I still remember the occasion. Not the day, not the month, not even the year, although it was probably 1976. No, what I remember are the words: How they were spoken, and the way the three of us reacted.
I was a young correspondent for NBC News, sitting in the New York bureau one afternoon with two other young correspondents, Brian Ross and Bob Hager. Our boss, Dick Hunt, strolled over to us with a smile on his lips and pride in his eyes.
"You guys are great," he said. "You’re rabbits, and that’s what an operation like this needs. Rabbits."
I looked at Brian. He was smiling. I looked at Bob. He was smiling. I felt my stomach. It was roiling, and a chill had just shot through me from head to toe. I knew what Dick Hunt meant. I knew it was a compliment. I also knew that it was not for me.
A rabbit is a reporter who, in lieu of a particular beat like the White House or State Department, covers every kind of story there is in every kind of place there is, in the United States and abroad. He starts working at dawn and stops working at dusk and then high-tails it to the airport at midnight for the next flight to the next town where he can get up at dawn and report until dusk and head for an airport. He is tireless, committed, persevering – and he has enough frequent flyer miles to take the entire population of Chicago to Alpha Centauri and back.
Brian Ross is no longer a rabbit. He is the chief investigative correspondent at ABC News. I am no longer a rabbit. I am the host of Fox News Watch and a columnist for FOXNews.com. Bob Hager? Well, he’s still hopping – and it’s been more than three decades since he first popped out of the hutch and bounded into Vietnam.
In this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, Hager is saluted for his longevity by being named to the magazine’s “Hall of Fame.” My personal aversion to haredom notwithstanding, I recognize now, as I did back in 1976, that the rabbit plays an indispensable role in the network news organization. Actually, he plays the indispensable role. It is the anchor who gets the glory, but the rabbit is the one who gets the story.
Journalism may be the only corner of the celebrity culture in which the bit players work harder than the stars. Tom Hanks had a more arduous time of it in Cast Away than did any of the extras. Britney Spears spends a lot more time in rehearsal than her back-up singers. Latrell Sprewell is far more tired after a basketball game than Travis Knight.
But even though Tom Brokaw puts in a long, full day at NBC Nightly News, Hager’s is longer and fuller. And Brokaw sits in a plush, air-conditioned office with a phalanx of associates at his disposal and some of the finest restaurants in the world within walking distance. Hager is sometimes sitting on a tree stump on the edge of nowhere, sweating through his shirtsleeves, trying to confirm the details of a train wreck or a plane crash, with a producer nagging at him about his script and the nearest McDonald’s more than an hour away and running low on special sauce.
In the wake of the Florida recount, the media proclaimed that some of Hager’s colleagues at MSNBC had become stars. Somebody named Lester Holt, somebody named Ashleigh Banfield – these young, good-looking anchor people with which the business is riddled these days, men and women to whom performance is an art and journalism a second language at best.
There was nothing in the media about Bob Hager.
Until this month’s Vanity Fair. From anonymity to the Hall of Fame for my old friend in a mere thirty-two years. Congratulations, Bob. You made a much better rabbit than I ever would have. Next time I’m in Washington, I’ll look you up. We’ll talk about your longevity, your dedication, the continuing bounce in your step. I’ll buy you a drink. Carrot juice on the rocks?