By Jack Holland
Don’t be thinking you’ve hit the wrong bottom on your remote these days if the face of Channel 5’s veteran news reporter Bob O’Brien suddenly appears on Channel 9’s nightly news at 10 p.m. You’re not mistaken — the man who for 30 years has trod the streets of New York, camera crew in tow, pursuing stories on behalf of Channel 5, has made a lateral move across the river to Secaucus, N.J., where 9 is based.
On Friday night, Jan. 25, at the Black Sheep Pub on Third Avenue in Manhattan, O’Brien’s friends and colleagues were gathered to mark the event.
Two courtroom artists, Andrea Shepherd and her mother, Shirley Shepherd, were already hard at capturing their man when this reporter arrived.
“He doesn’t look like a criminal at all,” they were told.
“Not guilty until proven,” Andrea answered. O’Brien recruited them for Channel 5 back in 1992.
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A Cleveland native, O’Brien, 59, joined Channel 5 in 1968 after working for a short time as a reporter and news reader at a radio station in Dover, N.J. At first, 5 managed to keep him off the streets, making him a production assistant, and eight months later, a writer for the network’s “Ten O’clock News.”
“I hated it,” he confessed, describing himself as the “tire on the dock” between anchor Bill Jorgenson and Ted Kavanau, the senior producer.
“It was the worst job I ever had,” he said. “I preferred reporting — I wanted to be the primary source of information.”
At first, they allowed him to do one story a week. One of the first he did was a report on a camping show at the New York Coliseum. When he threatened to resign unless they let him out on the streets on a full-time basis, he got his wish. By 1970, he was reporting full-time.
He covered the Young Lords seizure of a church at the corner of 111th Street and Lexington, where he met Pablo Guzman, who went from being a would-be terrorist to a real life TV reporter also on 5. O’Brien also encountered Geraldo Rivera, who at the time was acting as the Young Lords lawyer.
O’Brien went on to cover every major story in the city from the Son of Sam murders to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“He has the enthusiasm of a cub reporter,” said Rosanna Scotto, who has been working on the “Ten O’clock News” for the last 16 years.
Mike Sheehan was with NYPD for 25 years, most of them as a homicide detective, before joining Channel 5, where he has worked for nine years. He remembers his first days with O’Brien.
“The Australians wouldn’t even give me a seat to sit on or a desk to write at,” he said, referring to the management team of the Rupert Murdoch-owned station. “But they wanted me to be a reporter. So they sent me into the Irish pen. That meant with O’Brien. All we had was one desk between us. They called it the Irish ghetto.”
However, the two were not strangers but had met when Sheehan was still a cop.
“I first met Bobby when I came out of undercover work years ago,” Sheehan said. “He was a young reporter on the street and I was a young detective. I ran into him at every location.”
New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy was plunked at the bar and had clearly been reflecting on O’Brien’s career.
“The most terrible thing in the world about Bob O’Brien was when he was off the sauce,” opined Dunleavy, who has never been tempted in that direction himself. “He was about as interesting as watching a yacht race. Except he talked faster than a Taliban. But thank God he’s drinking again and we can look forward to some great reporting from Bob O’Brien, a man who I love and revere, that I’ve known for more than 25 years, and I hope not for one year longer.”
O’Brien’s career has put him in some strange situations.
He covered a flower shower at the New York Coliseum dressed as a bumblebee. He was one of the first on the scene of the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 66 from New Orleans. Wind sheer brought it down as it was coming in to land on Runway 4 at JFK on June 24, 1975.
“It was the worst thing I ever saw,” he said, recalling the scene 20 minutes after the crash. “Nobody was talking. There was just the dead in pieces. At my feet was part of the head of a 10-year-old kid.”
However, for many Irish American viewers of 5, O’Brien is most remembered for his Northern Ireland coverage. He made seven trips there, the first in October 1977.
His producer, he recalled, told him: “I have the best assignment for you. Go to Paris and take the Concorde back. But go a week early and stop off and do the war in Belfast.” O’Brien’s reaction was: “I’m going to die.” He got drunk on the flight over.
“I arrived on a Sunday,” he recalled. “It was gray, dank. The only thing moving were Land Rovers with troops and RUC officers.” He stayed at the Europa (which by that year had been bombed 28 times.) The next morning he walked over to the Divis Flats.
The first shot of O’Brien in Belfast is of him standing in the middle of a vacant lot near the peace line, abandoned buildings and puddles everywhere. Three years later, O’Brien was the first TV reporter to get inside the H-blocks, and his images of the excrement-covered walls and haggard prisoners are still riveting.
“My work in Ireland was the most important to me,” he concluded, looking down the years.