Five questions for Robert MacNeil

Robert MacNeil’s four-decade long journalism career is full of well-deserved accolades. Now, the former NewsHour host will add another to the list. J-Source talks to tonight’s Canadian Journalism Annual Awards Gala Honorary Tribute winner about his return to reporting 15 years after retirement, why, after 50 years, he finally brought his family into the story, and how technology is — and isn’t — changing the way journalists tell stories.

J-Source: You recently returned to PBS NewsHour to host a six-part autism series, after not reporting for the show in 15 years. What drew you back and how did you find the experience?

Robert MacNeil: I came back as the result of a four year conversation with my daughter. Alison, who lives in Cambridge Mass, after her son was diagnosed with autism. For her, her husband Dave and her daughter, Neely, now aged ten, the diagnosis had turned their lives up-side-down.  And for me the grandfather to witness their distress, to hear about the indifference in much of  the medical community to the particular nature of Nick’s autism symptoms, was heart -rending.  The more I knew the more I felt I had to do something and thought it should be a PBS documentary special, if I could get one approved. I mentioned that to Jim Lehrer and he said I should do it as a series on the NewsHour, which has a built in audience.  

I spent about a year doing my own research, then was teamed with a veteran producer from ABC, Caren Zucker, who herself has a 17-year-old son with autism and has produced many programs on autism for ABC. Her knowledge and experience made the reporting job easier for me.
We concluded  that no one on American television had produced a comprehensive and up to date overview of autism for many years and that’s what was needed. So we spent six months, researching, shooting and editing the six part series that appeared on the NewsHour, and incidentally is still available on full on the website.

I had not done this kind of extended documentary reporting really since my days with the BBC program “Panorama” (1967-1975) so the re-learning curve was steep.

J-Source: You’ve said you’ve never brought your family into a story until now with the autism series. Why now? And how does such a close personal connection change the way you report and develop a story, and the connection to your audience?

RM:  To take the last first, I think the personal connection helped lead the audience into the series, especially people who had no personal connection to autism, and it was a feature we could promote.

The most difficult thing was to find the balance as a reporter between being the father/grandfather figure, who does not want to add to their distress, and a journalist who wants to maintain some objectivity.  

That was particularly sensitive over the issue of vaccines and autism, an explosive subject. My daughter believes my grandson Nick developed normally until 15 months, when he had a batch of routine vaccinations. She is very outspoken about it and it would have been dishonest to do her story, and not let her say that. So she said it and we followed it with a disclaimer that medical science insists there is no valid evidence of a connection between vaccines and autism.  

Later, in program three, on Causes, we interviewed four leading scientists,  two of whom believe there may be subsets of the population with a genetic predisposition that makes individuals extra sensitive to some toxins in the environment, possibly including vaccines. And that is the latest position taken by the Committee of the National Institute for Mental Health that sets priorities in autism research. I still got some grief from people who think it reckless even to mention vaccines and autism in then same sentence. But I thought our overall approach was balanced.

One interesting professional sidelight in dealing with one’s own family, is tone of voice. I interviewed my daughter and granddaughter in the familiar tone one uses in the family. Then I recorded a narration track and it immediately sounded off key, too strident and impersonal for the intimate tone of the interviews. So we played with several takes to make the narration reflect the mood and tone of the whole piece. And I think it worked. For the later segments, I adopted my usual tone, which I thinks distantly owes something to the God-in-Heaven voice of the CBC that I grew up with.

J-Source: Plenty has changed in the past 15 years, in terms of news environment, culture, technology, etc. What can you do now that you couldn’t do during your primary working years?

RM:  Interesting question that I’m inclined to turn around and answer, what can’t we do now that we could then? Yes, the new digital technology makes the process speedier and simpler.  You can see exactly what you’ve shot instantly because you don’t have to wait for film to be developed and printed. You can edit in the field on your computer and transmit edited footage to your home base through the Internet. No more late nights at foreign airports, begging someone to carry a bag of exposed film back to New York.  

The paradox is that the new techniques have arrived when everyone is cutting staff to the bone and introducing short cuts in production that can detract from the best quality I remember at NBC News in the 1960s and then at the BBC. Now  they often want you to shoot without a sound man,  they want the shooter to be the editor on his computer. It is rare for any one to be a first rate camera person and a first rate editor. And so on. In this case the NewsHour gave us a budget that provided both sound men and an excellent editor. Further, the cost cutting demands the quickest possible turnarounds, fewest days in the field, least overtime etc., etc., all of which pits a lot of pressure on crews who already work very hard anyway. For a fellow like me, who had just turned 80, it was exhausting: no country for old men.

J-Source:  Is the any past story you wish you could have reported on in today’s news/technological environment? Or, vice versa, any story that just wouldn’t work now?

RM:  Several stories that were highlights of my career (I was in Berlin in August 1961 the night they started building the Wall, in Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis, in the Dallas motorcade when JFK was shot)  when it would have been fabulous to have small portable cameras of today and instant connection with home base and on the air, the magic of the Internet, e-mail, cell phones.

What must be harder for people trying to do quality  work today is the culture and competitiveness of TV news, the manic drive of the cable news networks, whose audiences are small by network standards but who are all the more  competitive to capture eyeballs, usually by hyper-ventilating over stories, ratcheting up the passion then tearing it to tatters. Difficult in that environment to persuade your bosses that some stories are better taken more slowly and carefully, allowed to run longer — values we have tried to preserve on the NewsHour.

J-Source:  On one of your last shows on NewsHour, you said:

“I’m going to have the great luxury, I think it is, for the first time in virtually forty years that I’ve been mostly in daily journalism of being able to wake up in the morning and not have to fill my head up with the sort of stuff you’re just describing. And I can do it with–in the same way the average citizen does, when he chooses, and so when Mr. Gingrich does something or something happens in Bosnia or the President does something, I can read about in the afternoon or the next day, if I want to.”

How did that work out? Some would say reporting gets in your blood. Were you able to relax and have that great luxury?

RM: I still feel that way. I am not a news junkie. I read the New York Times every morning and have the time to read it, but I skim more, and I watch the NewsHour every evening. I go to a news channel only if something amazing is happening, like the 9/11 attacks in New York, where I live. As I said in a memoir The Right Place at the Right Time, I didn’t choose to be a journalist.  It came to be a way of making a living when acting (blessedly) made me realize my limitations and the ambition to write plays and novels took until middle age to mature. I found journalism suited my talents, such as they are, more successfully, and I had enormous good fortune to work for great employers as I learned — CBC, Reuters, NBC, BBC, and finally PBS.