Unsung Hero II  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2002

Unsung Hero II   

They’re behind the scenes, not on the screen or on the air. Here’s a look at some of Washington’s outstanding but unheralded broadcast journalists, as well as some online all-stars.

By Nina J. Easton
Nina J. Easton is deputy bureau chief of the Boston Globe's Washington bureau.     


Behind the camera and the lights, behind the well-coiffed correspondent, behind the made-for-TV image, are some of Washington's least-known but most enterprising journalists.

They are a hidden breed: the off-air reporter trolling Capitol Hill for information on a fast-breaking story while the correspondent is tethered to the camera; the producer who--anonymous to his audience--works sources at the Federal Aviation Administration or Justice Department alongside his partner, who also happens to be a household name; the assignment manager who, day in and day out, makes the editorial and logistical decisions that shape news coverage.

These jobs can be risky in this competitive news town. The producer stationed at the House or Senate must judge whether a legislator's comments are worth a call on the "hotline," alerting the entire bureau. An assignment manager, with limited resources, has to decide whether to cover an event and to worry: What if NBC has the shot of the attorney general stepping up to the podium and we don't? The booker needs to be dogged enough to persuade a legislator to relinquish plans to visit his district in order to appear on her public affairs show--and enterprising enough to know how to track down a cabinet secretary at his vacation home before the competition gets there.

There's not a lot of glamour to these jobs. Off-air reporting can mean enduring an early morning stakeout or sitting through tedious congressional hearings or working the phones all day to piece together a story that the star correspondent recounts on air. A futures editor slaves to find out what's next on the national news agenda, but has already moved on to the next story by the time all that preparation is transformed into a broadcast. Longtime CNN producer Mark S. Allen, now at the National Geographic Channel, likens the process to the Truman Capote comment---"all that irritation with no resulting pearl."

Far more than print, broadcast news is an intensely collaborative process--a team of people is behind every piece. While some off-air reporters hope for the big career jump to the other side of the camera, most of the journalists featured here profess no interest in becoming on-air correspondents. And they are remarkably respectful of the demands faced by their counterparts. "It's incredibly hard," Jim Mills, senior editor at Fox, says of on-air reporting. "It takes a unique skill to synthesize all that complex information in front of a camera." Says ABC investigative reporter Ariane de Vogue: "I've never ever been interested in going on air. I couldn't sit with that crushing deadline and craft the right script to explain some complicated news." Adds "60 Minutes" producer Rome Hartman: "The skills are the same in terms of reporting and doing the work of a journalist. But you're either comfortable with the lights on or you're not."

Off-air producing in Washington, however, also means bypassing the standard career route of slowly working upward from small-town stations. These producers and reporters have been able to spend most of their careers in the hottest news town in the country, often covering national events right out of college.

What follows are mini-profiles of some of the unheralded stars of Washington's broadcast world, as well as those who do their work online. This report follows up a first installment, which appeared in AJR's May issue, on the capital's unsung print journalists. As with the first story, we don't profess this to be a complete listing but rather a representative sample of Washington's lesser-known broadcast talents.

JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL (author, TalkingPointsMemo.com)
Washington-oriented blogs (short for Web logs) tend to be long on author ego and short on groundbreaking reporting. Marshall goes a different route with his site, which features outtakes and fresh analysis from his freelance work for such print publications as The Washington Monthly. A former Washington editor for the liberal American Prospect, Marshall, 33, also lets his reporting change his mind: After extensive interviews on the situation in Iraq for a piece originally intended to criticize administration hawks, he concluded that "containment isn't working" and some sort of force is required to change the Iraqi regime. In between his writing, Marshall is finishing a doctoral dissertation on colonial American history at Brown University.

ELLEN SCHWEIGER (assignment desk director, C-SPAN)
C-SPAN is unique, providing round-the-clock public affairs coverage, generally without reporters or field producers. As a result, all editorial decisions run through the assignment desk, where the staff operate as investigators and researchers. Final coverage picks are made in an editorial meeting. "We're the communication hub," says Schweiger--and the primary contact point for the White House, Congress and the agencies. Schweiger, who has run C-SPAN's assignment desk for a dozen years, estimates that one out of 50 events in Washington each weekday rates coverage by her cameras. "It has to be an issue of national import, timely and featuring relevant people," she says. "And we watch our [political] balance every minute." The event has to qualify as public affairs--such as a congressional hearing--rather than breaking news. But since September 11, she says, that distinction has become harder to make.

CHRIS PLANTE (producer)
CNN viewers receive their military and intelligence news via the familiar figure of correspondent Jamie McIntyre. What they don't see is his off-air partner working sources. Until leaving the network January 1, that partner was 15-year CNN veteran Plante, senior producer for national security affairs, whose knowledge of military minutiae could impress even battle-hardened generals. During his seven years on this important beat, Plante, 42, worked from a Pentagon desk. (He was the first to report an explosion at the Pentagon September 11 because he was pulling into the parking lot and able to see what reporters inside the press offices couldn't.) McIntyre and Plante were an effective duo: Whenever news broke, forcing McIntyre to remain in front of a camera, Plante was free to collect and pass along new information from sources they had assiduously developed. Growing up in a TV family (his father is CBS correspondent Bill Plante), Chris' resolution to "have a life" rather than a demanding TV career ended when he accepted a job at the 24-7 news network. Now that he has taken a generous buyout, he's catching up on errands and life, but he's likely to return to the military beat. "Pentagon and intelligence sources are more truthful and less full of b.s. than [those on] Capitol Hill, the Justice Department, State Department, even local D.C. government," he says.

DENNIS P. DUNLAVEY (senior Washington editor, ABC)
"He is Lou Grant--and one of the best journalists I've ever worked with," says one correspondent. Formerly a senior producer for ABC's "World News Tonight" in New York, Dunlavey has impressed the Washington bureau since his arrival two years ago with an encyclopedic memory, skilled script editing and stubborn application of an old-fashioned news standard--that it's more important to get the story right than to report it first. "He's a stickler for sourcing and facts and doing the right thing," says one person who has worked with him. Dunlavey believes that with cable and the Internet stressing the "freshest, newest and latest," more traditional delivery systems have an added responsibility to make careful news judgments. "It's a little worrisome, the idea that breaking news, no matter what it is, becomes the priority," Dunlavey, 51, says of the new information environment. "We lose the distinction between what's important and what's not." Bureau colleagues say Dunlavey is not satisfied with merely following stories that have appeared in the Washington Post or New York Times. "He's always looking for an angle that's not the obvious one," says a staffer. Even with his high standards, Dunlavey, a Washington native and University of Maryland graduate, is well-liked in the D.C. bureau. "Reporters are like kids," explains one ABC correspondent. "Deep down, they want direction."

ELLEN McDONNELL (executive producer, NPR's "Morning Edition")
When you think of NPR's vaunted "Morning Edition," you think of Bob Edwards or maybe Carl Kasell, right? Who's ever heard of Ellen McDonnell? In fact, as executive producer for the past four years, she is a key reason why the show's audience continues to grow. McDonnell is a whirling dervish, a bundle of concentrated energy with a restless, probing mind. "She's so far ahead in her thinking," says a colleague. "When the staff is talking about tomorrow or this week, she's planning the summer." McDonnell has been with the show from the beginning, starting as a news writer in the fall of 1979, when nobody on the staff ever imagined the program becoming a mainstream news delivery system for 13 million listeners a week. "We just wanted to survive," McDonnell recalls. As executive producer, McDonnell is known as someone willing to break longstanding conventions and try new programming styles. But she's also conscious of the show's special status. Public radio listeners, who contribute money to the programming, feel a sense of ownership in what they hear. "It's also an intimate medium," says McDonnell, 47. "We're speaking to people when they're nursing a baby or taking a shower or eating breakfast. We're very respectful of being in their homes. They are also a very smart audience." McDonnell likes to bring to the show an "intellectual curiosity, a sense of wonder. I want the show to be interesting, yet playful when appropriate."

ARIANE DE VOGUE (investigative reporter, ABC)
The tall, French-bred, Indiana-raised beauty has no interest in being on air, or even toting a camera crew behind her. "She's a reporter's reporter," says one on-air correspondent who has worked with her. (Or, as de Vogue puts it: "I could never keep my hair combed long enough.") De Vogue had intended to become a print reporter, beginning her career as a researcher for the Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau. But after taking time off to travel and landing in Los Angeles without money or a job, she pursued an opening as a national researcher at ABC. She spent two years there on the fire and earthquake, Menendez brothers and O.J. beat, making a big enough impression to earn a transfer to the network's Washington bureau and the title of investigative reporter. Her first assignment was then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his emerging ethics problems. Thereafter, whenever a big story hit, de Vogue has been brought in to investigate--campaign finance, the Unabomber, the TWA crash, impeachment, Enron. Her work on the Ford-Firestone defective tire story helped earn an Emmy nomination for the network. As an off-air investigator, she can stay on the same story for weeks, often switching correspondents, while the on-air personalities are forced to follow daily breaking news. "You lose ownership, but you gain an amazing amount of teamwork," says de Vogue, who is 37 and continues her investigations while raising two young children.

MARK KNOLLER (radio and television correspondent, CBS)
As of May 21, President Bush had attended 26 political fundraisers. Sound like a lot? Maybe. But if you ran the number past Knoller, he'd pull out his computer, call up a file and tell you that during his last year in office, President Clinton attended 203 fundraisers and raised $105 million. Knoller could also tell you that relaxation and escaping the confines of the White House are important items on Bush's agenda: The president has visited Camp David 35 times and traveled to his Texas ranch about a dozen times. The Brooklyn-bred Knoller attended New York University intending to pursue a career in medicine. But in the tumultuous 1969-70 school year, with the Kent State shootings and widespread campus unrest, he wandered into the campus radio station and never wandered out. At CBS he covers the White House, filing radio reports as well as on-air TV pieces for the network's Saturday morning programming. Knoller, 50, may "look like an unmade bed," as one peer put it, and he's hardly a household name. Yet he's a walking catalog of details about the presidents he has covered, with dimensions of understanding that others lack. CBS assigns him to nearly every presidential trip "because nothing gets by him," says a network colleague.

MICHELE REMILLARD (producer, Fox)
In her high-school yearbook, Remillard's stated goal in life was to "save CBS Morning News." (Seriously.) She wasted no time pursuing that early ambition to become a TV news producer. At George Washington University, she learned the business firsthand from talking head Steve Roberts. She interned constantly and landed a job at PBS. But none of that prepared her for the most important part of being a TV news producer: knowing how to work with the small screen's big egos. When shout-show pioneer John McLaughlin came calling, she learned quickly. "I knew he was a challenge to work for, but he was the granddaddy [of independent TV talk shows] at the time," says the 33-year-old. "There was no Fox or CNBC." She was only 26, but willing to stand up to the talk-show host--something few others would do--and was rewarded with a job as his producer. What she couldn't handle was the revolving-door staff. "Everyone quit because of him," she says. When she told McLaughlin she was going to follow suit, he offered to double her salary if she stayed another three months. Her next gig was "Equal Time," with Mary Matalin and Dee Dee Myers, followed by Remillard's remake of "Politics with Chris Matthews" into the now-popular show "Hardball." For the past five years, Remillard has produced Fox's "Beltway Boys," a partnership she describes as the "Siskel & Ebert of politics." Ego is the least of Remillard's problems on this show: She's learning how to get two middle-aged white guys, Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, up to speed on pop culture--fast.

JIM MILLS (senior editor, Fox)
Mills covers the House and the Senate. But he prefers the less prestigious House beat. "It's much more in-your-face," says the self-described street kid from New Jersey. "You can catch a member in the basement as he's walking to the snack bar. The Senate is more protocol-driven, with 100 people who know that one of them could be president. With 435 members, they look at each other wondering how the rest of them got here in the first place." Mills, 49, got his start in TV broadcasting working for C-SPAN, where his assignments included taking Chairman and CEO Brian Lamb to Vietnam alongside a Senate committee investigating the whereabouts of missing American soldiers. Mills has been with Fox since 1996; his first big scoop was securing an audiotape of a closed-door meeting in which House Whip Tom DeLay admitted to being part of a failed coup against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mills notes that beat producers don't just work for on-air correspondents. "The nature of what I do is not just supplying information to a correspondent but to the entire network," he says. "A fair amount of what we do feeds into different shows." Other than that, however, his job is remarkably similar to that of a wire service reporter. "I'm more of a Hill junkie than a TV person. I go into my own bureau and I'm wowed and intimidated by all the hardware."

ELIZABETH WILNER (deputy political director, ABC)
The hot new must-read for the nation's political cognoscenti actually began as an internal memo for ABC staff. "Now party aides and consultants are calling in with items and spin," Wilner says. Known simply as "The Note," it was a snappy but comprehensive roundup of political news in the media. As it leaked out, The Note's following mushroomed, becoming a kind of CliffsNotes for political reporters. Now it's an official read on the ABC Web site, with 5,000 subscribers. The 32-year-old Wilner, the Washington point-person for ABC's omnipresent (though New York-based) political director Mark Halperin, is charged with putting it all together. She sets her alarm for 4:20 a.m. (breakfast is a Flintstones vitamin and a Luna bar), siphons material from 10 newspapers, collects input from Halperin and colleague Mark Ambinder, writes it all up and sends it to her boss for editing. The Note is posted by the time most political reporters are stumbling to their desks with the morning brew. In addition, Wilner, who started her career writing for the Cook Political Report, says she is responsible for "making sure all the ABC news staff and bureaus have all the information they need to cover day-to-day politics and to make sure ABC is prepared to cover the elections." Whew.

DANA BASH (producer, CNN)
Bash, who has a reputation around town as a determined digger, is a good match for this news-hungry cable network. She just turned 31, yet her name comes up repeatedly as one of the capital's most enterprising broadcast reporters. Bash grew up in control rooms; her father is a senior broadcast producer at ABC. She is also a political junkie, which comes in handy in her work covering the Senate as an off-air producer and contributing regularly to the online Roll Call Daily. After graduating from George Washington University in 1993, Bash worked entry-level jobs at CNN, such as assisting in the videotape library. But she made astute use of CNN's fluid lines of responsibility, volunteering on weekends to field produce and conduct interviews. Soon enough, Bash was producing CNN's weekend public affairs shows, where she did everything from book guests for "Evans & Novak" to edit Bruce Morton's commentaries. When she was appointed "futures editor," planning upcoming pieces, she developed sources on Capitol Hill that serve her well now.

CHUCK TODD (editor, The Hotline)
Every Washington reporter with a beat even remotely connected to politics knows The Hotline by now. Its online digest of media news, tips and analysis is essential reading for some 25,000 political junkies. A less familiar name belongs to its 30-year-old editor, Chuck Todd, who has been there 10 years--long enough to remember when reporters didn't have modems or had to go to Kinko's to fax their stories to him. "Reporters always respected the fact that we credited them" by name in Hotline items, Todd notes. "That always helped endear ourselves to the journalistic community." Along the way, Todd also created other publications for insiders with detail-deficit disorder--House Race Outline, focusing on the 200 most important congressional races; Hotline Weekly; and Sports Business Daily (which has since been sold), aimed at the professional sports world.

JIM POPKIN (producer, NBC)
Popkin made the leap from print to broadcast when he left U.S. News & World Report to join Washington, D.C.'s Channel 4 as an on-air reporter, and he hasn't looked back. Now he is partnered with Pete Williams as an off-air producer covering the Justice Department. "I like the process and how collaborative it is," Popkin, 40, says of television reporting. "Here at NBC, when you're working a big story there are so many people to help--all over the country and all over the world. That's been especially true [since] September 11." By now, Popkin is accustomed to covering big stories from his office at the Justice Department, where he divides the reporting work with Williams. Since he took on the beat, he's covered the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Elián González controversy, the disputed 2000 presidential election and the Robert Hanssen spy case. In the latter saga, Williams received a tip that an FBI agent had been arrested, and Popkin helped the correspondent pin down the details. They broke the story.

ROME HARTMAN (producer, CBS)
He may have a made-for-TV name, but "60 Minutes" producer Hartman prefers staying behind the camera. He began his career with CBS 19 years ago in the network's Atlanta bureau and rose to become the producer in charge of Washington coverage for the "CBS Evening News." When correspondent Lesley Stahl moved to "60 Minutes" in 1991, Hartman, now 46, followed and has been producing her segments ever since. Hartman describes the correspondent-producer relationship on the weekly news show as "very personal. Nobody tells you how to [divide the reporting]. It's five fiefdoms," he says, referring to the show's superstar correspondent lineup, "and real collaboration." But a producer can also guide the direction of programming. Hartman is particularly interested in business and economics, an angle he has brought to stories ranging from energy to professional sports. "I don't think TV does a very good job of covering business," he says. "It tends to be interest rates, up or down, employment, up or down, gas prices, up or down."

KEVIN ENOCHS (assignment manager, "National Geographic Today")
The assignment desk is the hub of Washington broadcast bureaus. As senior producer on the weekends at CNN, Enochs had to make countless editorial decisions each day and cover the news in Washington with only two or three reporters. At National Geographic, where he works for the channel's hour-long evening program, he culls pitches from more than 100 reporters and five producers all over the world. "He gets here at 7 a.m. and he never stops," says a colleague. "He's assigning, managing, writing, producing, making sure there is a camera and crew available wherever they are needed. If you don't think it's hard to find a very good cameraman at a moment's notice because Mt. Etna is exploding, you haven't tried." Through all that, the 37-year-old Enochs has to come up with seven compelling pieces a night.

JAY BLACKMAN (producer, NBC)
Blackman is the sole producer for NBC's prolific Bob Hager. That means covering hurricanes one day, plane crashes the next, aviation security the next. The 32-year-old manages to keep up, building a reputation for quality reporting in the process. In 1999 Blackman, who started in the network's mailroom 10 years ago, received an early- morning call from a source saying that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was missing. " 'Missing' could mean a lot of things," Blackman says. "It could mean he decided to skip Martha's Vineyard and go to Hyannisport for lobster." But working their sources over the next three hours, Hager and Blackman broke the tragic news of the crash. Blackman also knew through his aviation sources that the plane Kennedy was flying "was pretty intense and powerful for someone of that level." The producer thrives on reporting and "telling the story." "I've done one live shot in my career," he says, when Hager was on vacation. And that was enough for him.

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