If you were anywhere near a TV set on Jan. 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, chances are you learned the news of the tragedy from NBC News correspondent John Palmer. With NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw temporarily unavailable that afternoon, it was Palmer, the newsreader for Today, who broke in with a special report and stayed with the story for hours as it unfolded.
In his recently published posthumous memoir, Newscatcher (KCM Publishing), Palmer recalls arriving at midnight at his Westchester home after that long day on the air. A tray of food was left on his front porch by a neighbor with a note that read: "Watched you on television hour after hour on this tragic day and I know you didn't have time to cry like the rest of us. Enjoy your dinner." Palmer said he sat down on the porch steps and wept, "after one of the most painful days of my career."
Such humanity was the defining characteristic of Palmer, who died at the age of 77 on Aug. 3, 2013. Fortunately, Newscatcher was largely completed before his health failed. The book details his long and often action-packed career. Family members read passages of the manuscript to him during his final days. It became a source of comfort for them, and now it can be shared with viewers who for decades looked to Palmer as a trusted voice in uncertain times.
Palmer grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., where he started his career as a local radio announcer. His demeanor as a steady, pleasant southern gentleman served him well as a correspondent covering the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Middle East turmoil in the '70s and three presidential administrations. "Every interview he did was like sitting down on the back porch just chatting with someone over some ice tea," says CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan, who is married to Palmer's oldest daughter Molly, a producer for Today. "That's the way he approached it. He was kind and he could still ask the tough questions without coming off as a showboat."
A journalism major at the University of Washington, Cowan was among those who skipped class to watch Palmer cover the Challenger story. "I walked to a buddy's apartment, we sat down in front of the TV and there was John," recalls Cowan. "And I remember clear as day, watching him talk about the Challenger, and I thought 'that's what I want to do. I want to be like him. He's on the network. He's telling this amazing story. He's calm. He's professional. That's what a network correspondent is.'"
Palmer became friends with Martin Luther King Jr. while covering the battle for desegregation in the south. He wrote of having to fight the urge to ditch his objectivity and join the protestors. During his tenure covering President Carter's White House, Palmer broke the news of the unsuccessful Marine mission to rescue Americans taken hostage by students supporting the Islamic revolution in Iran. He found himself in the middle of more than a few firefights on the streets of Beirut. He was on the scene for the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee.
But the one time Palmer became collateral damage was in 1989, when NBC execs decided to have Deborah Norville replace him on Today. He was pushed aside after working seven years as part of the top-rated morning family led by Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley. "It was a blow," says Cowan. "I think he still was hurt by it. But he loved NBC so much. He wasn't going to give up."
After the reassignment, Palmer spent a few years away from NBC, but eventually returned to the network and its cable outlet MSNBC to cover the Clinton White House. Later he joined the cable network RLTV where he hosted a talk show until he became ill last year. "He never lost that sense of the broadcaster in him," says Cowan. "He could not be on television for months and months and then he'd sit down for an interview and get right back into it again. He always had that perfect cadence. It's what he was born to be."