Gene Cubbison Has Never Done a Q & A…Until Now

Tony Manolatos Tony Manolatos 5 Comments

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Politics & Media Mashup: your weekend news aggregator leads off with a Q & A with NBC’s Gene Cubbison, the patriarch among local journalists. Also included: Gobs of links to some of the week’s best stories about local, state and national politics as well as social and traditional media.

Gene Cubbison has few peers in the news business. Locally, he is the professor: affable, humble, someone with the smarts and experience of a Mike Wallace without the arrogance. Gene has been a journalist for four decades, and he always seems to leave the best of impressions. He covers politics and civic issues for NBC San Diego.

This is his first Q & A. His responses are candid, colorful and poignant. He was one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene of the PSA Flight 182 crash in North Park in 1978, a horrific story that still haunts him.

As for adapting to the web, social media and countless other newsroom changes, Gene said it was no big deal. He does think far too many share far too much on Twitter, which he mostly uses to plug his stories.

His weekly “Politically Speaking” show, which ran during the primary and general election cycles in 2008, is scheduled to relaunch the first weekend of March. Smart move by NBC San Diego. Here is Rostra’s Q & A with Gene:

  • Tell us about yourself. When did you start your career in journalism?

Got my start in 1972 from Betty McKaig, editor of the San Diego Independent chain of suburban papers, working out of the downtown office (348 W. Market St.) covering metro San Diego stories. The “Indy” had a bureau in El Cajon to put out zoned editions there and in Lemon Grove/Spring Valley. It was shut down after the Chicago-based publisher – who had acquired the operation from the Cushman family in the mid-to-late ’60s – began to downsize. I managed to survive the first round of layoffs.

In 1973, I heard from Woody Lockwood (Betty’s predecessor as Indy editor), who by then was working at the San Diego Daily Transcript, about the impending closure of the Indy. I quickly took his advice to apply to Bob Witty at the Transcript. As luck would have it, Bob hired me, and Woody and I eventually collaborated on the story of the Independent going out of business. Stayed at the Transcript for four great years until Otto Bos, who was leaving the San Diego Union’s City Hall beat to work for Mayor Pete Wilson, and Union assistant city editor Pat Dillon, urged me to apply to J.D. Alexander, who had just left the Washington Post and was hiring a new cadre of reporters at the Union. J.D. apparently liked my clips and “upside,” ran me past “the right people” on up to Jerry Warren, and I wound up at a desk outside Jack Murphy’s office.

  • You worked at the San Diego Union from 1977-1979. What did you cover? Why did you leave?

Covered everything and anything in the way of breaking news and general assignments, and filled in on various beats – often sharing bylines with Carl M. Cannon. We had quite a few A-1 stories, many of them leads and major Sunday takeouts. Eventually my stuff caught the eye of Gloria Penner at KPBS-TV, and she invited me to sit in semi-regularly on her “News Week San Diego” reporter-roundtable Q&A’s.

Long-story-short, I was pointed and  pulled in the direction of KFMB-TV News 8 and signed on there as a general assignment reporter,  later serving a dual role co-anchoring the station’s 6:30 p.m. newscast for a spell.

I  had the great fortune, early in my transition from newsprint to on-air work, of being slipped a few blockbuster story tips by the legendary Harold Keen, an amazing workhorse in both print and broadcast. Before I joined News 8, Harold had been moved from the newsroom to an office down the hall and assigned the role of KFMB’s editorial and public affairs programming director.

He’d take me aside, or buzz my extension, and invite me to his office and have me close the door. “Don’t tell anybody where you got this,” Harold would admonish me, handing over documents and/or phone numbers and notes he’d taken from his vast network of well-connected sources (some of them, “friends in low places”). And he meant it. Omerta.

All too soon, in 1981, he passed away at the age of 69. I didn’t burn him as a source until 1997, when I felt duty-bound to publicly credit him for helping me find my footing in TV news, as I accepted the Harold Keen Award for lifetime contributions during the San Diego Press Club’s annual banquet.

  • How long have you been with NBC?

Since 1983, after four years at News 8. I’ve served the station under five corporate ownerships (NBC acquired us as an “owned-and-operated” station vs. an affiliate in 1997),  five general managers and more than a dozen news directors – the last three, thankfully, providing a continuity of strong, stable leadership while logging a combined 21 years.

  • The U-T San Diego has seen better days, obviously. Where do you think it’s headed?

Given all the variables, I wouldn’t feel comfortable hazarding a guess. I just wish the very best for all the talented, dedicated journalists who are holding the fort there and advancing the cause of “Truth for Its Own Sake.”

There’ll be a challenging learning curve, transitioning through the logistics, technology and storytelling approaches. Doing TV news right – with both style and substance, feeding the beastly deadlines – is not as easy as it looks.  Or as easy as we in the biz try to make it look.  

  • What reporters in town do you read/follow?

It’s really a case of, what reporters don’t I read/follow?  I’d rather not name just some, at the risk of slighting or forgetting others. Certain critics/pundits/whatever may try to paint San Diego as some kind of journalistic and/or literary backwater – that’s a crock. The voices, wisdom and imaginations here are world-class; this place really is an oasis of incisive and entertaining coverage.

  • You have interviewed presidents and covered Super Bowls. What has been your favorite story to cover? Why?

Going through my memories, I keep coming back to “Bus Boy” – the tweaker who hijacked an MTS bus at knifepoint and took it for a dramatic, media-event, 67-mile joyride in February, 1997. He wound up ditching it and surrendering at my feet while I was doing live play-by-play in San Carlos. It’s been the subject of both national and international documentary treatments (no royalties have come my way for re-telling the event).  “Our viewers are very keen on bizarre American crime stories,” is how a producer from the BBC put it. Bizarre, indeed. Exhilarating and mind-boggling, too. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The bus and a number of cars were banged up.  

  • Least favorite story? Why? 

The crash of PSA Flight 182 in North Park on September 25, 1978. I was one of the first journalists to reach the scene, in a U-T Ford Pinto – to find a horror story that I was, in retrospect, ill-prepared to handle emotionally as the days of follow-ups and post-hoc investigatory stories wore on. I started smoking again after a five-year hiatus.

Skipping the gory details, just know there was a crushing sense of loss and community sadness that permeated our newsroom. Some staffers actually had relatives and friends among the victims on board the flight, and on the ground.

In 2003, leading up to the 25th anniversary of that tragedy, I agreed to revisit my role in covering it – right where it happened – for the Travel Channel, which was doing a two-hour documentary on major air disasters, and what corrective steps were later taken by the FAA and other agencies.

At some point in my on-camera walk-and-talk, going through the neighborhood at Dwight and Nile, I was stricken with long-suppressed flashbacks that brought me to gasping, choking tears. The Travel Channel crew kindly stopped recording, so that I could compose myself.

I’d covered another jetliner crash a few months after PSA 182 in the LA area, and since then several deadly earthquakes, wildfires, floods, mass murders/suicides, and other assorted tragedies. But the only story that really haunts me is PSA 182 – and I do my utmost to sublimate it.

  • Best interview? Why?

Like trying to decide on a favorite child, this is risky business. I’d have to call out more than a few, especially many of the luminaries that George Mitrovich has served up as headliners and his City Club of San Diego luncheons over the years. He’s often seated me at his head table with the likes of George Plimpton, Gloria Steinem, Ben Bradlee, Richard Reeves, and a parade of politicos – including then-Sens. Fritz Mondale and Joe Biden when they were little-known back in the ’70s. You name ’em, I’d getto chat them up virtually privately, taking notes and quotes that added to the coverage.

Got a huge thrill interviewing Robert Altman for a sidebar story at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta, when he was there producing and directing  “Tanner ’88” for HBO, I think, with Garry Trudeau on board as screenwriter. He wound up using me and photojournalist Greg Stickney in a reality-cameo sequence on the convention floor that ran under the closing credits on one of the segments.

POTUSes 41 and 42 (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton) were on their most helpful, charming games in my sit-downs with them. As was then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, when I interviewed him twice in the run-up to his election as POTUS 43. But truth be told, my “first, best” interview came when I was a rookie at the Indy, in a one-on-one with Mayor Pete Wilson, and I got tongue-tied and stammered out an incoherent question – whereupon  Pete interrupted with: “I think what you’re trying to ask me here is …” and perfectly framed the question for me. I nodded, eagerly and gratefully, and forever have been in his debt for restoring a semblance of confidence that I could do this job.

  • Worst interview? Why?

Ralph Nader. It was a non-interview, really, back when I was at the Transcript. He was booked to do an evening lecture at University of San Diego, as I recall, and I was sent to get an interview with him as he landed at Lindbergh Field.  I arrived there along with KFMB-TV (and later CNN) reporter Greg LeFevre and photojournalist Jim Blankenship.

We expected to pull Nader aside for a few brief minutes of Q&A about his derring-do taking on haphazard automakers, industrialists, etc. No way, no-how was Nader having any part of it.  “Come to the lecture,” he insisted – something our late-afternoon deadlines wouldn’t accommodate. He just kept briskly walking through the terminal to his waiting ride as we plied him questions, any question, that might catch his interest or change his mind. Forget it, his body language said. I’ve never forgotten it. Or forgiven it.

  • Your wife, Jan Hudson, is in the business. Tell us about her and what it’s like in a household with two working journalists.

Jan began field-producing for ABC News’ national desk and L.A. bureau as she was transitioning off the “mommy track” when our two young sons’ child-care routines became more manageable. She had left NBC/San Diego after 13 years as a field producer and special segments/programs producer and assignments editor. With ABC, she’s traveled all over the West for stories, and has been recognized with two national Emmy’s and an Edward R. Murrow award for her work covering our 2003 and 2007 wildfires for “World News Tonight” and “Nightline”.

Jan’s very driven, resourceful, and competitive – and doesn’t tip me off  to something ABC has the jump on unless it seems that NBC might wind up being the last media outlet that’s clued in.

Same goes for me when I’ve got the jump on a story, and she’s in the dark. Makes for a little dynamic tension at times, but no enduring sore feelings.

  • You are a salty dog, old-school professional – the patriarch among local journalists – but also someone who has adapted to Twitter and the web. Tell us about that.

Old Dog learns new tricks – part of the job. Hasn’t been too traumatic. As a former print journalist, I’m able to adapt my punchier, viewer-sees-video-anyway TV news scripts into text for the reading eye in a fairly seamless way. Having written headlines, teases, promos, etc. for decades now, turning phrases into Twitterspeak and posting text & video there and on Facebook also is no great leap in tech or literature. Don’t tend to socialize much on Twitter (and not at all on FB), though. My relatives and friends know enough about what I’m up to via old-school phone and personal emails, and vice-versa.

Old Dog doesn’t have the patience or, uh, friskiness to trade patter and snark with pups who put so much of their personal business “in the street.” Old Dog believes in the Magic of Mystique. The Power of Privacy. Old Dog thinks all too many aspects of Social Media are anti-social.

  • Give us a brief day-in-the-life of Gene Cubbison?

In the office at 7:35-7:40ish, get affordable coffee across Broadway at 7/11, then start “checking the traps” and “trolling the territory” for story prospects, assuming things haven’t been set up in advance or are breaking at the moment. Try to come up with a handful of ideas to pitch (not just for myself to turn) at the newsroom’s 9 a.m. story breakout meeting. Whatever the assignment(s), usually finalized by 9:40ish, I make the calls and send the emails/texts/DMs to line up interviews and B-roll opportunities. Especially if they involve time-certain meetings/events, get with the phojo (photo journalist) assigned to me ASAP, to start putting “tire tread and shoe leather” into the story(ies).

Whether a story is to be “fronted” (an on-camera appearance vs. an anchor reading the copy) live/remote or in-house, I try to finish newsgathering, interviews, file footage-pulling and fact-checking early enough to give the phojo, or in-house video editor, up to an hour, if possible, to cut a piece for the first newscast in which a story version will air (often 4 p.m.). Before writing the 5 and 6 newscast scripts (as often assigned), I re-format the 4 p.m. script-set for filing to the web. Write the 5 and then the 6 p.m. stuff, stop down to front the 4 p.m. then pull a link from the web posting (if available by then) to toss a Tweet. Front the 5 and 6 stories. Leave studio (or remote location) generally by 6:25ish.

  • I love your temperament and your approach to stories. You never seem to get too high or too low. How are you able to maintain such an affable disposition in such a hairy business? Have you always been this way?

Don’t let what seems an even-keel temperament (such as I can pull it off) fool you. My colleagues know that I can be edgy as anybody in this “hairy business.” On live, breaking news stories, whether you begin with a phoner or go right on camera live-at- scene, you have to get your mouth moving and hope your brain catches up. And, if necessary, to “stretch” for long minutes with not much concrete information to share.

At this point, there’s a comfort zone in just having lived so long and racked up so much “time in grade.” We still have to expect and embrace the unexpected. The stories may call, variously, for a sense of irony, humor, empathy or even disbelief. Giddiness and hysteria are to be avoided. I try – contrary to P.T. Barnum’s cynical dictum – never to underestimate the intelligence of our viewers/readers. As often as we think we’re obliged to “dumb things down” we always need to assume they’re smarter than we are in so many respects. There, actually, is the watchword: Respect.

Here are links to some of the best stories of the week:


Be sure to follow San Diego Rostra on Twitter and like Rostra on Facebook.

Tony Manolatos is a communications strategist. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedInYou can hear Tony talk politics and media with KOGO’s LaDona Harvey every Friday at 3:35 p.m. on AM 600 and FM 95.7.

Comments 5

  1. A generation ago, Gene Cubbison gave all of us an Example of Moral Courage and Personal Integrity.

    A reporter at another station was arrested and charged with molesting children (that reporter was later
    convicted and sentenced to 3 years State prison). Surprisingly, station management kept the guy on staff after his arrest. Gene Cubbison was working there at the time, and objected to that individual remaining part of the news operation.

    When his objections were ignored, Gene Cubbison RESIGNED on a point of Principle. He walked away from a job with a network TV affiliate. That is simply not done. It might have been the end of Cubbison’s Career. But fortunately KNSD/ 39 stepped in and hired him, so we’ve all benefited from his great reporting ever since then.

    Typically, Mr. Cubbison does not mention that or pat himself on the Back. But many of us remember what he did back then, and the Witness he gave to Truth and HONOR. Bravo to someone so decent that the Great Harold Keen himself trusted him.

  2. This is a fantastic interview. Great job, Tony. Thanks to Cubbison for his insights and openness.

  3. Gene is a fantastic reporter and an all-around great guy with a keen political sense. He has my respect.

  4. Post
  5. Gene, I got a hearty laugh recalling the infamous “Bus Boy” story. Damn, I do remember that one vividly! It defines “astonished” for you I’m sure. I recall watching from my post working for District Attorney Paul Pfingst (since we were sure to inherit this guy), and all of us going slack jawed at the conclusion. You just can’t make stuff like that up.

    There is good reason Gene won the San Diego County Taxpayers’ Association “Stay Classy” Award last year for career contributions… the first ever career award presented in the event’s 16 year history.

    Finally, if you are an Old Dog and I am an equally grizzled vet of the female type, what does that make me, knowing the technical and correct term for a female Dog? Hmmm….

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