September 28, 2023

How a USC Filmmaker Helped Create a New Style of Journalism

Mike Saltz’s new book recalls his work at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour

By Desa Philadelphia

Mike Saltz attended the School of Cinematic Arts MFA Production program in 1963 and 1964, and then, as talented students were to do in those times, dropped out when he got a job. “I started off as a film editor. And what I took from USC, outside of enjoying what goes on in classes and talking to people, was in fact the editing,” says Saltz. “We are talking about the days of moviolas, and 16mm film, and splices and hot splices and negative matching and all the rest of that,” he says. “SC was a very different school than it seems to be today. It was a quadrangle of wooden huts.” Saltz recalls he was at School cutting a 20-minute documentary about developmentally disabled kids in Pasadena when they heard Kennedy had been shot.

A few years later, Saltz got a job as a production manager at WNET/Channel 13, the popular public broadcasting station in New York. There he was assigned to help journalist Robert (Robin) MacNeil develop his nightly news show, The Robert MacNeil Report, which debuted in 1975 and would feature regular guest appearances by Washington-based journalist Jim Lehrer. Lehrer would quickly become so much of a fixture that the show was rebranded The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, then the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, airing live from New York and Washington on PBS stations across the country. When MacNeil retired, it became The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer; and after Lehrer’s departure, The PBS NewsHour, which is what it’s still called these days.

Journalism, says Saltz, “was not one of my career ambitions. Robin (MacNeil) once said to me ‘You’re not a hard news journalist, are you?’ And I said ‘No, I’m a film editor.’” Saltz quickly infused the NewsHour with his filmmaking expertise. Unprompted, he developed the first NewsHour “feature” which is essentially a very short doc on an interesting subject: Kansas City's cattle Stockyards. Saltz was fascinated with this story. “Where two million head of cattle once went through there, now 200 million are going through.” He got a crew to shoot some b-roll and interview a stockyard worker. “We talked about the recession, this was 1984, the Reagan recession. And he talked about working in the stockyards, where he had worked for the past 25 years. And how he felt attached and connected to it and its past and how he felt like he was an antique himself, within an antique.” Saltz cut a piece and handed it to the executive producer. Two days later it aired, and a NewsHour institution was born. “It came out of my deciding that I had something to say and this was the way to say it, and it was something that meant something to me,” says Saltz, admitting “I was slightly terrified that they might not like it. But I really knew what I was doing.”

Saltz also developed the show’s “postcards”; visual bumpers used to separate the news segments, which were snapshots of picturesque places around the country: Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah, Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, and Death Valley. “What they turned out to be were almost literally postcards of America. Not of cities, and not of people because they didn’t want them to reflect positively or negatively on any segment that came before or after,” Saltz says. “So we went out and shot Kodachrome moments. It was a 25-second zoom, single shot, and would have some image in the foreground and it would zoom out and you would see the context.”

Saltz’s most inventive contribution, however, would be the NewsHour Essay, a feature in which well-known writers would editorialize about a topic in the news, with cinematic b-roll bringing their ideas to life. It remains a unique creation, a marriage between cinema, news, and water cooler discussion. It is the kind of concoction that could only result from a filmmaker unexpectedly finding himself in the world of “Serious News” as was the NewsHour tagline for many years. 

The essays took off when the show’s longtime executive producer Les Crystal gave Saltz an essay by Time magazine writer, Roger Rosenblatt. “Mostly Roger and I started to create this form which was a marriage of the essay as a written literary form, and a serious one, and a visual representation of it, which involved still photographs and video footage, whether newsreel footage or footage that I shot, in such a way that tried to enhance what was being said,” says Saltz. “There’s an intellectual argument being made in words and an aesthetic and emotional argument being told in pictures,” says Saltz. Crystal told Saltz to focus on doing more essays and the rest is history.

Indeed, Saltz developed and edited more than 1,500 essays over more than two decades working for the various versions of the show, a history he documents in his memoir The Winding Road. There were regular essays by journalists that included Clarence Page, Ann Taylor Fleming, and Richard Rodriguez, and one-offs by writers like Molly Ivins, James McBride, Elie Wiesel, Studs Terkel, and a host of others. “There certainly was nothing like that on any news program then and, so far as I can tell there isn’t anything like it still,” says Saltz.

Saltz says he would not have developed his journalism style, had he not started as a filmmaker. “Certainly the editing helped,” he says. The NewsHour essay continues to evolve, with a new generation of writers presenting aesthetically packaged viewpoints on PBS stations every evening.

Saltz’s book, The Winding Road: My Journey Through Life and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour is available on Amazon and at other retailers.