For nearly a dozen years, viewers of ABC’s “Good Morning America” grew comfortable hearing Steve Bell’s voice and seeing his face appear from inside a television prop on the show’s New York set, next to hosts David Hartman and Joan Lunden.
When Hartman would pitch to Bell in Washington, D.C., for news headlines or updates, Bell would say “good morning, David,” and launch into the story of the hour or day. Developments in the Middle East then, as now, were momentous. And the time difference between the Middle East and the East Coast meant Bell had a chance to report major news stories of the time.
One such event was the failed attempt in the spring of 1980 to rescue 52 Americans hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. A mission dubbed Operation Eagle Claw was intended to rescue them — the mission, however, failed.
“I was in New York subbing for David when I got a 3 a.m. phone call. I rushed to the studio to help plan our special reporting,” Bell recalled. “With GMA and ABC news staffs all working together, we threw away the entire day’s original show script and began calling government leaders in the middle of the night to ask them to do interviews.
“As a result, our coverage began with President Carter, live from the White House, and included the first interview with Iran’s foreign minister, promising the hostages would not be mistreated despite the failed rescue attempt.”
The crew had also gathered the parents of a hostage, plus several diplomats, Middle East subject matter experts and various members of Congress, all of whom spoke about the situation unfolding half a world away.
“I did most of the interviews without a script, while the producers communicated on the IFB (a monitor and cue system worn in the ear and used in broadcasting) to lead me from one segment to another. Meanwhile, the news team in Washington produced segments that pulled it all together.
“It was truly a team effort and one of my most memorable and rewarding days as a journalist.”
The news was serious business, and perhaps no one knew that better than Bell, who traveled to war zones and back again, during his time with ABC. In Cambodia in 1970, as part of his assignment covering the Vietnam War, Bell learned of the deaths of some 20 fellow journalists from news outlets around the world. And Bell and his crew came close to joining the ranks of the fallen, when the group was taken hostage and interrogated by Viet Cong soldiers. Bell never learned why, but their time as captives was inexplicably short — the group was released after a few hours.
Despite the weight and responsibility of their posts, Bell said GMA team members worked to have fun when they could.
“At the end of most newscasts, David and I would banter back and forth, often about my love affair with the Washington Redskins. It was never scripted, just friends talking. The first time I mentioned the Redskins on air, both David and I worried that people who rooted for other teams would be upset. But David would always take the opposing team’s side, and viewers loved it.”
The banter and friendship lasted long past the time Bell and Hartman left the air, and Bell credits that in part to the connection the show made with viewers.
“Once GMA was established, it was not unusual to have people come up to us in airports, hotels, wherever, and talk about their families as if we were a part of them. And we were, because we were a part of viewers’ daily lives and routines.” He, Hartman and Lunden, and the entire GMA staff, were united in providing a show that was worthy of being in millions of homes.
“We developed great relationships, both on-air and off, and remain friends to this day,” he said. “I’m very blessed.”