arledge have his little whims." And then he chuckled.
Cosell will be guest-hosting one edition of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" this year, even though the program opened its season with a sketch lampooning him. Ah, but it was such a loving lampoon, and so beautifully performed by Billy Crystal, who played Cosell baby-sitting on a Monday night and unable to resist tuning in "Monday Night Football." Then he kept up a running commentary on what he saw that put his little charges to sleep.
Yes, Cosell saw the sketch. "Howard loved it," says Dick Ebersol, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live." Ebersol says he has been trying to coax Cosell onto the show for years. "The sketch took some shots, but it had some heart too. No one had treated Howard just this way before."
Cosell said he not only loved the sketch but "I introduced Billy Crystal to prime-time television!" It was on the variety show he did for ABC during the 1975-76 season. Crystal was one member of Howard's repertory company. Another was Bill Murray, before he went on to "Saturday Night Live." Cosell recalls: "Roone Arledge did not think Murray was funny. So he took him off one night and put in a rerun of a juggling act instead."
Another member of the troupe was Christopher Guest, now one of Crystal's colleagues on the new "SNL." The date for Cosell's guest-hosting appearance has not been announced. It was to be this month, but now it looks as if it will be on the last show of the season in May.
At the awards ceremony, there was one outsider who stood quietly in the back taking it all in. It was James L. Brooks, the brilliant writer and director who started with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in television, then made the feature film "Terms of Endearment."
He is planning a movie about politicos and media types in Washington. If he wants any of the media stars to play themselves, he shouldn't have any trouble talking them into it. The prospect of winning yet another award, an Oscar maybe, would be too much for them to resist.