TV reporter bludgeoned with an axe handle while covering Alabama civil rights protest
Richard Valeriani, who has died aged 85, was an NBC News correspondent who was once clubbed by an axe-wielding assailant at a civil rights demonstration, earned the ire of the Johnson and Nixon White Houses for his television reporting, and later worked on the other side of the camera, advising corporate executives and celebrities as a media consultant.
As an NBC reporter from 1961 to 1988, Valeriani covered the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, rallies for voting rights in the South, the globe-trotting diplomat Henry Kissinger and the United States’ response to the Iran hostage crisis under President
He also worked as a
Washington-based correspondent for the
Today show, the network’s flagship morning news programme, although he expressed little pleasure in assignments that took him away from breaking news and scooping his competitors.
‘‘I was sure that Dick Valeriani of NBC was sneaking around behind my back – and of course, he was! – getting stories that would make me look bad the next day,’’ the revered CBS reporter Charles Kuralt once said.
Valeriani was NBC’S senior White House correspondent when he reported on an upcoming, then-secret 1967 summit between President Lyndon B Johnson and Soviet
Premier Alexei Kosygin, in a story that apparently led the president to unleash a fusillade of profanity.
‘‘Johnson called him into his office at the White House and said, ‘There is no . . . way that you could know this if you are not [sleeping with] a Russian broad,’’ Valeriani’s wife, Kathie Berlin, recalled. ‘‘And Dick said, ‘Mr President, I’m a married person.’ And he said, ‘That doesn’t mean [anything] with you Italians.’ ’’
In a memoir, the former Soviet spymaster Oleg Kalugin – then working undercover as an embassy press attache – wrote that he was the one who told Valeriani about the meeting.
Valeriani later covered the Nixon administration during the Watergate investigation, and as a State Department correspondent travelled widely with Kissinger, the national security adviser who later became secretary of state. The two developed a warm relationship, and in 1979 Valeriani published Travels With Henry, a breezy account of Kissinger’s approach to statecraft, fondness for junk food and rapport with the press. ‘‘If it’s Thanksgiving,’’ Kissinger quipped during one long tour through the Middle East, ‘‘it must be Damascus.’’
Although Valeriani spent most of his career in Washington, he said his most important work occurred in Mississippi and Alabama, where he helped bring images of peaceful civil rights demonstrators, streets full of tear gas and police attack-dogs to a national audience.
He became a part of the story himself on the evening of February 18, 1965, while reporting on a voting rights march in Marion, Alabama, a short drive from Selma. ‘‘When I got there with my camera crew, I knew we were in trouble,’’ he told the Huffington Post in 2015. ‘‘Locals sprayed our camera lenses with black paint, and the Alabama state troopers assigned to provide security did nothing to prevent them.’’
As demonstrators began marching to the county jail, the streetlights cut out. Valeriani was taking notes in near-darkness when law enforcement officers started attacking the protesters, and he was clubbed across the side of the head with the handle of an axe. Another journalist later likened the sound to that of a watermelon being hit by a baseball bat.
‘‘I remember a state trooper saying to the assailant, ‘You’ve done enough damage with this tonight,’ but he did not arrest him,’’ Valeriani recalled. ‘‘A white man came up to me and asked if I needed a doctor. I put my hand to the back of my head and looked at it; it was bloody. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think so.’ The man thrust his face up to mine and said, ‘We don’t have doctors for people like you.’ ’’
A shaken Valeriani was taken to hospital in Selma, where he was interviewed by his NBC colleague Charles Quinn, and received a get-well telegram from Vice-president Hubert Humphrey.
His assailant, lumber salesman Sam Dozier, later pleaded guilty to assault and was fined $78.75. One black demonstrator at the rally, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot in the abdomen by a state trooper and died eight days later. His killing spurred the demonstrations and marches in Selma one month later, which Valeriani – fresh out of the hospital – covered for NBC.
Richard Gerard Valeriani was born and raised in New Jersey by Italianamerican parents. His father was a quarry worker and his mother sold baby clothes. He studied English at Yale and, after graduating in 1953, attended the University of Pavia in Italy and the University of Barcelona before being drafted into the army.
He began his journalism career at the Trentonian newspaper in New Jersey, and in 1959 he joined the Associated Press. His fluency in Spanish helped him land a posting in Havana, where his reporting on the Castro regime drew the attention of NBC and, eventually, led the communist government to force him from Cuba.
His marriage to Lee Hall, a correspondent for NBC and later Voice of America, ended in divorce. In 1980 he married Berlin, a publicrelations specialist in the movie industry. In addition to his wife, survivors include a stepdaughter, and two grandchildren.
Valeriani was working in NBC’S New York bureau when he resigned in 1988, saying he ‘‘felt underutilised’’ in ‘‘an age of shrinkage’’ within the news industry. The departure freed him to nurture his love of horse racing, and to begin a new career in consulting.
‘‘I like to describe it as teaching people how to defend themselves against people like me,’’ he told the New York Times in 1994, explaining his work with clients such as director Kathryn Bigelow and comedian Jimmy Fallon.
Even performers, he said, had something to learn about being on television. ‘‘Almost everybody, I’d say 95 per cent, come in for the first time and sit down in the chair and lean back, cross their legs and clasp their hands, none of which you should do. The essential elements are eye contact, being yourself, high energy and getting your message across.’’ – Washington Post