It was the early 1980s and I was sitting around the WCVB Channel 5 newsroom, grousing with anchor Chet Curtis over the latest hit job by a local media critic. We both wondered why media criticism wasn’t broader, and why it didn’t include print, too. I thought then, "Someday, I’m going to make it happen."
That day came sometime in 1994 while I was working on a pilot news magazine for the Fox television network. I was approached by the Free to Choose network, a cadre of devotees to economist Milton Friedman who had some marginal success producing quirky "free market-thinking" roundtable shows. In fact, Bill Shine, former Fox News executive and current White House deputy chief of staff for communications, was one of the directors/producers. I told FTC executive Bob Chitester about my idea for Beat the Press and he loved it. Chitester got me a $25,000 grant to produce a pilot and urged me to trademark the idea right away.
No surprise, when we first filed for the trademark, NBC lodged a complaint because of "Meet the Press." They got over it.
At about the same time, The New York Post reported that Arianna Huffington was trying to pull together a pilot for a show called “Beat the Press.” Chitester and I contacted her, and she invited me down to her house in D.C. to see if it was something we could do together. We had a great chat over a bowl of her homemade pea soup. But, her idea was to go after liberal bias in media and mine was not ideologically based, so we went our separate ways. However, I beat her to the trademark office, so she moved on with “Eat the Press.” Her show never developed, but “Eat the Press” became a regular media feature on her online endeavor, The Huffington Post.
With FTC’s help, we had a great time shooting a very slick, fast-paced, 20-minute Beat the Press pilot out of the beautiful Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NY. It was home to then radio giant Don Imus and Sesame Street. My pilot director, Mark Gentile, went on to direct the mega-hit “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” I was still working at Fox Network, but I shopped the pilot around, even taking a meeting with Roger Ailes, who was then head of CNBC and in the process of creating what would later become MSNBC. He was amused by my pilot, but told me to “write a book first.”
Alas, no takers. Then, I got a call from WGBH Executive Producer Judy Stoia about coming back to Boston to host a local news and public affairs program. The timing was perfect, as my stint at Fox was coming to an end. Greater Boston first aired in January, 1997 as a four-day-a-week show. The Friday time slot was devoted to The Long and Short of It, with onetime Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former Senator Alan Simpson. When that show folded a year later, it made sense to expand Greater Boston to five nights a week. But I had another idea, and I showed Stoia my Beat the Press pilot.
“Let’s try it,” she said.
Twenty years later, the experiment is still in progress.
Beat the Press will celebrate two decades on the air with a special live edition featuring a studio audience on Friday December 7 at 7 p.m. The broadcast will air on WGBH-2 and will stream on WGBH News’ Facebook page. Following the broadcast, the live stream will continue with panelists past and present will taking part in a Q&A with the audience.