George Crile, a writer and CBS News producer who was among the first journalists to chronicle the threat of Al Qaeda, and who famously took on the military for its dishonesty during the Vietnam War, died of pancreatic cancer on May 14 at his Manhattan home. He was 61 years old.
In the days that followed, colleagues, family and friends have described Crile as an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter, world-traveler and adventurer who loved his life, especially his wife, Susan Lyne, and his four children.
“He wanted them to be intrepid, to not be afraid of anything,” said Ms. Lyne. “And so he would take them on midnight swims on New Year’s Eve in the icy river that runs by our house up in the country. My daughter Susan went to Afghanistan with him when she was a junior in high school. He wanted them to understand that the world was actually not a scary place, that there were wonderful things to see out there, that they should be smart about it and not reckless. He was all for experiencing life.”
His work took on the powerful and corrupt, held high officials accountable and withstood fierce public fire. The passion that sent him around the world in a quarter-century with CBS, friends said, was exceeded only by his dedication to his family.
“George, interestingly, not in his politics but in his manner, was a lot like Ronald Reagan,” said his protégé at CBS, 60 Minutes producer Rich Bonin. “That’s why it’s so hard to imagine he’s not with us any more. He was a happy person, an optimistic person, a joyous person. When you do what we do, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, from government obstinacy to network egos, and it can be daunting. But George loved it all. His job, his approach to life, was joyful.”
In 1982, Crile made a prime-time documentary for CBS News with Mike Wallace called The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which made the case that Gen. William C. Westmoreland and other military brass had deliberately underreported the number of enemy troops during the Vietnam War. After the report aired, Mr. Westmoreland sued CBS for libel and sought $120 million in damages.
David Boies was then CBS News’ legal counsel. Mr. Boies remembered spending two years traveling the world with Messrs. Crile and Wallace, reconstructing the former’s reporting of the story. “George had a good time, I recall,” he said, mentioning one detour to Oktoberfest in Munich in particular. “Because he understood his facts so well, and because he was so passionate about it, he was a terrific defender of his work.”
When Crile finally took the stand in a federal courtroom to defend his report, Mike Wallace sat in the audience, mesmerized.
“He was so damn brave,” said Mr. Wallace. “Crile was a man I loved. And he loved me.”
Mr. Boies credits Crile’s unflappable testimony under cross-examination with effectively ending the trial. General Westmoreland eventually settled with CBS out of court. No money changed hands, and the network stood by its story.
“He had incredible passion and courage, both physical and spiritual,” said Mr. Boies, “in the sense that he reported in extraordinarily dangerous places and did a lot of things that his friends thought were dangerous to the point of being foolhardy. But he also had the intellectual courage to follow a story wherever it took him, and to not be deterred by what conventional wisdom was or what he wanted to come out with or what other people wanted him to come out with. He was a reporter who reported.”
“I knew him as a complete professional and a guy that I respected, and I wish I had 20 more of him,” said 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt. “Television’s going to be poorer for not having him any more.”
“He would come in to me and suggest something that was so original, so out of this world, so awesome, so exotic and at the same time so important that it would always take me by surprise, and he’d end up in some wild place, working for weeks on his story,” said 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager. “What made him so good is that he just had this incredible curiosity and desire to do original reporting.”
Mr. Fager remembered one pitch, from the spring of 2001: Crile came into his office and asked to take a trip to the Middle East. He had been curious about the mujahideen since 1988, when he did a piece for 60 Minutes about a Texas Congressman named Charlie Wilson who was helping a C.I.A. official provide Afghan rebels with guns to fight the Soviets. “He wanted to find out more about Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Fager said, “and I said, ‘Great, go ahead.’ He went by himself, with a little video camera. It was as pure reporting as you can get, in television at least: no entourage, just George Crile and his D.V. camera.”
What he discovered, about six months ahead of the rest of the world, was a simmering enclave of Islamic extremism. With his D.V camera, he motored through the back roads of Pakistan and Afghanistan with a close bin Laden associate, Khalid Khawaja, who bragged about the group’s ability to take out the White House at any time. He returned to New York shortly before Sept. 11.
“George owned that story,” Mr. Fager said. “He never really let go of it.”
He would go on to write Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, which was published in 2003. Tom Hanks bought the rights and is making a film version with Universal Studios. Mike Nichols is directing, and Julia Roberts has signed on to play the female lead.
But for all his dedication to his career, colleagues said Crile cared first for his family. Mr. Bonin recalled one trip in 1986 to Nicaragua.
“George and I were down there setting up a piece for Mike to do, and then little Susan was born. There were no second thoughts—George was on a plane. He abandoned me in Central America and was up there in a moment. He came back, I think, 33 days later.”
This is the same “little Susan” that Crile would later take swimming, with her siblings, in the icy river by their country house and, when she was a junior in high school, to Afghanistan.
“He loved reporting, genuinely loved it,” said Ms. Lyne. “He loved the fact that it allowed him entry into wildly different kinds of worlds, and allowed him to ask questions of people who he would never under any other circumstances get to meet or understand. He particularly loved the Middle East in the past decade, and has enormous numbers of friends in the Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan—people he really developed genuine friendships with. If there is good will toward Americans in some parts of that world, George is part of the reason for it. I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve called me from that part of the world who are just devastated that he’s gone.”
—additional reporting by Sheelah Kolhatkar
20 Good Years in NBC’s Future?
After an epic two-hour presentation of his network’s drama-heavy fall schedule, NBC president Jeff Zucker swaggered into the circus tents in Rockefeller Plaza on May 14 like a man with a third-place network.
Maybe someday he’ll actually be one.
“We gotta get to third,” Mr. Zucker told NYTV at the evening reception for his network, which has been mired in fourth place for the last two years. It was the first official party of Upfront Week, an exuberant annual carnival that temporarily turns New York into the center of the TV universe. It was also a time, apparently, for lowering expectations. “Then you can get to second, and eventually back to first,” Mr. Zucker continued, “but first you gotta get to third.”
As a statement of vision it was modest, a little depressing and shaded with hints of Abbott and Costello, but Mr. Zucker and the shareholders of General Electric are hoping it will mean a break for NBC, which is losing badly to ABC, CBS and Fox.
One year ago this week, Mr. Zucker spent his upfront presentation apologizing and then unveiled a schedule of such numbing mediocrity that advertising executives dropped one billion fewer dollars on NBC commercial time.
This year, he revealed a new plan–a detailed, possibly job-securing plan, which happily doesn’t involve Matt LeBlanc (although it does involve a Matthew Perry vehicle and a sitcom about five single friends).
NBC plans to get to third via its new “spine at nine,” a handful of pulse-pounding, heart-rending, life-affirming 9 p.m. dramas that, judging by the near-constant swells of background music and preponderance of hugs, will have viewers sobbing all season long. The network of “Must See TV” comedy Thursdays has boldly recast itself as the destination for well-written, star-studded treacle.
NBC’s fall line-up includes six new dramas, including Heroes (“The task at hand is nothing less than saving the world”), Friday Night Lights (“ The O.C., but with guts and authenticity,” in the words of NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly) and Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (the latest syntactical tumor of a show title, and a Paddy Chayefsky–style justice crusade).
The upfront presentation went so far as to include a clip of a tearful reunion between mother and Iraq-soldier son that occurred during an episode of Deal or No Deal, the boffo game-show-cum-lobotomy hosted by Howie Mandel.
The audience, for its part, seemed pleased. Michael Jack, the general manager of the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., said afterward that he thought the network was “finally on the right track” and praised the network’s leadership. My Name Is Earl star Jason Leigh bounded around the after-party, similarly content. During the program, one ad buyer snapped photographs of NBC executives on her camera phone.
Still, no one’s expecting any miracles.
“We’re all about incremental growth,” Mr. Zucker said.
This, while boring, may be the only option. NBC executives spent last year’s upfront reminding reporters it had finished the season in a “close fourth.” The network now no longer has even those bragging rights. By statistical anomaly, the other three broadcast networks will each end the year in a first place of sorts: CBS with the most viewers, ABC with the most young viewers and Fox with the biggest hit shows.
All three of those networks have moved in on NBC’s once-untouchable Thursday night in the last two years. ABC cemented the insurrection on Tuesday, when the network announced that it was moving last season’s biggest new hit, Grey’s Anatomy, from Sunday to Thursday, sandwiching it between two new comedies and a J.J. Abrams drama about six New Yorkers who are mysteriously connected called Six Degrees. Gone are Invasion and Geena Davis’ silky tones from behind her desk in the Oval Office. Safe, for the time being, are 20/20 and Diane Sawyer’s silky tones from behind her desk at Primetime.
Even ABC’s typically stolid entertainment president, Steve McPherson, seemed almost jovial during his morning press conference. But no one enjoys the network upfronts more than CBS president Leslie Moonves, and no one is more a creature of the glorious business the week sustains. All teeth and tan, Mr. Moonves will take the stage at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday afternoon to unveil the closely guarded CBS fall schedule, which likely includes new dramas starring Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci and James Woods, among others.
In anticipation, Mr. Moonves took the corner banquette on Monday night at the William Morris Agency party at the Four Seasons. Huddled at one point with his wife, Julie Chen, and former Good Morning America executive producer Shelley Ross, Mr. Moonves laid low while Mr. Zucker worked the room, receiving congratulations for his presentation that afternoon and the party that followed, during which advertisers could take pictures with their favorite celebrities and a television journalist could find herself conversing with the actor Jeff Goldblum, who had taken to calling her “Freckles.” On the way to a cocktail, Mr. Zucker passed Court TV anchor Diane Dimond. “You meet all the good people near the bar!” she exclaimed.
It is an Upfront Week truism, and one that will be tested many times before the final presentation—Fox’s–on Thursday afternoon. Advance word has the network renewing megahits American Idol and House. Whatever else entertainment president Peter Liguori rolls out during his day at the Armory will be bonus.
The one possible wild card is the CW, the Moonves-engineered combination of teenybopper networks UPN and the WB. The CW fall schedule will include an à la carte sampling of those two networks’ schedules, including a resurrection of the 7th Heaven Morality Hour and a new season of the highly complementary America’s Next Top Model. In advance of its upfront, the CW sent out press passes attached to a shoestring printed with the words “Free to Be Cynical.”
Curiously, no such swag arrived from NBC.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” said NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly at the start of Monday’s presentation at Radio City Music Hall. “The past couple of seasons haven’t been that much fun.”
By some weird feat of meta-scheduling, NBC’s Wednesday night lineup (forget Thursday already!) tells the story of those unhappy years. It is as if Mr. Zucker stood in front of a mirror before going into one of the many last-minute scheduling meetings in Burbank this month, looked himself up and down, and said, “Let’s devote one night a week to a conceptual reconstruction of my tenure as president of NBC-Universal!”
Thus the night begins with The Biggest Loser. This is a show about shedding excess fat through a painful process of belt-tightening and attrition. All in all, it is not so different from losing Katie Couric, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, The West Wing and a billion dollars in revenue.
After The Biggest Loser come the only new comedies on NBC’s schedule. One, called 30 Rock, was created by and stars Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey as the head writer of a sketch-comedy show. Like the Aaron Sorkin drama of identical premise, airing on NBC on Thursday nights next fall, 30 Rock draws its biggest laughs by caricaturing network executives as buffoons. “The people can’t get enough of that,” said Mr. Reilly over cocktails at the NBC upfront after-party in Rockefeller Center.
The other new comedy is 20 Good Years, about two middle-aged men (played by Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow) who resolve to live more daringly. Mr. Zucker, 41, isn’t exactly wearing a mohawk these days, but the fall 2006 schedule does demonstrate a certain amount of calculated risk.
Or as Mr. Lithgow says to Mr. Tambor in the pilot episode, “We’re living on the edge now, Jeffrey!”
The clip drew hearty laughs from the ad execs gathered in Radio City. As the segment faded to black, a commercial voiceover announced its inclusion on the network schedule. To everyone else in the room it sounded like a standard TV trailer, but to Mr. Zucker it must have felt like someone had miked his id: “ 20 Good Years,” the announcer intoned, “coming to NBC.”