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Arledge no god, but in him we trust

December 14, 2002|Peter Lance | Former ABC newsman Peter Lance, a five-time Emmy Award winner, works as a novelist, screenwriter and investigative journalist. He lives in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at www.peterlance.com.

THE Times edition with the full-page obit chronicling Roone Arledge's career at ABC -- where he was president of the sports and news divisions -- had barely begun to turn yellow when Howard Rosenberg weighed in with a commentary titled "Arledge Was Good, but He Wasn't God" (Dec. 7).

I agree with him that in the post-Princess Di-JFK Jr. era, the media hype the celebrity dead far beyond their achievements, but I'd like to submit a minority report on a little-known side of Arledge, the brash redhead known for his safari jackets, Churchill cigars and chauffeur-driven Jag.

During my nine years as a field producer and, later, investigative correspondent for ABC News, Roone was broadcast news' equivalent to Ben Bradlee, the famed Washington Post editor who oversaw the paper's Watergate investigation.

It's true that Arledge kept ironfisted control of all four ABC news broadcasts. For us, the red "Roone phone" in each control room might as well have been the hotline to Moscow, with Arledge calling during live telecasts to dictate graphics or copy changes. It was the broadcast equivalent of Jack Warner giving script notes to every writer on the lot four times a day, seven days a week.

But the corporate weight he carried, having built the sports division into a money machine, gave Arledge the power to be a statesman in news. And while lesser men would have played it safe, he went out and recruited print reporters and investigative journalists to fulfill H.L. Mencken's dictum that "the proper role of a newsman is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." He hired Lowell Bergmen of "The Insider" fame; Chris Isham, the investigative producer who later brokered John Miller's historic "get" with Osama bin Laden; Brian Ross; and me, an ex-print reporter from a small-town Rhode Island daily whom Roone sent undercover for six months to break a Chicago arson ring as a field producer for "20/20."

Arledge was such an outside-the-box thinker that he gave me my first on-air shot for a "20/20" investigation on unnecessary surgery in Arkansas. We found that poor and elderly women were routinely subjected to mastectomies and hysterectomies even though the county hospital pathologist was finding normal tissue in pre-op diagnoses.

After a difficult week of shooting, the local D.A. called to say that he was arresting my crew for criminal trespass at the hospital. I called ABC News and the word came back from Roone: "Get your tapes out of the state, then surrender." The piece resulted in an Emmy and a $52-million defamation claim. But when the summons was served on ABC, Roone didn't blink. "We don't settle libel suits," he shot back. "Truth is an absolute defense."

And after we won a two-week trial, he called to congratulate me, saying, "I never had a moment's doubt." Then he added, "Of course, if you'd lost, your next job in broadcasting would have been at the Burger King window." I swallowed hard and he hung up.

That was his style. Roone always kept his reporters and producers on edge. But he continued to back me through stories on Pentagon cost overruns, Southeast Asia land mines and a probe of mob ties to the toxic waste industry that produced death threats.

So I beg to differ with Rosenberg, at least on one point: Roone Arledge wasn't God, but for a while at ABC News, to those of us who did investigative reporting, he was at least a cigar-smoking, safari-jacketed archangel.

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