I'm taking a few days off, and when I return I will be approaching something of a milestone. I will have completed 20 years working for FOX. You may wonder how this possible since the FOX News Channel is only now approaching its 10th anniversary. Well, the truth is, I was FOX way before FOX was cool.
Let me take you back nearly 20 years ago — April 1, 1986. The nation was still reeling form the Challenger explosion — and the Chernobyl nuclear accident was still a few months away. I was a 30-year-old pup of a reporter arriving in Washington, D.C., for my very first day of work at WTTG-TV. I had been hired by firebrand news director, Betty Endicott, who had been impressed with a tape she had seen from my previous station in Mobile, Alabama. I thought I was going to work for the independently owned Metromedia Television group, but as I arrived for that first day of work, I had to stop and wonder if I was the target of some elaborate April Fool's Day joke.
A large crane was taking down the Metromedia sign. In its place the workmen were preparing to install a giant sign that read “FOX Television.” In small-market television, a change in owners was often seen as a bad thing. New owners often meant new bosses and upheaval. I hurried to the newsroom to find Betty wondering in a panic, "Do I still have a job?"
Within a few minutes, I found Betty smoking a cigarette in her office (it was 1986 after all). She saw the panic on my face as I nervously asked what the heck was going on. Betty just grinned and explained that the seven Metromedia stations had been purchased by an Australian fellow by the name of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch had big plans to start a fourth television network. I was, as it turned out, the first new FOX employee.
I didn't have much time to mull that over because Betty's well-trained assignment desk editors cracked their whips and sent me out on my first Washington story. It took me several weeks to pick up bits and pieces of Mr. Murdoch’s plan to compete with what we used to call the “Big Three” networks. The fledgling FOX Television network started by providing entertainment fare one night a week, then two, then three. It was almost a year before they provided programming over the full broadcast week.
There was no FOX News Channel then, of course, but the seven FOX-owned stations needed national reports for their successful prime-time local newscasts. Though I worked for WTTG, before long my Capitol Hill stories were also being seen on the FOX-owned stations in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and New York City. Along the way a number of independent stations became affiliated with the FOX Network — and they also began local news operations that used my reports.
WTTG was a fascinating place to work in those days. It was chock-full of crusty newsroom characters that could have been straight out of an episode of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” A crotchety old cuss named Rizzo (who bore an uncanny resemblance to ill-fated Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork) barked at everyone who dared to ask him for a piece of videotape they might need for their reports. Rizzo scared everyone to death, but he was the guy you knew would bail you out in times of crisis.
The tape editors were a colorful bunch. One editor I always suspected was a part-time bookie. There was a refrigerator in the tape edit area that was stocked with — I kid you not — cases and cases of beer. It was common practice in those days to drop a few bucks in the kitty and crack open a cold one while the editors pieced together your video tape at the end of the day. Woe be to the young, rookie reporter who tried to "suggest" how their story should be assembled. They were big-city union editors, and did not have to consider for a moment the ideas of some wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter from Texas by way of Alabama — thank you very much.
Betty was gangs of fun. I would often be typing away on a script in the dark and dank basement newsroom —- banging hard on the keys so that the copy could be read on all five pages of the five-ply carbon paper — and would hear her yell, "Wilson! Heads up!" I would look up just in time to get hit square in the face by one of those Nerf footballs slung with great accuracy from her office door some fifty paces away.
What a grand time it was to be a young Capitol Hill reporter in Washington. Late in 1986, we began hearing about something that became known as the Iran Contra scandal. I soon started reporting on the activities of a charismatic, but controversial young Lt. Colonel by the name of Oliver North. I covered the subsequent Iran-Contra hearings while sitting next to a brash and likable correspondent from ABC News by the name of Brit Hume. Little did I know that North would become a colleague — and Hume, one day, my boss.
In those early days I also covered the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, and like many Americans, wondered what to make of the claims of Anita Hill. Later, I spent countless hours chasing after then Speaker of the House, Jim Wright — who eventually resigned in a cloud of controversy over his personal finances. Occasionally, I would be dispatched by FOX station news directors to cover hurricanes, natural disasters, political conventions and one of my most unforgettable stories, the Oklahoma City bombing.
Six years covering the Hill was followed by six years on the anchor desk at WTTG, where I worked with a talented, top-rate journalist by the name of Lark McCarthy. We held down the fort on what turned out to be a successful local morning news program.
Betty, Rizzo and many of those with whom I served in the early days of FOX are gone now. Against all odds, FOX became a successful fourth network. Eight years ago, I moved over to another long-shot FOX operation — the FOX News Channel — and watched in amazement as we confounded the pundits and became the dominant number one U.S. cable news operation.
But I often think back with great fondness on those days in the basement at WTTG. The 20 years have gone by quickly.
“Weekend Live” hosted by Brian Wilson airs 12 – 2 p.m. ET on Sundays.
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Brian Wilson is a congressional correspondent for FOX News and anchor of the Sunday edition of "Weekend Live."