Waiting to Exhale
Investigative newsman Jonathan Dienst covers terrorist plots, gang violence and big-city corruption in his “9 to 5,” but off-air, he eases up at his charming home in Westport
photograph by Alex di Suvero
Dienst, WNBC’s chief investigative reporter, had gotten a call from his newsroom informing him that arguably the biggest story since 9-11 itself was about to break and that President Obama would be addressing the nation late that Sunday night. Dienst, who covers terror, justice, and law enforcement for NBC’s New York City flagship local affiliate, knew there wouldn’t be time to drive from his Westport home to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. So he walked. The distance between Dienst and the flash-cam that enables him to report live, breaking news is only a matter of yards. Adjacent to the 1800s farmhouse, where Dienst lives with his wife and three children, is a guest cottage that houses more than summer visitors. In its quaint living room, sits a laptop from which Dienst can report, write and Skype, the Internet technology made famous by Oprah’s “Where the Skype Are You?” segments. That night, Dienst broke the story that New York City would be ramping up security because of the spontaneous “Bin Laden is dead!” celebrations in Times Square and at Ground Zero. Sometime after 2 a.m., Dienst shut down his Skype operation and walked again, this time to his car, to drive to 30 Rock to continue reporting on the story, which for WNBC’s viewers was personal.
It was the personal that drew Dienst to his profession; his inspiration was a story he says broke his heart. While a student at Colgate University, studying abroad in London, Dienst went out for drinks with classmates on the night of December 20, 1988. The next morning, two of those classmates, Scott Saunders and J. P. Flynn, boarded Pan Am Flight 103 to go home. But they were among the dozens of college students on board when a bomb ripped apart the jumbo jet and sent it crashing into the village of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing a total of 270 people. As if he had covered the story himself just yesterday, Dienst rattles off a series of problems in airport security and warnings that might have prevented the tragedy. “I found that outrageous and offensive…you can’t protect us all the time, but the least you can do is provide us with the information so we can make our own choices,” he says. After watching how the media exposed what happened, Dienst says reporting became a calling. “It couldn’t bring my friends back,” he says, his voice deepening to a rasp, “but you could at least change things a bit and make a difference.”
Back at his Hamilton, New York, campus, Dienst began writing for his school newspaper. In New York City, twenty-three years later, it is night, and Dienst is standing on the rooftop of a windswept Met Life building with three other investigative reporters: Melissa Russo, Lynda Baquero and Chris Glorioso. The image is the final dramatic frame of WNBC’s I-Team advertisement, which debuted during the most-watched television show in history: the New York Giants defeat of the New England Patriots in the 2012 Super Bowl. In the promo, Dienst, in a dark overcoat, is also shown on the move, NYPD vehicles in the background, as the announcer (WNBC news anchor Chuck Scarborough) intones: “Jonathan Dienst—he knows the cops, the feds and how they operate.” If the ad were longer than thirty seconds, Scarborough might also mention that Dienst is the reporter who over the last decade broke such stories as charges against the men who plotted to bomb the Citicorp Center and other New York landmarks, the international threat targeting NYC subways, and the Fort Dix terror plot. Since joining WNBC in 2001, Dienst chronicled the rise and fall of former NYPD Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, and exposed a campaign finance scandal involving Robert Torricelli (whom Dienst recalls shoving his microphone and criticizing his reporting before ultimately leaving office). More recently, Dienst covered the Bernard Madoff case. He jokes darkly of having covered so many stories, he suffers from “Newsheimers.” But it’s not so—sitting with him in his casually elegant dining room, Dienst cites names, dates and facts with alacrity, accuracy and acuity. If every crime and corruption story stays with him, perhaps he runs the risk of becoming cynical instead of skeptical? Dienst replies, “Despite all the bad you cover all the time, everywhere you go, people are good.”
The good citizens of Westport opened their arms to the Diensts in 2009, as the family was recovering from a terrifying ordeal. On a sunny June day in 2008, Vicki Dienst was at a park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with then seven-year old Jared, when her son told her his head hurt. When he tried to walk, he zigzagged; when he spoke, he slurred his words. Vicki ran with him, literally, to a hospital just a block away where doctors’ original speculation was that Jared had had a seizure and that the symptoms might disappear. But by late that same night, Jared was wheeled into the pediatric intensive care unit because of a different diagnosis: He had suffered a stroke. And thus began an odyssey for the Dienst family in which Jonathan and Vicki would enlist top specialists at hospitals from five states, Jared would undergo months of treatment, and Jared’s twin sister, Nicole, and younger brother, Teddy, would watch and worry.
Jared’s continuing recovery factored into the family’s decision to move to Westport. “What a phenomenal place,” says Dienst, giving thanks to Jared’s fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and to the whole school for embracing his children and making them feel welcome. Jared is now “100 percent,” says his dad. Currently a sixth-grader, Jared is a strong student, shoots hoops and hits baseballs, and plays bass in school and All-City orchestra. Does Jared worry about what happened? His father says, “It doesn’t come up.” Do his parents? “There’s a piece in the back of your mind…you always wonder.” The reason for the stroke remains unknown; “it was bad luck,” explains Dienst. But there’s a silver lining to the mystery. Because Jared’s stroke fell into that “unexplained” category, the risk of it happening again is extremely low. And if there’s a life lesson to be learned from what happened to their son, Dienst says, it’s this: “You know your kid…trust your instincts when it comes to your children.” He credits Vicki, who left her job as a securities attorney after her son’s stroke, with saving Jared’s life by questioning the doctors’ original theory that he had had a seizure. Westport was not completely new territory for Jonathan and Vicki; friends had already made the move. And when the family visited Westport, they fell in love with Compo Beach and the town’s oft-extolled diversity. He says, “You have artists, you have Wall Street…there’s not just one kind of person around here.” Plus, they wanted to give Jared, Nicole (a travel basketball player), and Teddy, now a fourth-grader, a “good suburban life.” As for Dienst himself, he says, “For the first time in my professional life, I can exhale when I come home.”
Pick Up the Pace
Exhaling was a luxury Dienst could not afford when he was a reporter cutting his teeth in Georgia in 1991. After graduating with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Dienst reported for Newsday, but felt frustrated by the pace of print. “There was something about the immediacy and the power of television,” he explains. So he flooded the market with his tapes and resumes and got an offer from NBC affiliate WSAV-TV in Savannah that November. He chuckles at the memory of getting the whopping $13,000 a year offer on a Thursday, and packing his K-car for the drive south so he could report to work on Monday. He jokes that he wanted the “glamour” of television, but what he truly wanted, and got, was an opportunity to cover crime and uncover corruption. “It was more terrifying to walk the streets of Savannah, Georgia, than it was to walk the streets of New York City during the late eighties/early nineties crack epidemic.” He recalls noticing some Savannah police officers making less than $20,000 a year, yet driving to work in Mercedes. Turns out, they were working for drug gangs.
Exciting as the job was, Dienst wasn’t to stay in the South for long. A native of Teaneck, New Jersey, his home turf beckoned in the form of NY1, a twenty-four-hour cable news channel focusing on the five boroughs. In 1992 Dienst helped launch the channel (which preceded MSNBC and Fox News Channel by four years) and, as a “one-man band” who did his own reporting, writing, shooting, and editing, Dienst led the channel’s coverage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. With experience covering tragedy and trials, and the unsuccessful Sheik Terror Plot, perhaps he was prepared for something like September 11? “I never anticipated something as big as 9-11. Who would?” he asks. “But certainly, always in the back of my mind, there were certain extremist elements who wanted to do harm to us…they were going on television and saying so, and I think you have to take these extremists at their word.”
The day extremists brought down the Twin Towers, Dienst was not on television. Having left NY1 for WPIX in 1996, he was hired by WNBC in 2001 and due to start in October. He and Vicki and their then newborn twins had enjoyed family time in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, before moving back to New York City on September 10. The next day, as the Towers fell, Dienst remembered a judge’s warning during one of the many terror trials he had covered: The terrorists didn’t just want to destroy the Trade Center, they wanted to send poison gas through the air. Dienst packed up his family and headed to a relative’s home out of state. But come October 1, he was immediately immersed, reporting on the anthrax scare and the aftermath of 9-11. Had he been on the scene on that day, Dienst says, “I would have been covered with soot.” But he’s grateful he wasn’t. “The one thing…I have no regrets about…is that I didn’t have to watch people jump.” Cautionary Tale
Ten years and more than a dozen terrorist plots later, does reporting on all the harm the terrorists would like to inflict on New York City ever make Dienst paranoid? “I think law enforcement and the military have done an amazing job in making the country safer…but there’s always a concern that the next attack could come.” Yet despite covering so many shady characters, Dienst shrugs off concerns about his personal safety: “I’ve been chased with a bat by reputed mobsters, chased by pit bulls and drug dealers…attacked by a hostile crowd.” There was even one time when he was preparing for a live shot and, unrelated to the story, an emotionally disturbed man came out of nowhere and jumped him from behind and began attacking him before his crew jumped in to restrain the man and police arrived. Yes, he admits, he’s now “happy to come home…and have a quiet weekend.”
His property includes an ample garden, a pool shrouded by towering hedges, and a tennis and basketball court. While weekends are, he claims, “sacrosanct,” he pats the Blackberry at his hip. “The phone can ring at any time,” he says. He recalls an example from late spring of 2010; he was at a friend’s dinner party in Fairfield when he got a call from a law enforcement source saying there was a car fire in Times Square that was actually the failed attempt to explode a bomb-laden SUV at the Crossroads of America. Dienst says he told Vicki he had to leave for the city and take the car. He laughs as he remembers telling her, “Find you own way home. I’m once again leaving you at a social function, and I’m terribly sorry, please forgive me, but I really need to go.” For the next five days, Dienst dispensed with sleep (grabbing only quick naps), as he covered the story not only for WNBC, but for NBC’s Today and MSNBC (as an NBC News Contributing Correspondent, he also files for Dateline and CNBC).
“There are missed times” because of his job, says Dienst, but he does have the coveted Monday through Friday slot, primarily reporting his stories for the 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts. In the parlance of news directors who’ve lost solid street reporters to the bright lights of the anchor desk, does he suffer from “Anchoritis”? Before he’s even asked about the affliction, Dienst volunteers, “There’s no Anchoritis in me…I’ve never had any desire to be an anchor.” That said, he has anchored an occasional weekend newscast on WNBC and provided news updates for CNBC’s The Kudlow Report. But the “fire still burns” for reporting, which remains his passion. It’s also a “privilege,” says Dienst, reflecting upon a job that brings him up close and personal with VIPs day in and day out. On the one hand, it becomes routine talking to them to get the “hot sound bite” of the day. But, Dienst adds, there’s still the fear of “asking the Mayor a question in a packed news conference and he answers, ‘That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.’” And, he explains, covering the powerful can also prove stressful when you have a big story or exclusive and you go out there on that limb first. “Even though you know your reporting was good and thorough,” he says, “somewhere there’s always the question: Will the limb hold or break?”
Our conversation about Dienst’s career came just days after a stunning announcement from his station: sixty-eight-year-old Sue Simmons, who anchored at WNBC for more than three decades, would be leaving—her contract would not be renewed. Scarborough, her longtime coanchor, also sixty-eight, was getting a new deal and that set the blogosphere ablaze with suggestions that the decision smacked of sexism. Dienst calls Simmons “a New York treasure” but adds, “Chuck is too.” Now a ten-year veteran of Channel 4’s news team, Dienst has won numerous awards, including several Emmys—two for individual reporting. Two of the golden statues sit atop a shelf at home. The rest of the Emmys are in a box in the garage, he says, joking. “After you win a little league trophy, how many trophies do you need?” But he quickly adds, “No, that’s not fair…it is a recognition by your peers.” Colleagues tell Dienst he’s just a “newspaper reporter who happens to be on TV.” He agrees, and, referring to the typical length of the stories he files, humbly offers this media maxim: “You’re only as good as your last minute-thirty.”