Good stories well told

My old UPI colleague, Ron Cohen, has written a delightful book called Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!: A Journalist’s Uncommon Memoir.

The title reflects the 80-year-old Cohen’s gift of his life’s stories to his grandkids. The subtitle foreshadows a charming and amusing brew of tales from inside and outside the newsroom.

Throughout the narrative, Cohen weaves personal anecdotes with memorable news events, such as:

  • The day killer grizzlies in Montana competed for his attention with the birth of his first child in New Jersey.
  • How his high school French teacher, FiFi Allen, helped him report a major development in the 1970 October Crisis in Canada.

I worked with Ron in the early 1970s when he was running UPI’s overnight operation and I was a rookie reporter/editor at New York headquarters. He would move on to Washington where he would become managing editor of the wire service.

The essential attribute of a supervising editor is news judgment. And Cohen exhibited it in spades the day President Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot in March 1981.

While AP, Reuters and the U.S. TV networks were erroneously reporting that Brady was dead, Cohen insisted the news “must come from a responsible source at the hospital,” he writes in one of the most compelling chapters in the book.

I was reminded of the Brady blunder 30 years later when many in the media “killed” Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords –and when Aaron Sorkin highlighted the fiasco in an episode of The Newsroom on HBO.

A couple of Sorkin’s characters at fictional TV network ACN appear to be channeling Ron Cohen when they refuse to follow others reporting Giffords is dead.

“Get me official confirmation,” says one producer.

Adds another: “A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.”

When their judgment is proven sound, there is sustained gloating.

There is little self-congratulation in Cohen’s memoir. Just good stories well told.