Steve Bell · 2004
By Fred Woodress
Steve Bell has been a broadcaster in the U.S. and overseas all his adult life. Bell, who now is a Professor of Telecommunications and Endowed Chair Emeritus at Ball State University, has traveled with presidents, interviewed heads of state and was once captured at gunpoint with his camera crew while serving as a Vietnam war correspondent in Cambodia.
He’s worked with or competed against all three of America’s nightly TV news anchors. In his early days with WOW-TV, Omaha, as the evening anchor, he competed against a young Tom Brokaw, the morning news anchor for the Omaha NBC station.
Bell said Dan Rather used to come to their CBS station to develop his film while covering presidential visits to the strategic air command in Nebraska. When Bell became a White House correspondent for ABC News, his CBS competitor was Rather. He was colleague of Peter Jennings at ABC.
Stephen Scott Bell grew up in Oskoloosa, Iowa. His early ambition was to be a football coach and teacher, but he injured his ankle and had to change his life’s goal. That’s when he became interested in broadcasting.
While a student at Iowa’s Central College, KBOE radio in Oskoloosa needed someone to run the 250-watt station on Sundays. “That was my job. I did news, farm reports and everything else since I was the only person on duty,” laughed Bell. “I also filled in for others during vacations.” He worked in radio the next three years, helping to pay expenses while in college.
After graduation from Central with a history major and minors in political science and economics, Steve Bell joined WOI radio/TV, Ames, Iowa, which gave him his first TV experience.
During his year on that job he covered everything from local politics to an Iowa visit by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Then he decided graduate work in journalism would further his career. He was accepted in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism program, where his teacher and inspiration was Curtis MacDougall, author of the definitive textbook in journalism. “I was one of Mac’s boys. I also worked part time as a news writer for WGN radio, in Chicago.
With a Northwestern MSJ degree with honors and five years previous broadcasting experience, Bell went to work for WOW-TV, the CBS affiliate in Omaha, where he advanced to the evening news anchor position. His next career move was to WNEW radio in New York City, where he worked as a news anchor and reporter.
In 1967 Bell began his network career with ABC radio in New Your. During that period, radio news people had just begun to use tape recorders for play-by-play descriptions of breaking news stories. His live-to-tape coverage of the Newark riots was described by Variety as “one of the most moving and chilling examples yet of on-the-scene reporting.
Bell also covered the East Harlem riots, anti-war protests in Washington, the assassination and funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was on the scene when Senator Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968.
Bell returned to TV when he volunteered to go to Vietnam as a war correspondent. “Over there we did both radio and television.” He recalled that the ABC news people who didn’t know him previously “were surprised at how well that radio guy did in covering television. They didn’t know I had earlier TV experience.”
Steve is married to his high school sweetheart, Joyce Dillavou Bell. He took his wife and tow young daughters with him to Asia in 1970. “My family lived in Hong Kong while I reported the Vietnam War. I would get leaves to visit them, and they would come to Saigon and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to visit me.”
Ted Koppel, who also came to TV from radio, was ABC’s Hong Kong bureau chief at the time. Bell said his daughters and the two older Koppel girls were good friends during that period and his long-time friendship with Koppel began then.
In 1970 while on assignment in Cambodia, he and his camera crew were captured by the Viet Cong and held at gunpoint but later released. Bell still managed to record the experience. He said that the toughest part of being a war correspondent was “keeping your sensitivity” and not becoming jaded to what was transpiring in the coverage.
Bell returned from Asia for a year as Southern correspondent and Atlanta ABC bureau chief, covering civil rights and the George Wallace presidential campaign. In 1972, Bell returned to Asia as Hong Kong bureau chief and also reported extensively from the People’s Republic of China. Curing that period, he reported the Vietnam cease-fire, the POW release at Hanoi, the Laos war and martial law in the Philippines. In 1973, he and Koppel took a two month assignment to write and co-anchor a China documentary.
Bell was reassigned to the states as a White House correspondent in 1974 during a historic news making time in Washington – Watergate, the Nixon resignation and the Ford administration.
He joined ABC’s “Good Morning America,” program for its initial broadcast in 1975. It was then hosted by David Hartmann, with Steve Bell as the original news anchor from Washington. For 11 years, he regularly interviewed news makers and reported from the scene of major news events, including presidential elections and overseas trips of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. He also covered the historic Sadat visit to Israel.
In 1985, on the 10th anniversary of the end of the war, Steve Bell filed the first live satellite reports from Vietnam for ABC.
During President Reagan’s two inaugurations, he was emcee for the nation’s veterans organizations’ banquet-balls with recognition given to Medal of Honor recipients as special guests. At the Veterans Day Ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery during the first Bush presidency, Bell was emcee with former President George Bush, and also with Colin Powell and Dick Cheney on two other occasions.
When Bell left ABC, he became news anchor for KYW-TV, Philadelphia, and anchored news briefs for the USA Cable Network. Subsequently, he was selected as the first Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Professor of Telecommunications at Ball State University. Based on his extensive journalism background, Professor Bell teaches one course without a textbook. He teaches this course, entitled “Critical Issues in the News” required of all new majors, by assigning reading from the online versions of the New York Times and the Washington Post online. Students even get class assignments form a web page: www.bsu.edu/web/sbell/tcom288.
In another class, “Producing Television News,” students learn to be producers, writers, reporters, news anchors, entertainment commentators, sports and weather casters. Each Wednesday evening at 9:00, Muncie’s viewers on Comcast Cable can watch Bell’s students deliver 30 minutes of news, sports, weather and entertainment on channel 43 during both fall and spring semesters.
A popular professor with the students, Bell received the Mortar Board Outstanding Faculty Award in 1998.
Steve Bell also contributes to the community. He moderates election debates and election night coverage on the campus radio station, WBST, and writes, produces and hosts public affairs programs on the Ball State PBS station, WIPB-TV. He chairs community forums and writes op-ed pieces for The Star-Press of Muncie. He is also an elder in the Presbyterian Church.
Since 1998, he has been a director and lecturer for The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, a forum for several hundred students from all over the U.S. While with ABC he lectured in all parts of the nation and still goes out on the lecture circuit. He has appeared as a panelist or moderator on forums in Taiwan, Switzerland, Korea and China, as well as in the United States. He was host/editor for four live distance education broadcasts for 250,000 students nationwide on the subject, “Lessons Learned for the Holocaust and Global Genocide.”
In 1996 he returned to Vietnam with a Ball State group and produced, directed and narrated the documentary, “Vietnam: Revolution to Evolution.” It was aired on WIPB-TV and was syndicated to other PBS stations.
Bell has won a number of national awards, including Emmy Awards, an Overseas Press Club Award (reporting). Headliner’s Award (documentary), Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University and honorary degrees from Central College, St. Anselm College and The George Washington University.
Bell says he likes teaching because, “the kids keep you young.” When he teaches, he says he can’t help thinking about his Central College history teacher, Laura Names who inspired him as a young student. In the broadcast field, he said “Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds were inspirations for all of us younger guys at ABC in Washington.”
Typical of Steve Bell is the quote at the end of biography in Who’s Who in America: “As an journalist, the older I get, the less inclined I am to play God.”