At the start of the ’70s, the media landscape of Dallas was sparse. The flow of local news came from two powerful and competing tributaries: “The Dallas Morning News” and the “Dallas Times Herald”.
On screen, the public had their pick of three networks, whose reporting was reportedly lax. KERA (or Channel 13) was just starting to take root.
“Everything was typical, real schlocky kind of local news,” local filmmaker Garry Potts recalls. “There was a certain homogeneity to Dallas dialogue and journalism.”
Potts launched his career as part of a crew of reporters, filmmakers, and editors at Channel 13 orchestrating a media coup of sorts with the arrival of “Newsroom” in 1970.
“This just smashed it all with a baseball bat,” Potts says. “It added a whole new dimension to intellectual thought and culture. It was a really influential show for people that could pick their heads up and sense that there was a bigger world around them.”
For those of us who missed the ’70s by a couple decades, here’s a crash course on the landmark Dallas news show that launched the careers of a number of journalists like Jim Lehrer, Lee Cullum and Bob Ray Sanders.
Hard News Hits The Air
Every weekday from 1970 to 1976, a roundtable of reporters would gather in a modest studio dedicated solely to their endeavor.
“It was kind of a pig-sty in there,” Potts says. “Reporters would be coming and going and there were all these telephone lines. It was just a real, tangled mess.”
At 6:30 p.m., it was time to go live.
“They would sweep the place out and straighten it up. Roll in the big studio cameras. Shut the heavy studio doors. Kill the fluorescents and fire up the tungsten lights.”
“Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles would play before the “Newsroom” team dove into the headlines of the day.
The idea for a show hosted by real journalists was born out west. Following a newspaper strike in 1968, San Francisco journalists took their stories on the air at KQED. The program that they realized became a model for a new kind of hard-hitting nightly news format.
The Dallas iteration followed a few years later with the green light (and half a million dollars) from the Ford Foundation. The late Bob Wilson was the pioneering president who led the station in the creation of the news show. Wilson spoke to KERA’s Cullum in a 2011 special.
“It was huge, and it was bigger than the budget they gave us for the whole station,” Wilson said. “They gave us enough time, so that we could get the audience. Pretty soon, we were part of this city in a way that many people really came to like.”
Lehrer, of “PBS NewsHour” fame, got his start at KERA-TV as the on-air host and moderator of “Newsroom.” He engaged the circle of reporters in a give and take on public affairs. Nothing was off the table, and the show tackled salient topics like desegregation and discriminatory banking practices.
The “Newsroom” cast was also diverse — unusual at the time — and reporters like Lee Cullum, Marjorie Louis, and Bob Ray Sanders were key players.
“We were not asked to leave any part of us behind,” Sanders says in that same special. “We were asked to bring everything with us. So, when I came to Channel 13, I brought my Black-ness, my Fort Worth-ness, my passion for justice, and I was able to go out there and do what I thought should be done.”
It was disruptive for the movers and shakers of Dallas, who were used to much more complacent news organizations. Alongside these enterprising, young reporters were the cameramen helping visualize their compelling stories.
Behind The Camera
“It was all 16 mm film,” recalls filmmaker Mark Birnbaum.
“Sometimes, we would shoot in the morning, develop in the afternoon, edit in the late afternoon, and you’d be running down the hall with a short piece of film on a reel to get it slammed onto the telecine. It could be very exciting … sometimes, too exciting.”
Birnbaum moved to Dallas from Baltimore in 1973 to join the team of five or six who shot and developed film for “Newsroom.” These films would often take the form of shorts, like the five clips “Frame of Mind” is airing tomorrow.
Sometimes, they were investigative documentaries, like “A Thirst in the Garden,” which addressed the paradoxical lack of potable water for the productive farming communities in the lower Rio Grande Valley. A KERA team, including Birnbaum, won a Peabody Award in 1976 for the film.
Birnbaum also remembers being sent to Washington, D.C. on the eve of the Saturday Night Massacre.
“I wound up going to congressmen and senators to interview them about the firing of Archibald Cox,” the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the Watergate scandal, Birnbaum says. “That was my first taste of how intense Washington could be. How electric it could be walking through those buildings and the sense you got of the import of events. I was at the center of it all.”
When filmmakers weren’t on assignment with reporters, they had the freedom to dream up more creative pieces like a feature on a colorful, Texas trucker that moonlights as a landscape painter (Birnbaum’s “Joe Williams” piece) or a snapshot of alcoholism in the Farmers Market District (Ken Harrison’s “20/20 Blues”).
Potts, who started at “Newsroom” as an intern, says the researcher’s role he later took on meant tips would often cross his desk first. That’s what led him to “Father John,” the subject of a fascinating short featured in tomorrow’s lineup.
“I went to Bob Ray and pitched the idea,” Potts says. “He was all-the-wiser, and he smelled a rat as soon as we went to interview this guy. It turned out that he was a fraud.”
The programming on “Newsroom” was short-lived; the show ended its run in 1976. But, it left a lasting impression, not only on the journalists who made it possible but on a city that was craving a more thoughtful eye.
“It was exciting, and a lot of us felt very proud to be doing that kind of work,” Birnbaum says. “We knew that we were doing something meaningful and that had some lasting value.”