welcomes as our guest Tim Ortman author of NEWSREAL - A VIEW THROUGH THE LENS WHEN

Tim spent 35 years working in television news, having worked for all major U.S television news networks. As an Emmy Award winning cameraman and producer, his understanding of the overall television production process is comprehensive. Tim spent more than three decades shooting, lighting, editing, writing, story editing, and producing news. 

His globe-trotting travels have taken him on assignments to five continents, covering everything from war, revolution, terrorist attacks, and famine to Cold War Summits, the fall of Communism, Olympiads, and Olympic Park bombings, presidential elections and the occasional press conference. But his chops were truly made on the front lines of news as part of the Foreign Press Corps. Based in Europe during the 80’s, as an impressionable 20-something staff cameraman for NBC News, his understanding of and appreciation for the news business was formed when it was at its most trustworthy zenith.

Norm: Good day Tim and thanks for participating in our interview.

Why and how did you become interested in television journalism?

Tim: Initially, I was drawn to the bells and whistles of television production. While getting my degree in TV & Film Production at Bowling Green State University, I worked at the PBS station and was captivated by the 16mm film and early video cameras, as well as the lighting, editing, directing, and overall production process. It wasn’t until I arrived at NBC News as a cameraman, two years after graduating, that I began to grasp and understand the real storytelling aspect of photojournalism. That process was aided greatly by the fact that I was working in network news and alongside some of the best journalists in the business.

Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?

Tim: Well, my wife and three kids would top the list. But professionally, my greatest success was joining NBC News. I was 25 years old and found myself working for a global news entity as part of the international press corp. That happened so early on in my career, that it has had a lasting effect on me all these years later.

Because of that success, I was able to travel the world covering news and experiencing other people, places and cultures while doing so. It’s every cameraman, producer, reporter or editors dream to work for the ‘net’. Initially, I was just thrilled. It would take a year or two for me to fully understand the reach and capability of NBC News and that of similar news organizations. Once I realized the team that I was playing on and the impact of the stories we were covering, I became immensely proud of the work that we were all doing. And, the whole experience really shaped my view of the world; one where I see this place as a shared space.

Eventually, I choose to leave NBC as a staff employee. After seven years of living abroad, I returned to the states and opened a production company which allowed me to ‘freelance’ for not only NBC News but all of the major networks. Additionally, that freedom allowed me to augment my shooting and lighting as a cameraman and develop skills in producing, writing, and editing. Having that network foundation early on was helpful in opening doors and establishing credibility later on, as I expanded my career.

Norm: What advice you wished you had received, or that you wished you would have listened to when you began your career?

Tim: When I arrived at NBC News, I was younger than the vast majority of my colleagues. I knew I was fortunate to be joining NBC News at such a young age. But at the same time, I was fearful that I would never catch up to my older and far more experience coworkers.

Everyone was welcoming and accommodating and everywhere I turned I was assured I belonged. But I suppose, early on, my insecurity and or youthful impetuousness may have distracted me a bit. Even though I had just arrived, I was in a hurry to get ‘someplace.’

I could have listened to the advice of my colleagues to slow down, focus on the job, and enjoy my new-found success. After a hectic start, eventually I did just that.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?

Tim: I came of age with a steady diet of network news stories, both international and domestic. My years overseas for NBC began by covering the war in Lebanon and ended with the fall of Communism.

In between I covered a wide variety of stories many thrilling, some even historic. It was all an eye-opening labor of love for me and while unspoken at the time, it was a sentiment shared by all of us working in the foreign press corps. When I returned to the United States, I continued on that same path, albeit as a freelancer. About the same time, news magazine programs became a popular format, as other networks tried to emulate the long-term success of CBS’s 60 Minutes. Programs like Dateline and Primetime were added to my growing client list.

I loved the news. It’s had a lasting impact on me. At the same time, as a small businessman, I wanted to diversify and grow my production company beyond a network news only strategy. I shot and produced documentaries, developed a lucrative list of corporate clients and even dabbled in reality television to create a healthy mix. Whatever the message, theme, or task at hand, I always fully embraced it.

But that same heathy mix posed a difficult conundrum for me. The front-page importance of much of my news coverage didn’t always parallel that of my other projects.

In November 2000, I was in Austin, TX as part of NBC’s election eve coverage of George W. Bush’s campaign. It was, of course, an historic evening. The neck and neck race failed to produce a clear winner that evening. Everyone packed up and moved on to Florida to count “hanging chads”. Everyone it seemed, except me. I was committed to a large corporate project and it was a commitment I felt obliged to meet. Regardless of the commitment, I sometimes felt there was network news and the importance of everything else paled in comparison.

Age can be an enlightening force and as I grew older, with growing responsibilities, I realized covering terrorist attacks, military invasions or even presidential campaigns, were not only serious events but seriously demanding events. The adrenalin once produced by the news biz had grown less vital, less important to me and the occasional documentary or corporate shoot looked more and more attractive. And, I could still tune in and live vicariously through the dedicated men and women covering global news events.

Norm: What do you think is the future of television journalism?

Tim: Television journalism has become a noisy place. It seems like eons ago when there were just four news networks in NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN. I firmly believe the news divisions of those companies have always been and will always be dedicated to fact-based reporting.

But that sort of old-school reporting or journalism now competes with a new-age television landscape full of talk shows and opinions masquerading as news. Everyone has an opinion but not everyone has the skill or discipline to stick to the facts and report the news in an unbiased manner. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it best, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Don’t get me wrong; I believe change is good and having more choices is better than less. But, we as viewers need to be more aware as to the difference between news and entertainment. Lester Holt delivers the news every evening on NBC Nightly News. An assembled panel of journalistic gadflies opining about the days or weeks headlines can be informative. But, that give-and-take is more about entertaining the viewer than delivering the news.

Norm: Could you describe for our readers an experience in which you successfully shared a difficult piece of information. As a follow up, could you share an example of a time you had to gather information from multiple sources. How did you determine which information was relevant?

Tim: I don’t think this question is particularly relevant to my background. It’s better suited for someone like Katy Tur, who covered Donald Trump’s campaign for NBC News or Brian Ross, a veteran long-form investigative reporter for ABC News.

Norm: How did you balance cooperation with others and independent thinking?

Tim: Collaboration rules and I truly believe two heads are better than one. Additionally, network news gathering has always required that stories be vetted. That process is of particular importance today due to the increased hostility towards true journalism. A team approach to triple check the facts for accuracy is critical. Even with this cooperative oversight there are still slurs of “horrible, dishonest people” who are “enemies of the American people” creating “fake news” being hurled at the press simply because some viewers and readers don’t like what they watch or read, never mind the facts.

And yet, I would never discount the power of independent thinking. Seeing things differently can be a catalyst for change.

Norm: What is the key to success with observing sets or locations for potential problems?

Tim: NEWSREAL takes place when the networks had an extensive international network of fully staffed bureaus and as a result, we covered more foreign news stories then. Many of the foreign locations I visited posed unique challenges and occasional danger. A deeper understanding of those foreign places and the participants of those stories was key and best learned once we hit the ground, from a local perspective. Background knowledge was helpful but preconceived notions or beliefs were often proven false.

In 1983, on my first assignment to war torn Lebanon, I arrived as a naive NBC cameraman with a simplistic understanding of a complex story. In my inexperienced black and white world, the Israelis wore white and were the good guys. The Arabs wore black and were the bad guys. I soon learned there were 82 different militias in Lebanon at the time and countless shades of gray existed.

Shortly after arriving in Lebanon, I was part of a three-man crew (cameraman, soundman and associate producer) dispatched to a tiny village in the Shouf mountains outside of Beirut. We were assigned to cover the Israeli army’s withdrawal from Lebanon back to Israel and this particular village would offer a prime vantage point to record the departing convoys. Upon arriving in the village, we notified the local militia of our presence. I learned they were Druze Muslims who had lived in those hills long before the war broke out.

They followed a moderate form of Islam (unlike the jihadists or fundamentalists). Immediately after the Israeli withdrawal, a huge battle erupted between waring Lebanese factions. The relentless artillery shelling lasted for four days during which time we were trapped.

The roads had been mined. There was no way out and we were devoid of any communication with Beirut. On the fifth day, at the first pause in the shelling, a heavily armed convoy of jeeps arrived at the abandoned building where we were staying. It was the Druze militiamen. Together we would endure a harrowing journey through the still raging fighting. But these Muslim fighters made certain we were delivered to the fringe of the battle, on a safe path back to Beirut.

Suddenly the world was not so black and white, and I learned it’s best to approach any new location cautiously but with an open mind.

Norm: If someone was interested in entering the field of television journalism, what advice would you give them?

Tim: Obviously, I’m more than a little biased. I think television journalism, and journalism in general, is a wonderful profession. However, in to-days climate, it takes a truly dedicated person to enter the field. Most journalist are driven to be their best and get it right. But now, you need to have an extra thick skin as well to withstand all the misguided criticism aimed at journalists. But, I believe the more journalism comes under attack, the more vital it is to our society; who else is going to report the truth?

With regard to television journalism, the same dedication applies. In addition, anyone contemplating entering the business should downplay the allure of “being on television”, as much as possible. It’s often a very demanding job with long hours and grueling schedules where the glitz of the lights and cameras quickly gets lost in the grunt work of covering the news. Be prepared.

Norm: What do you believe is the future of television news?

Tim: I need a crystal ball to adequately answer this. After years of steady declines in ratings, the network newscasts seem to have stabilized over the last decade. MSNBC has actually seen a significant increase in viewership over the last couple of years.

Most networks have done a good job in keeping pace with their changing (younger) audience, while still staying true to the principles of broadcast journalism. But for television news to remain relevant and maintain the powerful role it occupies in our society, the viewers (We the People) have to yearn for information; we have to WANT to be informed. As long as we hunger for news, whether from Washington or Beijing or places in between, television news will continue to evolve and play a strong role in out lives.

Norm: What motivated you to write your memoir NEWSREAL - A VIEW THROUGH THE LENS WHEN and how did you decide you were ready to write your memoirs?

Tim: What I took for granted as a semi-normal occupation, others seemed to find intriguing. When asked “What do you do?” I’d respond honestly, and occasionally provide examples of ‘war stories’ from my past. A common reaction would be, “That’s fascinating. You should write a book.” I would always discount that advice, believing everyone has a story to be told, a book to write. My story wasn’t all that special.

Over time, I consulted the journals and notebooks I kept (remember, this was long before Outlook or Google calendars) and wrote a few short chapters from my life abroad with NBC News. Again, I was counselled to write a book, but this time the suggestion came with a caveat. “You should write a book and you should meet my brother. He’s a publisher.” That was incentive enough to see if I could turn the chapters of my early career into a cohesive story.

Then, candidate Trump and subsequently, President Trump began to ridicule the news media with increasing vitriol. That provided me with the opportunity to bolster my memoir with an underlying defence of the news media.

Norm: Could you briefly tell us a little about the book?

Tim: NEWREAL - A View Through the Lens When…is a memoir about my time working in the foreign press corps as a staff cameraman for NBC News. It spans the 1980’s, from the war in Lebanon to the fall of Communism and recalls the golden era of international network news gathering, when the US networks had bureaus in every major capital and aggressively covered news on every continent. And, as I mentioned, it is a reminder of the vital role the news media plays in our society, both then and now. I am incredibly proud to have been a part of the team of dedicated men and women working in the news media.

Norm: What purpose do you believe your memoir serves and what matters to you about the memoir?

Tim: I hope readers find it an entertaining and nostalgic look back to a time not that long ago. There are many historic events recounted in the book. Covering those stories were thrilling for me and I hope that sense of excitement is conveyed to the reader as well.

Part of that thrill came from working on foreign stories in foreign destinations. It was much more than my ‘beat’ though. I saw the ‘world’ part of world news as being critically important, particularly for an American audience. Washington dominates so much of what we call news these days. It is disproportionate coverage as there are developments each day happening all over the globe that impact us.

And, I wanted the book to be about more than just me and my travels. This book serves an additional purpose in defending the mainstream news media which has come under attack, unjustified attacks for simply doing their job and reporting the truth.

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

Tim: News and information are important commodities in our lives. It should never be taken for granted or censored. Many countries around the world are devoid of a strong and independent news media. We are fortunate that our Constitution’s first amendment guarantees us the right to a free press.

The companies and people who gather and deliver the news take pride in what they do. No one, in the mainstream bedrock news media is making things up; fabricating stories or creating ‘fake news’. The networks have too much at stake and the journalists and photojournalists in the trenches take their jobs too seriously for that to be the case.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

Tim: The first version of my manuscript was a fast-pace adventure which sprinted from assignment to assignment. It was ‘reported’ as much as it was written. With some much-needed input from my editor and publisher, I slowed things down. The news was still very fast-paced, but the overall stories were slowed down to become more enriched.

Part of that slowing down process was to humanize the main character, who happens to be the author. As a cameraman, I didn’t have to bare my soul. As an author, I do. The book became a much better read once I shared with the reader my thoughts and feelings at the time. But unpacking that emotional baggage can be ‘heavy lifting’. It’s not an exercise for the faint of heart.

Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Tim: Going back to the previous question. I guess I learned that self examination can be a somewhat pain process, but a beneficial one as well. However, the life lessons I learned, those things that shaped my view of the world, were learned during the time the book takes place. Writing the book provided ample time for me to reflect and relive those lessons.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and NEWSREAL - A VIEW THROUGH THE LENS WHEN?

Tim: I am just learning the benefits of social media as an author. I plan on doing more on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook as a platform to discuss those topics near and dear to me. The book launches May14th at the Reagan Library and is can be ordered on Amazon and B&N (online and in stores).

Norm: What is next for Tim Ortman?

Tim: As a debut author, this is a new adventure for me. Writing a 330-page book is an entirely different challenge than say, writing a 3:00 news story or 30 minute documentary script for television. But, I thoroughly enjoyed every step of this new process. This book concludes with me covering the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Yet, my news career continued for another 20+ years, which produced even more fascinating stories. I’ve been asked about a follow-up book. I think the prudent thing to do would be to wait and see how NEWSREAL - A VIEW THROUGH THE LENS WHEN…is received before starting another. But, I imagine writing a second book would be every bit as fulfilling as the first.

Norm: As this interview comes to an end, is there one question you would have liked me to ask?

Tim: The changing role of social media. With all of the recent revelations about data harvesting being attributed to Facebook, we need to be careful about viewing these social media companies as ‘news sources.’ They are not and it’s likely some serious and much needed government regulation is headed their way.

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.