Cigars in the Newsroom

Cigars are a hot story with local TV newscasters.
| By Alejandro Benes | From Danny DeVito, Winter 96

This week, John Harter's assignment is to sit behind the wheel of a dark-blue BMW Z3. It's a two-seat roadster, the type Pierce Brosnan drove as James Bond in Golden Eye. Harter, a third-generation Washingtonian, is enjoying the ride through the nation's capital with the top down, but he is also doing a road test of the car, on which he will report to the viewers of WJLA-TV's news sometime in the near future. You can tell that Harter likes this car. It's a convertible with plenty of leg room, and it offers the perfect occasion to smoke a Paul Garmirian No. 2.

Harter, who smoked a pipe before moving exclusively to cigars, has been doing road tests as a regular feature for 21 years and says he has accepted the risks. "Boy, I've ruined many a suit with pipe ashes, but never burned anything with cigars," he says with a laugh, but adds that cigars do more than just avoid putting a hole in your clothes.

"I do five minutes of business news every day, and a package that I shoot outside. I'm working 12 hours a day; most reporters just do a story. I'm under a lot of pressure," Harter says. "It does help me relax to smoke a cigar, no doubt about it. I enjoy the pressure. It gives you a sort of high, too, but you've got to come down off of it."

Harter is among a large number of local news reporters who turn to cigars for a break from hectic days. Many don't want to talk publicly about smoking cigars out of concern for viewer reaction. Others were happy to relate how a cigar can fit in quite nicely with the time they spend getting to the story or in helping them relax after they go off the air.

"If I had a cigar going, I'd take it in there on the set with me and just put it on a little table there behind the set," says Dave Ward, a 30-year veteran anchorman of KTRK-TV's newscasts in Houston. "There was one night we were on the air," he recalls of one newscast in the late 1960s, "and the cigar was smoking a little bit more than usual and here's this curl of cigar smoke curling up in the air right beside me. The director saw it, and the general manager told me the next day, 'Ward, don't take no cigars in there on the set anymore.' " Ward says the no-smoking policy now applies to the entire station.

Ward is fond of Houston's own Texan Cigar Co. smokes, which he says are available only from the factory and go for about $1.30 each. He now smokes fewer cigars, about nine a week, than he used to enjoy.

For investigative reporter Chuck Goudie of Chicago's WLS-TV, and one of his regular cameramen, Steve Erwin, the time to enjoy a cigar is in the crew car--the one that no one else wants to use après cigar--on the way to a story.

"At the end of a day," Goudie says, "especially on the road, if I'm traveling with Steve Erwin, we'll knock off after the late news or whatever. We'll go have dinner and a cigar or go have a cocktail and a cigar. For the last few months I've been smoking a cigar called Havana Sunrise. New. I found it by accident when I was covering the ValuJet crash," he recalls. "[The company] happened to have kind of a showroom on Tamiami Trail, which was the road we took to the Everglades to cover that crash. We stopped by there, had never heard of this outfit before, and they sent us to their rolling facility in [Miami's] Little Havana. We went there and this place was just absolutely incredible. It's brand new. You see these 40 Cuban guys hand-rolling cigars. They must've sunk a lot of money into the place. So, I've been ordering from them for the last couple of months," says Goudie, whose opinion of the Cuban cigars he used to smoke on assignment overseas is that now they are just too pricey.

For others, it's a question of availability. "If I could get Cuban cigars, I would be delighted to smoke nothing but Cohiba Robustos, but who wouldn't?" says Tony Guida, former anchor and reporter for WCBS-TV in New York City and host of the station's public affairs show, "Sunday Edition." Guida, one of the seven WCBS reporters and anchors who were released by the station during a purge in early October, usually saves time after dinner to relax with a Dominican Romeo y Julieta Vintage No.2.

On nights when he has to work late, Guida sometimes finds himself without a cigar and very much wanting one. Fortunately, there are enough venues in New York to satisfy the desire. "I go a lot to Ponte's down just below Canal Street on the West Side because, a) it's a lovely place to eat and the food is good and, b) the bar area is one of the most comfortable settings I've ever seen in a restaurant." Talking about the restaurant reminds him of an eye-opening cigar experience he had there.

"I hadn't been in there in a long, long time, and last summer I was coming back from a story; I was working at night. I'm driving back into the city and it's about 9 o'clock and I'm coming up the West Side Highway and I'm thinking, 'Gee, I'd like to have a cigar.' I don't have any cigars and the stores are closed. As I'm going up by Desbrosses [Street], I see Ponte's and I say, 'They'll have a cigar.' I pull over, go inside, go upstairs to the second floor, which is where the restaurant is and the bar, ask 'em if they've got a cigar. The guy pulls out a wonderful humidor from behind the bar, opens it up, and he's got like four or five different kinds in there. There's some Avos, there's some Fonsecas," Guida recalls, warming to his story.

"So I grab a Fonseca and it's like I'm a guy comin' out of the desert dying for a glass of water. I grab the Fonseca, I clip off the end, I'm lighting the thing and I say, 'How much is this thing?' He says, 'Twenty dollars.' I said, 'What! Are you crazy? Twenty dollars!' I said, 'This is a four-dollar cigar.' The guy looks at me like I'm, you know, like I'm from Mars and I have to give him $20. So, what a schmuck, I light the cigar before I ask. I've told Joe [Ponte, the owner of Ponte's] that story and he laughs, the son of a bitch. He says, 'I don't understand why they're charging so much and getting away with it.' Since then he's given me a number of cigars to make up for that night, but he gets a big laugh out of that. That I was fleeced like a tourist. Twenty dollars for a Fonseca at a bar!"

Reggie Harris, a reporter who was also caught up in the WCBS shake-up, usually reserves most of his enjoyment of his preferred Thomas Hinds and Cuban Montecristo No. 4s for after work, with his wife, Diane. There are occasions, though, when Harris is out on a story and a cigar would be just right while waiting for something newsworthy to happen.

"During the [TWA] Flight 800 coverage, we were out at JFK [airport in New York] in the hotel where the families were staying for weeks, and Chris Jones from Fox was smoking a cigar and I thought it looked really good," Harris recalls. "We were waiting for the next statement or something to happen. He offered me his last cigar and I wanted it, but I knew I was going home soon and he was going to be out there all night, so I didn't take it from him."

Not surprisingly, in the frantic news market that is New York, Harris and Guida had never shared a cigar moment until the photo shoot for this article. "We have exchanged cigars," Harris says, remembering that he once gave Guida a new Duke Ellington CD that he had come across (Guida is a big Ellington fan). "And I told him he had to give me a cigar. I forget what he gave me, but it was good," Harris says, laughing.

Dick Oliver, a veteran New York reporter who started in print, left WCBS in 1988 and has since been working for WNYW's morning show. Oliver began smoking cigars to enhance, shall we say, his credibility, and now smokes three a day.

"I quit cigarettes in 1965 in favor of candy, which didn't work too good for my health or my weight. Then, when I was going to Vietnam [as a reporter], because I have such a baby face, I started sticking cigars in my face and I enjoyed them," Oliver recounts. "First were the cigarillos with the wood tips on them, I recall, and it made me look like a tough guy, like Winston Churchill, a baby-faced Winston Churchill. I smoked cigars like that throughout Vietnam. When I came back and started working for the [New York] Daily News, I really began to love cigars. I started out with the cigars I'm smoking today, Don Diego Lonsdales. They're getting very rare, though."

If there's one station at which cigars have made inroads, it is KTVU in Oakland, California. Among other journalists who smoke cigars are Brian Copeland and Randy Shandobil. When he is not doing stand-up comedy, Copeland appears on "Mornings on 2" and does commentary and celebrity interviews. He says he generally smokes when he writes, preferring Macanudo Portofinos, about three a week. He says that he started smoking in the eighth grade.

"I got hooked on 'Maverick' reruns, and Bret and Bart Maverick always smoked cigars and I thought it was cool," Copeland says. "So, when my mother had my baby sister when I was in the eighth grade, I bought a bunch of cigars, Dutch Masters, to give out 'cause my little sister was born. I smoked 'em and liked 'em. They stank," he says with a laugh. "They really stunk the place up. That's how I started."

Shandobil, a KTVU reporter for 16 years, is partial to Avo, CAO, Macanudo, Maya, Vueltabajo and Santa Rosa, and enjoys the collegiality cigars have created at his station.

"It's hard to find the time at work to enjoy a cigar," he says, but that doesn't stop him from enjoying cigars with his friends from the office. "We'll get together and exchange brands and recommendations, and if we come back from someplace, like I came back from Jamaica and brought some cigars, we'll trade."

Fred Kalil and Randy Waters, sports anchors and reporters at Atlanta's WXIA, have also exchanged cigars, but never smoked them together, mostly because of scheduling conflicts. Waters notes that he enjoys a cigar most when talking sports with friends. "Most of 'em are huge college basketball or football fans, and when you're sitting around talking it just seems to add to the enjoyment of the conversation."

Kalil, who recently went on a driving trip to Canada with his wife, says that although he and Waters have never smoked cigars together, "Randy will bring me one if he's been out and I'm gonna take him one of the you-know-whats that I just got," Kalil says, referring to a cigar of a certain Caribbean origin available in a country to the north of the United States. When he is home, Kalil smokes less, but sees his family more.

"You can't smoke at work, obviously. You know, there's just no place to smoke. And in our business we're hanging around covering sports all day long. And I work nights so I don't get home until after midnight," Kalil says. "There's no time, and in the summer I wanna get up and play with the kids and hang out with them." So he tries to spend about an hour and a half midday on Thursday and Friday at his favorite cigar store.

Miami's Tony Segreto, the anchor of WTVJ-NBC's evening news and sports, finds cigars are no trouble at all. In south Florida he has a lot of options, thanks to a Latin culture that more readily accepts cigar smoking.

"I'll give you a perfect example," Segreto says. "I've tried a lot of different cigars. There are times when I'll go on the Internet and I'm talking with people and we'll talk cigars and they're talking to me from Montana, Washington, D.C., Washington state, various parts of the country, and the demand for cigars is higher than the supply. And I listen to these people--they can't get this, they can't get that. We don't experience that in south Florida when you consider that the majority of cigars are Dominican and Nicaraguan or Honduran. Everything seems to be here," he says without bragging.

Segreto has a new favorite. "I've found something that I've fallen in love with and it's not even on the market yet," he says. "I've been smoking it for three months. It's the most delicious cigar I've ever had and the only way I'm able to have it is if I'm here. Havana Republic. It is as close to the perfect cigar for me, for my taste, as I've ever had." Segreto, who grew up watching one of his Italian uncles enjoy a cigar after Sunday family meals, also enjoys Padron Aniversarios, La Gloria Cubanas and Macabis.

Down in Texas, Ashleigh Banfield gets up each morning at 3:30 to appear on KDFW's morning news in Dallas. Banfield is a little more aware then some of her fellow journalists of how her viewers might react to her newfound taste for cigars, but her concern is tempered by the fact that the cigar scene in Dallas is growing.

"It's big. Bigger and bigger every day," says Banfield, a Canadian native, saying that a lot of people smoke cigars because it's trendy. "It's very much an image-boosting habit for a lot of people here, I think." Yet she is still a bit reticent about too much cigar exposure. "I'm a public figure here; who knows how some people will take it." (She declined to be photographed for this article.)

Banfield, who began anchoring in Dallas about a year ago, took up cigars at about the same time as an alternative to cigarettes and says she smokes them only "socially," generally after dinner. She also looks forward to her visits back home.

"It's nice when I go home to Canada; I can get a Cuban cigar. But here in the U.S., [I'll smoke] whatever's recommended as long as it's small," she says. "I don't like big stogies. I don't like to smoke them for very long, just for a half-hour."

Jess Atkinson, a feature reporter for Washington, D.C.'s WRC, likes big cigars, three or four double coronas a week, with the La Gloria Cubana Soberano his current favorite. He just received four boxes shipped to his home in Annapolis, Maryland, where he enjoys a cigar while walking down Main Street or sitting by the city dock with a cup of coffee, watching the boats turn in "Ego Alley," where people show off their boats. Atkinson is pretty philosophical about what he gets out of cigars.

"At the end of the day, if the day's going pretty well, it's nice to have one," he says. But a cigar is also good for "when there's a lot of stress and you haven't done so hot and you need to forget about it for an hour and a half. Every once in a while [I'll smoke] when I'm out on a shoot. For me, being out in the field is kind of a blessing because you can get outside and smoke a cigar."

Before becoming a TV sports reporter covering the Washington Redskins, Atkinson played in the National Football League with the New England Patriots, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, the Redskins and, very briefly, for the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. "I was cut seven times by six different teams. So, I found my way around the NFL a little bit," he says with a chuckle.

"I played one Monday night for the Colts," he recalls. "[Colts coach] Ron Meyer called me up and said, 'Jess, how ya doin'?' I said, 'Fine, Ray.' I lasted five days," he says, laughing over his confusion of the Colts coach with legendary De Paul University basketball coach Ray Meyer. "I tell ya, if I had been a smoker when I was kicking, it's the perfect thing for a kicker," Atkinson says, noting that a cigar makes a fitting ending to a kicker's day whether it's been a good one or not. "That, in a nutshell, is a kicker's life."

For Gerald Kolpan, a feature reporter at Philadelphia's WTXF who says he smokes one cigar a day "in a good week," being in the news business has led to many good cigar experiences. He and some colleagues decided that the best way to get to smoke cigars was to set aside the time.

"It's called 'The First Wednesday Cigar Club.' There're only two positions in this club: the president, who I am, and a bag man. The bag man is the guy who goes to Holt's [cigar store in Philadelphia] and pays for the cigars, and then you pay him for the cigars. We only have two rules: you pay for your food and drink and you take all your fights outside. This is at the Pen and Pencil Club, which is the oldest press club in the United States of America. We give [Holt's] the amount of money we want to spend per person, then we call it in and let them make the decisions. They make up a package and we pick it up. There's two cigars per guy."

Kolpan, who likes Avos, Ashton Cabinets and Holt's house brand, has reported his share of stories about the surge in cigar smoking and cigar dinners. "I did a story the day Dunkin' Donuts banned smoking," he recalls, "which I did with cigar in hand. I have been seen on the air periodically with a cigar in my hand. Of course, the station doesn't like to do too much of that because then they're seen as encouraging what some people would consider to be not a very good habit, and as we know anything done to excess is bad."

Political reporter Scott Talan doesn't have much time to enjoy more than five or so cigars a week, much less smoke to excess.

"I barely have time for lunch. In the daytime I don't even have time to smoke. It's like after hours, after work, weekends," says Talan of KCPM in Chico, California. He received some on-the-job training for his reporter post when he served as mayor of Lafayette, California, at the age of 29. "What I first started smoking cigars, I started hearing about these smaller cigars and I said, 'Well, who would ever want to smoke those?' But now I find with my time constraints that a smaller, shorter cigar is the way to go."

Talan likes the robusto-sized Punch, Partagas and Hoyo de Monterrey, which he tends to smoke around midnight. "It allows me to both relax and focus," he says. "You're almost doing nothing, but at the same time you're doing something very conscious, the act of smoking, that clears everything away."

Washington's John Harter agrees, adding that cigars make an otherwise routine event a little bit special. "Last night, a producer who sits next to me, who's a friend, had a really tough day," Harter recalls. "He says, 'Will you stop and have a drink with me? I just want to talk.' So, we went to a place on Connecticut Avenue, where another producer joined us. One smokes cigarettes and the other one doesn't smoke, and I broke out some cigars. Each had a cigar and it really made that pause better. You can't describe why, but it really did."

Alejandro Benes is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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