Looking Back | NBC’s Washington bureau under Truman

Editor note: This article is reprinted from the October 1953 issue of Radio Age that is in the public domain. As an escapism to recent events in Washington, it is a look back to life in the NBC Washington bureau when television news was still in its infancy.


“You’ve Got to be a Diplomat To Film Washington News for NBC-TV”

By Robert Abernathy
General Assignment Reporter, WNBW-TV
National Broadcasting Co.,
Washington, D. C.

One of the touchiest jobs NBC’s Washington Bureau has to do is to cover the news of the Capital on film. It’s not enough for the cameramen and soundmen to know their trades technically — they’ve also got to be rare combinations of athlete, artist, and, most of all, diplomat.

From time to time Washington gets its share of good spot news like train wrecks and moonshine raids and, once, an assassination attempt on President Truman. The film crews get their share of drama, too, like the time one of the cameramen was thrown twice into a Cuban jail. But most of the time the big news in Washington is what somebody says or thinks — -statements, opinions, arguments.

And this is where the diplomacy comes in. How do you tell the President he’d look a lot better if he’d comb his hair? How do you tell a United States Senator that the statement he’s prepared is just plain too long, and he’d better cut it to one minute? How do you convince a wary new Cabinet member that he should explain his ideas for the cameras so the nation’s TV audience can get to know him?

Somehow, through excellent contacts and Old World tact, NBC’s Washington camera crews get their stories. Usually, they get them as they want them, with hair combed and statements cut.

Eight Years to Develop Techniques

Brad Kress and John Langenegger

Bringing the personalities and ideas of Washington into millions of television homes, through film, is a technique NBC has been perfecting for over eight years. The Washington film crews shoot for the Camel News Caravan, TODAY, the syndicated Daily News Service, New York’s 11th Hour News, and Washington’s Richard Harkness. cover the Capitol. Al Simonson and John Hofen cover the White House. Irving Heitzner takes the rest.

Each morning in the NBC newsroom, Central Newsdesk Manager Art Barriault and Camera Assignment Editor Bill Corrigan survey the stories that seem most important for the day and contact the crews. There’s an important arrival at the National Airport, and Irving Heitzner is on his way to get 100 feet of silent footage. There’s a hearing on the Hill that may get hot. Brad Kress and John Langenegger set up to record whatever happens. A key Washington figure visits the President. Simonson and Hofen are waiting for him when he comes out.

As the day’s Washington news breaks, it’s up to Barriault and Corrigan to dispatch the crews so that the top stories are covered — without exception. Sometimes the crews have to make mad dashes across town to be on hand for the next news conference. But they make it. A big help in speedy coverage is the NBC station wagon, equipped with radio-telephone for contact at all times.

Once the film is shot, it’s picked up by NBC’s motorcycle courier, Jim Curtis. He threads his way through Washington’s crowded streets to the lab where the film is processed or to the airport where it’s shipped direct to New York. Always, Curtis has to move in a hurry.

In 1949, Senator Tom Connolly announced at seven o’clock one evening that the first appropriation for Western Europe had just been passed to implement the North Atlantic Treaty. Brad Kress shot the statement and handed the film to Curtis. Jim ran for his motorcycle and headed for the lab, three miles away. The film was processed and edited and handed to Jim again. This time he took it to the studios, five miles from the lab. The film was on Camel Caravan that night, fifty minutes after it had been shot. Such feats, incredible at the time, have become standard practice.

David Brinkley supervises the editing of all Washington film for the Camel program. After conferring with the Caravan staff in New York, Brinkley edits the day’s top stories, writes a script to back them up, and goes on the air with the report at 7:45 (EST). Jean Montgomery helps Brinkley with the contact work necessary to set up the special features for which the Caravan is famous.

Through the years of TV news film development, NBC’s Washington Bureau has pioneered in the business of making the expression of political opinions interesting to watch. It has been a cooperative effort — TV has adapted to politics, and politics has adapted to TV.

The problem, of course, is mainly one of equipment. You could tape-record a Congressional hearing with relatively little paraphernalia and interference. But to cover it for TV, is another matter. Cameras and the necessary lights take up a lot of room. Committee chairmen in the Congress have understandably hesitated to permit film crews to cover their hearings because of the creation of what some of them call the “circus atmosphere.” But, gradually, the Chairmen have become more tolerant as they have learned to know the crews and, equally important, the effectiveness of TV coverage.

Once when Senator Hoey was conducting hearings involving the famous “five-per centers,” NBC’s Capitol Hill cameraman asked him if he could shoot the proceedings. “Yes,” said the Senator, “so long as I don’t know you’re doing it.” The cameraman opened up his lens and filmed the hearing without lights. It’s not a recommended photographic technique, but it worked, and it showed the Senator and his colleagues how NBC could adapt to their wishes.

Some rules stand inviolate. There has never been film coverage of a debate in the House or Senate, nor has there been sound-on-film coverage of a Presidential news conference. But the political leaders do adapt to television. Many times a Member of Congress will agree to express himself on an issue for the camera and when he does so, the statement turns out to be several minutes long and somewhat repetitious. The cameraman quietly points out that the take would be much more effective if it were shorter — and also, if cut, would stand a better chance of being used. The Member of Congress usually sees the light.

NBC has pioneered in shooting statements in several takes, changing the camera angle and distance during a statement, to make the story more interesting to watch. NBC was first to use a hand camera so a story could be shot anywhere. And NBC was first with the idea of getting film interviews in interesting locales.

Radio Unit Tours Soviet Embassy

Vice-President Nixon and David Brinkley discussed the problems of the new administration while riding in a government Cadillac. It was filmed for Camel that night. NBC crews have gone into the Senate Dining Room, the Senate Barber Shop, and a Senate elevator to get stories. They filmed one conversation between Senators Humphrey and Morse while the Senators rode horses on Morse’s Maryland farm. NBC was first to take the nation’s television audience on a tour of the highly restricted Russian embassy.

But the work is not all statements and how to make them interesting to the eye. Sometimes there is news of a more tangible nature. One morning last March the NBC cameramen were on their way to work when a bulletin went out over the radio that something had happened at Union Station. To a man, each cameraman went over to see what was up. The result was the best footage shot by anyone on the now famous wreck of the Boston train, the “Federal Express,” that had lost its brakes.

NBC’s White House cameraman was on duty a few years ago when he heard shots from the street outside. He picked up his Auricon portable sound camera and ran out to see what had happened. The resulting pictures, on NBC that day, told a vivid story of the assassination attempt on President Truman in front of Blair House.

Brad Kress and John Hofen recall with much enjoyment the time they tramped through the Virginia hills with a posse of Federal revenue agents. While Kress shot, the revenue men ambushed, and destroyed, one of the most productive moonshine stills found in recent years. The only problem was that the dynamite used to destroy the vats blew their contents sky high. For what seemed like an eternity, it rained fermented mash. Kress and Hofen spent days trying to get their equipment clean again, and had some difficulty convincing their colleagues that the scent they bore came from an external source.

Cameraman is Jailed Twice

And then there was the time Kress was thrown into jail, twice, by a Cuban dictator. Brad was in Key West with President Truman when Julian Goodman, Washington’s Manager of News and Special Events, called him up at two o’clock one morning. Could Brad get over to Cuba right away? There had been an insurrection and Juan Batista had taken over the government. Kress and John Langenegger contacted a Cuban airline near Key West. No luck. People could get out of Cuba, but nobody could get in. The NBC team climbed aboard anyway and brazened their way into Havana. They shot some silent footage of the Palace and then went out to a nearby fort where Batista was entrenched. In sound-on-film they recorded the strong-man’s proclamation that he was now dictator of Cuba. But then there was the problem of getting the film back to the States. John Langenegger, under pretext of being no longer needed, tucked the film in his shirt and boarded a plane for Miami. Kress was so jubilant he got on the phone and called Julian Goodman in Washington to report the feat. Twenty minutes later he was picked up by the Cuban police and thrown into jail. What Kress didn’t know was that all telephone lines were tapped.

But no sooner had Kress talked his way out of jail than he was picked up again, this time by the Army. Brad was back in his old cell before he could convince the militaristi that he had just been released, and was no criminal. By this time Langenegger had bluffed his way back to town and the pair again went out to Batista’s fort. They shot the first interview, in English, with the new dictator. Langenegger flew out with the film, and this time Kress didn’t call Washington to report.

NBC’s Capital film crews don’t often get locked up, but their problems are many, just the same.

Al Simonson and John Hofen, who cover the White House, sometimes get word only a few hours before the President takes off on a sudden trip. But they make the plane, and follow Mr. Eisenhower wherever he goes. These trips take their toll on the crews, as well as on the speech-maker. During the 1952 Presidential campaign, Simonson and Hofen spent most of their time on the Truman train. Sometimes there were a dozen whistle-stops a day, each with its rush to set up equipment, shoot the speech, and then get self and camera back on the train before it started again. When President Eisenhower flew to Minneapolis and Mount Rushmore in June, Simonson and Hofen made the usual last-minute dashes to catch the next plane. But on this trip there was time out for ceremony. Along with the President, the NBC crew was initiated into the Sioux Indian Singing Tribe of the Wahoo. Al Simonson is now “Bad Wound” and John Hofen is “Chief Ghost Bear.”

Excitement with the President

Once, with the President, there was suspense and excitement that came too close to home for Hofen. He and Simonson were at Augusta, Georgia, with Mr. Eisenhower, making arrangements to return to Washington the next day. John had just received word from his wife, who was visiting in Charleston, that she and their three-year-old daughter were returning to Washington that night on the Atlantic Coast Line Champion. He was awakened at one in the morning by a call from New York. The Champion had jumped track at Dillon, South Carolina and he and Simonson should start moving immediately to cover the tragedy on film.

The rest of the night, the two drove from Augusta. They arrived at dawn to shoot their story and, for John, to search the wreckage. Finally they found a railroad official. This train, he said, was the coach section of the Champion. John’s family, with Pullman tickets, had passed through in the advance section just fifteen minutes ahead of this one. They were safe, by that time, in Washington.

“That was a long night,” says Hofen.

In addition to the trips, another problem is caused by Washington’s complex local government. In order to move freely about town for his pickups of film during the 1948 inauguration, Jim Curtis, NBC’s courier, had to have seventeen different passes. He pinned one on top of another and then folded them all up with a little tab holding them together, pinned to his blouse. At one intersection a policeman stopped him and said he couldn’t cross, didn’t have the right pass. Jim unbuttoned the tab, deadpan, and let all seventeen credentials cascade to his knees.

“Take your pick,” said Curtis. He crossed the street.

Some Officials Need Persuasion

NBC’s Washington TV film men have to know their trades and be able to move fast, but mostly their success depends on their diplomacy. Sometimes government officials, new to their offices, are reluctant to make statements when they’re in the news. It’s up to the crews and Assignment Editor Corrigan to persuade them that what they have to say is important, and that the nation should be able to see them say it.

And it takes a good deal of the same commodity to convince the President, when outdoors, that he’d really look a lot better on film if he’d take off his hat and let people see his face. Shadows over the eyes do not help.

What would Washington be like if the TV film men could have their say? Art Barriault sums it up for all of them.

“The millennium will come when every Senator and Cabinet officer can clarify the most complicated of political issues in a well-rounded, colorful, one-minute statement.”

The millennium isn’t here, but NBC’s diplomats with tripods are bringing it closer.