Mario Biasetti is the Dean of the Television Journalists in Rome. At age 85 he is a relentless newshound, on top of any news story. I have known him for years and everytime we meet out on a news story– at the Vatican, at an earthquake, or shipwreck– I try to find a few minutes to absorb some of his greatness. I have him recount to me his fascinating stories of covering the news from Boston, to Jerusalem and New Delhi and every where above and below over the past six decades. Mario has all the qualties that make a TV journalist great — he is gutsy, determined, lively, humble and funny. He knows how to both capture a story visually and grasps the most important details.
For this reason, I asked Mario if I could do a series of blog posts on him combining his decades of truly outstanding experiences covering the news with some basic journalism tips. I thought I could sit down with Mario on one occasion and gather enough material. After our first meeting, we had only gotten up to 1959, but I was hooked. I couldn’t believe he could remember so many bizarre facts and incidents, so I took my notes home and began checking out everything he told me. Over and over again his facts proved true.
- Mario Biasetti’s life reads like a Le Carre’ cold war spy novel. It is filled with ruthless dictators, vicious mercenaries, diamond spitting Watusi tribesmen, Greek multi-millionaires, armed Arab gunmen, protective presidents, handsome journalist-spies, powerful politicians, smooth-talking ambassadors, confused armed rebels, collaborating Pan Am pilots, chain-smoking war photographers, glamourous women, clever concierges, a popular Pope and crazy taxis drivers; and there to film it all was my hero, Mario Biasetti.
PART I – A TELEVISION JOURNALIST IS BORN
Perhaps it was his role as a scout in World War II that taught him the necessary skills he needed to become one of the best TV journalists around.
Mario Biasseti was living in Boston, Back Bay to be precise, when at age 18 he joined the military and in 1945 was sent off to France. He was in the Baker Company of 180 men. He explained to me that, in battle, they moved in a diamond formation and two scouts had to be at the top point of the diamond moving slowly forward looking for the enemy. They had to stay at all times in visual contact with the company and when they saw the enemy they were to drop to the ground. No words, just drop to the ground and that was the signal to the company that they had seen the enemy. Mario — a good Italian-Catholic boy, and a nice Jewish boy were “volunteered by the sargeant” to be the scouts. As Mario says, “my Jewish buddy wasn’t doing the Sign of the Cross all the time like I was, but he was praying just as hard and was just as scared.”
1) Certainly courage, endurance, teamwork and learning to react fast under pressure are important skills for a TV journalist.
Mario was just outside Germany’s Black Forest when the war ended and he went to Berlin as part of the 4 powers occupation force US, England, France and Russia. He worked in the military’s “civil censorship” division and was assigned to photograph license plates on Russian vehicles which were used for intelligence gathering. He said that his buddy would drive a jeep around the Brandenburg Gate and the Russians officials would go flying past at top speed. He had to secretly snap photos of their license plates as they raced past.
2) Getting the right shot while you and your the target are moving is an important skill for a good TV journalist.
After his time in Berlin, Mario went back to Boston and began working for local television — WBZ and the former CBS affiliate WNAC. He got his big break when Specs O’Keefe, the gangster behind the Great Brink’s bank robbery in Boston, managed to hold his prison warden hostage at gunpoint in the prison yard. TV crews gathered around Boston’s Suffolk County Jail eager to film what was going on inside but to no avail as the high wall blocked the view. Mario, ever entrepreneurial, hired a cherry-picker with a bucket and went up in it. He filmed Specs O’Keefe and the warden over the jail wall and got his scoop. He also attracted the attention of CBS News.
3) Determination and creativity help a good TV journalist get the best picture and an exclusive story.
In 1952 Mario became the CBS newsman in Boston and New Engliand was his beat. As he explains, back then there were radio broadcast journalists that became TV journalists — Edward R. Murrow, Erik Severeid, Alexander Kendrik, Robert Trout and a few others. They were the pillars of the evening newscasts and documentaries. There were no individual reporters. They came later. The desk in NY would call the cameraman/photojournalist and say, “there’s a report of an invasion in Nicaragua. First available.” So Mario, shot, reported, voiced and handled his own material — a sort of pre-cursor of today’s VJ or video-journalist.
Recently when I was covering the Costa Concordia shipwreck off the Italian Island of Giglio I bumped into the ever-energetic 85-year-old Mario who has been the Fox News producer in Rome for the past 13 years. He told me about the time he got a shipwreck scoop for CBS when he was working in Boston.
Part of being a good journalist is having lots of contacts, making friends with people at all levels in the community– from the taxi drivers and the concierges to the powerful politicians. Mario did just that. He made friends with everyone he could in Boston (as he has in Rome). He was friends with the Kennedy brothers and he was friends with Coast guard officers to name a few.
It was a Coast Guard officer on duty who called him on July 25, 1956 telling him that the Italian Cruise Liner Andrea Doria was was sinking off the coast of Nantucket. Mario remembers the officer told him, “it’s a luxury liner going down and there are people in the water.” Mario hired a plane at Boston’s Logan airport to fly over the cruise liner and got the first pictures of the sinking ship for CBS News.
4) Good contacts and moving quickly are fundamental for a TV journalist.
Tomorrow: Part II – Covering Movers and Shakers with Grace and Grit