Watching history unfold when TV news was essential viewing

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  Russ Bensley shows the Emmy Award he received 
  for his work as a news producer.
(Photo by Mary 
  Compton/H-F Chronicle)
 

He’s still a newsman.

When I interviewed Russ Bensley at the start of November, he detailed his years as a senior producer for CBS News during what is generally considered the golden age of broadcast journalism.
 

  Tom Houlihan

Bensley, who lives in Flossmoor, was the producer of the “CBS Evening News” when Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.”

He did on-the-street TV interviews in Chicago after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. When Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal, Bensley produced the story. He was on the scene during at least one early NASA launch from Cape Canaveral. And he was severely wounded while covering a story during the Vietnam War.

Toward the end of our discussion, though, he had a question for me.

“Why are there so many traffic arrests for revoked licenses in Homewood?” he asked. “I think that would be a good story for the Chronicle.”

Like I said. Still a newsman.

Bensley said he has seen the Homewood police blotter in another newspaper and has never understood why there are so many citations for revoked licenses.

I had to admit that I had no answer to his question and agreed that it sounded like a good story. I meant what I said, too. When you are talking to someone who has had a legendary journalism career, it’s best to tell the truth.

Google “Russ Bensley CBS News” and you find scores of internet items about his career. The first one I found was his video analysis of a news story about lethal nails used in a helicopter weapons system during the Vietnam conflict. It was originally used at the Columbia University School of Journalism and shows Bensley describing all the elements that go into a TV news story.

The clip, about 20 minutes long, provides a thorough analysis of what would have been state-of-the-art broadcast journalism in the early 1970s. More than 40 years later, it is still a valuable primer on how to tell an effective, meaningful story.

Bensley began his career at CBS in Chicago as a radio news writer. It was 1951 and he was a journalism student at Northwestern University. He’d grown up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and wanted to work for a newspaper.

“I’d been the editor of both my grade school and high school newspaper,” he said.

WBBM came to Northwestern looking for a news writer and Bensley was picked for the job. He worked three hours a day at the WBBM studio at the Wrigley Building. After graduation, he took a full-time job and later entered the brave new world of television news when WBBM-TV was launched in 1953. At the young TV station, he worked with people who would become famous in Chicago journalism — Fahey Flynn, Lee Phillip and Irv Kupcinet. He was mostly a writer but occasionally appeared on air, most notably on a late night news show.

In 1960, Bensley was hired by CBS News and moved to New York. Historic events were rapidly unfolding as television turned to technology that made it possible to show them as they happened — the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam-era protests.

I asked Bensley what he was proudest of during his years at CBS News.

“I was always proud when we got the story done on time,” he said.

Then he told me about one of his personal attributes that added to his success.

“You know my major talent was that I could type real fast,” he said. “We’d get raw film of someone talking and I’d sit there at a big Royal typewriter, type up a rough transcript of the interview. If I saw something that was important, I’d circle it in the transcript so that the film editor would get it into the story.”

Bensley was recently interviewed by Decades, a cable television channel, for a documentary, “Eye on the World: The Rise of Walter Cronkite and the Evening News.”

He told me that he generally got along with Cronkite, the longtime anchorman on the “CBS Evening News” who had a reputation as an “800 pound gorilla.”
“He could be tough,” Bensley said of Cronkite. “If he wanted something, he’d insist on it.”

Every day, Bensley said, producers and writers of Cronkite’s news program would work to come up with an acceptable “magic number” of how long the iconic anchorman would be on camera during each broadcast.

During the 1968 Tet Offensive, which is often regarded as a turning point in the Vietnam War, Bensley traveled to Khe Sanh, a Marine outpost under siege by North Vietnamese Army units. Before his trip, he’d been in Tokyo reviewing raw film from Vietnam before it was sent to the U.S.

On the day after his arrival in Khe Sanh, Bensley was with a group of Marines when a mortar shell exploded in their midst. He was not badly hurt but was taken to the base hospital. The next day, the hospital was hit by a round from a 122-mm howitzer and Bensley was badly hurt. His spleen was removed at a military hospital and he was evacuated to Toyko for recuperation.

“I asked the doctor about losing the spleen and he said I’d probably be OK as long as I stayed away from countries where malaria was a problem,” he said.

Bensley was with CBS Evening News between 1963 and 1972, serving as senior and executive producer. After that, he worked as a special projects producer until his retirement from CBS in 1985. After that, he and his wife and family moved to Niles, Mich., where they ran a horse farm. His wife, Pat Bannon — she had also worked for CBS — grew up in Homewood, and they moved back to the village in 2003. Bensley moved to Flossmoor three years ago and now lives with his daughter, Vicki Burke Stevenson, and her family.

I was honored to meet him. He made me want to be better at this journalism business, and I just may start by looking for an answer about those traffic arrests.
 

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