Former RTDNA President Ernie Schultz dead at 87

Read more current and former RTDNA leaders remembrances of Ernie here.
We all looked up to Ernie Schultz, the only man to serve as elected president and full-time president of our organization.  He was our wise advisor, our firm and deeply-committed leader, a man who exemplified the best that our industry can be and elevated us as an organization and as individual members of it.  
 
Next year will be the thirtieth year since Ernie surprised all of us by announcing he was leaving the association presidency. So let’s tell you about this good man and how our organization still bears his fingerprints.  
 
Ernie had been in good health and in fact sent a Thanksgiving message to members of his association generation a week before his death, “I am amazed and very pleased that so many of us are still out of jail, able to spell big words and appreciative of all the many benefits of our profession; especially in the time in which we practiced it; We are truly blessed. Teddy and I are in excellent health and keep very busy.”  
 
Tuesday, November 28th, Ernie fell at his home and struck his head. He died later that day from bleeding in the brain. He was 87 and is survived by his wife Teddy, children Jack and Elizabeth, and many other relatives and friends.
 
This reminiscence about Ernie might become long as we write it.  But he was so vitally important to what is now RTDNA that we cannot compose this as a forty-second standup. 
 
Ernie’s father was a professor at the University of Arizona when Ernie was born. The family moved to Norman, Oklahoma when he was ten and his father joined faculty at the University of Oklahoma. 
 
“My first broadcasting was as a child radio actor on a nationally-syndicated program out of Oklahoma in Norman…and we used to cut half-hour programs on huge electrical transcription disks,” he recalled. “So I had a lot of microphone time before I was in my teens.”   
 
Ernie planned to major in electrical engineering when he enrolled at the OU but when he looked at the first list of courses he would have to take he realized he’d made a terrible mistake.  He drifted into broadcasting, perhaps because he recalled the fun of his childhood radio days.  
 
The head of the department, Sherman Lawton, was “an extremely good producer of radio and one of the first producers of information programming on television in the market.” Another member of the three-person department was Don Clark, a former radio news director from Amarillo who became Ernie’s favorite teacher. By the time he was a senior, Ernie Schultz was the news director of the campus radio station.
 
His experience in that small department made him an advocate of journalism education programs that balance arts and sciences with the professional courses.  “And even more pointed,” he remarked, “strong language skills. I have seen more people fail in this business because of that than any other thing. It’s not a lack of intelligence; it’s not a lack of motivation and it’s not a lack of ethics or desire. It’s not a lack of ability to work with other people.  It’s a lack of language skills that ever prevents success or draws a line early in the career. The ceiling is very low for (those) people.”
 
Ernie graduated in 1951 and as a Distinguished Military Graduate through the ROTC program he took a commission in the Army. Eighteen months later he was in Korea, on the front lines. It was enough to discourage thoughts of a military career and he left the Army in 1954, going to work at new station KGEO-TV in Enid, Oklahoma, run by a businessman who previously had operated a store selling television sets and RCA appliances.
 
His military background worried him 35 years later when we talked of the frustrations that many journalists know – that some in the military regard the press as unpatriotic and a threat “to everything they fight for.”  But, he observed, “There is no group that, pound for pound, is any more dedicated, honest, ethical, than people who have dedicated their career to the military. They serve their country in ways that no one else does and they believe very, very deeply in the same thing that journalists believe in.”  
 
In the post-Vietnam era when we talked, Ernie lamented the “profound misunderstanding of what the press did there and what the press didn’t do there and because I know them…it borders on a tragedy that the misunderstanding is so deep.”
 
He saw a similar deterioration in the relations between public safety agencies and the media.  “We covered the cop shop, and you spent a lot of time with police officers” when he started as a radio reporter.  But new beats and industry changes had eroded those relationships. The same thing was true, he thought, with education coverage. But increased coverage of politics was “quite healthy.” 
 
“It was just marvelous” to get into radio and television journalism after the military. “The creativity, the ability to express yourself, the ability to ask questions and then report the answers is something that, to a large extent, is foreign to the military establishment…Not totally but it’s not an integral part of it. It’s now what makes it all work.  And yet it is what makes journalism work.” 
 
The young Ernie was part of a societal change that saw accountability rise as a factor in personal and professional relations.  A speaker at an RTNDA management seminar he attended called it “the biggest change in our society in the last fifty years.”  He called the concept “one of the toughest things I had to learn…I couldn’t just as a news director tell somebody to do something without explaining why.” 
 
The manager of KGEO-TV tried to hire him for promotional work but Ernie admitted he knew nothing about the subject and asked if he could help in the news department. He shot and processed film for the 6 p.m. newscast, the only news program on the station. He worked ten hours a day, six days a week, for $55 a week. A year later he got a call from news director Bob Gamble at KTVY-TV (later WKY-TV and now KFOR-TV) in Oklahoma City who offered him a job as a reporter-photographer. During his first few years, however, he did as much radio as he did TV. 
 
Bob Gamble was Ernie’s first real mentor. “He was a model of what a journalist should be, of what a journalist cares about: both sides, all sides, fairness, balance, accuracy. Get it first but get it right. Care, meticulous discipline. You’re not through until you have checked all the courses, all angles of the story…First of all, the role of the journalist in society, that we were there to serve the community; that you had to perform at a very high level or he wouldn’t accept the product.”
 
Ernie eventually became the WKY-TV news director after Gamble headed to Indianapolis and the eventual elected Presidency of RTNDA in 1966. In his long career at the station, Ernie built on Gamble’s tradition of excellence, particularly in the use of film and aerial news coverage. He had his own Cessna 170 that he would fly to events.  He and his photographer would put the film in a pillow case, fly over the station, and drop the film to the ground for processing while they landed the plane and got back to the station to write the story. 
 
“When I went to work there in 1955,” he recalled for a station retrospective produced for the Oklahoma Historical Society in 2013, “television news was being invented and it continued to be invented the whole time I was there. I was part of that and not many people are blessed to that extent, to the extent that I was blessed coming to work at Channel 4 at the time I did.” 
 
Ernie started going to RTNDA conventions but, “I used to complain bitterly about the people I met there. I thought they were the biggest phonies I had ever met.” Gamble got tired of his carping and told him to get involved or to shut up. When Dallas news director Eddie Barker became the elected President in 1969, Ernie replaced him on the board and immediately his entire perspective changed.
 
“I suddenly found out why they were concerned about the things they were concerned about, and how important those things were.” That turn-around was one reason Ernie always tried to talk to first-timers at the conventions, knowing that many of them felt the way he had felt.
 
He was in the association leadership when RTNDA headquarters moved from Michigan to a Washington office, a sign the organization was maturing and moving into a position where it could work “for greater access to the news for people with camera and microphones.” Retired CBS executive Ted Koop headed the office and was later succeeded by Len Allen, who had retired from NBC.

Ernie was elected RTNDA President in 1976, defeating Pat Stevens, the first woman to run for the office in the organization’s 30-year history.  As President-elect, Ernie had to plan the next national convention and while the convention was a success, he made a big mistake in putting it together.  “I cannot believe I did this, but I did. I did not have a single woman on any panel…and it wasn’t pointed out to me until after the thing was over.” He told his successor, Paul Davis, “You better not make that mistake,” advice he gave to every succeeding elected President. 
 
The incident likely was doubly embarrassing because Ernie had hired Oklahoma’s first female anchor and reporter, Pam Henry, five years earlier.

The experience provoked a major change in the organization. About a dozen women met at the convention to discuss female involvement in the organization and to demand at least one workshop or panel about women and minorities in broadcasting with more women on panels. They also wanted to hear the word “spouse” more often and fewer “old boy” references.  
 
Ernie told one of the women their complaints were “all too justified,” continuing, “We are not in that difficult transition period of trying to encourage more minority participation in an organization which has in the past appeared to reject minorities. It will not be easy.”
 
Ernie met a young black news director from New York at that convention, appointing David Lampel co-chairman of the RTNDA Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. He felt the organization “turned a corner” because of that 1977 convention.
 
The association was challenged during his Presidential term to get into a fight it was reluctant to enter. Board member Karen Klass had suggested RTNDA, as a supporter of equal opportunity for all races, sexes and creeds, should join other groups boycotting states that had not ratified the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Ernie had anticipated such a situation and wrote, “I think RTNDA as a professional organization of journalists would be ill-advised to become involved in a political question like the ERA. We do not endorse political candidates and we should be reluctant to become involved in political issues that do not directly relate to journalism…Is this too political a move from an organization that preaches objectivity and self-imposed fairness in covering public issues?” The organization chose not to determine its convention sites on the basis of states ratifying the ERA.
 
The association was being ethically challenged by government agencies that were asking broadcasters to help them with investigations and intelligence gathering. Ernie wrote, “Admittedly, the journalist is a citizen first, and therefore has some obligations to cooperate with government agencies. And some journalists have argued that by working closely and sharing information with such agencies as the CIA and the FBI, that they have been able to produce better, more factual, and more complete stories. But at what cost?
 
“What happens to the credibility of a journalist known to have collaborated with agencies known to have ‘planted’ false stories? What happens to the credibility of all journalists when some practice such collaboration? How do we prevent the spread of such collaboration from national and international to state and local police and investigative agencies? Then, how do we protect camera crews from injury at the hands of demonstrators who are convinced their film will wind up in the hands of the police?" He concluded, "There may be instances when the request for assistance meets these tests, but just as we abhor government employees posing as journalists, we must carefully consider whether we are not being asked to misrepresent ourselves." 
 
At the end of his term, Ernie recalled that he had started with a pledge to do “everything in my power to put the organization on a firm financial footing.”  And he had done it.  When he left office, the organization had a $56,000 surplus. 
 
Ernie’s career in Oklahoma City had hit a tough spot during the final years he was there so Ernie left WKY to become a street reporter for competitor KWTV. But that wasn’t working out and he knew his days with the station were numbered.  
 
And that’s when RTNDA Managing Director Len Allen died suddenly, on February 5, 1981. His death plunged the organization into an immediate crisis. One month to the day after Allen’s funeral, past President Curtis Beckmann was named chairman of a search committee for Allen’s successor. Seven people were considered “serious candidates.” But President Jack Hogan knew of one person who would be ideal for the job if he could be persuaded to become a candidate. He called Ernie, who asked for 24 hours to think about it and then agreed to take the job. 
 
A month later the committee met to review 34 applications but, as Beckmann recalled, “bells began to ring” as soon as Ernie’s application was read. Schultz was flown to Chicago to meet with the committee and took the job. Rather quickly he learned that the Washington office wasn’t much. In fact, he was one of only three people in a two-room office with one window overlooking an alley and the other facing a brick wall. His job title as Managing Director was upgraded to Executive Vice President a few weeks later to reflect the additional duties of his office—improving the organization’s work in lobbying and in legal activity.
 
Ernie expanded the staff within a year, hiring Bob Vaughn, a longtime Chrysler car show producer, as a professional convention planner, two office staffers, and Communicator (then a print publication) editor Joe Tiernan. He also started planning to move to larger quarters. The association moved into an office at one of Washington’s most prestigious locations, K Street, in 1986.
 
Those were the years when RTNDA was one of the groups pushing for live broadcast coverage of the House and Senate, of pushing for open courtrooms in the states, and fighting to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine. Ernie and the association were in the middle of all of those efforts. 
 
Early in 1982, RTNDA began moving to change the perception that it was an organization only for those in radio and television stations and networks. It notified the National Cable Television Association to let it know what the organization could do for people doing news on cable. The story also was taken to the Low Power Television Conference in Washington, attended by several thousand people interested in investing in low power TV. 
 
Ernie Schultz wrote, "The purpose of these efforts...is to make sure everyone knows that RTNDA is ready to serve everyone doing electronic news, no matter what the medium. There have been a few ‘trial marriages’ between radio stations and cable companies.  No one knows for sure what the final mix of the media will be.  There may be no final form.  The proliferation of ways to deliver information may go on for years.  But some things don't change. And RTNDA is interested in preventing the cable owner or the LPTV station manager from making the mistake of re-inventing the wheel.
 
“Hiring amateurs to present news on the new media can be disastrous to the owner and to the credibility of all electronic news. Broadcasters are familiar with the pitfalls of provoking libel suits, violating rules, regulations and guidelines about police records or cameras in the courtroom.  It would be tragic if the new media had to learn the hard way. Electronic journalists are now in the midst of a struggle to free themselves from government regulations which amount to a form of censorship. Only with a truly professional news product can we hope to win that struggle."
 
It was the beginning of regular efforts by the association to be more meaningful in a changing world of electronic communications. The effort that started with Ernie Schultz in 1982 is why the organization is called the Radio Television Digital News Association today.
 
A new effort by RTNDA to keep in closer touch with its members debuted April 17, 1984: “intercom." Ernie wrote in the lead article, "One of the more frustrating things about making the move from broadcast news to the RTNDA national office was the tremendous sacrifice in the ability to communicate." In the radio and television stations, it was a matter of stepping into a booth and flipping a switch. But he was bothered that something he might write for the monthly magazine might not be seen until six weeks later. intercom would solve that problem. 
 
The four-page publication, with three holes punched so recipients could save it in notebooks or binders, also reported Senator Bob Packwood (R-Oregon) planned to call for a committee vote on his Freedom of Expression bill – eliminating the Fairness Doctrine – May 8th. A so-called deregulation bill was faintly alive in the House, a proposal retaining the Fairness Doctrine, codifying the personal attack and political editorial rules, and quantifying the amount of informational programming television stations had to present.  
 
The irritating, nagging, lingering presence of the Fairness Doctrine was on Ernie's mind when he spoke to the Media Institute in Washington, D.C, May 18, 1986. A recent survey of association members showed the one thing they would like to see RTNDA achieve above all else was an end to government regulation of the content of broadcast news and full First Amendment equality with print journalists.  
 
"The rationale for the Fairness Doctrine is based upon two assumptions, both widely accepted and both false," he told the Institute. The FCC already had determined the Fairness Doctrine did not produce more and better coverage of controversial issues than would happen without it.  And the assumption that the scarcity of frequencies required the doctrine to maintain a proper level of public service.  
 
"How scarce are frequencies?" Schultz asked. “More than 11,300 radio and television stations were on the air.  More than 9,700 daily and weekly newspapers were being published. There are a finite number of frequencies, but there is also a finite amount of newsprint.  Most people cannot afford to start or buy either. Newspapers enjoy a tremendous subsidy from the government in the form of special postal rates, but they have no public trustee obligations.”
 
But he admitted the consensus among those fighting passage was that it would pass anyway. Their best bet would be in a presidential veto which "even if overridden by both houses of Congress, would rest in its clear demonstration to a reviewing court that the executive branch opposes the doctrine." 
 
He went on, “Either the decision will be made to reinforce the idea of government control over broadcast news, with the clear danger of thus paving the way for an increase of such controls, perhaps over newer forms of electronic media; or the decision will be made to move closer to the print model and let broadcast journalists make editorial decisions with the same freedom their print colleagues have.” 
 
RTNDA headed to its fortieth-anniversary convention in Salt Lake City a far different organization than it had been at 30. Its influence in communications and congressional circles was at an all-time high. Internally, it had become a stronger organization for its members.  It had been quite a year. It was time to celebrate, time to take the next big step into the future. 
 
In August, Television & Radio Age looked back on the enormous progress the organization had made in its past seven years:
 
At age 33, it was a part-time operation headquartered by happenstance in East Lansing, Mich.," the magazine wrote, "Rob Downey, executive secretary for 25 years, was a professor at Michigan State University and a radio news director there. The association's Washington activities were conducted through its small, part-time capital office.      
 
Today, RTNDA – going through its midlife transition with a budget of more than $1 million – will ask its membership in October to vote on establishing a full-time presidency, has just moved into new quarters in the high-rent district of the capital, is expanding its full-time staff from six to eight, represents cable news directors as well as broadcasters in its membership of over 3,000 and has become a major player in a coalition of First Amendment lobbyists.
 
RTNDA at 40 could look to its recent role in getting broadcast coverage in both houses of Congress, helping open courtrooms in 43 states to electronic coverage, developing continuing education programs through 36 regional meetings each year, and a growing involvement in improving journalism education.
 
The magazine listed Ernie's busy agenda of pending issues: the need for new frequency allocations, the expected increased demand for pool coverage resulting from increased satellite newsgathering capabilities which would draw local stations to national events, minority employment, access to major sporting events, proposed legislation outlawing newsroom monitoring of police frequencies, even problems associated with federal rules on drivers of commercial trucks, which affected drivers of SNG trucks. 
 
It was a boom time for RTNDA, said the article. But the association picked its fights carefully, focusing on First Amendment and newsgathering issues, but steering clear of issues such as "must-carry." Schultz told the magazine RTNDA's resources were too limited to get into that fight. It was a ball better carried by the National Association of Broadcasters. RTNDA also faced the awkward situation of having members who were broadcasters and who were involved in cable. It needed to steer clear of a rivalry between cable and broadcasters that was becoming more bitter.
 
The verdict of the membership on creating a full-time Presidency came in late October. Yes. 573-65.  
 
Now the search for that person began. Ernie became the acting President until a final decision could be made on the permanent President. Schultz was considered a leading candidate. 
The RTNDA board voted December 6 to make Ernie Schultz the organization's first full-time President. Although a large number of potential candidates had been contacted, Schultz had quickly become the only viable candidate. Many of those contacted told the search committee they would apply only if Schultz was not interested in the job. Ernie called the board's confidence in him "more important than they will ever know." 
 
“No one person, elected or full-time, no matter how experienced or well qualified, can single-handedly realize the potential of our association. The many accomplishments of RTNDA have always been and always will be the result of teamwork: members, directors, officers and staff all working together….The challenges that face us have never been greater.  The emphasis on the bottom line in our business presents an opportunity for our association to demonstrate the real value of good journalism practices and how RTNDA contributes to those practices.”
 
The board was prepared to offer Schultz a salary of $100,000 a year with his new title. But Schultz refused to take that much money, questioning whether the organization could afford that kind of salary. 
 
The next two years saw the formation of the first student chapters, the final end of the Fairness Doctrine, advocacy efforts on behalf of the new technology of satellite news gathering, more efforts to open Congress and the courts to broadcast news coverage, a re-write of the association ethics code, and questions about the impact on electronic news gathering by something called high-definition television, which Ernie thought was “a certainty.”
 
Congress tried in 1987 to codify the Fairness Doctrine but President Reagan vetoed the bill. Ernie commented, “The most recent battle...should never have been fought." Schultz said the doctrine was defeated because of the "steadfast determination of President Reagan not to accept a regulation he knew to be bad public policy." But he warned doctrine opponents to remain watchful:
 
“Broadcasters cannot yet celebrate a final victory. The doctrine has powerful supporters in both houses of Congress. It should come as no surprise if the Fairness Doctrine reappears in some form in the next session. In the meantime, broadcast journalists should continue to do what they have always done – cover the news fairly, accurately, and as completely as possible by their own personal and professional standards. 
 
On March 24, 1988, the FCC said it was "neither necessary nor desirable" to revisit its August decision abolishing the Fairness Doctrine.  It denied reconsideration petitions from pro-doctrine groups. It also turned its back on those who were asking the FCC to extend its Fairness Doctrine abolition to include the "personal attack" and "political editorial" rules.
 
The death of the Fairness Doctrine and deregulation of broadcasting unfortunately has not served the interests of broadcast journalism well. But 30 years ago, not even Ernie Schultz could have anticipated how things would play out and the impact it would have on the organization.
 
Hours before the opening session of the 1988 RTNDA convention in Las Vegas, Ernie and I were walking into the convention hall to check on final arrangements – I was the chairman-elect and thus the convention producer – when he turned to me and noted he had always worked with other Presidents and Chairmen with one primary rule in mind: No surprises. What he told me next was beyond surprise. It was stunning.   
 
Ernie was going to announce his resignation at the Sunday morning post-convention board meeting.  But he swore me to secrecy, saying any word of his resignation before Sunday would focus publicity on him instead of on the convention where it belonged. The RTNDA staff, directors and membership were unaware of the development. When one association leader asked me during the convention if any important business was to be conducted at the Sunday meeting, which normally was mostly a formality, I could only say, "I think you'll want to be there."
 
As the Sunday morning post-convention board meeting was winding down I turned to Ernie and whispered, "Are you sure you still want to do this?" When he said yes, I told the board, "We have one final item of business."  And Ernie Schultz shocked the board with his resignation as RTNDA President.  
 
"It's the best job in journalism," he said, "but it is time for RTNDA to find a new president. The association needs fresh ideas and fresh leadership to meet a new set of financial challenges.  
 
“It's not unusual to find in dynamic, growing, changing associations that the chief operating officers have a certain life span. After so long a time, they have contributed everything they have to give. I have reached that point. RTNDA is strong and respected. Our financial position is firm. We have always had and will always have dedicated officers and board members. And the staff is second to none.”
 
No firm date for his exit. His resignation would "become effective whenever my successor has been chosen and a smooth and complete transition has been effected."  
 
Stunned silence greeted the announcement. 
 
Ernie remained at his desk in Washington throughout the search for his successor, doing his job as usual. Some advice, based on that long-ago experience, went from Schultz to Chairman-elect Tom Bier: “Be sure you have women and minorities on your program, beware of putting vendors on panels unless you put all the competing vendors on the panel, and be sure that your radio and TV program people establish clearly with all speakers what, if anything, RTNDA will be providing in the way of transportation, lodging and/or registration. NAB pays nothing."   
 
He advised Bier to be prepared to take the heat on an unpopular decision he encouraged Bier to make. “Consider scrapping the spouse program. You will have to take some heat, but you will have to take heat anyway because you simply cannot please them. Making spouses happy does not appear anywhere among the goals of the association. Why not decide that the convention is for journalists, period?  That may be easier said than done, but think about it.”
 
There was a program for spouses at the Kansas City convention in 1989 but it soon disappeared.
 
Ernie could not think of anything he would rather have done than be in broadcast journalism. He loved to fly but doubted he could make a living as a pilot because of some visual problems. He loved computers but didn’t think he could make a living with computers because there were a lot of people who were a lot better with than he was.
 
“You’re supposed to bloom where you’re planted and I think I somehow stumbled into the right field,” he said in one of his last days in his office. 
 
After leaving RTNDA, Ernie became the communications director for then-Oklahoma Congressman Don Nickles, who would later represent the state in the U.S. Senate, and stayed there until retiring. He and his wife Teddy then returned to Oklahoma.  
 
Many of those who worked with Ernie stay in touch with each other with holiday emails. The comments from the “geezers” as we call ourselves reflect why we remember him so fondly and why he is such a towering figure in the association’s history, comments such as: “kind, mentor, genuine and thoughtful, no pretense, straight shooter, incredibly classy.”   
 
And, “an important force (who) built the foundation of our organization.”