Lessons from Reuven Frank

Life gives heroes and takes them away. So it is with me this morning, as I mourn the passing of former NBC News president Reuven Frank. I have personal history with Mr. Frank, and so I thought I’d share a few memories with you. He died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 85.

He was a legend in the development of television news, the man behind Huntley-Brinkley and the guy who put Tom Brokaw on the anchor desk. He was an innovator and an outstanding news guy.

Three events stand out in my memories of him. I got to know him when he was running “Weekend,” a hip weekly news magazine show that ran on one Saturday night a month during the heyday of Saturday Night Live. SNL ran for three Saturdays; Weekend ran for one. The show was hosted by Lloyd Dobyns, who was later joined by Linda Ellerbee, who then stole Lloyd’s signature, “And so it goes,” for the title of her book.

I sold story ideas (neon dance floors, pet sharks, etc.) for the program to Mr. Frank, which brought a steady stream of short, but highly educational postcards from his desk. One was especially enlightening and ought to be taught to every TV news person in the business. “Some ideas,” he wrote, “are just pictures with captions.” How true.

The second memory involves the Milwaukee Press Club 1979 awards dinner. I produced the program and brought in Reuven to receive the Sacred Cat Award, the highest honor of the club. It was a proud moment for him. Dobyns and Ellerbee were there, and that was important, because Weekend had been cancelled earlier that week. It was a wonderful night, but the thing I remember most was his speech. We all expected some deep wisdom about the news business, but he talked instead about lawyers and the threat they are to our culture. It was unforgettable coming from him.

The final memory is the best, and it involves a discipline I still practice today. I went to visit him one day at his office high atop Rockefeller Plaza in downtown New York. The view was breathtaking, and along the length of one windowed wall was what can best be described as a drafting table covered with newspapers from everywhere. It must have been 20 feet long.

“You don’t actually read all of these,” I quipped.

“Of course I do,” he replied.

“Where do you find the time,” I asked.

To which he responded, “But, Terry, that’s my job.”

No matter how busy I find myself these (or any) days, since that encounter, I’ve always considered keeping up with things to be an important part of “my job.” This is especially true these days, as the world of media is being rebuilt before our eyes.

Reuven Frank was one of my heroes, and I miss him.

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