“Whatever Job You Give Me, I’ll Learn” — Natalie Jacobson Reflects on Her Illustrious Career in Television News
For over three decades, Natalie Jacobson was a hallmark of the Boston media landscape, anchoring the nightly news on WCVB. In her new memoir, Every Life A Story, Jacobson reflects on her trailblazing career, from her circuitous career path to the seminal stories that highlighted her time on air. With candor and wit, Jacobson guides the reader through these key moments, showing how her childhood in a close-knit Chicago neighborhood prepared her for a career where she would go toe to toe with key political figures. Jacobson also pulls back the curtain and reveals the nuts and bolts of a television reporter’s life in the seventies and eighties, whether it’s diving deep into a local news story or navigating a television career while being a parent. Throughout her illustrious career, Jacobson remained committed to keeping the focus of her story on her subject. In this book, readers gain a sense of how her reverence and admiration for her community made her such a beloved figure in New England. Jacobson spoke to us about finding the right entry point into her life story, her choice to focus on local news, and her lifetime fandom of Ted Williams. Author photo courtesy of Angela Rowlings.
The memoir plunges the reader into your life with your famous interview with John Silber. Can you talk about why you chose this particular moment from your career as the starting point of the book?
I was trying to figure out a way to back into my biography. I figured for people who don’t know me—or even for those who do—to understand where the writer’s coming from, you need to know something about them and how they were brought up. I just was struggling with it. I don’t know if you remember Dick Flavin? He’s a writer, a playwright, a reporter for Channel Four years ago. Anyway, he’s been a good friend for forty years. He really was the one who said, “You’re burying the lede. You should not have the Silber story halfway through the book!” I said, “Why not? It’s not any more important than any other one.” He said, “See, you’re missing the point! Yes, it is. To your reader it will be, because people from Texas were interested in it because Silber came from Texas. People from Washington who knew Weld as a prosecutor, but don’t really know about you or care about you, would care about that story. In my opinion you want to take that story that would appeal to a broader audience right at the beginning.” He said, “It also showcases your thought process. It showcases how you like to interview, it showcases your role as a reporter. You should establish your credentials right at the top.” He made a convincing argument, and that’s why I went that way. Did you think it was a mistake?
I enjoyed it because it just threw you into the middle of your career, plus it was also such a compelling story to read.
Oh good, so he was right, I think. (laughs)
In reading the book, you really get the sense of WCVB as being a special place to work. Can you talk about what made WCVB so unique and stand apart from other local news stations?
Sure, local programming. WCVB—or before it was CVB, Boston Broadcasters Incorporated—fought with WHDH TV, run by the Harold Travers Corporation, for the license, which went on for something like seven years, I could be off by a year or two. It was a protracted battle. First with The Boston Globe, which was trying to buy it, then with the government. Then Boston Broadcasters made a promise—a big promise—that they would do more local programming than any station in America. So much so that they actually broke how many hours of local programming. What distinguished it was number one, its attention to locally produced programming aimed at the community in which we lived—the greater Boston, Maine, and New England community. They not only made good on the promise, but exceeded it by quite some [margin].
Number two, we were run by Bob Bennett, who was maybe the best guy I could ever work for, and I would venture to say at least 95 percent of the people who I worked with would echo that. As I say in the book, he was a risk taker. He was not afraid of failing. He understood the benefits of failing—that you learn as much from that as you do from a success. He was a man who liked to win at everything, it was his nature. He was a salesman. He was as amiable, friendly, humorous, and warm as you could ever want, but still a strong leader. He wasn’t some namby-pamby guy by any means. (laughs) I tried to describe him, I hope I did him justice. Somebody like me—who was at the time twenty-nine years old—could walk into his office—the door was always open—and say, “Can we talk about this idea?” If you could sell him, he’d say, “Yeah, go produce it.” If it worked, great, if it needed to be tweaked, okay, and if it needed to be junked, okay. CVB was from the beginning in it for the community, in it for the viewer. If you were an imaginative person, if you’re someone who loved to try new things, if you’re a risktaker, if you believed in the mission and were just spilling over with ideas to accomplish it through various kinds of news coverage and programming, you couldn’t have worked for a better place. It was extraordinary. No one’s ever done anything like it
You really get the sense of possibility and inventing local news medium on the spot which is really exciting.
The other thing to consider is when it was. They were fighting for this license in the sixties. Television was relatively new back then. In the seventies, when we went on the air—March of ’72—we were not an established medium. Here’s an interesting thing that I had forgotten, but I was reminded of it by my own research. CNN, which was just getting started in the seventies—well probably the sixties, but I’m thinking of the period in the 70s—they had some terrific foreign coverage. They had maybe a dozen or more people stationed around the world, each network did. Now, I don’t think they have any. The point I was trying to make was CNN, which shows you the timing, was the first network to cover something live while it was happening. Whether it was a kid who fell down a well in Timbuktu, a committee hearing in Washington, or an incident of some renown in any state in America—they covered it live. That was new. That was in the seventies.
For a young person who’s in their twenties, the 70s sounds like 1812, but when you look at it from a historical perspective, you realize how short a time ago it was. The period of the seventies and eighties was the right time because we were defining what network—or in my case, local new—was. To be a local news reporter back then was thrilling, and I tried to capture it. There was a vibrancy at Channel 5, not just on my part, but everybody’s. It was an exciting time to be in television because there were few rules, we were writing them as we went along. Whether it was saying to the management, “Gee, we do this first in the nation primary that’s make or break for a candidate. What do we know about that? All we do is cover the nuts and bolts: they come here, they parade around, people vote, and then skit and skedaddle to the Carolinas. Who are these people in New Hampshire who are making that first decision for the country? What kind of people are they? What do they think about? What matters to them?” They allowed me to go for a better part of a week wherever I wanted to go, from the mountains of New Hampshire to the cities of Concord and Manchester. I’d hang around with a camera crew and their families for hours, and try to get a sense of who they were, what was their character, what mattered to them? What I learned was refreshing, which was that they’re not driven by ideology but rather by the character of the candidate and what he or she planned to do for the state of New Hampshire and ultimately—if they were running for the president—the country. It was an enlightening piece. It gave the people of New Hampshire the respect I think that they deserved, and it gave our viewers, even more importantly, an understanding of who was making this big, first in the nation decision.
You were part of the community that you covered and people viewers had such a connection to you. Can you talk about what it meant to you to be part of the community that you covered?
Critical. It was critical to me as a person, it was critical to me as a reporter, and it was critical to the station. This wasn’t Hollywood, this wasn’t a stage play. We were telling you every day about yourself. What was going on, who were the politicians who were making decisions for you regarding your money, your education, your health, your health? So the news is about you, and who is you? Well, we’re all you. It’s a “we.” I said in the book I felt I wore two hats: one representing my station and one representing the people to whom we spoke and reported for. I felt strongly about that. What I could never have imagined was the extraordinary intimacy that developed over the years between me and people in general. I can’t really explain it other than there’s a mutual respect and trust.
That’s one of the moving aspects of the memoir, the investment people had in your life, like making gifts when you gave birth to your daughter.
Yes, it’s true. And how precious is that? What’s more important in our lives than people caring about you and you showing that you care about them?
In the book, you also recount some tense moments when an interview subject didn’t like one of your questions and got angry with you, whether it was on or off camera. What was your strategy when you found yourself in those uncomfortable moments?
Can you think of one that I mentioned?
Well, in your interview with John Silber, he got very upset when you asked him to identify his weaknesses. Also your story with Tip O’Neill, when he was angry that a mic was left on him when he received his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
You know, that’s life, and I think you just go with it. In the case of John Silber, it was surprising, to say the least, that he found the question about describing himself in terms of his strengths and weaknesses so affronting. In terms of Tip O’Neill, it was actually kind of funny. I knew him pretty well—I don’t mean as a friend, but as a reporter who covered him all the time, because he was always in the news. He was such a character that it seemed out of character to have been nonplussed by that, but then I don’t know. I think there was a lot going on for him that day. His wife wasn’t feeling well and didn’t come with us. I think that was on his mind. He was always worried about Millie. He was nervous when we jumped out of the car in front of the East Room and behind us were President and Mrs. Ford. I think he was just having a day and he was on edge a little bit, but I wasn’t too worried about it. In terms of how I handled it, I let him say his piece then explained to him why the microphone was on him. Then I got him talking about Ted Williams and he forgot about all that stuff. (laughs)
Always a good strategy, to divert the conversation to baseball.
That was intrinsic to why he was there, they both received the Medal of Freedom, and he had never met Ted.
And you helped orchestrate that moment, right?
It’s pretty funny, we walked upstairs [of the White House]. I had never been there before—I’m a local person so I don’t go there all the time. The room was guarded by someone who was in full military dress and there’s a lone figure in the back of the room. Well, I recognized [Ted Williams] instantly, he was my hero. I asked the guard if we could go in—“This is the Speaker of the House, he’s never met Ted Williams before, the great baseball player.” I don’t know if this kid even knew who he was. “No, absolutely not. No one can go in here.” Oh my God, panic. Think, think! So fortunately, my guardian angels were working on me. I asked the guard, “Could you ask him to come over here then?” There was no way I was missing that one. And he did, That was sweet. It worked out really well.
You also talk about how it was challenging for you to make choices about your career since there weren’t any senior women journalists to answer your questions about what they had done. How did you make choices about your career?
Well, a lot of it was happenstance. First of all, I couldn’t get an interview, never mind a job, so you go through that process. As I detailed in the book, I did a bunch of things—from waitressing to working at management recruiters to teaching school and so forth—trying to figure it out. Finally I got an interview with Jim Thistle, who was then at Channel 56, which was a UHF station at the time. He offered me a position to be a cub reporter, but I’d have to wait a year, because he didn’t have it in his budget [at the time]. So I said, “Fine,” and I did all those other things. A year later he called. Truly sometimes life just serves you up an ace. In this case, he said, “I don’t have that job actually, but in community service, our license is up for renewal. We need to ascertain the needs of the community, the language of the FCC.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I said, “Fine, I’ll take it,” because I wanted to get in and see what TV was, and if I didn’t like it, I had other things in mind that I could try. If I did like it, that would be great, but how would I know until I get in there? So whatever job you give me, I’ll learn.
As it turned out there could be no better education for a young reporter than to ascertain the needs of the community. That meant doing hundreds of interviews with everybody—from the governor to the mayor, down to the guy digging ditches. Young people, old people, citizens and not. Black people, white people. In the end, you got a real sense of who we were talking to. I think my respect for our viewers began way back then in my mid-twenties. That’s when I realized every person is an individual. Every person has his or her life, the ups and downs, the pluses and the minuses. Together we make up a community. We need to respect the community as individuals and as a whole. I think that I probably believed that in the beginning but never gave it two seconds of thought. Why would I, at that point in my life? But in doing those interviews, it really solidified the first part of my questioning, what is TV news and what’s it for? What is it, what should it be, and how might I fit in here?
Assessing the needs of the community seems to be the hallmark of your life’s work.
You were asking about the opportunities that weren’t there and how they grew. So then, Channel 56 is now going to close its news operation and I’m out in the streets six months later looking for a job with three stations that wouldn’t even give me an interview. And what do you know, WBZ, the big guy in town’s, license is up for renewal. I got a kick out of that. I was probably the most qualified person in town. (laughs) Then you just take it from there. I think that’s kind of my approach to life. Keep your eyes and ears open, live every moment to the fullest, make the best of everything you can as you move along, and opportunities just open before you if you pay attention. We created programming they weren’t doing before—Public Service Announcements, they weren’t doing that. The adoption agency story, I love that as an example of the good television could do. We had fun. We did a show called “First Person” interviewing people like Art Buchwald. What a hoot and a half that was, he’s a character. I just love life and people, so I’m never bored. Just about anything and everything interests me.
One of the things that really comes across in the book is how you always fight to make things better, question why things are the way they are, and improve the conditions around you. Where do you think that quality comes from?
I guess I was born that way. More than anything, I think we’re just born with some instincts. I drive people crazy. I’m always asking, “Why? Why is that?” How many times have I heard, “Can’t you just accept that it is?” Well, no. (laughs) And wanting to make things better, that’s the perfectionist [in me]. People put perfectionists down. Well, I think that’s too bad. There’s an old saying about flying, you might not reach the moon but you’ll fly higher than if you didn’t try, something to that effect, I can’t remember it now. I don’t know, that’s just who I am.
I am like that. I know I drive people crazy with that, but you know, we’re all different. Somebody—I think it was a guy named Roosevelt who ran for mayor, the grandson or great-grandson of FDR—he made an astute observation that fits with what you’re talking about, how people are the way they are: Your strength and your weakness are the flip side of the exact same coin. So let’s say you’re a very curious person, and you always want to see why are things? I guess in addition to driving everyone around you crazy that doesn’t think that way, what would be the flip side of that? You’re never satisfied? I guess that would be it, I don’t know.
Another thing that’s in the book that I love is about Chuck Kramer and his definition of a good critic. Essentially what he said was something to the effect of a good critic laments that the medium missed its mark, because he roots for it, he wants it to succeed. When it fails, he’s sad. Whereas a bad critic is thrilled to see it fail, because he doesn’t root for the medium, he doesn’t look for success. I thought that was so wise. I wonder [what would happen] if you put that on your mirror when you brush your teeth in the morning and had that attitude throughout your day—root for people’s success, want it to be good, want it to be right, want people to be happy and healthy. When they’re not—when they make a mistake and they screw up or you screw up—you’re sad about it, because you were rooting for success. You wanted that kid to run the mile, or you wanted that politician to make that program work for children. As opposed to someone who would say, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work! They’re a bunch of jerks, anyway. It was stupid, that was a dumb idea. Why did anybody try it?” It’s an attitude. Life, in my opinion, is 90% attitude.
In reading the book, it was fun to learn about your relationship with librarians at the Boston Public Library to help you flesh out stories and get more information. What role has the library played in your career and life?
A huge one. This was all before all this technology. Most people didn’t have money to buy books, so we borrowed them from the library. You borrowed the periodicals, you borrowed books. Everyone I knew had a library card growing up. Everyone learned the Dewey Decimal system when I went to college—there was no Google, there was no internet, there were no computers. So the library was a huge benefit to everybody, for sure. Then many years later, as a reporter—it was before Google again where you could instantly find an answer right or wrong to most things—I befriended a couple of ladies who were so kind to keep their antenna up at 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock for me. There’s no way you’d have enough time to say, “Okay, this bill is referring back to an earlier bill on abortion. What were the dates of the Supreme Court decision?” Things like that, actual pieces of information that you wouldn’t want to get it wrong. There was no way to find it, sitting at your typewriter an hour before air time. At any rate, they were just wonderful and I’m grateful that they helped me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.