You can forgive the noisy, self-absorbed high-school and college students who recently packed a Beverly Hills coffee shop for not immediately recognizing Josh Mankiewicz, the man sitting in the corner and donning tasteful leisure wear. A Dateline NBC correspondent for two decades and family member to Hollywood and Washington, D.C., royalty, Mankiewicz is best known to nationwide television audiences, at least image-wise, for his natty on-air suits and pocket squares, as well as a distinctive, molasses voice fans erroneously assume is enhanced with 90-proof beverages.
"I don't drink," he declares, chuckling.
On a network news show that routinely defeats its competitors in the ratings, the gregarious Mankiewicz displays his journalistic prowess and storytelling skills even in Orange County, where he has dominated our most sensational prime-time crime coverage—for example, People v. Daniel Wozniak, the case of a poor community-theater actor in Costa Mesa who killed two friends in a diabolical plot to grab money for his wedding and a honeymoon cruise, and People v. Kwang Choi Joy, a whodunit solved by crafty detective work in the city of Orange.
"Orange County has been seen for years from the outside as a quiet, bedroom community, but it has become [crime-wise] this steaming cauldron of passion," observes Mankiewicz, who is of Mormon and Jewish parentage. "There are some amazing stories coming out of there."
A primary goal is pleasing Dateline's audience, especially members who engage him on social media. One particular group of loyal viewers created a Twitter feed, Dateline Divas, with thousands of followers. Another one, Mank's Brow, celebrates Mankiewicz's memorable eyebrow raising when, say, a killer utters a ridiculous exculpatory tale.
"We know the audience's reaction in real time," he says. "It's great. They don't hold back. We're in a business, and they are the customers—can't ignore them!"
Mankiewicz explains that another key to his show's success is the ability of correspondents such as himself and Newport Beach resident Keith Morrison to gain the trust of victims' families, whose members feel the devastating impacts murders cause. "There's a ripple effect on lives and relationships for years and years," Mankiewicz says. "Most people don't understand that."
He has related experience. His dad, Frank, who died in 2014, served as a Washington Post columnist, a Peace Corps regional director in South America, a U.S. Army soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, the campaign director for George McGovern's 1972 White House run, as well as the president of National Public Radio. He also was Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary, making the historic announcement of the 1968 assassination on the night of the California presidential primary. Mankiewicz met RFK half a dozen times as a teenager. "You could feel the charisma radiating off him," he remembers. "He was larger than life, even for a 13-year-old."
Now at the age of 60 and in his fourth decade of reporting—for ABC, CBS and FOX in places such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles (for KCAL-TV Channel 9)—he appreciates the swiftness of today's news publishing and broadcasting, but he also sees a corresponding problem. "Journalism is so much more immediately accessible than it used to be," says Mankiewicz. "But barriers to who is considered a journalist are lower. What's sometimes gotten lost are care and standards—the writing, reporting and sourcing. There's a huge rush to be first. I love to be first, too, but I'd rather be right."
Exceptionally advanced communication skills must be a component of Mankiewicz family DNA. In addition to his dad's accomplishments, his grandfather, Herman, was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and Vanity Fair and wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Wells. His grandfather's brother, Joseph, directed All About Eve and Cleopatra. His Academy Award-nominated uncle, Don, wrote episodes of Ironside and Star Trek. Don's brother, Thomas, wrote the James Bond flick Live and Let Die and television episodes of Hart to Hart, as well as contributed to Superman: The Movie. His cousin, John—Don's son—has written for The New Yorker and worked as co-executive producer of Netflix phenomenon House of Cards. Ben, his younger brother and a former TV news reporter and commentator, nowadays hosts Turner Classic Movies.
Despite his connections, Mankiewicz began his professional journalism life near the bottom of the newsroom rung at the ABC News bureau in the nation's capital. "I worked the assignment desk," he recalls. "Part of my job was picking up Sam Donaldson's suits from the cleaners."
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He believes his best career move was to join the CBS affiliate in New York City because that's when he won the opportunity to be on-air every day. Over the years, his coverage of crime, politics, congressional scandals and Michael Jackson's fall from grace earned accolades.
But there have been tumbles, too. Along with Ron Reagan in 1993, he co-hosted Front Page on FOX, but the show failed after one season. "You know how they used to publish the [television] ratings in the paper?" Mankiewicz asks and laughs. "You'd have to go all the way to the bottom [of the list] to find that show. Dead last."
So what might the future hold?
He's content being a reporter—his lifelong dream—but Mankiewicz harbors ambitions, saying, "I could see myself writing a book or, in the family business, writing a screenplay."