John Cleveland didn’t die at the assignment desk in the KRQE newsroom although I feared he might given the health issues he mentioned from time to time. Instead we are told he died in his sleep, a peaceful end for a larger-than-life character who boosted the game and noise level of an already frantic place. He wasn’t much past 50 and leaves behind a wife and young son.
For those of you who don’t know TV newsrooms, the assignment desk occupies the high ground at the center of the maelstrom. It’s where police scanner chatter merges into ringing phones while competing with a two-way radio base and shouts from all directions. The manager assigns photographers to reporters and live trucks to photographers, dispatches the helicopter, updates all on fresh developments and constantly calls contacts for information and confirmation.
The desk is also where everyone gathers and yells when breaking news erupts or a newscast melts down. The assignment manager is expected to know everything and everyone, never miss a scanner call, make sure photogs get a meal break and don’t go home with the keys to the satellite truck all the while playing good-cop bad-cop to myriad and mercurial newsroom personalities in various states of mental distress. It is not a place for the meek, a label no one ever applied to Cleve likely dating to a childhood long before I met him.
We sometimes imagined better website numbers if we just live streamed the assignment desk instead of the newscast. But then our secrets might get out.
(Just for the record, never is heard a profane word in the newsroom, no one ever comes to blows or throws things or is armed or screams or cries, everyone knows Gallinas isn’t pronounced guh-LY-nus and there are no bats diving from the unseen reaches of the three-story studio toward the 10 p.m. anchors. And we never make factual errors, get a name wrong, call someone guilty when they’re still innocent or say something outrageously stupid on air because we didn’t know a mic was hot. Or, maybe not.)
Journalists, like cops, can become cavalier about death and people’s darker sides since dealing with those traumas and the innocent casualties is a part of the daily deal. Both professions developed a brand of humor best kept to ourselves lest the public think we really are that insensitive and uncaring. And the scribes and badges used to get along a lot better. With the invention of crime-scene tape, public information officers and gotcha journalism, younger reporters and photographers may never experience a collegiality between cops and newsies born on the streets of New Mexico and elsewhere.
Once upon a time you’d be walked around the crime scene and the corpse, just please don’t step in the blood. At a fatal hit-and-run on a pitch-black street your TV light helped in the hunt for car and body parts. Your phone rang at 2 a.m. with a cop voice you might or might not recognize suggesting you bringing your camera to a certain location. Or maybe a detective leery of the evidence-room tech’s mid-century Speed Graphic sheet-film camera asked you to shoot a few close-up photos of fatal wounds. Other times you’d finish putting Saturday night sports photos into the Sunday paper and hitch a ride until dawn with graveyard officers you knew just for the conversation and insights.
If nothing else the job gave you a sense of your own mortality and reminded you life hangs by a thread able to unravel at any moment. Gallows humor is about all that remains from those years as film and the trust between journalists and cops on the beat have largely vanished from street-level newsgathering. Reporters still have sources, but the paranoia runs deep.
Which brings us back around to Cleve. The photo of him on the circular platform rimmed by the assignment and Web desks doesn’t do him true justice. Still, it reveals much. Witness a confident, smirking, tattooed, gun-loving and flag-waving patriot who suffered fools badly, always had your back and would bust ass to help you get your story reported and on the air. The commentary from colleagues over the last few days attests to the latter, and I can testify to all of it from my close-up view on the Web side of our tower.
He and I didn’t delve into politics much, which is probably just as well given some of our divergent views, and our conflicting schedules didn’t allow for socializing until I quit TV recently and finally made it to Lucky’s on a couple of Friday afternoons. What bonded us quickly some years ago, though, was newsroom humor and the reality of the street.
John grew up tough and bilingual in Albuquerque coming to newsrooms at KOB and then KRQE after rowdy years working in corrections, law enforcement and private security. That background fed his view of New Mexico and instilled contacts and wisdom only obtainable first-hand. I grew up near the border, never got in fights, knew just enough Spanish to get around Mexico, dropped out of journalism school pre-Watergate but returned after my first news job. I also consciously avoided moving into news management to stay engaged first-hand with our corner of the world and the folks who make it spin. Over time he and I marveled at how many good and bad people we knew in common, how many events we’d worked from different directions, how many times we filled in gaps in each other’s tales and how we could with equal ease slander competitors, crooks, public officials, politicians and crooked public officials and politicians.
As I write this it’s tough to come up with a punch line since we didn’t usually tell jokes, and sometimes what we said was less than kind or generous. Mostly the comedy came from the situation of the moment, twisting the English and Spanish languages or saying something punny, rude or off-color to relieve tension or simply because we could. It was just one of those things that he and we on the Web staff all called each other Willie with no one else knowing why. Someone will fill his job as the news marches on. I can only hope whoever he or she may be appreciates there are times to laugh at death and laugh more in life even as you mourn.
So long, Willie.