News of John McLaughlin's death last week took me back twenty-seven years to the time when he moderated A Matter of Life and Death, a TV show that Ward Sylvester and I produced that was seen by large audiences in more than 200 television markets.
Tommy Zeigler, an Orlando furniture store magnate, had been convicted of murder in the deaths of four people in his store fourteen years earlier. Zeigler claimed that his store had been robbed by black stickup men who then shot the victims. Sylvester and I hired two teams, each with a producer and a reporter to investigate the case. One team was to try to prove his innocence, the other to prove his guilt. Both teams were led by experienced journalists: Ike Pappas for the defense and Ron Gollobin for the prosecution.
I had hired David Frost to moderate the show but at the last minute he got ill, dropped out and returned to England. I turned to Larry King but Burt Reinhardt, my successor as head of CNN, refused to release him. Then the light switched on and I contacted John McLaughlin. It took 50,000 dollars to get him up to New York and run the show but he was worth every penny.
The show was planned to run for two hours and McLaughlin had to handle at least a half-dozen participants, some from the defense others for the prosecution. Additionally, because Zeigler had changed his mind and refused to appear on camera from Orlando, we brought up Zeigler's two defense attorneys. They were not cheap and both demanded rooms at the Plaza for themselves and their wives.
Preparation was not easy -- the producers who worked with Pappas were particularly difficult, absolutely certain that he was not guilty. Gollobin's team was just as certain that Zeigler was a murderer. After McLaughlin had agreed to come onboard, that battle was settled, and, as I remember it, only Gollobin and Pappas appeared live on the show. They were of course joined by Zeigler's lawyers and it was McLaughlin's job to control the adversaries. He performed superbly, shutting up both sides if they got too loud and managing to keep some semblance of order.
Ziegler's lawyers vigorously fought for his innocence, so vigorously that McLaughlin stepped in and sent them packing. He then summarized the results and clearly indicated that he thought Zeigler was guilty as hell.
All through the program, votes had been coming in from the audience on a 900 number. The audience at first indicated he was guilty but by next day, the final vote came in and the verdict was innocent by a roughly 65 percent-35 percent margin. I didn't believe it then and neither did McLaughlin but it was a first rate show and both of us were satisfied.
Now, I mourn his death and wish I'd once occupied a chair on The McLaughlin Group.