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Commentary : Pop Goes the 'World News' Staff ... and Other Behind-the-Desk Stories

August 25, 1991|JAMES ENDRST | The Hartford Courant

There are TV stories I've never shared. My friends and family have certainly heard them often enough.

They've always made great cocktail-party chatter. But for one reason or another they all ended up on my version of the cutting-room floor.

But now I'm ready to tell all.

Last year, I spent the day at ABC News in New York working on a story about the rise of Peter Jennings and "World News Tonight" to the top of the ratings. My interview focused on the suave, sophisticated, globe-trotting anchorman, his international air and his network's world view.

It was, in general, a serious discussion, which is why I never mentioned certain atmospheric details of the afternoon, until now.

You see, the staff of "World News Tonight" loves popcorn. In fact, eating popcorn is kind of a ritual around the "World News Tonight" newsroom. Many, if not most nights, just before broadcast, the producers, the anchorman and just about everyone else in sight, pass around little baskets filled with the stuff.

Later, when I took a seat off-camera to watch Jennings in action, I witnessed a side of the man I would never have expected to see. Another reporter was filing his story, and the cameras were momentarily off Jennings.

That's when I saw him do it.

There, just a few feet away from me, was one of the classiest men in America with his forefinger deep in his mouth vigorously trying to dislodge a popcorn kernel from his teeth. I was so shocked (not to mention amused) that I barely noticed the woman who, during a commercial, appeared to pat and otherwise better arrange a thin patch of hair on the back of Jennings' head.

On another occasion, I found myself in one of the more vexing schedule conflicts I've ever had. I had been on a working trip in New York and after some effort had persuaded the notoriously little-interviewed David Letterman to sit down for a one-on-one chat. We had set a time and date, but at the last minute, as often happens with interviews, Letterman's schedule changed and I agreed to a different time.

Unfortunately, as I realized almost immediately after hanging up the phone, I had--just hours before--committed myself to an interview with CBS anchorman Dan Rather for the same date and time.

Both interviews were important to me.

But I had to make a choice.

I went with my gut.

I picked Letterman and called to apologize (through an understanding intermediary) to Rather, who I knew, frankly, was pressed for time and would be easier than Letterman to catch up with later.

I couldn't resist telling Letterman the story, though, and laughingly told him, "I had to choose between you and Dan Rather tonight, and I picked you."

The comedian looked more than a little surprised, chuckled and said, "I think it's time you seriously reconsider your career."

When I caught up with Rather a few months later, the tale of Letterman's reaction turned out to be a great icebreaker. Rather even seemed flattered.

I plead guilty to bringing out the crotchety side of Walter Cronkite, the venerable (but in my experience, less than avuncular) former CBS News anchorman.

Cronkite was promoting a special on the environment. At the time he was also having some contractual battles with CBS and was letting it be known he might be interested in taking one of the many offers he had in case things didn't work out. But even though he had much to talk about, I was told by a publicist this would be a 10-minute interview. And I confess I tried my best to forget about the time once I had Cronkite on the line.

Ten minutes turned into 25 or 30, and I could feel Cronkite's patience waning. I kept asking, "one final question."

Wrapping up with the touchy issue of his contract talks, I asked him, "What would you want in an ideal world?"

Without taking a breath, Cronkite snapped, "You mean besides getting off the phone with you?"

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