In his 2016 year-end roundup of news events, our friend Harry Jessell, the editor and co-publisher of TVNewsCheck — who was also, at one time, the editor in chief of Broadcasting & Cable (B&C) — got it exactly right when he wrote, about Donald Trump, “He’s not anti-media. He loves the media. His golden gut knows what plays on TV and on the Internet. He commands media attention whenever he wants with fearless pronouncements unbound by facts, political correctness or, in too many cases, common decency. But he is anti-journalism. Perhaps frustrated by his inability so far to wrestle this element of media to the ground, he disparages professional journalism and journalists and provokes others to do so.” [Emphasis added by me.]
When I read this, one person’s name immediately came to mind, causing me to smile as a tear simultaneously came to my eye: Higginzzz! If only we could summon Higginzzz!, the real-life Clark Kent who was, in actuality, a real-life Superman.
John Higgins was the best journalist I’ve ever known, and had more passion and compassion and humor as a person than most. We never worked together, but we were the friendliest of competitors. He would continually surprise you with his knowledge and interest in the obscure and the seemingly minor things in life that, in fact, are what makes life so special. If anyone could tame The Donald, it would have been Higginzzz. It’s hard for me to believe, even now, that it’s been 10 years since we lost him. John died on Nov. 20, 2006, of a heart attack. He was only 45.
So you may get to know John better, here are some remembrances about him. They are all excerpted from two pieces on the B&C website, where John worked, and were published soon after he died. When you have the time, I urge you to read both pieces in full. One article is wholly made up of stories about John told by friends, colleagues and those he covered. The second piece is by Mark Robichaux, who was then the executive editor of B&C. Today he is the editorial director of B&C and its sibling publication, Multichannel News. Before John worked at B&C he worked at Multichannel News. At the time of his death John was the business editor at B&C.
From Judy McGrath, then chairman and CEO of the MTV Networks:
Oh, to have Higgins on the line.
You know what I mean.
You’re at work. Could be any day of the week. Things are great. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, the call comes in.
You pick it up, and hear that unmistakable salutation: “Higginzzz”.
His calling card, his mark, short-hand for ‘My dear, the jig is up.’ Or not…
For me, it was often just to shoot the breeze about music, new bands, new songs, what we had each seen and heard in a club or online. His love of music was deep and sincere. Even when he turned a critical eye to it, it was always with a beat and a sense of curiosity.
But regardless of whom he was building up, or skewering (aided by those stubbornly anonymous sources), we all showed him the deepest sign of respect you can give to a writer: we read him. We took his call….”
From John Lippman, himself a truly excellent journalist:
I was devastated to learn this morning the sad news that John Higgins died. I admired him and his work greatly – he was a reporter’s reporter, the old fashioned and best kind of reporter who digs, digs, digs to get the facts, gets facts no one else had, and got them right. He was ruthless, in the sense that he wouldn’t let anyone stop him in his reporting. He would occasionally email notes to me about [my] column – I was flattered he read it and took the time to write (where he would commiserate about the travails of writing a column)….[H]e often scooped the WSJ and NYT.
I will miss him, and journalism has lost one of its greats.
From Allan Sloan, then the Wall St. Editor at Newsweek:
The beauty of John Higgins, may he rest in peace, is that he did what all of us in journalism are supposed to do—he afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He didn’t boast about it, or strut or preen. He just did it.
Any time there was a deal involving media companies, you could count on John to ask a direct, knowledgeable and embarrassing question that no one wanted to deal with. As my colleague Johnnie Roberts said in an earlier post, John spoke truth to power in the media industry. In his public life, John was as tough as they come, and wasn’t afraid of anything.
In private, though, John was the sweetest guy in the world. Despite being utterly irreverent, John was a serious Catholic who actually believed his religion’s teachings about helping the poor and the downtrodden and the least of us. So he just did it, without wearing his deeds—or his religion—on his sleeve….
From B&C’s Mark Robichaux:
Higgins could have stepped from the pages of a Damon Runyon story. A burly man with thick brown hair and a matching mustache, he filled any room he entered with his outsized personality. He liked obscure music, loved good barbeque, and lived to crack wise. He would cackle with a gap-toothed smile when asked how many editors it takes to screw in a light bulb. (Answer: Only one—but he has to rewire the whole building.)
From TVNewsCheck’s Harry Jessell:
During our years together at B&C, John was our journalistic conscience. We never had to refer to any corporate or other outside policy about what was right or wrong, about the ethics of the matter. We just had to ask John. His standards were always higher than anybody else’s. If we could meet them, we were on safe ground.
One of my favorite stories was one Marc Nathanson has told, and a version of it is in the B&C tribute. Marc long ago became a billionaire when he sold his MSO, Falcon, to Charter Communications and became the vice chairman of that MSO.
John happened to attend a sunny speech Marc gave one day about the virtues of cable TV. When it was over, John went up to the podium. “What’d ya think?” Nathanson asked him. John said, “You really wanna know.” “Sure.” “You’re full of crap.” Marc said John was right and he loved him for his candor.
The great, late movie director Billy Wilder wrote or co-wrote and/or directed some of the most memorable movies ever made, from “Double Indemnity” to “Sunset Blvd.” to “Some Like It Hot” and many others. As good as Wilder was, he had a sign in his office that reminded him that he could always be better. The sign read, simply, “How would Lubitsch do it?” The sign referred to the prodigiously talented director Ernst Lubitsch, who was Wilder’s mentor.
As journalists today start to cover the new Trump administration, they could do a lot worse than to study the work of John Higgins and then say to themselves “How would Higgins do it?”