Steve Bell On His Network News Career: “More Than Anybody Had A Right To Ask For”

By Alissa Krinsky 

Where Are They Now? A TVNewser Series

As we conclude TVNewser’s series “Where Are They Now?”, we talk with former ABC anchor and reporter Steve Bell.

For Steve Bell, it was quite a week at the office. On assignment for ABC News in Cambodia in 1970, he and his crew stumbled upon a major story when — along with two newspaper reporters — they discovered the bodies of 97 murdered ethnic Vietnamese. Bell filed the first report on the gruesome massacre.

One week later, Bell and his crew were held at gunpoint. “We thought we were going into a town controlled by the Cambodians,” Bell tells TVNewser, “and instead, it had been overrun by the Viet Cong.” The journalists were released unharmed within two hours.

“The Vietnam War was a life-changer,” says Bell, 73. “You can’t go through that kind of experience and see what you see and feel what you feel, and not be changed for the rest of your life…I think I’m more sensitive on the one hand, and at the same time, I’m less certain of the supposed certainties of life — it leaves you with a whole new perspective.”

It was a pivotal experience during a long career that formally concluded only last year, with his retirement as a university professor. “I went to college to be a teacher. I just got diverted for 35 years,” jokes Bell.

Bell, an Iowa native, started in local radio and television before joining ABC News in 1967. After reporting from Vietnam for the network, he served as Atlanta bureau chief, chief Asia correspondent, and White House correspondent.

When Good Morning America launched in 1975, Bell began an eleven-year run as the show’s news anchor. During that time he also co-anchored ABC World News This Morning from its 1982 debut until he left the network in 1986. Bell returned to local news, anchoring for five years at Philadelphia’s KYW-TV.

Bell then “made a decision that I wanted to make the turn [to teaching].” He became a telecommunications professor at Ball State University in Indiana, where he taught for fifteen years — “a second career” and “a wonderful blessing.”

Today, Bell remains a guest lecturer at the school, where the Steve Bell News Packaging Award is given to a student every semester. He’s also working on an archive of his reporting work for the university, and is faculty coordinator for a yearly “Politics and the Media” seminar at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. A former Eagle Scout, Bell serves on a committee working to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America in 2010. He and his wife, Joyce, have two daughters and three grandchildren.

Bell maintains great interest in the state of the news industry, especially as networks tighten their belts during tough times. It’s a far cry from how things used to be. “I could tell you anecdotes that you wouldn’t believe about how we spent money,” Bell recalls, citing as an example the 34-seat turboprop he once chartered — “just leased it on my ABC credit card!” — while based in the Far East. Film had come in to Laos of the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and Bell needed to carry the film to Bangkok for processing. “I don’t have the slightest idea what I paid for that thing, because it didn’t matter!”

In contrast are today’s shrinking network news budgets. “I’m afraid the biggest impact,” says Bell, “is that you have fewer people on the ground in bureaus. And as a result, you have to parachute people in and you can’t do the same job [that way].”

Bell’s time in network news coincided with what he considers the business’s golden age. It was “just a privilege to have had the opportunity to observe — or even be a part of — such enormous events in a remarkable period of time. That was just more than anybody had a right to ask for.”