Thirty years ago on the evening of December 8, I was working as a fill-in writer for the award winning 10:00 pm news show on KTVU, the independent Oakland, California broadcast television station.
(To give you a flavor of what it was like to be in TV news in the early 80’s: a month earlier, I had been the producer of NBC’s coverage in San Francisco of the Reagan-Carter election and six months later I was an on-air reporter for the first nationally broadcast business news show on TV.)
I was sitting at my shared space typing away on the rewrite of an A.P. story when the blond kid who worked the assignment desk starts to shout and wave around some perforated paper he had just pulled from the wire machine. I can’t remember his name but he was a beefy offensive lineman kind of young man, whose open and friendly facial characteristics suggested he would be embarrassed saying a curse word. Like everyone who worked for KTVU news at that time, he was idealistic, hardworking and dedicated to the news director.
So our beefy tow-headed nighttime assignment editor starts yelling, “John Lennon was murdered.” And there is a strange mixture of terror and delight on his face, the terror telling everyone that John Lennon was one of his biggest heroes, but the delight expressing what all of us knew: that we were going to destroy the competition in the ratings that night because everyone else had an 11:00 show and ours started an hour earlier.
And we did destroy the competition. I was part of a team of several writers and editors who used file footage and news morgues to put together a 10 or 15 minute news story and retrospective on Lennon. The KTVU 10:00 pm news experienced one of the highest ratings it ever scored. If I remember correctly, by 10:30 pm the local NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates had all begun to change their regular programming in some way to make room for the monumental news story. Remember Lennon was assassinated at the very dawn of the expansion of television media by cable and satellite TV and long before the eruption of cable news on Fox, CNN, MSNBC and the Internet.
Memory plays out in the mind in a series of facts and images, many faded, many distorted by one or two attributes that tend to dominate the remembering of the moment over time. But sometimes a memory bursts inside the mind that is so crystal clear that it becomes an imitation of reality. You think of the moment and you remember all of it and experience it again—the constant backbeat of the typewriters and TV monitors, the smell of coffee and cigarettes, the way all heads turned to the assignment editor’s sudden urgent shouting of the news, the way the overhead florescent lights glared off his solid yellow shirt with a fly-away collar, the fold of the paper in the large hand he was waving over his head.
But most of all I remember the two emotions that flickered across his face, seeming to dance together or battle for dominance. Should I mourn this unspeakably horrible tragedy? Or should I joyfully exult in my team’s impending victory?
And that’s where I was the night John Lennon died.