The Last Don

Don Shelby is retiring—and he’s taking the golden age of television news with him.

SHELBY HAS BEEN feeding names to me since shortly after we first met for this story, and now there are more than two dozen. Sometimes they are just first names or last names and occasionally they are just nicknames. “Suggestions,” he calls them, people he thinks I should talk to about him, the co-anchor of WCCO-TV’s nightly newscasts and arguably one of the most recognizable names in Minnesota.

Sometimes he’ll hand the names to me in person, half a dozen at a time, scrawled on the business card of someone I take to be yet another suggestion. But generally the names arrive by e-mail, with something like an apology (subject line: “I can’t help myself”). They arrive almost daily, typed with a similar sense of urgency: no “dear” or “hello” and always just signed “Don.” They read like wire copy, ripped off the printer and read on the air: This just in.

The delivery of the names has by now become something more: a running commentary, a confessional. Along with the name of a friend, Shelby writes, “This is a part of the story I have yet to tell you: How hard it is for me to have friends, because I am always afraid that I will have to say something terrible about them on the news.” Along with the name of a nemesis: “He may not have very good things to say about me…. But I am a fearless bastard.”

One night, Shelby e-mails me with a suggestion he won’t name. He says he’d rather pass it along over a Silver Butter Knife Steak at Murray’s, the venerable restaurant and cocktail lounge in downtown Minneapolis, where the Murray brothers display a photograph of him near the entrance and always seat him at the same rear table.

“You ready?” Shelby asks, straightening his tie in the lobby and tugging at his French cuffs. In his right ear, I glimpse the tiny dot of an earring—invisible to his television audience—glinting under the chandeliers in odd contrast to his conservative coif, like misplaced punctuation. He seems to glow from within, likely because he is already wearing his television makeup. Shelby applies his makeup before he even leaves his house in the morning, so that the moment he steps outside he is no longer Don Shelby but Don Shelby, anchorman.

Shelby, at 62, is in many respects at the height of his powers. Since 1985, he has been the co-anchor of WCCO-TV’s 10 p.m. newscast, which in recent years has occasionally overtaken that of KARE-11, the perennial front-runner, to become the Twin Cities’ most-watched newscast. For his reporting, Shelby has won two Peabody Awards (often described as the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize) and several national Emmy Awards. He has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists with the Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the field and by the American Academy of Pediatrics for reporting on child-welfare issues. He has 2,535 friends on Facebook, and his MySpace profile features an illustration of him in the familiar abstracted style of President Barack Obama’s campaign posters.

Shelby earned $1 million a year until last winter, when he volunteered for a 10-percent cut from his radio salary to help WCCO trim costs. This places him among what is likely to be—in the face of an increasingly shrinking mass media—the final generation of highly paid anchors. Accordingly, he is “the last of a kind,” as a colleague of his put it: “a guy with a really big megaphone.”

As Shelby glides through Murray’s dining room to his table, a chorus rises behind him, whispers in his wake: “Shelby,” “Don Shelby,” “Shelby?” Whispered like supplications. If the anchor hears these murmurs, he doesn’t let on.

Shelby orders for both of us, the steak platter for two. And soon a middle-aged woman appears at Shelby’s side, clasping her hands. “I’m Arlene from Rochester,” she politely announces. She is like millions of Minnesotans accustomed to turning on their televisions at 10 p.m. and seeing Shelby there. They have seen his sandy-blonde hair recede, then get replaced, then turn silver, then turn white. When Shelby tells them of a cougar on the loose, they bring in the dog. When Shelby tells them of an approaching tornado, they hide in the basement. When Shelby tells them it’s all okay, they go to sleep.

Arlene tells Shelby, “I just wanted to thank you for your years of broadcasting service.”

Shelby smiles and shakes her hand. But recently he has been troubled and the woman’s statement summarizes his disappointment. The news has become many things over the course of Shelby’s career: entertainment, infotainment, water-cooler conversation. But when was the last time most people thought of it as a service?

With an hour to spare, Shelby rises from the table to return to the station, to pick up his megaphone and broadcast the news. Before he leaves, he offers his latest suggestions, written on the business card of a state public-safety official. They are the names of local spiritual leaders who could testify to his in-depth coverage of their respective communities. Handing me the names, he says, “As long as you’re writing my obituary….”

In slightly more than a year, on December 31, 2010, Shelby’s contract with WCCO-TV will expire, and he doesn’t plan to return to the anchor chair. By the end of this year, he will also step away from the microphone at WCCO-AM, where his baritone voice, smooth and precise, has filled the afternoon air, three hours a day, five days a week, for nine years.

His business card says “anchor/reporter.” But Shelby’s days and nights are filled less with reporting than with speaking engagements for Rotary Clubs, galas for the Minnesota Zoo, and charity auctions of every kind. He is the self-described “face of the station.” He receives hundreds of e-mails and letters a day. Some of them are complaints about Katie Couric, the anchor of CBS Evening News—as if Shelby were the boss of CBS itself.

As the station’s authority figure, Shelby is one of the few anchors in the country who has still a regular platform for opinion during the newscast, in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow. Called Good to Know, these segments feature Shelby offering his personal perspective on the day’s news, shot with a low camera angle to boost his apparent stature. In years past, such editorials were commonplace in television news and were accepted by audiences as informed opinion. But viewers often complain now that the Good to Know segments smack of egoism, as if Shelby doesn’t just know, but knows better.

The size of Shelby’s ego is not news: During the 1984 Olympics, when Shelby was covering the games for WCCO, a family friend sent him pencils inscribed with the motto “Official Egomaniac of the 1984 Olympics.” Shelby doesn’t hesitate to correct his guests or colleagues on the air. He doesn’t hesitate to tell you that he once asked the prominent Minneapolis defense attorney Ron Meshbesher to delay an important press conference, inconveniencing his client, until Shelby could arrive. (Meshbesher acquiesced.) He doesn’t hesitate to ask me, upon first meeting, if he will be appearing on the cover of this issue.

When the 35W bridge collapsed, viewers criticized Shelby as a show-off because he was asking erudite questions about civil engineering. In fact, viewers frequently complain that Shelby uses highly technical terms during a newscast to describe everything from military invasions to climate change, like he knows what the hell he’s talking about.

The thing is, more often than not, Shelby does.
 

 

It’s true that Don Shelby never graduated from college. (He whiled away a couple of years at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1960s then quit to join the Air Force.) The only degree he has is an honorary one, from Bemidji State University. But he owns nearly 10,000 books, many of them on subjects that wouldn’t make for very exciting television, like continental drift. He subscribes to something called The Bulletin of Primitive Technology, from which he has learned to make bowstring out of deer tendons and rope out of plants (which he used to assemble a teepee). He raises chickens in the yard of his suburban home in Minnetonka and at one time maintained an alarmingly large colony of bees.

He’s handy, too: He can fix the position of a boat using one of the two sextants he owns. And when the bedeviling new makeup machine broke at WCCO (an airbrush that evenly covers the face for high-definition television), he fixed that, too.

Shelby carries his obsession with how things work into the newsroom, where he is known as the Professor. There is seemingly no question, says his producer, Joan Gilbertson, to which he does not know the answer. “He’s smart, and he lets you know it,” says Jason DeRusha, the WCCO-TV reporter—young enough to be Shelby’s son—who, with his popular blog and man-on-the-street Good Question segments, most represents the future of TV news. “It seems impossible for one person to know that much,” DeRusha says, “so we assume he must be full of it. He is full of it, but not in that way.”

WCCO executives view Shelby’s sense of authority as an asset. “Our business has become so homogenous over the years,” says WCCO news director Scott Libin. “It’s full of overly earnest people imitating each other. They speak this strange journalese. And Don breaks through the clutter.

“Don can alienate people. When you differentiate yourself, you’ll make friends but also enemies,” Libin admits. “Don is making people angry, but they can’t resist watching.”

It’s safe to say that other newsrooms will not be copying the Shelby model anytime soon, not just because they don’t have a Shelby but because they don’t want one. “Viewer expectations these days are such that we want to see intelligent people on TV but not too intelligent,” says DeRusha, “because that would make us uncomfortable. It’s a culture of good but not great.”

Shelby arrived at WCCO on a slow weekend in 1978, and the few employees lazing about the newsroom couldn’t help gawking. “The guy was really skinny,” says retired WCCO reporter Karen Boros. “He had kind of a gray-blue suit on. It might have been pinstriped, might have been polyester. He might have had cowboy boots. The reason I don’t remember is because there was a thing growing out of his forehead that would have made Elvis proud.”

It was a pompadour, and it said just about everything one needed to know about Shelby in those days. “He came in like a Texas hurricane,” says WCCO reporter Caroline Lowe. He blew in from Houston, where he’d worked for three years after beginning his television career at a small station in South Carolina. He was the kind of guy who was juggling three girlfriends before he met his wife, Barbara, at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. He’d already proposed to multiple women in the past and been left at the altar once.

Shelby’s high-school speech teacher, a woman named Lavina Putnam, once asked him what he planned to do after graduation. Go to college, he said. You’ll fail, she replied. He protested: I was your best speech student. You were fabulous, she told him. But you are full of shit. And they will recognize that you are full of bullshit.

But Shelby parlayed his gift for gab into a burgeoning career in the relatively new field of investigative reporting. He went so far as to assemble disguises for reporting undercover. And when he walked through the newsroom that first weekend at WCCO he was carrying a briefcase with a hidden camera inside.

Shelby was hired as a weekend anchor and reporter. “In those days,” recalls Boros, “you wanted to give an anchor the credentials of reporter, to move them out of that category of being just a pretty face, a decorative person. You wanted them to go out and get their hands dirty.”

WCCO had a storied history as a hard-news station. Walter Cronkite, before he was famous, applied for a job with the station. The position was filled by Dave Moore, whom Shelby would eventually succeed as the anchor of the 10 p.m. news. Moore set the standard for delivering hard-hitting stories about politics and education, and Shelby seemed to fit the mold. “You gotta have that blood in your mouth,” Shelby advised Lowe. “Dig and chew and never let go.”

Shortly after his hire, Shelby proposed that the station form an investigative unit, called the I-Team, which would cover only about four stories a year (to be broadcast during sweeps weeks, of course). He was thought to be nuts. But the first story the I-Team did won an Emmy. The I-Team grew to eight staffers, making it one of the largest such teams in the country. Then the station created a documentary unit, to report long-form stories. Reporters thought nothing of flying to 14 cities to gather documents for a single story.

Shelby’s best-known story, broadcast in 1982, exposed Crane Winton, a district-court judge in Minneapolis, as having solicited sex with underage male prostitutes. Winton, like many others busted by Shelby, was defended in court by attorney Joe Friedberg (who recently counseled Norm Coleman in the Senate recount). “For a few years there, every case of significance I got, Shelby had already solved,” Friedberg says.

More awards followed, along with death threats—prompting Shelby to buy extra life insurance. When the I-Team attended conferences held by the IRE, or Investigative Reporters & Editors, “the waters would part,” Shelby says, for WCCO.

After Shelby received his second Peabody award, he called Lavina Putnam, his former teacher, and reminded her that she’d called him a bullshitter without a future. She couldn’t believe she’d actually said that. No, Shelby responded, you were exactly right. I was a bullshit artist. I just happened to fall into a profession where that is an asset.

One day, I’m watching Shelby thoughtfully respond to a handwritten letter from a viewer who wants more information about something mentioned on the air—how to plant potatoes in a barrel or some odd thing. And Shelby tells me he’s had 13 job offers in other states over the years and never felt like leaving. “My debt isn’t paid here,” he says.

When he came to Minnesota, he brought with him a drinking habit that dated to his teenage years. “I’ve puked more good whiskey through my nose,” he told me, “than most people have drunk.” By 1980, his intemperance was starting to show up in his work; sometimes he couldn’t pronounce complicated names on the air. His superiors at WCCO informed him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would be fired and never work in television again. He replied, “Can I have a week to think about it?”

When he sought treatment shortly thereafter, he was off the air for many weeks, and he worried that viewers, turned off by his sins, would forsake him. But the viewers took him back, and with sobriety came introspection. “It added immeasurably to his insight into himself and the ghosts we all chase,” a close friend of Shelby told me. He doted on his three girls, racing between broadcasts to watch every one of his daughter Ashley’s high-school basketball games, sending the girls Valentine’s Day bouquets when they went off to college with notes that said, “From your first Valentine.”
 

 

“In Texas, I’d have been regarded as a personal failure,” he tells me. “Recovery is redemption in this state,” he says and his face grows hot and red with emotion, even through the makeup. His eyes mist over, and for the first time in the weeks we’ve spent together, he grows silent.

Sometime in the late 1980s, a 92-year-old man named Jerry Pratt showed up at WCCO and informed Shelby that he was a fine-looking fellow except for his tie. Pratt undid Shelby’s tie and re-knotted it in such an attractive and simple fashion, essentially a more compact Windsor knot, that Shelby has worn it every day since and is asked to demonstrate it—to guys on the street, to gala-goers—about twice a week.

Word spread about the new knot, the Pratt-Shelby. An 800-word piece on it appeared in the New York Times, followed by articles in Esquire and Playboy and newspapers around the world, including one from Scandinavia headlined, “Der Shelbyknuten!” Shelby’s father called to tell him that the knot had been an answer to a question on Jeopardy. According to his dad, Shelby had finally made it.

In fact, Shelby was already an icon—“the brand within the brand” as former WCCO news director Ted Canova put it to me, an anchor’s personality being one of the major reasons that viewers choose one newscast over another. Shelby’s face became a temporary tattoo you could get at the Minnesota State Fair. Eventually, a dunk tank was set up beside WCCO’s fair booth, and the man who had broken stories about sex abuse, who reported the crash of the Challenger space shuttle and the start of the Gulf War, was soaked for laughs.

It’s difficult for Shelby to rein in his inner ham. “I don’t think I’m a very good anchor,” he claims. “I can’t pull off gravitas. I’m having too much fun.”

WCCO has assembled a DVD of classic Shelby moments: I-Team stories, his report from Romania on terrible conditions at orphanages. But the most insightful part might be the bloopers at the end. There’s Shelby, way back in the ’70s, repeatedly dropping the F-bomb when he thought he was off-camera, like Eddie Murphy before all the kids’ flicks. There’s Shelby, in the early ’80s, looking like Will Ferrell in Anchorman (Shelby’s favorite movie), as he pretends to duck out of the way of the computer-generated Channel 4 graphic that used to appear to tumble onto the set. He was a ham before anyone was even paying attention.

“I don’t know if Don has changed that much,” says Ron Handberg, the former WCCO news director who hired Shelby. “He can’t change his spots any more than the rest of us. But the way he’s used has changed. Before, he was surrounded by more serious journalism and more serious journalists. I cringe at what they have him do now.”

Handberg points to a water-cooler story recently broadcast on WCCO about someone’s cremated ashes that were accidentally sent to the wrong address. “For me to watch Shelby sitting there reading this story…spare me,” he says.

Shelby’s friend and former coworker, Dave Nimmer, who left his managing editor post at the Minneapolis Star to join WCCO in the late ’70s, told me, “I don’t think it serves him well to be an iconic figure, because no one tells an icon when you’ve got your head up your ass.”

But Shelby, by giving in to his lighter side, may be taking after his idol, Dave Moore, an actor by training who poked fun at the news in a popular segment called The Bedtime Nooz. “People have a tendency to turn the past into more of a stuffy journalism thing than it really was,” DeRusha says. “Don is the capital-J journalism guy, but he’s also a goofball and knows when to ham it up.”

There is simply less capital-J journalism now to balance the laughs. Over the past year, WCCO has laid off numerous staffers and slashed budgets. The I-Team no longer exists as a distinct unit and neither does Project Energy, Shelby’s initiative to create stories on changing environmental resources. Investigative journalism is waning across the country, with the Columbia Journalism Review reporting that major news media have been reluctant to conduct serious investigations for years. DeRusha recently used the Freedom of Information Act, a tool of journalists exposing governmental wrongdoing, to acquire the names under which people have registered their pets. “Is that good? Is that bad?” DeRusha asks. “It is what it is.”

The WCCO newsroom, in downtown Minneapolis, is a big open space of low-walled cubicles overlooked by a large bronze bust, commissioned by Shelby, of Dave Moore. The room is dominated by a raised, bench-like platform—the assignment desk—where editors sit in judgment of the day’s events, dispatching reporters accordingly: This is news, this is not news.

Shelby’s cubicle is situated in front of a window and is shared with the station’s other two primary anchors, the husband-and-wife team of Amelia Santaniello and Frank Vascellero. A few years ago, the station punched a window into the newsroom wall that faces Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis and placed the anchors’ desk in front of it, so that passersby could ogle them at work. As Shelby works, he occasionally waves to the fans that gather at the window and mouth “We love you!” or give him the No. 1 sign. (“What a great thing it will be,” Nimmer told me, “when Shelby’s no longer standing in front of the window.”)

But quite often, Shelby can be found hanging around DeRusha’s cube, on the other side of the newsroom. DeRusha’s computer has recently been outfitted with a video camera called the Jason Cam, which is linked to the WCCO web site and broadcasts a continuous feed of whatever is happening in that corner of the newsroom. The station installed the Jason Cam to open up the reporting experience to viewers, so that visitors to the web site can watch and listen to the action and comment in a streaming forum. At least once a day, DeRusha speaks informally to the camera about the day’s newsgathering efforts, though most often viewers are treated to the sight of employees making photocopies or typing, hunched over, in their cubes.

Shelby has taken to the Jason Cam. Recently, he lifted his shirt to show viewers the tattoo of a compass that covers much of his back, a symbol, he says, implying that he’s being oriented—and leading others—to the truth. (He has another tattoo, of his wife’s name, Barbara, near his wrist.)

I was watching online once when he showed viewers a photograph from his Air Force days, a picture of him posing on a basketball court with his teammates. He was the only white guy on the team, and in the photo he looks like a public-relations man for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Shelby grew up immersed in the black culture of Muncie, Indiana, a city of just over 100,000 people where his father ran a galvanizing plant that mostly employed black men. As a teenager, Shelby would spend his summer days working at the plant and at night he’d tune his pink, glow-in-the-dark radio to WLAC, a Nashville radio station, and listen to what was then called “race music”—rhythm and blues performed by African Americans. One of the first organizations Shelby ever joined was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, and he was drawn to journalism’s role in exposing injustice.

“I was 14,” he told me. “In my lifetime, people couldn’t vote. I decided I don’t like the world. I don’t like the way it is.”
 

 

He now has mixed feelings, it’s safe to say, about where journalism is headed. Shortly after showing viewers his basketball picture, he chides me: “You have no life if you are watching the Jason Cam.”

Sometimes Shelby wants to get away from Shelby. He spends an unusual amount of time alone in the woods, even for a Minnesotan. He canoes, fishes, snowshoes, ice-climbs. He claims to often bring no more than a tarp, cookware, and a piece of flint.

It has long been his belief, derived from his sense of himself as a self-made man, that we have the capacity within us to figure almost anything out for ourselves. He often speaks of “archaic man”—the kind of humans we were in prehistory, before we placed our survival in the hands of machines and experts and governments. He believes we need to reconnect with the archaic man inside us, which sounds kind of nutty until you realize he simply means we need to use our own brains.

At home, Shelby’s desire to place himself beyond the noise of opinion-makers and modern media is evident by the almost monastic surroundings. It’s a relatively modest spread in Minnetonka, occupying a little less than two acres, and is closer to a highway than any lake. The house is two stories, cedar-shingled, surrounded by so many trees and other vegetation that a small sign from the National Wildlife Federation, leaning on the front stoop, declares the area a wildlife habitat zone.

Inside, antique bookshelves contain tall, thick books, many of them printed centuries ago. They document the journeys of Sir Earnest Henry Shackleton, Henry Schoolcraft, René-Robert de la Salle, and other explorers. Some are first editions—Shelby always prefers to go right to the source. When he reports, for example, he rarely quotes public-relations people; he works behind the scenes to get the original documents that form a case.

Thumbing through the ancient tomes, he tells me he’s concluded that contemporary journalism is failing because it lacks the kind of analysis and truth-seeking that should lead a good researcher toward a certain conclusion. “Perspective is wholly lacking in anything we report,” he says. He blames “this crazy notion of objectivity,” suggesting that by this standard journalists would give equal time to the theory that the moon is made of blue cheese and the theory that it’s made of earth. “We say, ‘Blue cheese or piece of earth—you decide.’ And all we do is add to the audience’s apathy.”

“Here’s what people want,” Shelby says. “They want the truth, they don’t want balance.”

Ted Canova, the news director for WCCO-TV from 1995 to 2002 and for KMSP-TV more recently, agrees that journalists abdicate their responsibility when they simply offer balance instead of analysis. But increasingly, he says, the stories don’t lend themselves to analysis anyway. “People want hard news,” he says. But it’s cheaper and easier for stations to offer so-called soft coverage—stories on babies and misdirected remains. “As you get softer,” Canova says, “there are fewer opportunities to be the beacon of light, to uncover stories that change laws and rally viewers. The news industry has always had their own gun in their hands. Now they have been given the bullets, and in the last couple years they are putting the bullets in the gun, they are closing the cartridge, and they are starting to shoot themselves.”

On the July day when Walter Cronkite is reported to be gravely ill (he will die within three weeks), Shelby sits at his newsroom desk and begins to type. His fingers arc high over his keyboard and come down deliberately, like hammers, like someone used to typing on a big unforgiving machine that took serious purpose to pound out copy.

The desk is covered with books, letters, paper piled high, a Kleen Kanteen, a bottle of Tylenol, and a jug of mouthwash. It is as much a storage space as a work surface these days, as Shelby is not often at his desk. But when he is, you notice. He teases his young colleagues for not having heard of Robert Johnson, the iconic bluesman from the 1930s. He teases Vascellero, an old friend, on his anchorman looks: “What a fake smile.” He plays the harmonica he keeps in his desk. He answers the phone with a crude growl—“What the fuck do you want?”—when a former colleague calls.

His screensaver is a photo of his family, with Shelby dressed as Mark Twain, as though in disguise. Typing his Good to Know segment, he paraphrases Twain, describing reports of Cronkite’s impending death as greatly exaggerated.

I tell Shelby that his own legacy, for the moment, appears intact. Senator Amy Klobuchar, in the midst of the Senate confirmation hearings for Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the first such hearings of Klobuchar’s career—called me back just to say what a public service she felt Shelby had rendered for Minnesota. And nearly every other person Shelby suggested I talk to about him called back, too, even the most powerful and presumably preoccupied.

Shelby smiles. “I’ve had my time in the sun,” he says with satisfaction. In the cubicles around him, his twentysomething colleagues gather footage of Tony Hawk riding his skateboard through the White House and piece together a story about quintuplets. A young man bounces up to Shelby on spring-loaded exercise shoes, testing them for a future segment, and hands the anchor his script.

Tim Gihring is the senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

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