Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Soup Cans Interview: Paul Mueller

Paul Mueller has been in the television news business for 15 years and during that time, not once has he felt the need to come out of the closet. That's because he's always been open about his sexuality. The openly gay news anchor has toiled on news desks all over the country but has recently found his way back home on home turf in New England, this time anchoring over at ABC affiliate WLNE-TV. Mueller spoke to Soup Cans about his life as an out news anchor and he also shared with us his thoughts about the recent departure from WHDH of his friend and long-time Boston anchor Randy Price. Mueller told us that "Randy has ended yet another chapter of his life." He added, "If I know Randy, he has many more chapters to go. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see him pop up at another station in Boston in the future. Not only is he one of the few remaining distinguished journalists on the Boston landscape, he's also a very good guy who's always willing to help young journalists further their career."

Why is it that there are so few visible gay news anchors?

Why are there so few visible gay anchors? I think this is, in part, because most general managers would rather hire a straight man as their main anchor. Sure, the gay and lesbian community has come a long way in the last few decades but as one of the main faces of the station, I think management tends to avoid gay men and lesbians as they cater to their audiences. Of course, there are a handful of gay anchors I know. Some are out, others are not. I've always been very forthcoming about my sexuality with management. Being gay just adds an extra dimension to a person's personality. As for management at my station, I think being gay was actually a plus when being chosen as the early afternoon anchor and lead nightside reporter. There are plenty of gay reporters out there but, of course, they are in very different roles. They are not the main faces of the station.

Read on to hear Mueller's thoughts about ditching the news business, why an anchor's "coming out" is his/her own prerogative and how he has to explain to some of his admiring viewers that just because he's missing a wedding band from his ring finger doesn't mean that he's looking for a wife.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing gay news anchors?

I think as news anchors, we face so many challenges each and every day, regardless of whether we are gay, straight, or somewhere in between. Can Joe and Mary Bluejean relate to an openly gay anchor? Of course, to answer that question would be to make a sweeping generalization. Some could. Other's couldn't. It's so important that the audience connects with the anchor team and it's up to each and every individual and their willingness to watch a gay news anchor. On the lighter side of things, I receive plenty of emails asking if I'm single since I don't wear a wedding ring and I always reply by saying -- you know, I'm not in a relationship but I try to keep work separate from my personal life. If they press on with another email, that's when I respectfully tell them that I'm interested in men, not women.

With such an attitude shift about gays and lesbians in the country lately, what do you think about the possibility of seeing a major closeted network or cable news anchor coming out sometime soon?

I have many friends who are correspondents for the networks who are gay, and many of them are very open about it. Of course it's up to the individual whether he or she decides to come out. I don't believe it's up to anyone else to "out" them. There are several major cable news anchor who I can think of who are gay that haven't publicly revealed their sexual orientation. Do they need to? That's really a decision they have to make based on their confidence level. We want to be seen as journalists and not the gay journalist. Sometimes coming out seems to muddy the waters and makes viewers more concerned about sexual orientation than story content and delivery.

Television news is a tough business. Was there ever a moment during your career that you thought you should just ditch it and try something else?

I'd be lying if I said no. I think television news is one of the toughest, cut-throat businesses there are. I was laid off as the weekend anchor from the WB affiliate after the station owners sold to another station. From there, I freelanced for quite some time. I even went out to Seattle to try a change of location. To say it didn't work would be a complete understatement. It was in Seattle that I really questioned if I had come to the end of the line in my career. The phone wasn't ringing. Freelance work was tough to get. I almost threw in the towel but luckily didn't. I've now come back home and continue to do what I love.

Over the years, you've bounced back and forth from New England to other parts of the country. How does it feel to back working in the region once again?

It's always good to be home and close to family and friends. I started off in Tyler, Texas and lived there for 2 years and made countless trips back home to Boston because I missed New England so much. There's nothing like being in the area I grew up in and know the people, political figures, ways to correctly say the names of cities and towns because I've been there. There's nothing better than getting a status report from my mother as to my performance on the news that night!

What story in your career has affected you the most?

This is a timely question. We're coming up on the 6th anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island. I was one of the first reporters on the scene that frigid February night. The building went up in flames in a mere 3 minutes. People were piled one on top of the other just feet from freedom. They are images that will never leave me. I had never seen that much emergency equipment in my life, that many emergency responders. I'll never forget the look on people's faces as they walked aimlessly in the street, having been in the club just minutes before and now it was reduced to nothing but rubble. We all know about the 6 Degrees of Separation. In Rhode Island, since it is such a small state, it's more like 1/6 of a Degree of Separation. Out of the 100 people killed that night and 200 others injured, Rhode Islanders either knew one of those people or knew of someone who knew one of those injured or killed. I had worked for 10 hours that day before being rushed out the door to cover the fire. For the next 12 hours, I was on the air. It's something I will never, ever forget.

Who are your journalistic heroes?

Who are my journalistic heroes? Hmm, good question. I have to say Edward R. Murrow to start, Peter Jennings, one of my mentors Jeffrey Kofman of ABC News, and longtime aviation reporter now consultant to NBC Bob Hagar. I'm an avid aviation buff and there's no one who can tell a story like him. Also Steve Hartmann and the photographer he often works with, Les Rose. They did a segment for CBS called "Everyone has a story." The two of them were a dream team that really made stories come alive.

Click Here To

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Soup Cans Interview: Brian Unger

Soup Cans editor Steve Pep recently had the chance to speak to multi-hyphenate (humorist, producer, writer and commentator) Brian Unger. The former "The Daily Show" correspondent, who has on occasion filled in for Keith Olberman on MSNBC (someone please give this guy his own cable show already!), has been making the country (especially us) laugh with his terrificly witty and deadpan "Unger Report" on NPR. But enjoy that feature on the radio while you still can - Unger's final day at NPR is on March 20.

What is the process for coming up with stories for your "Unger Report" segment on NPR's "Day to Day?"

This is a good question, Steve. Adequately preparing the Unger Report for NPR listeners weekly -- each Monday morning -- is a delicate waltz. First, I prospect for stories and monitor their trajectory and sustainability in the week's news cycle. I think of the news cycle as a sewer pipe with stories flowing through it. Some stories ripen mid-week, and rot. Some lose their potency, their news value because CNN journalist Rick Sanchez beats them to death with his journalism stick. Other stories sustain longer and flow through the news sewer pipe for the entire week, but after those stories have been handled, consumed, talked out, mocked, or satirized by Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Colbert, Stewart, the cast of SNL, Maher, Olbermann, Ferguson, O'Brien, Shearer, Garrison Keiller, Peter Sagel, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, 2.6 million bloggers, my friend Neal, and, finally, Carson Daly, there's really little left to say. The echo chamber in the sewer pipe is deafening when you're standing alone at the end of it, Steve.

And by week's end, the news buffet, the journalistic cupboard, or sewer, is bone dry, empty and bare, certainly by Sunday morning. Whatever crumbs, or waste residue, are leftover, George Will usually consumes later that morning. That leaves me, Brian Unger, still, with nothing to say. So I'm typically in a desperate search for a topic, issue, or story with an iota of interest or appeal. Sometimes I just call in sick. Of course, none of this applies if a story breaks on Friday night, or over the weekend in which case I get first crack at news, and in essence, become a humorous Cronkite-like figure for people stuck in traffic listening to public radio.

Keep reading to find out what Unger has to say about Keith Olbermann, his stint on the Fox News Channel (and not the hit show "24") and a lot more.

In your opinion, what is the worst thing about working in television?

Feeling intellectually inferior to the people working in public radio.

And what is the worst thing about working in radio?

Feeling financially inferior to the people working in television.

Any thoughts on George Bush finally leaving office?

See answer to question #1.

You've filled in for Keith Olbermann on his show "Countdown." Is being a permanent host for a show like that something you'd be interested in for yourself?

Of course it is. I enjoyed filling in for Keith and was honored he and Phil Griffin at NBC News allowed me to do it. I'm a huge fan of Keith's, and his staff is one of the most talented in TV news - fake or real. It's tricky being the fill-in guy since it's not your race to run. You're not in the chair to win it, but keep it warm. So, you don't get to sprint and show off. It's not a bad job really -- subbing for hosts who get sick, go on vacation, who have a grievance against their bosses, or have a death in the family. A more permanent job would be nice, but displacing the third repeat of Lou Dobbs on HLN at 10 p.m. is no easy feat. I would really love to anchor a show from LA - Larry King seems to be the only presence out here, and so when he's finished interviewing Suzanne Somers, that leaves many smart, funny, and relevant people out here in this part of the country who aren't heard amid the dominant east coast chatter. But the blessing to get such a show, any show, has to come from above, and I don't mean from Jesus.

You were a correspondent on the "The Half-Hour News Hour" on the Fox News Channel. What was your experience like on that show?

Because I'm a journalist acting and an acting journalist, my agent sent me to audition in Chatsworth - a part of L.A. known for its production of pornography and the series "24" -- for what I was told in vague terms was a news-based comedy for "FOX." Out here, "FOX" means "The Simpsons" not "The Hannity." I had a couple of scenes in-hand, not an entire script. And Joel Surnow, the EP of this pilot - and creator of "24" - greeted all of us, but cautioned that some of the comedy in the pilot would be critical of the Left, and that if anyone had a problem, they should consider leaving. As you would expect, not one among our unemployed ranks exited the building in front of the EP of what was the hottest show on TV. Leaving would have blown my chances of getting on "24," forfeited my shot at bumping into Jack Bauer in the hallway, and made me look like I was a liberal without a sense of humor. After all, there are douchebags on the left as well as the right -- but mostly on the right. I rehearsed for the pilot, but for only the scenes I was cast. And those rehearsals complied with the Geneva Conventions. Rehearsals were held on the "24" set, in the conference room at CTU. For a fan of "24," it was intoxicating. It wasn't until tape day that I sobered up. As the studio audience sat quietly awaiting the cold open -- a videotaped piece -- I was as curious as they were to see what show I was in.

In the first sketch, Rush Limbaugh appeared as the president with Ann Coulter as his V.P. It got progressively more partisan from there, but not in a progressive way. "Oops," I said to myself, "Next time I should ask to see the entire script," unless Woody Allen is directing. I was a founding correspondent and a producer on "The Daily Show," I worked for NPR, I had just subbed for Keith -- it was not the right fit for me. My understanding is that "FOX" passed on the pilot. But "FOX NEWS" picked it up because Roger Ailes, I later learned, was a friend of Surnow's - who called me personally and graciously thanked me and asked me to join up. I thought that was very nice of him, but I was in an exclusive contract with The Discovery Channel. And so I wished him luck. I never got a role on "24."

Do you watch "The Daily Show" these days?

I do occasionally, and when I do, I feel proud.

Do you regret ever having taken the job with "Extra," which you were eventually fired from for not having the right look?

My "look" was only part of the problem. Ultimately it wasn't the right fit for either of us. No regrets. You gotta have a thick skin, because Hollywood is a toxic place. If not for that experience, I wouldn't have garnered the research I needed for my pilot at Comedy Central. And I did get to meet Keanu Reeves at the Matrix premiere, and question him vigorously on why he refused to make Point Break II. That also may have contributed to my dismissal.

You seem to keep yourself constantly busy with work. What's on your plate these days?

Season two of Discovery Channel's "Some Assembly Required," which I hosted, is in the can, and should air soon. There will not be a season three I've been told. So, if it "seems" that I'm constantly busy, good. Lately, I've had my hands full socializing my 1 year-old French Mastiff, Honey.

Click Here To

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Soup Cans Interview: Lynne Russell

The Washington Post pretty much summed up how scores of people felt (ourselves included) when Lynne Russell left CNN Headline News in 2001 after 18 years at that network's anchor desk. “We are, frankly, devastated by the news… Lynne Russell is leaving…the future seems a little sadder” said the Post. Since her departure from CNN, Lynne's been keeping herself busy (as always) selling her own brand of silk lampshades, hawking real estate and hosting her own radio talk show. Soup Cans recently caught up with Lynne to talk about her professional and personal life as well as her new adopted home of Canada.

What are the biggest differences between anchoring a news desk in the US and anchoring one in Canada?  

Good question. First, let me say that I wouldn’t trade anything for the people I’ve worked with in the broadcasting industry in Canada. I have made some very dear friends. It’s interesting that there is a flow both ways across the border. As you know, there are many Canadians on the air in the States… although I might be the first American, and probably the last, to anchor the CBC (more on that in a minute). After nearly two decades with CNN - and then 5 years traveling and writing - I went back to TV news here in Canada, because it’s a hard habit to break. I did not expect it to be the same, and it wasn’t.

It’s actually difficult to compare the networks I know first-hand, since CNN is an American commercial network that’s all about immediacy, and CBC is Canadian government-run, without a breaking news approach. It is the BBC in a hockey sweater. Here are a couple of differences:

American networks do not promote themselves as lending a particular nationalistic viewpoint to the news (whatever one might think actually happens!). Yet CBC “Newsworld” promotes itself as providing “news with a Canadian perspective.” To me this is an astonishing admission, a disservice to the viewing public and exactly the opposite of what it should be. A journalist’s job – privilege and responsibility – is to tell the story, explain why it’s important, and then shut up and allow the public to draw their own conclusions. I have faith that they are very capable of this.

Then there’s breaking news as a priority: Even at small local stations, there will be at least a reporter on call in the evenings, to chase down facts and interviews when news happens. At the CBC that was not the case, as a large staff focused attention on the late evening program (which left me tap dancing around stories, and left the public uninformed unless they tuned to the other networks, which were indeed airing more information). That late evening program is the network’s “showcase”, an hour-long, slow-moving compilation with a documentary feel, that runs several more times in the course of a day. It’s very nicely done – some of it is brilliantly produced – but just don’t call it news.

Most telling, I suppose, was the day in 2006 when a Canadian was tragically killed in an American friendly-fire accident in Afghanistan, and I was abruptly replaced on my scheduled newscast by, well, by a Canadian. I wondered why there were two of us sitting in Makeup…

So yes, it was an experience. As they say in Jersey (and my family does), what’re you gonna do?

Read on to find out what Lynne has to say about The Patriot Act, Chuck Roberts, the legendary Jane Russell and the current state of TV news. We've also included a picture she kindly sent us of her most recent hairdo (we were in awe of her ever-changing hair in the 90's. So sue us.).

What are your feelings on the state of television news today? Do you miss it?

Sometimes I have an almost overwhelming urge to grab a news photographer and go right some wrong. That will always be there. I continue to feel a real dedication to the people’s right to know. As I speak to journalism classes at a college here, I keep hammering home that the exchange of information is the basis of a free society, and no contribution is too small. I know that sounds corny, but it’s the truth, and it isn’t something that changes over time.

And I continue to be optimistic about television news reporting (and anchoring, which, when it’s done right, is simply reporting from the set), although there should be less “I” in the copy. When you’re telling me about my world today, I don’t care what you think, what you want after the break, or who you talked with last week. Skip the self-promotion and show biz. Get to the news.
Not many people pursue their interests with as much fervor as you do. To name just a few, you are a licensed private detective, sheriff's deputy, a black belt in Choi Kwang Do and design lampshades. How does someone acquire the focus and drive to do so many different things with such passion?

That’s very flattering. Maybe it’s a lack of focus, ever think of that?! It’s just that we should not let other people place limits on what we think we can accomplish in our lives. When we realize that we can actually try the things that interest us… and we understand that discontinuing them is not a sign of weakness or failure, that just having the guts to sample something new is an accomplishment… then we’re free to have some fun! You use the word “passion”, and you’re right. That’s the key.

Why did you decide to get involved in real estate?

In the States, I enjoyed buying, leasing out, and selling houses. There – and here –  I was exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly. I always thought that if I had the chance, I’d like to be the agent I wished I’d had, on more than one occasion. So voila.
What kind of similarities do you see between news and real estate?

In both cases, you have to take the initiative. Reminds me of an important lesson I learned from a Secret Service agent, when I worked for a Honolulu station. As a visiting dignitary was making his way through a crowd and getting into his limo, I yelled to the agent, “What are the odds he’ll slow down so I can talk to him?” (okay, I was hoping he’d help me out with that) and the agent shouted back, “Make your own odds, Lynne!”  So I did, and I got the interview. Same thing with the rest of life, including real estate. The opportunities are there, but you’ve got to make them yours.
You and Chuck Roberts were the king and queen of Headline News in the 1990's. What was your relationship with him like? Do the two of you still talk?

We’re still in touch. Chuck is my hero, and should be running the place. He did the very first Headline News-cast. He’s kind, intelligent, experienced and even-tempered. We’ll always be friends. I have a photo in my living room of the two of us on one of our many General Election nights. He always did the politics (which he totally gets… amazing, since he doesn’t play politics, himself. This is a compliment.) and I did the rest of the world. His was more interesting.
How do you feel about news anchors also being viewed as sex symbols?

Smoke it if you’ve got it.
In your book, How to Win Friends, Kick Ass and Influence People, you talk about the possibility about you and your friend Jane Russell being related. Have you ever confirmed that to be true?

Jane sent me lots of family information and photos, which my mom misplaced. Jane’s dear late husband, John, thought we were related, and got us together. She’s the original glamour girl, so I hope it’s true. Whenever I write, I sign it ‘the other Russell”. She’s so gracious, she told me that I should re-take the picture on the back cover of How to Win Friends, Kick Ass and Influence People using the same haystack pose she made famous in The Outlaw. To me, that was the ultimate compliment.
In the past you've said you couldn't reveal which celebrities you've been a bodyguard to because it would "blow (your) cover." Do you still work as a bodyguard? If not, can you now reveal who you've worked for?

That’s right, had to pass up being on Tom Snyder’s last week of talk shows (he was my favorite interviewer, ever) because I couldn’t reveal clients. Unfortunately, I still can’t, just a matter of keeping to the word of the contract. Haven’t done much body guarding, lately. Legal guns are so hard to come by up here, it wouldn’t be as much fun anyway!
Your first book was such a fun read. Do you plan to write another?

Thanks. Back in 2005, I was nearly finished with “Enemy of the State: the state of personal liberties in post 9/11 America” when I realized three things: my co-author cared more about his tennis game, publishers either didn’t care or didn’t dare to take up the issue, and Americans sadly weren’t willing to consider that their daily lives, their privacy, their liberty and their well-being were in jeopardy at the hands of their own government (especially the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act). Much of what the book demonstrated as a clever but sad set of circumstances for one fictitious family, became commonplace fact. We weren’t willing to ask enough questions, so in a sense we got what we deserved.

And, yes, I did put my money where my mouth is. After I left CNN, I was asked to do some instructional videos for the federal government, to train local police to operate according to federal requirements, and I had to say that I could not in good conscience do it. The way things were going, I had no idea how my contribution might adversely affect individual rights.

At present, I’m having fun with a quick-read novel about (how original) a television reporter who is also a private detective. It’s very much based in fact. Yet there are so many similarities with some of Janet Evanovich’s details, I’m changing mine. She, of course, has nothing to worry about anyway!
You currently have your own talk show on Newstalk 1010 in Toronto. How does it feel to be more candid about what you have to say on the air?

Took some getting used to. Being a professional question mark for so long requires that you see both sides of absolutely everything, and honestly it’s hard to stop. But for those two hours, I’ve got it goin’ and there’s no turning back. Where but on talk radio could you say that Sarah Palin would be a vice president who winks like she’s turning tricks?

Click Here To