Looking back on Willow Grove (Steve Capus, Senior Vice President, NBC News)
The Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania is in the news today. It was to be closed upon the recommendation of the base closing commission. But, an interesting legal fight has ensued. The Pennsylvania Governor, Ed Rendell went to court with a unique argument. Mainly, Rendell claimed the Pentagon had no authority to dissolve a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit, without the governor's consent. Willow Grove is home to the 111th Fighter Wing... and Governor Rendell is in charge of the Pennsylvania Guard. The governor's argument noted the State Guard units are the modern day descendants of the original state militias, commanded by each state's governor. This afternoon, a federal judge ruled in favor of the governor's arguments... and so, you can expect other states to fire up their legal operations to file similar action against the Pentagon. NBC's Chip Reid details all of this in a report for NBC Nightly News.
I have to admit, when I read the Willow Grove story on the wires, it took me back to my days growing up in suburban Philadelphia. Playing in the Capus family backyard in Warminster, Pennsylvania meant you could always count on an aerial show of one form or another. Once a year, the Blue Angels would go screaming overhead flying in their patented diamond-shaped patterns, just a few feet from each other. In later years, the A-10 Warthogs aka the "tank killers" would fly their maneuvers. We could always tell their flight patterns - and would watch as they would go through their drills over and over again - one plane after the other.
When we were young, Dad would pack the family in the Volare' station wagon with the decal of the wood paneling on the side, or the big Ford LTD. Our destination: the edge of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station property to watch all kinds of aircraft come and go from the air base. It was pure entertainment. I could hardly wait for a Navy plane to appear on the horizon, out over the Pennsylvania turnpike, make a sweeping bank turn over Route 611, head north directly towards us, pass over the Bazaar shopping center and touchdown on the long Willow Grove runway, adjacent to the Horsham diner. As that plane would taxi, another would roll out of a metal hanger, painted military gray, and head out towards the runway. Suddenly the distinctive sound of a helicopter rotor slapping the air would take over the moment -- and we'd watch a liftoff. I loved all of it.
The northern tip of the airfield had a collection of vintage aircraft. Each of them perched on a stand, seemingly frozen in mid-flight. All of them incredibly cool looking planes - including a jet with a paint job designed to make the nosecone look like a ferocious animal, complete with razor sharp teeth.
But those planes were from a by-gone era. They would no longer fly... and I suppose the days of busy military activity at Willow Grove will stop, as well. It means the summer picnics in my family's backyard will be quieter. It means we'll be less likely to run into military families at the diner. And that's too bad. Those families and those sounds are what made my hometown a special place. It wasn't unique -- after all, look at the list of the great military facilities across America. A lot of people have enjoyed being neighbors to these facilities. For us, this isn't a political matter - it just means the face of our towns is changing - and that's always tough to think about ... especially from far away in our new communities.
Katrina gets personal (Campbell Brown, NBC Nightly News)
Hey everybody. Campbell Brown here today sitting in for Brian. There is no debate about what our lead story will be tonight. It is Hurricane Katrina. The storm has already dumped inches of rain in southeast Florida causing serious flooding and power outages. Several people were killed. And it appears that was only a warm-up for Katrina. I am sitting in my office listening to the MSNBC meteorologist say that Katrina is moving now into the warm Gulf waters to regroup and "gather itself"... into an even more powerful Category 3 or even Category 4 hurricane. Katrina's prime target is looking to be yet again the Florida Panhandle. Full disclosure here. This has me a little bit stressed out. My parents live on the Panhandle. Hurricane Ivan ripped our house apart... along with the homes of so many other families in and around Pensacola. After almost a year of rebuilding, Hurricane Dennis gave us all a heart-pounding scare. And I hate to say it... but right now it looks like the folks in that same area could catch the brunt of this awful storm yet again. With a certain lack of objectivity about all this... I should also say anything can happen between now and Monday when Katrina is supposed to make landfall. We will have all the details tonight on how people in south Florida are doing today... and the latest on Katrina's projected path.
The other big story we are following tonight has been the source of enormous anxiety for people in other parts of the country... the latest from the base-closing commission.
Big relief in South Dakota... with BRAC giving a pass to the Ellsworth Air Force Base. A mixed outcome for Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. The base stays open for now... but loses its planes... with the possibility of closure in 2010. With thousands of jobs at stake for so many communities... Chip Reid tonight will explain who the real winners and losers are now and in the long run.
Hope to see you tonight. CB.
Editor's note: Use the mailbag below to communicate with NBC Nightly News or .
New Hampshire Diarist (Brian Williams)
Owing to pre-existing travel plans, today finds me in one of the few states where there is true celebration over the vote of the BRAC commissioners (a truly harsh-sounding acronym for the base-closure folks... but then again a soft-sounding name would give off the wrong impression) who have been breaking the hearts of communities across the country this week. While it's important to stress that their task is necessary to fulfill Pentagon goals, it's dirty and heavily-politicized work (all members had to be recess appointments because of roadblocks that had been thrown in their way) and the closures by definition outnumber the reprieves. New Hampshire this week received one of those reprieves, and you need look only as far as the page one photo in Thursday's New York Times to see the palpable effect it has had on a region that was very worried about a ton of jobs. While reasonable people will forever disagree about closing or saving any given base, it's fascinating to see the local media coverage of a story like this one -- especially the coverage on the three network-affiliated Boston stations last night.
Tonight's local newscasts, it's already safe to say, will switch their attention to Otis Air Base on the Cape -- and its role, both sentimental and strategic, in recent American history. It's a family landmark, for example, in the Kennedy family... for better or worse. President Kennedy always associated Otis with coming home -- he'd switch from plane to helicopter anytime he could successfully escape Washington to sail off the coast of his beloved Hyannis. His second son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, was born at the hospital on the grounds, but died just two days later. Many years later, Otis was where investigators collected the pieces of the aircraft of the President's only other son.
And since Otis is only 153 miles from Ground Zero, that's where the F-15s were given the order to scramble to protect the skies over New York on September 11th.
Otis's literal and figurative polar opposite, Elmendorf AFB outside Anchorage, Alaska (also on the list and thus in the news today) is a place I will always remember for its snow plows and salmon. I remember the nighttime re-fueling stops there when I was White House Correspondent -- always in blowing snow, in the dark of night. We'd be ushered off the tarmac and into a warm, dimly-lit hangar, where local Eskimo vendors sold everything from T-shirts to vacuum-packed smoked salmon from local waters. I further remember the smell of smoked salmon in the rear cabin of Air Force One for the duration of our post-refueling trip to Japan: there was always one member of the press corps, White House staff or security detail who couldn't wait to sample their purchase... and in doing so shared the aroma with the head of the free world and his entire travelling party. Elmendorf's nickname, "Top Cover for North America," is so perfectly evocative... and anachronistic -- it was the NORAD hub for the top of the world, at the height of the Cold War. Times have changed.
Tonight's broadcast, with my colleague Campbell Brown at the helm, will report on the latest round of closures and reprieves. Big stories nationally, colossal, life-changing events in the cities and towns affected, as I'm learning today first-hand.
Reviewing the bidding & calling some audibles (Barbara Raab, NBC Nightly News writer)
It’s 2:30 p.m. and the gang’s all here. All the Nightly News staffers you can stuff into a small office that was never intended for this purpose are crammed together on the couch, on folding chairs, on the faux-woodgrain shelf that lines the east wall, even on the windowsill, for our afternoon rundown meeting. (Brian usually sits on the couch, although he is not averse to the shelf.)
This meeting is a collective editorial reality check. It is also a final chance to brainstorm, to debate, to ask questions and express doubts, and to advocate for the inclusion (or exclusion) of specific stories before we make final decisions about the broadcast – final, that is, until everything changes all over again.
We begin by reviewing the preliminary rundown, story by story: what visual and editorial elements does each correspondent have? What will he or she be able to report? What else is going on that should be reported in the broadcast? Do we have things in the right order? Are we missing anything? Are we including anything that’s not really worth doing? What maps and graphics do we need?
And then, the final task: ribbons. Those are the titles you see on the lower-third of your screen: “Decision Day,” “Battle for Iraq,” “Gathering Storm,” etc. Those ribbons are the result of a friendly competition that officially begins when the presiding Executive Producer raises and, with a flourish, inverts a small, cheap, tacky hourglass that sits on his desk. (I am not making this up). Once the sands of time begin to flow, the free-for-all begins: anybody who is so moved can offer a 2- or 3-word ribbon idea. It occurred to me recently that there must be hundreds of accumulated years of professional broadcast experience engaged in this semantic game!
And if there is one thing that will inspire the collective scorn of the assemblage, it’s the blatant Hold & Blurt: the attempt to feign spontaneity by blurting out a ribbon idea that one has in fact been holding in mental reserve since the start of the meeting.
When we’re done with ribbons, it is about 3 p.m. The Executive Producer disconnects the speakerphone, looks up and says: “I love you all.” That’s our collective cue - the meeting is over. Everybody returns to his or her editorial battle station. I return to my desk and start writing. Time to make some television.
A picnic with the President (Antoine Sanfuentes, NBC News producer)
CRAWFORD, Texas - Last night we were treated to an evening at the President's Western White House, a 1,600-acre ranch, off Prairie Chapel Road here. The event is off-the-record, meaning we leave our cameras and notebooks behind.
The evening began with a so-called "security sweep" where, similar to what one goes through at an airport, one is checked and then considered to be "clean," thus ready to meet the President.
It is no small feat to organize the White House press corps, over 60 strong, into a half dozen white vans and then motorcade them to the ranch. This summer, of course, has been no ordinary summer, with Cindy Sheehan camped out along the side of the road and those opposing her views on the other - the van ride to the ranch is a reminder that our country is at war and the President we are to visit has much on his mind.
Over a fare of fried catfish, potato salad, coleslaw, and chocolate-chip cookies, reporters were offered a brief glimpse inside the presidential retreat as well as an opportunity to speak informally with the President. Historically, presidents invite the press for gabfests, usually twice a year - once during the winter holiday and the other over the summer.
Wild grasses and various flowers and trees surround the First Family's residence. The roof is made of metal and the large windows framed in natural rock overlook the property that includes canyons, streams and various indigenous trees.
Reporters engaged both the President and the First Lady on a wide range of topics. As the sun set just beyond the pool where we had spent about two few hours, we then headed back to the vans to make our way back to our hotels.
Tonight on Nightly News (Steve Johnson, Daily Nightly editor)
The staff at one U.S. hospital made a dramatic discovery that's improving the lives of their patients. And it doesn't involve medicine. How a simple change in hospital rules could help speed the recovery of your loved one. Tonight on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
'Warrior ethos' to blame? (Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News Pentagon correspondent)
WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's latest report on sexual harassment and assaults at the military academies was released Thursday and not surprisingly says despite some progress, harassment of female cadets and midshipmen is still a serious problem. But for the first time members of the Pentagon task force laid a big part of the blame on the male-dominated culture and what they called the "warrior ethos" found at the academies.
The nine-month study focused only on the Army Academy at West Point and Naval Academy at Annapolis and was ordered by Congress following a previous investigation of sexual assault scandals at the Air Force Academy.
The report says while the academies set out to "develop young officers' ability to exercise power and authority properly," research shows that "sexual harassment and abuse are highly correlated with power." Vice Admiral G.L. Hoewing, Chief of Naval Personnel and Co-chair of the Task Force says when you fill the minds of young male cadets with that kind of "warrior ethos," in a male-dominated environment where only 15-17% of the cadets and midshipmen are women, those male cadets can get "confused," saying essentially that sets the stage for sexual harassment and abuse. Admiral Hoewing didn't appear to be offering that explanation up as an excuse, but simply a reality that the academies and services have to confront.
The report also points out that women at the academies are not valued as highly as men because "female service members are a minority, are excluded from combat specialties and held to different physical fitness standards." The report warns that "when women are devalued, the likelihood of harassing and even abusive power increases."
Statistics also indicate the academies appeared more interested in sweeping the problem of sexual assaults under the rug, or more accurately perhaps, shoving it out the door. In a 10-year period from 1994 to 2004 there were only five courts-martial and three convictions for sexual assault at West Point and only one court-martial and conviction at the Naval Academy. The report indicates that historically, the preferred method of dealing with sexual assault was to toss the alleged offenders out of the academies.
The Task Force went beyond the usual recommendations that military leadership pay more attention to the problem, improve confidentiality and create a better support structure for victims of sexual abuse. It specifically recommends the academies add mandatory courses in sexual misconduct, the proper use of authority and better define "warrior-ethos" in the use of force. It also calls on Congress to amend the Military Code of Justice to better define sexual misconduct and to better protect the victim's confidentiality during a court-martial while ensuring the defendant's rights.
And while the Task Force concluded that the ultimate responsibility for preventing sexual misconduct lies with each individual cadet or midshipmen, it may take a cultural shift at the academies to make sure they get it.
What is Camp Casey? (Janet Shamlian, NBC News correspondent)
CRAWFORD, Texas — It springs up from the corn fields near President Bush's Texas ranch like a dandelion in a well-kept lawn. Camp Casey, they're calling it, named for Cindy Sheehan's son, who died in Iraq.
What started in early August as just a few tents and some well-worn lawn chairs has evolved into a center complete with wireless Internet access, catered meals and chair massage. It's all rain-protected by a tent about half the size of a football field. There are lights, a stage and a sound system.
The only creature comfort which seems to be missing is outdoor air conditioning! This is August in Texas and temperatures are routinely in the triple digits. It's humid and dusty and most of the reporters working here have learned the day will require several clean shirts. I've abandoned high heels for my well-worn cowboy boots.
Clearly, Sheehan's cause has seen an infusion of cash and volunteers. Public relations specialists now coordinate news conferences and interviews with the woman at the center of all this. Volunteers wear bright orange vests and direct traffic.
It all exists in a place that's extremely hard to find. Once you reach the community of Crawford itself (population, fewer than 800) there are 3 or 4 dirt roads and no signs. It is deep in the heart of Texas and thousands of miles from the war which sparked its creation.
Searching for an Iraqi constitution (Richard Engel, NBC News)
BAGHDAD — I woke up early this morning to sounds of banging, metallic explosions that echoed in strident tattoos in my hotel room/home in Baghdad. It wasn’t a bomb or mortar or some other piece of pre-packaged, air-delivered violence, but a plumber replacing the toilet and bathtub in a room upstairs.
Then, my normal morning panic set in. I had a story to cover that I did not understand and only eight hours to figure it out before M.L. Flynn (Nightly News foreign editor) came in asking me for an explanation of what was going on in Iraq. My first thought: breakfast. Two eggs sunny-side up with coffee and samoun - diamond shaped Iraqi bread - which I ate in another hotel room that is our bureau.
As I watched the local TV and read the local newspaper things couldn’t have looked clearer. Today was supposed to be some sort of deadline after a non-binding three day extension for a constitution that was sort of submitted on August 22 after a week delay. My first instinct was to go straight back to bed and wait until things sorted themselves out. But I dismissed that option as a "bad option."
Next I called four members of the constitution drafting committee. They didn’t know what was going on either. They had no idea if parliament would meet. No one had told them.
The only solution was to go to the parliament building in the Green Zone, the fortified U.S. military/Iraqi government headquarters in Baghdad. A trip to the Green Zone, like any trip here, involves moving from one fortified location (our hotel/bureau), through the badlands (everywhere else) to another fortified location, avoiding the insurgents, criminals and fake checkpoints that dot this city like acne.
We assembled our flak jackets and private militia (which for our own security I can’t describe… but I wouldn’t mess with it if I were you) and drove in.
The parliament building was full of confused journalists, confused politicians and confused American soldiers looking on from the sidelines. Everything was clear. There would be no vote on the constitution. In fact, we were told by the members of parliament that a vote had never been necessary in the first place. Instead the constitution would be passed directly to the people, despite strong opposition by Sunni Arab politicians, who were insisting that a vote was necessary and that the other politicians were lying to us.
I thought the best solution was to go to sleep and wait until things sorted themselves out. But I dismissed that. We didn’t have much time. We needed to leave "the zone" before dark; there are more insurgents, criminals and assorted Baghdad acne out after dark. So we interviewed everyone who seemed to know something in the building and brought back the tapes to the bureau to sort out the confusion.
In the end, with no resolution in sight, Nightly passed on the story. But at least it was all crystal clear to us.
• August 25 | 4:45 p.m.
Editor's note: Jacques Steinberg at The New York Times has a nice review of The Daily Nightly in this morning's edition. (Steve Johnson, Daily Nightly editor)
Walter Reed or Katrina? (Brian Williams)
A long and vocal editorial meeting today (which, thanks to an earlier Shuttle to New York I was able to attend)... mostly over the two stories competing for the top of the broadcast tonight: the approaching hurricane (just barely) Katrina in Florida... and today's action by the base closure folks to close Walter Reed. The mere mention of Walter Reed ignited a lot of conversation (its history, iconic Presidential memories there, and some of the stories we've filed and soldiers we've met inside Ward 57, where the amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated). Some of the images we plan to use tonight can be found on the Washington Post website, and they are spectacular... Nixon's visit with Eisenhower is a particular favorite, given their history together. Both possible lead stories are changing... the hurricane making westward progress... the base closure folks may have more news before, during and after our airtime. As they say, developing...
Also tonight: a piece we've been talking about and reporting on for a few days. The working title: the Sheehan Effect. We'll look at the protest movement against the Iraq war -- and the efforts this week to counter it. On the broadcast last night we reported the plans of Sheehan's group to follow the President wherever he goes. We'll do the same with this story.
Dawn Fratangelo will take a look at summer traffic gridlock in this country... every bit as much an anticipatable tradition as the need for a vacation. We'll close the broadcast with an interesting piece that came out of the awful flooding in Europe this week.
From here it's off to a smaller meeting where a few of us will take a look at the elements our correspondents have gathered today... and then shape them into a broadcast. Later tonight in this space we'll post a piece from Bagdhad... I've asked Richard Engel to blog on his very frustrating day in the Iraqi capitol... where the danger of just getting around was today exceeded only by the frustration of political gridlock. And as of our first feed tonight at 6:30 EDT, we'll put all of what we have together in some recognizable form. We hope you'll join us.
Washington Diarist (until my return to New York later today) (Brian Williams)
Just as a one-day adventure in this nation's often dysfunctional air travel system, I took the Shuttle to Washington for a conversation with Senator Arlen Specter... easily one of the most interesting characters in Washington politics as we enter the "high season." Putting aside politics for the moment (his own, his party's and his role as Judiciary Chairman heading into the Roberts hearings) he's developed something of a "profile in courage" status among some cancer patients. He has worked through chemo, laughed off hair loss, dealt with debilitating fatigue -- and sitting in the Senate Caucus Room with him today, it was hard to remember what he looked like years ago when I was a local reporter in Philadelphia and he was an aggressive and bracingly-candid politician on the rise.
Our conversation, taped today (he is still quite fatigued but joking about the wispy hairs returning to his head) will air on Nightly News when the hearings are underway.
Now it's back to National Airport where I pray the secret code on my boarding pass doesn't flag me for "enhanced security procedures" (a full, 30-minute shiatsu-style full-body massage and a thorough review of all of the songs in my iPod). Day trips to Washington always and unfortunately mean that I miss attending our 2:30 editorial meeting, so I will join by phone en route from LaGuardia to 30 Rock. We know going in that Katrina, base closings and Iraq will all play a prominent role in the broadcast tonight, and now it's on to New York.
Tonight on Nightly News (Steve Johnson, Daily Nightly editor)
You've waited all summer to get away from the crowds only to get stuck in holiday traffic. It's as much a part of summer as mosquitoes and about as welcome. What are the nation's worst weekend bottlenecks? And how can you steer clear of them? Tonight on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Tracking a rumor … to air (Robert Windrem, NBC News investigative producer)
First word came in the late morning and it sounded good: one of al-Qaida’s favored web forums was reporting that “the Sheikh” — Osama Bin Laden — had been wounded in an “operation” last week against Spanish troops in Afghanistan. The “operation”, the forum noted, had resulted in the death of 23 Spanish infidel occupiers and the “martyrdom” of five mujahedin. Bin Laden, the post claimed, has suffered a “minor injury” and asked for prayers for his recovery.
Evan Kohlman, a terrorism expert whose specialty is monitoring those sites, sent us an e-mail with a rough machine translation of the posting. Evan, who often appears on our air as an NBC analyst, follows the sites and knows how things work. Al-Qaida, as reporters and others who track terrorism can tell you, uses the forums to move messages, bolster morale and after an attack sometimes take responsibility. The enemies of globalization have become quite capable at using its tools.
Evan noted early on that there were interesting clues in this message, some that suggested it was reliable, others that suggested it was not. He put the possibility of it being reliable at 25 percent or better.
What were the clues? On the reliable side, Evan pointed out that in the past when a poster would drop something inaccurate in a key web forum, word would go out and it would be removed. In this case, the post had sat there without contradiction for at least 10 hours. He noted that a similar post about Abu Musab al Zarqawi being seriously wounded in Iraq had been dropped unceremoniously within a few hours after showing up.
It was also signed the Al-Shahab Productions, a known al-Qaida front, one that often produced the Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri videos.
On the unreliable side of the ledger, Evan said this was a new forum, one that had had some interesting posts but was not as reliable as others. What was curious, he noted, was that the post had been replicated on all manner of sites, credible and not-so-credible, without being contradicted or even challenged.
Other things didn’t fall neatly into either category: While there was no known “battle” involving Spanish troops in Afghanistan, 17 Spanish soldiers had indeed been killed last week when a helicopter carrying them crashed. Spanish officials said it had not been taken down by hostile fire, but was merely an accident.
The first decision we had to make was this: If reliable, was this worthy of a “Special Report,” or what used to be called a “Bulletin” breaking into the network. Key players were alerted: Brian Williams, executive producers and coordinating producers, field producers and researchers assigned to our “Specials Unit.” The senior vice president, the man who would have to call the network to alert them we might need time — and fast — was briefed. There were obviously, as well, competitive pressures. If it was true, no one wanted to be beaten on such a big story.
Lisa Myers, our senior investigative correspondent, was given “ownership” of the story, meaning she and her Washington-based Investigative Unit would be the fulcrum of our efforts.
Simultaneously, a number of us, including Lisa, started making calls. Some were obvious: the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. We also called several of our NBC analysts, experts who used to work in the government. Their expertise is as valuable in a case like this as is their own list of inside contacts. What did they think? Did this make sense? Does this fit a pattern? And can we get this information yesterday, please?
We also called CNBC to see if the stock or oil markets were moving on the posting. In the past, we have first learned of such rumors from CNBC correspondents, like Bob Pisani, who covers the New York Stock Exchange, or Rick Santelli, who covers the Chicago Merc. Nothing.
Better translations arrived. As the return calls began to come in, the picture began to clear. Yes, the information was on key Web sites. Yes, it had not been removed. But more important, there was no indication that the attack the poster had written of actually took place. A call to the Spanish government professed ignorance.
Pentagon officials told our Jim Miklaszewski it's always possible that U.S. or Afghan forces unknowingly got close to bin Laden, that he was wounded and that al-Qaida was making up a cover story, but even at that, military intelligence in Afghanistan (and presumably Pakistan) had nothing to support the claims that bin Laden was wounded in a clash with international forces in Afghanistan. One Pentagon official told Mik he would look “into the deep” for us, meaning he would check with Special Operations Forces, noting there are some highly classified operations under way in Afghanistan.
A U.S. intelligence official noted something else, the form of address in the post. “Calling him ‘the sheikh’ or 'abu Abdullah' (another Bin Laden nom de guerre) seems odd. Even when al- Zawahri speaks of him, he calls him Osama Bin Laden, not 'the sheikh' or 'abu Abdullah.'"
As each of our analysts reported back there was a growing sense that this was not worthy of a special report, certainly not based on what we had.
One, Rick Francona, who had served as military attaché in Baghdad, Dubai and Damascus — and could read the post in its original Arabic — suggested this was “psyops” to improve morale in Afghanistan.
Rick noted that Taliban and al-Qaida forces are on the offensive right now and that nothing would help morale better than reports that their leader “the sheikh” was back in Afghanistan, back in command of operations and putting his own life on the line.
Bill Harlow, a former senior aide to CIA Director George Tenet, learned that the post had actually begun circulating a day earlier than Evan had known about. He had an earlier version which cast even more doubt on the veracity, in that the poster had promised to produce a four-hour video of the operation but had not followed through.
A series of conference calls and hallway conversations ensued as each of us brought back what we knew and debated it all. The final decision was easy: There was NO need to break into the network with something so unreliable.
But what about Nightly News? Should we do a story on a rumor that we had determined wasn’t true, or was at least unreliable? Senior Vice President Steve Capus, who recently left Nightly, thought it was a good idea. Although this wasn’t moving markets here, it sure was moving the militants’ forums, blogs, etc., judging by how many sites had now picked up on the rumor.
Senior Broadcast Producer Albert Oetgen agreed. So did Brian. The key determinant in everyone’s calculations was the same: If as a number of our sources and analysts suggested, this was a psychological operation by al-Qaida, that was worthy of our attention in that it showed just how cleverly the militants were once again manipulating the Internet and public opinion among their cadre of followers. It was, as Brian noted at our 2:30 p.m. rundown meeting, an “interesting curiosity” that showed just how al-Qaida operates in cyberspace.
Not wanting to make a bigger deal out of it than it deserves, we all agreed that it was worth about a minute. Lisa would do it and do it as a “cross-talk,” an on-air conversation between her and Brian. It would be honed and chopped and illustrated with images of the Web site and bin Laden.
It took 53 seconds to tell it, but by the time the day was over, it had consumed probably 20 man-hours of NBC time, including Brian’s, a bevy of producers, researchers and analysts.
All in a day’s work.
Closures, reprieves, rumors, allegations... and answering the mail (Brian Williams)
This was a big day in a number of communities where the sound of military aircraft overhead is greeted with the patriotic euphemism, "that's the sound of freedom!" Many military facilities learned today that they would be closing as a result of the Pentagon's ongoing program of "re-alignment" (another euphemism NOT so popular today in some of these communities). A few places received some GOOD news today... official word that their bases are remaining open. We'll have the winners and losers tonight, along with a look at what's coming next.
We'll report tonight as well on the rumor that swept through the journalistic, diplomatic and financial worlds today: that Osama Bin Laden had been wounded in a military action days ago. We'll look into the drug-doping allegations against Lance Armstrong (from the French newspaper L'Equippe) and why this story isn't as simple as it looks. Is it ever? Also tonight: this year's installment of an annual event that belongs in the all-time Public Relations Hall of Fame. The folks at Beloit College (one of them was a P.R. executive) came up with an idea a few years back: look at the incoming freshmen class and what trends and conveniences that have always been available to them. Tonight we'll look at the college class of 2009. You know how 1987 seems like it was 10 minutes ago? That was the year that incoming college freshmen of the class of 2009 were BORN. And here's a preview: both voicemail and Starbucks have been around as long as they've been alive.
And on the same basic subject, I also wanted to call attention today to an interesting and emotional piece of writing. It concerns the protest (started by Cindy Sheehan) in Crawford, Texas... and highlights a ramification that may not have occurred to many people looking on and watching the coverage. It's a letter from an American who served in combat in Iraq. While it was released publicly, it was intended for Larry Northern of Waco, Texas, who was arrested a few nights ago for running over white crosses placed by the side of the road by the protest movement. Every cross represents an American who died in Iraq. It is called: A MESSAGE TO THE CRAWFORD MEMORIAL VANDAL.
And now to your letters. They are pouring in and we enjoy reading them... even those telling us we've done something wrong. In fact, let's begin there. On the evening of August 19th, in an attempt to show comparative gasoline prices around the world, we showed the adjusted price in U.S. dollars of a gallon of gasoline in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and showed the flag of Norway (bad). We realized the error too late, and regret the error.
And note my use of the word "gasoline" in the above paragraph. We got a bit of a scolding from a retired petroleum engineer who is driven crazy every time we use the shorthand "gas." While I WOULD argue that they are known in the familiar usage as "gas stations" and people seldom use the formal term for the liquid gold ("but you bring the car home with a full tank of gas, mister!") we will try wherever possible to satisfy retired petroleum engineers across the country... whenever we do stories about gasoline.
I don't mean to leave the impression that all we do is wade through complaints. One of the nicest things about having the jobs we have -- and we are so lucky to be doing what we love -- is that we apparently make other people happy as well, just by showing up at work each day and each evening. With all the bad news we are forced to report on a daily basis... all those occasions when so many of us would just as soon turn away as draw attention to some awful development from overseas: there are viewers who find our mere presence calming. For some, we exist as an every-evening presence in their lives and households. Having grown up in that very same situation, in a household where the network evening newscast was not to be missed... their comments sound quite familiar, and are the highest form of flattery. The letters from these folks are often stunning in their kindness. If you'll forgive the unavoidable self-congratulation (it's not my intent in repeating the following) I wanted to share with our readers... and accept on behalf of the people who work so hard on this team... the breathtaking kindness of an e-mailer from Inglewood, California:
"It's good to make it through another week with Brian and the gang. When that drum rolls and the trumpets herald at 6:30 Pacific time, I know all is right with the world if Brian Williams is there to tell us what's what. Tell him we've made a place for him in our family. Please tell him for us."
To the family whose name I'll withhold from Inglewood, California: message received... and please know that by watching the broadcast each night... you mean just as much to all of us.
We hope you'll join us for this evening's effort.
Getting ready to write the news (Barbara Raab, Nightly Newswriter)
When I come to work, I run a few Clorox Wipes across my work space (always!), and then I get down to the business of “reading in.”
First, I go on-line to the front pages of several newspapers; then, to several news and political web sites. I browse blogs. I do an hourly sweep of Associated Press newswires. I check out the coverage notes sent to our computer “hot file” by NBC producers and correspondents in our domestic and foreign bureaus and in the field.
Something I find very helpful is looking at web sites of our local NBC affiliates across the country where stories we’re covering have originated. Last week, for example, I spent some time on the website of our Wichita affiliate, KSNW-TV, to see how they were reporting a story that we were also following: the sentencing of Wichita’s BTK serial killer.
I watch a lot of TV during my work day. Our newsroom has literally dozens of video monitors – it looks not unlike a discount electronics store in here -- tuned in 24/7 to the three broadcast networks – NBC, CBS, and ABC – as well as the major cable news networks – MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and Fox. These days, we also monitor the Arab news network Al-Jazeera, and even though we don’t understand anything that’s being said, the pictures are often worth a thousand words.
In addition, satellite video feeds from around the world are constantly streaming into the newsroom. Press briefings from the White House and the Pentagon, Cindy Sheehan’s news conferences, Senate confirmation hearings, shuttle launches – all manner of potentially newsworthy events are up on the monitors for viewing.
And, on most days, there’s a good amount of conversation going on among the writers, members of the senior staff, and Brian as we work towards deciding what tonight’s broadcast should look like.
The main point of all this information absorption is to be fully informed for our daily 2:30 rundown meeting. I’ll attempt to take you inside that gathering in my next entry for the Daily Nightly.
Tonight on Nightly News (Steve Johnson, Daily Nightly editor)
The problem: under-performing schools that don't improve, year after year. Is drastic action the right solution? We'll examine how a bold new program, hated by many teachers, is making a big difference for kids. Could your school be transformed by the radical approach called "Fresh Start"? Tonight on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
The President and the Protester (Brian Williams)
Today's afternoon editorial meeting featured a fairly spirited debate over the President's comments today regarding Cindy Sheehan... and their possible meaning. As we continue to examine the larger effect that her protest has had on the anti-war movement in this country, our David Gregory will look at what the President had to say on the topic today, along with the broader issue. Speaking of spirited... today's Pentagon briefing was certainly interesting, and Jim Miklaszewski will cover that for us.
On the energy front, we'll look at the standards the government announced today for SUVs and light trucks. The trick of this story may indeed be finding an accurate reading of just what these new standards will mean and when... and then explaining our findings to our audience. As press events involving Washington-based Cabinet agencies go, Atlanta made for an interesting backdrop (there were other press events, on the same topic, by the same agency today as well) and we're looking into whether that is possibly part of the story.
The always-sexy topic of Unfunded Mandates is back in the news... but this time it involves an issue that many parents are already very familiar with: the No Child Left Behind program (known by the shorthand acronym NCLB in the education biz) is being questioned by the State of Connecticut and others for the standards it imposes... Dawn Fratangelo will take a look at the issue tonight.
Pat Robertson is in some hot water for his comments about the President of Venezuela. In mob parlance, he seems to be suggesting a "hit" in order to save the U.S. the cost, trouble and possible danger of leaving him in office. His comments quickly triggered reaction from the State Department, from Venezuela and from members of the U.S. religious community.
Finally, as promised: a response to all of you who have e-mailed us questioning the use of the term "Western White House" to describe the President's Texas ranch, as we occasionally do on our broadcast. While yesterday's posting was written admittedly from memory (always a dicey business for some of us over 40), today we have actual facts, from Brittany Harris of our staff: the first recorded use of the phrase to describe the temporary residence of a vacationing President was the New York Times on April 10, 1927. A sub-head in an article about President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed a "Western White House...". There is also evidence that members of the press gave the same title to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, but no one on the current staff of the FDR Research Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., can recall that. The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver was referred to as "The Western White House" after President Eisenhower spent vacation time there during his time in office. As we pointed out in this space yesterday, it appears the first time the title was officially used was in the case of Nixon's San Clemente beach hideaway in California. There's also a wonderful chicken-and-egg story regarding how it is that the official seal of President Bush's ranch now contains the words "Western White House"... the following is from a press briefing with Scott McClellan on August 9, 2001:
QUESTION: Who made the decision to create the logo on the wall behind you?
McCLELLAN: I think you've seen over the last couple of months more and more people referring to Crawford and the ranch as the Western White House, including the media. In media reports it's been popping up. And I think it's natural, it really fits with where we are. And the President liked the idea, and this is a place that is his home and that he will continue to come to and continue to work from.
Is it me, or did he just blame the media?
I hope you'll join us for tonight's broadcast, which as of 4 p.m. EDT will not contain any reference to the Western White House.
'Piano Man' still a mystery (Andy Eckhardt, Lisa Schurr)
Andy Eckardt is an NBC News producer, based in Mainz; Lisa Schurr is a freelance journalist on assignment in Prosdorf, Germany.
MAINZ, Germany - The question of who is the mysterious "Piano Man" — the man who turned up last April in a British town with no name and apparently no ability to identify himself — has finally been solved. Now the question is why it took so long to identify the German native.
Shortly after Britain's "Daily Mirror" identified the man as a 20-year-old from the southern German state of Bavaria, the media descended on the region and quickly discovered his identify. He is Andreas Grassl, a native of the tiny village of Prosdorf, located deep in the heart of the Bavarian forest.
Neighbors in the small village, near the Czech border, described the young man as shy, but very friendly.
“I have seen the photo of the 'Piano Man' and that is him,” said Stefan Hutter, 20, who lives in the same tiny village.
Grassl finished high school in summer of 2004 at the “Robert Schumann Gymnasium,” majoring in French and biology. Neighbors say he was a good student.
According to locals, the young man has a strong affection for France, where he was planning to study. And he was very interested in the Internet, using the name "Scatman" in chat rooms, a local newspaper reported.
His hometown, Prosdorf, lies near the Czech border. Neighbors in the village of only 50 said the young man had a very conservative Catholic upbringing and he served as an altar boy in the local church.
But while the villagers were offering interviews, his family wasn't thrilled about the attention. "There is absolutely no chance that you will talk to my son,” Josef Grassl told NBC on Tuesday.
The politics of moral authority (Brian Williams)
As we assemble the broadcast on this Monday night it occurs to me the past few days can be summed up as the politics of moral authority. Just as it's difficult to question a mother who lost a son in Iraq, it's difficult to question a popular Republican Senator who invokes Vietnam... when you know he served there. It's perfectly acceptable to disagree with their politics, and many do. Other people, looking at the polls, the death toll and hearing the predictions concerning the U.S. commitment... wonder if we're seeing the birth of any sort of a "movement". While I'm not at all sure of that, the President's remarks before the VFW were notable today for several reasons, and David Gregory will wrap it all up for us tonight. We'll also of course have the submission of the final draft of the Iraqi Constitution, on this last day of their extension.
Stem cells are in the news... a story billed as a "possible breakthrough" on many morning newscasts... that may be more notable for its political ramifications down the road. And we'll take a look at Northwest Airlines... which, despite some dire predictions, is still flying while its mechanics strike.
Tonight we'll begin a series of reports on immigration which we're calling: WHOSE AMERICA? Many of you have been writing in urging us to pay attention to the State of Emergency that's been declared in Western States... and tonight we will.
And we'll close tonight with a story near and dear to many of us who love this city: they're moving the Fulton Fish Market. It's an institution, it's a way of life and it's leaving Manhattan. As Senior Producer Albert Oetgen put it, "the price of progress" will get us off the air tonight... and we hope you can join us.
I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the number of e-mails we've been getting lately. First, please know I read them all (there's a box below should you wish to comment or ask a question) and while we won't be able to answer all of them in this space, I've received a few questions lately about our use of "The Western White House" to describe the President's ranch in Texas. In my reading over the weekend, I was reminded that President Nixon attached that very same name to his house in San Clemente. Franklin Roosevelt, of course, named his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, "The Little White House" (he died there in 1945). The current White House staff has gone a step further: you'll notice the seal behind the podium where the press briefings are held now says WESTERN WHITE HOUSE... so it's been graphically codified. While it may have started as a term of art in the press, it is certainly true in that the apparatus of office and center of power both shift when the President spends time at his ranch. While I think this falls in the not-legally-binding, wink-and-a-nod category of Presidential history, I'll assign one of our crack newsroom personnel to research the derivation of the term. Keep those e-mails coming...
Murray & Me (Barbara Raab, Nightly Newswriter)
“You’re Murray Slaughter!”
That was the immediate response from our Executive Producer John Reiss when I mentioned that I’d be making my blogging debut with this attempt to tell you what it means to be a Nightly newswriter.
“Just say you’re like Murray!”
It’s true. Like Murray Slaughter of the long-gone fictitious WJM-TV in Minneapolis, I and my co-writer Christine Colvin write on-air news copy for the anchorman, and, like Murray, we are also the cynical, sarcastic, and, I hope at least sometimes, funny ones around here - about the state of absolutely everything that comes across our transom.
As writers, Chris and I are responsible for all of the “connective tissue” that gets us from “Good evening” to “Good night.” That means the introductions to our correspondents’ reports, as well as the shorter “voice-overs” (stories with videotape or graphics) and “tells” (on-camera stories with no visuals) that Brian reads. (It must be said, however, that Brian himself is really our writer-in-chief. Not a page of copy goes on the air until he has edited and approved it – or, written it himself.)
We write the video headlines that begin each broadcast, the ones that let you know some of what you are about to see in the next half-hour. We write the “teases” that precede each commercial break, telling you what’s “up next,” in hopes that you’ll stay with us. And, we write another set of teases – those 10-second bits anchored by Brian that you have probably seen in your local newscasts preceding Nightly News. Today’s, for example, says: “Tonight: Important new findings from one of the largest-ever studies of women's health. And, just before the deadline, there's a DEAL in Iraq. NBC Nightly News.”
Those short teases, by the way, are known as “cluster busters,” or just “busters,” because, as it was explained to me, they are designed to air in the middle of a block of commercials – thereby “busting” the ad “cluster.”
The actual writing process for Nightly, however, doesn’t usually get underway until late in the afternoon, after we have finalized our rundown, which is the working plan for what the broadcast will look like. On most days, that happens at roughly 3 p.m., after our afternoon rundown meeting. The plan, however, is constantly subject to – and very often does – change.
What do the Nightly writers do before 3 p.m? Let’s just say: we get paid to do things that most other people would get fired for doing at work.
More on that, in my next blog entry (and yes, that’s a tease).