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July 16, 2018

Breaking the Story

In her own words, Lorraine Hillman reminds us that "You can take the woman out of the newsroom, but you can't take the newsroom out of the woman."

Cecily Knobler
  • Courtesy Lorraine Hillman
  • Hillman with her newsroom colleagues

    Courtesy Lorraine Hillman
  • Hillman with Tom Selleck

    Courtesy Lorraine Hillman

At KNXT-TV (later, KCBS), pioneer Lorraine Hillman entered into a world dominated by men, to become the second woman in that cigarette smoke-filled newsroom.

Four decades of work, (38 years at KNXT and two more at ABC) led her through infamous murder trials, earthquakes, floods, political changes and celebrity encounters. This resulted in two Emmys, eight Golden Mikes and many more prestigious awards for journalism.

But for Hillman, it was never about the accolades; it was about finding the truth. She spent countless hours dedicated to uncovering the facts, using her moral compass mixed with tenacious street smarts and attention to detail. All the while, she raised her son as a single mother - which, as she describes, was the greatest accomplishment and honor of her life.

In her memoir, Lifetime of News, Hillman reveals some of her most exciting and vulnerable encounters as a woman in the Southern Californian journalism world.

In your book, you mention the bombing of Pearl Harbor as an early childhood memory which drew your interest in news events. How did you eventually translate that into working in the news world?

I really wanted a news job and was constantly bugging the bureau chief at Television City, where I worked for 6 years. And they weren't hiring any women. There was one woman in the office and that was it.

It was my friend Charles Kuralt who was the West Coast bureau correspondent who encouraged me to try for a job at Columbia Square, KNXT. I did and finally a job opened up.

I was the second woman to enter that newsroom, smoke-filled, I might add. There were 42 white males and this one other woman and myself.

You discuss Mary Tyler Moore, whose aunt worked at KNXT. Did you recognize yourself in any of the characters on her show?

People have asked me if that show was based on our newsroom. And I think quite possibly it might have been! Mary Tyler Moore's aunt, Alberta Hackett, was our business manager at Channel 2. When the show was beginning production, James Brooks and Allan Burns came to look at the news set and hang out for a couple of weeks to see how things were going.

They all came in. Ted Knight, who played Ted Baxter, wanted to sit in the news director's office and put his legs up on the desk. He wanted me to come in and pretend I was taking dictation from him. Their set was pretty much like ours. And I think they patterned Mr. Grant…remember him?

Of course - Ed Asner!

Yes, they patterned him after our news director, Grant Holcomb. Though, I'd imagine a lot of the characters were conglomerations of different people

Our captain, we called him, Pete Noyes, was the producer of The Big News. They also kind of patterned Lou Grant after him, I think. At one point, Pete was offered an acting role on that show! And he declined because he didn't see himself as an "actor." He also wrote a book called Who Killed The Big News?

Now we're in the "Me Too" movement. In your book, you describe a strong anti-harassment policy and yet it still happened in some newsrooms.

Yes. I wrote that before the Weinstein story even came out.

What was it like navigating through those times?

It was tolerated. The Blue Book policy wasn't enacted until later. I had personal experience with it. I'd be walking through the newsroom and there was a cameraman who used to flip my skirt up. Even did this at an awards banquet when he was with his wife. And management would look the other way. I ignored him the best I could, but back then, there wasn't much you could do.

CBS policy was a strict "no tolerance." They issued a standards and practices book which managers followed. This was in later years and I, as a manager, dealt with sexual harassment issues brought to my attention by my interns, both male and female.

I worked at ABC in 1996 and '97 on O.J. I was treated with respect, never witnessed any harassment nor heard about any. Our nightly anchor was Peter Jennings and GMA anchor was Charlie Gibson. I worked directly for ABC News' L.A. Bureau Chief Clem Lane, one of the best men I ever worked with in my career.

Your secret weapon was your ability to research. Did you feel pressure as stories broke?

Yes! Reporters and their camera crew had to get out the door and I had to gather as much research as I could. Menendez was a good example because that crime had happened months before there was a break in the story. And we were the first ones out there because I had researched the addresses.

That's what they needed, they needed to get moving out to the house in Beverly Hills. And they needed the autopsy reports, I had all of that. I'm proud of getting the research done.

Another example was I worked the criminal and civil cases of O.J. Simpson. My job at ABC, when I worked the civil case, was to look at the depositions from months earlier and then watch the testimony and compare them. Then I'd give that information to the reporters.

You probably changed history! You also talked about The Hillside Strangler, The Night Stalker, Manson…

Patty Hearst, the heiress who was kidnapped, and the SLA shootout happened. And we were the only ones live and everyone in the country ended up carrying our coverage!

Bob Long, who was everything on our desk, coordinated the coverage of the SLA shootout, which turned out to be one of the most famous live television events in history - certainly in Southern Californian history.

Just the hours spent on that alone…

When you're in news, you don't go home. I heard a news director say once, "if you want to go home early, go work at the Bank of America."

You talk in the book about celebrity encounters. Who were some of the stand outs?

I had Gloria Allred, love her or not, on a couple of shows and she was always early, extremely prepared and knew her topic. I appreciated that because it can be scary when you're producing and your guests don't always show up!

Betty White also comes to mind…

Not only did I write about Betty in the book, but I attended her birthday party at the TV Academy!

We had different celebrities come into the station to do the "Pet of the Week" on our noon show with Steve Edwards. Betty came in on a day I had my dog, Kelly, in the office. She was on her way to makeup and she saw Kelly on the floor and thought she was "pet of the week!"

Betty got down on her hands and knees and was holding Kelly's head saying "We're gonna find a good home for you!" And I said, "Oh no, Ms. White, that's my dog!" She was so sweet and she's very active in animal rights and the L.A. Zoo.

That's such a great story!

I'd say the most famous person I met had to be Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. He extended his hand and I thought, "Oh my goodness, I'm in the presence of a really great man."

Speaking of political figures, you had some touching stories about Jimmy Carter and a correspondence with Ronald Reagan. Did you a feel a need to publically remain non partisan?

When you work in news, you don't show any political membership or inclination. I did work on John Kennedy's campaign when I was at Television City, but I was working in programming. So there was a big difference with that situation.

I developed a correspondence with Ronald Reagan when I was very young. I had met him at a première. And then again, I was on the floor when he got the nomination at his convention.

You followed so many huge pieces of political history.

The most emotional story, and one that remained with me, was the assassination of John Kennedy. I was asked that question during a book signing. It's an important question. The person who asked was a young reporter who said for her it was Sandy Hook. For me it was John Kennedy. He was my 911 or Sandy Hook at that time.

How do you think the climate is different today, in light of entire networks being accused of "fake news?"

I don't like the fake news label at all. The reputable networks and cable channels aren't doing fake news. They're reporting the tweets that are coming out of The White House. If we didn't know about that, where would we be?

If we didn't have news reporting, it would be like living in a Communist country. We wouldn't know what was going on and we just can't have that. Journalists are being killed in some countries. I'm a strong supporter of journalist associations.

You worked with so many renowned journalists over the years.

Some of the people I worked with at Channel 2 who got their start there: Ann Curry, Lester Holt, Connie Chung, Jim Lampley, Maury Povich. And I have interns all over the country! Michelle Tuzee who anchors on Channel 7 in L.A. was my intern. I've got former interns on every network either anchoring or reporting.

You really inspired people to continue in the news world.

That's what Michelle wrote me! She said I inspired her. I hadn't really thought of myself that way, but am so happy she's doing great!

And a quick word about ABC News. They were great to me. I had retired, at least I thought I had from CBS, and then got a call to come to ABC to work on O.J. as their director of news research. They treated me like a queen!

But I have to say that the most important relationship I ever had was my real life role as the mother to my son, Rob. I raised him alone, with no support.

Of all the chapters so far, being a mom was number one. But if you could have a "number two" what would that be?

I think being a part of The Golden Years, at CBS, Television City. All the people I met and worked with. All the crime stories, working earthquakes, floods, fires, airplane crashes - what you do in news! Channel 2 was a real family and it still is.

We're in a time where everyone has to get their click-bait up and it all goes so fast. We seem to be losing the thread.

Yes, but when there's a breaking story, my adrenaline starts pumping. I feel like I need to run out the door and get there! And I dial around to various stations to see who's covering what and how they're doing it.

You must have had fun writing about it all in your book.

When I started to write Lifetime of News I was telling my friend (longtime news anchor) Kelly Lange that I felt like it was my "second act." Kelly replied, "Oh honey we all have second acts!"

Lifetime of News: A Memoir is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon

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