"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
The Odd Couple
Eric Eskola and Cathy Wurzer are Minnesota's first couple of journalism, and proof positive that opposites do attract
It's nearly closing time on KTCA's "Almanac" show, and Eric Eskola is having one of those, shall we say, Eskola moments. It's time for the latest Index File history quiz on the local PBS station's little-watched but much-respected Friday night public-policy program, a segment that always closes out the show. On screen, the viewer is presented with a still image of a run-down, drab little house at 3905 Fifth Ave. South in Minneapolis, which, Eskola explains, is significant because a famed lawyer once lived there in the 1930s.
Eskola reads the giant scrolling white letters reflecting off the darkened glass of the TelePrompTer, artfully situated in front of the camera lens, right in the gaze of the viewers, masking Eskola's efforts to read the words. Eskola, after describing the little hacienda, snaps out the usual obscurity for the audience to ponder: "Why is this south Minneapolis house on the National Register?" From which follows the Eskola moment: "We want to hear from you, whether you live on Ole Lake in Kandiyohi County, or ..." (pause) "... Lena Lake ..." (another pause) "... in Morrison County." At this point Eskola turns slightly, leans conspiratorially into the camera, mouth agape, one bulging eye shuttering - blink, blink, blink - in a winking gesture so blatant and bumbling that it could almost pass for a bad attempt at Morse code, or some ineffectually rude TV stenography aimed at fellow KTCA-land goofballs.
Cathy Wurzer, Eskola's on-air "Almanac" teammate, sits quietly on the other side of the soundstage, shrouded on the TV in a fuzz caused by the tight focus on Eric, identifiable mostly by the blotch of her bright-red dress and the hazy swatch of her blond coif in the distant background. But that's only if you're watching TV. There in the studio, anyone spying Cathy during the silliness of the moment would observe her watching Eskola intently on a studio monitor, shaking her head slightly, her lips sequencing near-simultaneous expressions - embarrassed bemusement, amusement, adoration, love.
Love? Well, yes, but hang on to that thought a moment.
Right now, let's invest several seconds in making a few assumptions about you, the reader. First, if you are scanning this article, chances are you are part of a small, politically fixated, fetchingly well-off demographic. And, second, you probably know well enough about the Wurzer-Eskola team on "Almanac," perhaps the most successful local public-policy program in PBS history. So, let's skip those points and jump to assumption No. 3: You are among either the estimated 50 percent of the "Almanac" audience that knows or the half that Cathy Wurzer insists does not know that she is married to her co-host. And since they are wed, it's no breach of the couple's hermetically sealed sense of journalism ethics to discuss their relationship, at least in the context of the show and their journalism careers. Though they could take any ribbon in an oddest-of-odd-couples contest - she being the graceful, cultured flower; he the frumpy slouch of the perpetually bad hair day - these are two people who love and admire one another deeply. As well they might; both are intense, driven, competitive, successful and - all seem to agree - fundamentally decent people with a distinctive ethical sense. (Eskola, for one, won't even eat a doughnut or accept coffee offered up by a news source.)
All of which leads us directly to assumption No. 4: Eric Eskola and Cathy Wurzer face no serious competition for the title of First Couple of Minnesota Journalism.
"I think that strikes a chord," says Gene Lahammer, the avuncular, retired Minnesota Capitol correspondent for the Associated Press, who has forged a close bond with both Cathy and Eric over many years. "They're certainly the most visible. There are some newspaper couples, but they don't enjoy the visibility that these people do."
Eric and Cathy, you likely know, both hold down pretty decent day jobs. Eskola recently passed his 30th anniversary as a broadcast reporter, serving out his last 21 years as WCCO-Radio's tireless dervish of a political correspondent, shoveling out a unique political story almost every half-hour of every weekday; he also spends about five minutes each morning swapping his news role for a limited personality shtick, seeking out and finding endless new ways to tease an oblivious Sid Hartman. Eskola, incidentally, was a TV newsman in Duluth before his 1980 WCCO-Radio debut, and in those days sometimes worked as a professional wrestling announcer; he has been a whacked-out pro wrestling fan ever since. He's also someone whose energy and doggedness as a newsman are legendary; quite simply, this is one of the best political reporters in the business.
"I'm sure you're hearing that from everybody, but that's just the truth," says Ron Handberg, who, having led WCCO-TV as news director and general manager during the Golden Age of the Dave Moore era, is something of an expert on the subject. "I don't know anyone who doesn't respect Eric Eskola in terms of his knowledge of Minnesota politics and government, in terms of his persistence in covering the story."
While also widely respected, Wurzer has proven the less professionally consistent of the two, even if her leaps from job to job have been downright acrobatic. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, her career launched in 1984 with a stint as a Capitol correspondent for KSTP-AM, at which point she met and started competing against her husband-to-be. More on that later. Then she moved on to become producer for Rod Grams ("He's a great guy!") when he was still news anchor at Channel 9, before moving into an on-air job at Minnesota Public Radio.
From there it was off to KTCA's sadly extinct NewsNight Minnesota TV newscast, while also joining Eskola on "Almanac" on Friday nights beginning in December 1994. She gained her greatest visibility as a short-time WCCO-TV anchor and reporter last year, pulling up stakes shortly after contributing - some say embarrassingly - to WCCO's cloying orgy of synergy last year when the station devoted nine minutes of a 10 p.m. summer newscast to fawning over CBS's "Survivor." Wurzer doesn't cite that incident as a cause for leaving Channel 4, but it is true shortly afterward, she did her unlikeliest career leap yet, jumping ship from her high-paying WCCO commercial TV gig to a presumably less lucrative - if more respectable - slot as host of MPR's "Morning Edition" show. Despite a relatively high profile, however, Wurzer arguably is the lesser-hailed quantity of the two, a characteristic that probably stems from her cool, natural reserve and her admitted desire to remain at arm's length from her audience.
These folks, then, are no Steve and Sharon. Back in the 1980s, you might recall, KSTP-TV's morning show hosts Steve and Sharon Anderson made it central to their happy TV shtick to employ their marriage as a focus. They marketed it, manipulated it, gained a legion of fans by exploiting it for the cameras. It is partly a hallmark of Eskola's and Wurzer's supercharged sense of journalistic integrity, partly a mark of their privacy-intensive personalities that they trade little or not at all on the capital of their personal lives.
"This has got to be the only husband-and-wife team in the history of broadcasting where the show didn't make a deal of it, or even mention it," says Brendan Henehan, "Almanac" producer since its 1984 debut, when the show had Jan Smaby and Joe Summers as hosts.
"We try to keep it professional," nods Wurzer. She and Eric are relaxing in a small KTCA staff lounge after the Oct. 5 "Almanac" broadcast, giving what both say is the first interview they've ever done on the subject of mixing career with marriage. "What's the point in being Steve and Sharon? We're not like that. We don't need to broadcast that we're married."
"It's not germane to the show," Eric chips in, ever diplomatic. "With Steve and Sharon, it was germane to the show. It's not germane to our show."
OK, here we arrive at a point where something needs to be made clear. This story is meant mostly to be a serious yarn about a talented and influential couple occupying a spot at the nerve center of Minnesota politics, a couple who apply needed human warmth to arcane Minnesota public policy. But the question arises often enough, on the "Almanac" online discussion board and elsewhere, that it's unavoidable here.
How did Eric Eskola, the Oscar Madison of the Minnesota Capitol press corps with his messy office, his love of electric guitars and pro wrestlers, and his odd choice of dress accessories, win over the elegant, stately, statuesque Cathy Wurzer with her passions for horses, belly-dancing and sculpture?
The short answer: Who knows? But who can argue that it's a good fit?
"Opposites attract is one thing you can use to describe what that's all about," says Henehan. "Because physically, obviously, they're not a matched type. They have different interests in their lives and they have these insane, strained schedules. But obviously, they make it work."
WCCO-TV's Pat Kessler, one of Eskola's staunchest press corps competitors, is characteristically droll when describing his friend's matrimonial fortune. "As I told Cathy when they became betrothed, 'Cathy, I really admire Eric's taste in women. It's your taste that I question.'"
There is a certain quirky Eskola charm, of course. There's the inexplicable scarf. There's that encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling history and jazz dates and rockabilly session musicians and celebrity birthdays. He's an avid reader of Barron's and of historical biographies. He's a guy who remains intensely loyal to his mother and father in Duluth - key ethical influences, he says - and to his siblings. A man who would never miss a Thanksgiving with his parents. Also, there's that ingratiating inability to properly drive an automobile. "Let's just say this," quips Kessler. "Eric provides something that most women have never had - a bus ride to a wrestling match on their first date." (To be fair, Cathy says that was their second date.)
But let's not lose our bearings. There's another side to Eskola, which WCCO Radio morning news editor Steve Murphy calls "the lovable curmudgeon," and which Kessler might call the ass-kicker.
"He will always conduct himself as a perfect gentleman, as a professional," says Kessler. "Even so, if you cross him - I'm talking about as a news subject or a politician - if you are somebody who lies to him, or if you are a public-relations person who misleads him, he will nail you to the wall, on the spot. There is a steeliness to Eskola when somebody tries to mess with him. And he doesn't hold back." It wouldn't matter, Kessler notes, if the offender were the governor himself.
"This is something that his listeners don't hear often, but I will tell you that I've seen it often," Kessler says. "Because in this business, we are always manipulated, and I accept that and I try to understand people's motives. But sometimes public-relations people and politicians go too far and they will lie, and they will misdirect and they will camouflage. And when that happens, if you tell Eric you're going to do something and you don't do it ... forget it."
Cathy seemingly is more demure, less combative, more cool. But here too, lies a quirk. On their "Almanac" broadcasts, it is Cathy who considers herself the one most prone to let the fur fly. "I don't mind people slugging it out," she says. But this is something that Eskola instinctively dislikes.
"My feeling about this is that the show has kind of a civil personality to it," Eskola says, to which his wife immediately retorts, "It does, and it is sometimes too civil."
"Maybe so," says Eric. "I think that's a fair criticism. But I think intelligent people having an intelligent discussion and giving out information is a real good public service. I like that."
"That's true," says Wurzer. "It can be boring sometimes, too."
Steve Murphy, Eskola's longtime news editor at WCCO-Radio emphasizes Eskola's pride in his wife. It's something their mutual friend Lahammer attributes to Wurzer's ability to hold her own as an independent woman, mastering a difficult profession. "She can do her own radio program, which he considers the much more challenging medium than television," Lahammer said. "And at MPR, you have to be kind of a heavyweight because you do a lot of soloing. And Cathy is well able to think for herself and take care of herself."
Eskola wouldn't argue. "She's driven. She's an extremely talented and committed professional. I just think in the context of journalism, she's shown an incredible growth over the years I've known her. I'm just so proud of her."
A Labored Romance
Quite appropriately, the Eskola-Wurzer marriage was forged, as Eskola puts it, "in the white heat of one of the great stories of the 20th century in Minnesota."
The story was the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local P-9 strike against the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn., back in the winter of 1985. The story goes a long way in demonstrating the tone of the relationship, at least at its outset. Says Wurzer, "I still can't believe I did what I did."
Eric helps her along. "You gave me a piece of information: the mayor of Austin was meeting with Perpich." Cathy just rolls her eyes. This incident you can chalk up, perhaps, to a beginner's uncertainty. Journalism Rule One is never tip off the competition. But Wurzer, still a cub in her early 20s, did just that, handing over a meaty prize to one of her fiercest competitors, Eric Eskola. She'd known of the worker foment in Austin, and one day, leaving a committee hearing to visit the rest room, she happened upon a hallway confab between Gov. Perpich and Austin Mayor Tom Kough. Suspecting it was significant, but not being sure, she says she went to test her instincts on Eskola.
"Do you think," Cathy recounts, "that I had the presence of mind as a reporter to go and barrel off by myself? No! I went back into the committee room, and I said to Eric, 'Are you covering this Hormel thing?' I was trying to get a read on how big this might be, and he almost fell out of his chair. He ran out. He was out of the committee room like a shot. And I'm like, 'What did I do that for?'"
Wurzer followed Eskola back out to the hall, where they cornered Perpich and Kough. In their questions, they learned that the state mediator was about to be pulled into the conflict. "So I'm thinking, 'Well, hell, I'm going to go to the state mediator,' and so I ran to go get my car," Wurzer says. "And Eric was like, 'Will you drive me?'"
Wurzer was nonplussed. She refused. "And, of course, there was this baleful look on his face, like, 'I don't drive, I don't have a car.' I thought, 'What a loser!' So I said, 'God, get in the car!' We ended up driving to the Bureau of Mediation Services and as I'm driving I'm thinking, 'How stupid am I? I've got the competition sitting in the front seat!'"
Her only consolation was that Eskola didn't argue when she insisted on filing her story first. In exchange for her kindness, Eskola recounts, he bought Wurzer dinner that night, though at that point, it was strictly a friendly thank-you, he said.
The relationship began to brew only after Eskola made yet another remarkable request of the KSTP cub, asking Wurzer to drive him to Austin to cover the actual strike, because he was unable to get the WCCO-Radio van. "I'm taking pity on this guy," she says. "I can be pretty pathetic," Eskola grins.
Cathy nods. "It was pathetic."
The Austin strike was a tension convention that lasted many days. During all that time, there were long drives back and forth between Austin and St. Paul, with Wurzer doing all the driving, Eskola riding along; inevitably, they started getting to know each other. Meanwhile in Austin, strike hostilities were so high that Perpich called out the National Guard to restore order, a move that drew heavy national press. Suddenly there were reporters everywhere and a massive shortage of phones. The only place for local radio reporters to call in dispatches turned out to be a phone booth located across a vast frozen field, outside a restaurant, opposite the plant gates. This booth was shared by Wurzer, Eskola and MPR's Rochester bureau reporter Mike Mulcahy, who all trudged over daily to file their strike stories.
"It was cold," Eric says as Cathy completes his thought: "So we ended up sharing this phone booth, literally, to see who was going to get there to file first. It was kind of humorous. This sharing of a phone booth went on for days and days." It was at this point, in the midst of all that tension and chaos, that Eskola made his more amorous intentions apparent to the woman who would become his bride. "He ended up carving his initials and my initials in the phone booth. And I thought, 'How presumptuous are you to do that?'"
WCCO's Kessler remembers those days. Eskola and Wurzer in the early stages of a dating relationship, remained engaged in cutthroat news competition, which by now Wurzer was beginning to master.
"What I remember," Kessler says, "is that they are both intensely competitive. It doesn't matter that they love each other. If Cathy can kick Eric's ass journalistically, she'll do it. And Eric, the same thing. ... One of the things I remember, particularly early on in their relationship, is that they both had their eye on each other to see what they're doing, to kind of watch to make sure they're not getting beat. And Cathy could send Eric into orbit. He'd say, 'What do you got?' And Cathy would say, 'Well, can't tell you, you're just going to have to listen.' And it would drive him nuts."
The Eskola Manner
Talk to a lot of people about this couple and you notice something odd and interesting. Without any prompting, invariably, the topic shifts away from Eric and Cathy, to just Eric. "That's not surprising," comments Handberg. "I don't think she's really been in a situation long enough that has allowed her to emerge."
While that seems true, it may also be simply that Eskola's position makes him the more identifiable of the two - in his daily jabbering with WCCO-Radio personalities like Dave Lee, invariably, genuine details about Eskola's life leak forth. His love for the late '70s protopunk band The Hypstyrz, for instance, or his struggle to improve his golf game. And yet, observers invariably say, Eskola finds just the right touch, never straying so far into entertainment that his journalistic integrity is sullied. Lahammer described Eskola playing Hugh Downs to Dave Lee's Jack Paar. It's an impressive juggling act.
Despite Eskola's on-air openness, Kessler suspects he is fundamentally a shy man, even distrustful, one who is difficult to get to know. Conversely, Eskola says he is quite comfortable with the notion that listeners and "Almanac" fans feel personally familiar with him when they encounter him. "It's very flattering," he says. "About the most flattering thing, and I hear this all the time is, 'Eric, I've never met you, but I just think I know you.' And that gives me such a nice feeling."
Though perceived as gracious, Wurzer says she doesn't feel as comfortable with fanship familiarity. "I'm a little shy about that. I prefer to be more guarded, I guess," she says. "Especially with the TV thing, where you are in the living rooms or their bedrooms or wherever they watch TV, so they do feel that they know you and that you're part of their family. And that's great, but familiarity breeds contempt, you know? I try to just maintain that sense of detachment."
Sarah Janecek, Politics in Minnesota co-editor, Republican lobbyist and frequent "Almanac" guest, thinks there is something to be said for remaining a bit unattainable. "I think anytime anyone is enigmatic who happens to be a journalist, that's probably a good thing," Janecek said. "You don't know where his or her politics are."
People don't seem to know where Eskola's politics are either, though you wouldn't know it from reading the "Almanac" Web site message board, where both Wurzer and Eskola are routinely labeled "left-wingers" and "commies." But the proof is in the politics. Wurzer lets it slip that Eskola, at various times, has been asked by three of the four major political parties of Minnesota to run for office.
"To me, if all three of the four major parties have asked me to run, that's good," Eskola said. "Then people don't quite know what my politics are. Because I don't have much politics. I'm to the wind."
Let the record reflect that it is difficult to get people to criticize Eric Eskola and Cathy Wurzer, even when they are pressed to do so. Longtime "Almanac" guest and DFL lobbyist D.J. Leary, for one, just can't. The closest he came, when asked what constructive criticism he would offer the duo, was personal and aimed at Eskola alone. That guy, Leary says, works too damned hard.
"I don't know how many years I've said to Eric, 'You cannot continue to work all night,'" Leary said. "I watched him again this weekend with the public employees strike and he's doing the same thing he was doing 15 years ago, staying up all night to follow a story. That's one's personal health, you know?"
Fellow "Almanac" couch-mate Janecek is more willing to offer up her critique, but again, only reluctantly. File her complaint under "Too neutral."
"My highest compliment to both of them becomes my highest criticism," Janecek said. "I'm of the opinion that no one on this planet is truly neutral. And that sometimes it's in the best interest of good journalism to understand where the interviewer is coming from."
Others who offer up their critiques of these most visible public-policy wonks tend to criticize not the couple, but the public TV show they host. "Almanac" producer Henehan, for instance, says that a lot of the negative feedback he receives cycles around the idea that the show tends to dwell too much on inside-baseball politics. "I always thought in the political panel and the other political discussions that we have, the goal is often to have insiders on and to welcome the viewer to that world. And you don't always succeed at doing that," he said. "There are times when Eric and these people will slip into acronyms, insider terminology."
That's not what bothers David Erickson, though. He admires "Almanac," would even like to see it up the show's rather tepid comedy ante to get more people paying attention in politics. The problem with "Almanac," the co-editor of MN-Politics.com says, is that it tends to have the same cast of characters as guests week after week. And the thirty-something Erickson gripes that there aren't enough younger people and youthful views represented, not enough talk about the way that emerging technologies impact the body politic.
For Handberg, if there's a complaint, it's ironically related to Eskola's much-lauded sense of fairness and civility. These are tremendous and laudatory qualities, Handberg says, but they are qualities both Eskola and Wurzer may guard to a fault. On "Almanac," which Handberg said he almost always watches, there's sometimes a little too much Minnesota Nice going on.
"I'm not saying you should be an attack journalist - but I'm saying at some point you can't be just nice to everybody if you want to get the real truth and facts out and the personality shown," he said. "But that's in a way very minor. And I think [Eskola] gets tremendous information with the approach he does take and the skills he has. But as a viewer, more than anything, I sometimes wish he'd be a little more tough with people." Handberg adds that it is apparent that the couple are willing to let debates on the "Almanac" couch heat up amongst guests. But he doesn't quite see Wurzer's point that she is the tougher of the two, more willing to take the show into "Cross Fire" territory. "I guess I don't have the sense that Cathy is tougher," Handberg said. "I don't think it has anything to do with husband and wife; I think it's just because he's this veteran. But she defers to him rather than bringing out the aggressiveness in him."
Kessler sees an intrinsic wisdom in the Eskola-Wurzer approach to their show and the way they patiently mediate debates on "Almanac." It's about providing a kind of safe haven for politicians who want to communicate directly with the people of the state - at least that sliver of the state that watches the program - without finding themselves cut off at the knees. Cathy and Eric ask smart questions, often tough questions, but in a manner that is always fair and that never sandbags the guests, Kessler says. Whatever they are doing, Kessler said, it is working: they are frequently able to procure interviews with key figures - not the least of whom is jackal-hating Gov. Jesse Ventura - who Kessler admits he often fails to land.
"What they've been able to do is create a niche to show people," Kessler said. "The politicians feel safe there because they can be themselves and not expect the gotcha stuff. They will never mislead, they will ask a question directly. They will have fun with you and make fun of themselves. It's a perfect combination.
"Because they are fundamentally decent people, that comes across over time as people watch the show."
- To read Eskola-Wurzer observations of key Minnesota political figures and about some of their greatest stories, go to Law & Politics on the Web at www.lawandpolitics.com.
Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a Minnesota journalist who covers politics and technology. He has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Online Journalism Review and Minnesota Law and Politics, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly