Rod Decker apologizes. The KUTV Channel 2 political reporter must call the station to make sure a cameraman will be ready for him at 10 a.m. sharp.
"This is Decker. There's a news conference at 10. I'll need to leave the station at a quarter to 10."
And then he hangs up. No hello, no goodbye, not a line of pleasantry, just that no-nonsense Decker voice, pouring forth three-word sentences like a machine gun—the same stout tone that he's used to deliver the news to Utahns for the past 35 years.
In the world of young, beautiful, uplifted faces of TV news, Decker is a warhorse. But that warhorse knows his pasture—the pasture of Utah politics—as well as any living reporter in Zion.
Decker's longevity, his colleagues say, is a testament to the man's work ethic, which at age 74, has not faltered.
After a fourth cup of coffee, Decker outlines his week's schedule to a newspaper reporter. On this Tuesday morning, he'll cover a campaign kickoff event for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. The news conference, Decker explains, will inevitably lead to at least three other news stories that he'll report on throughout the week.
By week's end, Decker has accomplished his goal, plus a story about a political poll that the station is saving for Sunday.
While some reporters define their careers by the size and number of exclusive scoops that help sniff out corruption and bring a tenor of honesty to an issue, Decker's career is more of a steady drumbeat, where the value isn't easily measured by magnitude, but, rather, by a body of consistent work that stretches out for decades.
"My TV news style has always been 'lots,'" Decker says. "I do more stories than other people, maybe of a lower quality—of sufficient quality—but 'lots,' that's my style. And that succeeds in TV news, and it fits the time."
Although Decker doesn't respond to emails, and lacks a "Tweeter" account, as he mispronounces the name of the social-media website Twitter, his specialty—shorter political news segments where he has the ability to cut to the chase with a leaner word count than his rivals—seems to mesh well with this age of shrinking attention spans.
And if one happens to be tuned to KUTV for the 6 p.m. news, it's hard to ignore that cutting voice, which sounds as if it's saying the most important things in the world.
"It sounds like I'm shouting 'extra, extra, read all about it,'" Decker says of his delivery, which is simply the way he talks rather than a manufactured style. "That's kind of the voice. And I kind of like that, in a way, because it sounds as if it might fool you at first and make you think what I'm saying's important."
Decker thinks about this, takes a sip of coffee, and continues.
"Most of the time, after I've got a story together, I like it," he says, a crazy glint in his eye as he elevates his voice from a booth at Lamb's Café on Main Street, rounding out what he hopes his voice conveys. "This is worth a minute—this is worth a minute and a half—pay attention!"
A FRATERNITY BOY
Raised a Mormon on the east side of Salt Lake City, Rodney W. Decker began to break from the religious mold when he enrolled at the University of Utah—a short walk from his childhood home.
Concurrent with his studies, Decker also enrolled at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, where he drank beer and partied into the early morning before walking back to his parents' house, where he slept until noon.
"I was a fraternity boy, and I had just a great time at the U," Decker says. "Mostly what I did was fraternity."
Decker's father was a professor of accounting at the U, and the young man's parents took notice of their son's new lifestyle. To straighten his son out, Decker says, his father vowed to wake him at 7 a.m., regardless of what time he went to sleep.
The elder Decker followed through, only to watch his son stumble down the street to the fraternity house, where he took to sleeping on the couch.
"By the time of my sophomore year, I decided that I'd schedule a number of my classes at the same time in order to conserve my valuable time for poker and drinking, stuff like that," Decker says.
One morning, when Decker came home at 4 a.m., his father greeted him at the door, promising another 7 a.m. wake-up call. But that rousing didn't arrive until noon. Father and son walked to the U together that day and, Decker says, "He checked me out of the U, packed my bag, put me in the car, drove me down to BYU and enrolled me."
Decker says he tried to fit in at Brigham Young University, and even passed a couple of classes. But he speculates that he may have spent more time at the frat house in Salt Lake City as a Cougar than a Ute. "I tried to go to class and so forth, but before the end of the semester, I was leaving Provo on a Thursday, going up and staying at the Pi Kappa house, getting back to Provo maybe in time for class on Wednesday."
Decker joined the ROTC and, after nearly six years of college, earned his degree in political science from the U. In 1965, Decker did a two-year stint of graduate school in Chicago before becoming, at age 27, Captain Rodney W. Decker, a U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer stationed in Saigon in Vietnam.
"It was OK; I liked Vietnam," Decker says. "I guess that speaks poorly to my character. I was not in combat, except in bars."
While working 10-hour days, seven days a week overseas, Decker hired a tutor to help him learn Vietnamese. His instruction stalled once his command of the language grew sufficient for him to carry on with women at the bar. And although he didn't yet have a glimmer of what his future would be, Decker began to learn lessons and show traits that would help him in his journalistic pursuits.
The first lesson dealt with his primary job: gathering information and briefing his superiors. Decker recalls briefing William Colby, the highest-ranking CIA officer in Vietnam, who later would become the director of the CIA, on "a thing called the Hamlet Evaluation Survey."
This involved Decker going out to various spots around the country, compiling data and feeding that info into a massive computer that spit out a neat form of rankings and statistics—an outcome that Decker says often amounted to "bullshit."
"Briefing was an art," Decker says. "I understood it was bullshit, but I couldn't say it was bullshit. I had to say, 'Well, sir, we do this and we do that, and we get monthly reports and we put them into the computer, and they come out in this neat format, as you can see, sir!' So that's what I did with Colby."
To Decker, Vietnam was a place where he worked hard, had some fun and got to know a lot of great American and Vietnamese people. When it was time to leave, Decker, flush with poker winnings, took the long way home, traveling through Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Landing on American soil was the hard part.
"All of my friends were strongly anti-war, and I thought we were committed. I thought of the Vietnamese I knew over there, and most of them would be killed or thrown in labor camps," Decker says of America's looming decision to withdraw from the war. "I thought, well, maybe we should stay. In any case, it was hard afterward. I felt like lots of people were angry at me."
The blowback and strong anti-war sentiment that greeted Cpt. Decker upon his return gave rise to a healthy skepticism that played no political favorites. "The way it formed me was it made me skeptical of liberals," he says. "Liberals said that what we did was bullshit, and they were right. But I could see that what they did was bullshit, too, and they couldn't see that. It made me skeptical of academics, of liberals, of perceived opinion."
After his two-year stint in Vietnam, Decker returned to graduate school, where he thought he would take a shot at being a good student (it didn't work out). So he returned to Utah, where in 1972, he married Christine Shell Decker, who, before her retirement earlier this year, went on to become a juvenile court judge for the 3rd Judicial District. Together, they raised three children.
"It was clear that academia wasn't working, and when you're married, it's customary that you get a job, or at least it was in those days. So, I looked for a job," Decker says.
A decade or so earlier, in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seminary class at East High School, Decker's instructor had been Bill Smart, editor and general manager at the Deseret News. As a seminary student, Decker remembered that Smart had once suggested he become a reporter.
"So I wrote him and said, 'I need a job. Can I work for the Deseret News? Remember what you said all those years ago?' Well, by then, he had seen how I'd turned out and said, 'No, we have no positions,'" Decker says.
But fortunately for Decker, Smart lived close to Decker's mother, who "sort of stared at his front door until he hired me. So, I went to work for the Deseret News."
Decker didn't know the first thing about being a reporter. As he slowly learned the ropes of newspaper writing, an opportunity sprung up: The Deseret News wanted to start a talk show on KUED Channel 7 called Civic Dialogue, and not a soul in the newsroom offered to moderate—except for Decker.
Decker's career at the Deseret News chugged at a steady and upward tilt. He became a columnist and moderated the talk show. In 1976, Decker spent a year at Harvard University on a fellowship through the Nieman Foundation, a prestigious journalistic training ground.
"I thought I had a very good life at the Deseret News," Decker says. "I had a column, I had a TV show."
But Decker says he never jibed with the paper's owners, the LDS Church, and its management.
"While I respected management there, and they were good journalists, I never could get along with them very well. I always felt like I was never doing honest journalism," Decker says. "I think maybe the church exercises less control over journalism there now, but when I was there, you had to be careful. The church didn't want some things said, and that made young reporters all the more eager to say them."
In 1980, the late Utah media mogul George C. Hatch, who then owned KUTV, hired Decker away from the Deseret News. Decker's first assignment at the station was to moderate a talk show, Take Two—which occasionally still airs to this day whenever, as Decker says, "they don't have football or something important to put on." The show was immensely successful, Decker says, and it maintained a "serious" timeslot about as long as any such program in the nation.
"It used to draw the biggest audience of shows of its kind," Decker says. "It used to be a good showcase, and it was fun to do."
Long talk shows of that kind, Decker says, slowly disappeared as news executives realized politics simply didn't generate ratings. He noted that KUTV 2 and other news stations used to set up shop at the Republican and Democratic state conventions and provide expansive coverage.
"What drives ratings is police stories, stories with action, stories that affect ordinary people and affect them pretty directly, like crime, or police or accidents," Decker says.
But with a his degree in political science, and with a divining rod that pulled him in that direction, Decker dove into covering politics first and foremost.
Whether Decker knew it or not at the time, he was perched at the apex of American journalism. "Two reporters took down a president," Decker says, referring to the Watergate scandal that spurred President Richard Nixon's resignation. "We took ourselves very seriously back in those days. Robert Redford played a reporter; can you imagine a thing like that? A newspaper reporter, and it wasn't funny."
And, when it came to getting permission from upper management to do a story, Decker says "you only had to think something up for it to happen."
DECKER'S JOURNALISM: A HISTORY
Six months on the job at KUTV, Decker was flown to California, where he interviewed physicist Edward Teller, known as the "father of the hydrogen bomb." The interview was part of a pair of two-hour specials looking into whether nuclear explosions caused cancer. In addition to Decker's part, he says, KUTV sent a reporter to the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. had conducted nuclear-bomb tests. Another reporter went to Alamogordo, N.M., to stand at the site of the first nuclear-bomb explosion."There was nowhere we wouldn't fly, and there was a lot of that," Decker says.
Decker says his counterparts on TV thought of themselves as investigative journalists. "They didn't do a story every day—they did maybe two or three a week—but they were thought to be stories of real substance," he says.
Decker dabbled in all of it—talk shows, long stories and short stories—but even in those early days, his fast pace (few men look as comfortable as Decker with a steel camera tripod swung across his shoulders, and he can ditch a newspaperman half his age while taking a staircase two steps at a time), tended toward "lots."
Compared to newspapers, which have steadily shrunk in the past decade, leaving herds of print reporters scrambling for new work in Salt Lake City and other news markets throughout the nation, Decker says he feels like TV news stations haven't suffered as acutely.
But that may not be the case. Former KSL 5 news editor Con Psarras, now an associate instructor at the University of Utah Department of Communications, says TV news numbers have plummeted along with newspaper circulation and print readership.
In the mid-1990s, Psarras was KUTV's news director and Decker's boss. He says the fact that a hard-charging political reporter like Decker has remained a key piece of the station's news team is testament to the wisdom of the station's management in seeing the value in what Decker provides.
"If what they want to provide is relevant news to the community," Psarras says, "Rod's strong ammunition in that."
The longer-form journalistic pursuits of Decker's early years have been largely supplanted by shorter bits crafted, perhaps, for an era of shrinking patience, attention spans and budgets. A large part of this is due to a fractured audience, which, rather than being channeled into a handful of TV networks, now has the infinity of the Internet, and cable and satellite television to wallow in. "TV news is no longer protected from the tiresome desire of people to get what they want," Decker says.
But in this environment, Decker has thrived.
The need for "lots" of stories and short stories suits his talents well. In terms of sheer hours required, Decker's preferred subject, politics, is typically easier to cover than, say, a car crash—which Decker had covered a few days before this interview. "I had to stand around for several hours while the cops got their act together and told us what was going on. You don't have to do that in politics," Decker says. "I'm going to go to a news conference today, and Becker will talk for 30 minutes, and I'll have three stories. I'll have to hunt up [Becker's opponent, Jackie] Biskupski, but she's eager to get on; she's running for office. TV's what she needs."
Although Decker himself has a difficult time pointing to one knock-out story in his career, he has played a pivotal role in educating the public on the daily heartbeat of politics. To use a term that is becoming increasingly dated, Decker is a true "beat" reporter.
"He's truly the hardest working man in TV news," says Patrick Benedict, a TV producer who worked with Decker at KUTV for eight years. "Rod hearkens to a day in journalism that is, on a lot of levels, sadly going away. He is the original Mr. Shoe Leather. He grinds it out on the beat."
But another key TV cliché, "If it bleeds, it leads," has aided Decker's long career. According to Decker and others in the TV news business, young, ambitious TV news personalities have little desire to wade into politics.
"Most of them don't want to be political reporters," Decker says of his younger colleagues. When asked why, Decker bellows the answer as if surprised by the question. "When you're a kid, and you look at TV, you see wrecks and murders," he says. "You think: wrecks and murders, that's what leads the show."
Decker has barked questions at so many governors, he even remembers the last two whose names appeared on the ballot with big Ds next to their names: Govs. Calvin Rampton and Scott Matheson Sr. In the years since, Decker has become wiser than the average TV dog on what fuels and moves Utah politics.
By sheer number of interviews, Decker says he's probably had more sit downs with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch than anyone else, but only because Decker was a reporter before Hatch became a senator. And Hatch became a senator in 1977—38 years ago.
But in this time, says Salt Lake Tribune political reporter Robert Gehrke, Decker has gained a rarefied wisdom and perspective on his subject. "I worry a little bit about when he hangs it up; what's it going to look like?" Gehrke asks. "Do you have anybody who can step in and fill that voice, who can tackle the issues and give people what they need to know and give them the level of context and depth? That starts with the reporter. The reporter needs to know his stuff before telling it to the people."
Decker could fill the TV waves with days of commentary on Utah's politics, drawing from a memory that Psarras says is damned close to photographic.
It's that sharp memory and ability to draw from a well of experience, says Gehrke, that allows the man to stand alone in the TV pack.
A fact of the TV medium is that there is often very little time to tell a story. And without some sort of extended programming slot, a reporter taping a one- or two-minute news segment may struggle to convey the depth found in a print news story. So it's not unusual for TV news reporters to fail to go after some important, although mundane, information, like the nitty-gritty of a budget.
This is where Decker shines, Gehrke says. "Rod will show up at news conferences and be taking notes on the back of an envelope and will have sort of an understating of the budget numbers to the point where he can ask a question. Sometimes you take a double take because you don't expect it to come from the TV guys," Gehrke says. "He's still sort of rooted in that old-school print mentality."
With the benefit of the long view, Decker holds most Utah governors in kind regard. Overall, he says, Utah has had good governors, all of whom have "worked at bridging the Mormon Republican, non-Mormon Democratic divide."
And alongside these men and one woman who helmed the Beehive State—Rampton, Matheson, Bangerter, Leavitt, Walker, Huntsman and now Herbert, a list that reads like a map of Utah state buildings and roadways—Decker's career has paralleled a political shift in Utah that many of his fellow political reporters were born too late to witness: the Legislature's sea change from a mixed bag of Democrats and Republicans (as late as the 1960s, he said, state lawmakers were split roughly evenly between the two parties) to today's era of single-party domination.
Decker traces the migration toward a Republican super-majority back to the controversial 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which allowed women to receive legal abortions.
"Politics in Utah are conservative because of Mormons," Decker says. "Mormons weren't always conservative. Mormons are conservative [today] because American public morality changed."
The fact that Mormons are religiously Republican, and non-Mormons in Utah tend to be staunch Democrats, has made Utah home to "the most religiously polarized voters in America," Decker says. He notes that if no Mormons had voted in recent presidential elections, Utah would have been among the strongest Democratic-leaning states.
But, Decker says, the fervent LDS support for Republicans ranks the Saints high in a club, and a historic morality, that once persecuted it. "It's a little ironic Mormons have become the rear guard of the old public morality—19th-century Protestant morality—that they used to invoke to throw [Mormons] in jail," Decker says.
If it sounds like Decker has a lot to say on the topic of Utah politics, it's true. He is in the middle of writing a book on the subject, which he hopes to publish sometime in 2016. When published, this book will be his second plunge into the literary world. His first novel, An Environment for Murder, was published in 1994 by Signature Books.
To be grammatically correct, one might begin a sentence with the phrase, "Rod Decker's voice sounds like ..."
But it's far more common to hear a news watcher describe Decker as though the voice and the man are two different entities: "The voice of Rod Decker is ..."
Decker insists he never sat in front of the mirror, raking his vocal chords over various octaves to achieve the perfect pitch. It just came.
A unique voice in TV, however, is increasingly "unfashionable," Decker says. And he speculates that, had he ever worked for another TV station in some other town, he might have had to change it.
KUTV General Manager Kent Crawford says that not everyone likes Decker or his voice. "Some people don't like him, some people like him a lot," Crawford says. "My feeling is, like him or not, people like watching him."
Decker's tough tone is also indicative of his all-business way of cutting through to the meat of a subject—and his ability to hold a politician's feet to the fire.
"I would say Rod Decker is a dying breed of reporters," says Peter Corroon, a former Salt Lake County Mayor who is now the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. "He's the type of reporter who can strike fear into your heart when he calls for an interview, but at the end of the day, does his homework and presents the true facts."
Mark Koelbel, KUTV 2News anchor, says Decker's ability to take a complicated story and make it simple and understandable is effective and, often, funny. "He can take a complicated story, and you feel like he's just talking to you as opposed to everybody out there in TV land," Koelbel says. And compared to some other TV reporters, who Koelbel says will yammer on for up to 40 additional seconds interjecting themselves into the story, Decker's intros last only a few seconds.
JOURNALISM & THE TOWN
The quality of a state, or a city, is measured by many metrics, including the size of its workforce, affordability and the winning records of its sports teams.
As a young journalist, Decker says he believed one way to gauge the quality of a town was by its journalism. "I thought when I was young that the quality of journalism in a town affected the quality of the town," he says. "Good journalism was an attribute of a good town."
Decker has witnessed firsthand journalism's high-point during Watergate to the low of today's hemorrhaging news businesses—enough history and upheaval to cause the steeliest journalist to become jaded. But Decker's outlook on the future isn't as bleak as one might expect. Decker says the key to journalism is for reporters to continue to draw a paycheck while sniffing out great stories.
"It seems to me that news editors are important, camera people are important and all of that's important, but it seems to me you've got to have reporters," Decker says. "You've got to have someone who goes out, figures out what's going on and tells people."
At Becker's campaign kickoff event, a few newspaper reporters were present, and Decker was the only TV reporter. Many TV stations sent camera operators to catch some film. At the post-news-conference Q&A with Becker, Decker held the microphones for his news outlet and two others—and it was Decker who asked all of the questions.
Whether reporters are employed in the future by mighty organizations like The New York Times remains to be seen. What Decker knows is that we humans enjoy, and will always enjoy, a good story.
"I think, you got a good story, people pay attention," he says.
And, for the past 43 years during his print and TV careers, Decker has been telling those stories nearly every single day—a habit that he says he doesn't plan to stop any time soon.
"I'm a man of little character, I require structure," Decker says. "And I'll work for probably as long as they'll have me. I don't know, things may change. For what they pay me, they could hire 2 1/2 beautiful young women."
Not only does Crawford, who started working at KUTV in 1982, intend to keep Decker around—he says as KUTV has changed hands over the years, not once has he been asked to get rid of Decker.
"They see what he brings—all of the journalistic qualities," Crawford says. "I'll take his work ethic and attitude over [beauty] any day."
In spite of the body of political reporting Decker has amassed over the decades, Crawford, Koelbel and Gehrke all remember one story in particular. It involved an orange jumpsuit, which Decker was wearing, the Utah State Prison he was escaping from, and a bloodhound named Sherlock, which was trying to catch up to the fleeing reporter, who was there filming a story about the quality of the bloodhounds.
In the reel, Decker runs through brush, swims canals and floats down the spring-swollen Jordan River. After an hour of running, Decker circles back to the starting point. "Well, you're a pretty good runner," the police tracker says.
Rather than feigning modesty, or brushing the successful escape off as a fluke, Decker says it like it is:
"Damn right," he says.
SOME OF ROD DECKER'S GREATEST HITS: