Friday, February 22, 2008

Ship of Fools

Because it's Friday -- and because I need to fill a little space while I work on something new -- I'm resurrecting an excerpt from the finished manuscript I'm currently shopping to publishers. With all the surreal hoopla over my recent firing from CNN, I wanted to give everyone a look back at what was truly the worst work experience of my career. (Believe me, despite the abrupt exit, CNN doesn't even come close.) The following is written in the present tense and takes place during my time at MSNBC immediately following 9/11. It relays the story of the single dumbest thing I've witnessed in my 16 years in TV news. Consider it a cautionary tale; keep it in the back of your mind each time you turn on your TV and turn your trust over to whoever happens to be bringing you the news in your city or town. There are some brilliant and exceptional people working in local television; there are also people like this. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It feels like a lifetime ago, but I was once a mere viewer of television news and as such I had "The Dream."

I assumed as many in the audience do -- that those coming into my living room each day and night and relaying to me the important events of the day were, at least to some extent, larger than life. Although never deluded enough to believe that all news anchors and reporters -- or the producers and managers working behind them -- were two or three IQ points away from Mensa, I figured that they had to at least be somewhat smarter than the average bear. I mean, their job was to deliver the news. Spend every day of your life standing next to the ceaseless river of information and you had to get a little wet, right? A contact high maybe? Hell, even Alex Trebek is considered a pseudo-intellectual and he's got the goddamned answers written down in front of him.

This was "The Dream."

"The Dream" was shattered in the time it took for a pretty female anchor at a highly-rated local news station to pick up a book from someone's desk, examine it, and utter these words with a completely straight face: "Penguin puts out an atlas? That's so cool. I had no idea there were penguins all over the world."

So much for believing that even the emptiest of vessels gets a few drops here and there just by being at the well; like the Nexus 6 replicants in Blade Runner developing their own human emotions for no other reason than the simple fact that they had existed long enough. That anchor by the way can now be seen by every person -- and penguin -- in the world. She's the host of a popular entertainment show.

MSNBC -- in spite of some occasional silliness -- is not by any stretch of the imagination the dumbest place in television news. Far from it in fact. As far as my work experience is concerned, that title goes hands-down to KCBS. It's no contest. I used to joke that the station's tagline should be "Channel 2 News: Watch Us Suck!" -- so precisely had the CBS flagship station in Los Angeles honed stupid to a fine edge.

Case in point:

About a year or so before Titanic came out and for some thoroughly baffling reason went on to become the biggest movie of all-time, CBS -- either through dumb luck or a misguided attempt to capitalize on the gathering buzz for the film -- aired a made-for-TV movie called The Titanic. The four-hour monstrosity starred George C. Scott as the doomed ship's captain and was scheduled to run in two parts. As is standard practice, the newshounds at KCBS sought out a plausible tie-in story to run during the two 11pm newscasts which would immediately follow the movie. Now no one really believed that the audience for The Titanic would be massive -- these were the days before CSI and Survivor miraculously woke CBS from its ratings coma -- but the hope was that the tie-in would be enough to keep the network's aging demographic from switching channels, going to bed, or making the decision once and for all to go into the light.

We figured the assignment desk had struck gold when it discovered that an actual survivor of the Titanic disaster was living in Long Beach, if you can legitimately call that living. She was a child at the time of the tragedy, was now in her 90s, and was more than willing to talk to us. A friend of mine -- a producer named Tyler Wilcox -- took a crew to Long Beach, did the interview, then set about putting together a two-part story that would coincide with the two-parts of the movie. He had just finished writing the first installment when he took it to the executive producer to get the script approved for air.

The EP was Stu Charles, a generally harmless doofus whose main claim to fame around the newsroom was his seemingly endless childlike awe at the very existence of nature. If it involved a campfire or a single stormcloud, Stu would first watch the remote feed as it came in -- his eyes wide with disbelief; his mouth hanging open -- then demand that we run with it as if we'd just uncovered the identity of Deep Throat. The first primitive humans that crawled out of the caves didn't react to fire and rain with the kind of unbridled astonishment that Stu did. I assumed by the way that this was a trait specific to him; I later found out that most local TV managers think this way, which is why wherever you live, the slightest hint of rain is often blown out of proportion until every station on the dial is warning you of the impending threat of "Hurricane Genghis." In contrast, my thought has always been that unless there's actual danger involved, any event that's been occurring consistently since the dawn of time kind of forfeits its right to legitimately be called Breaking News.

I sat directly across from Stu and watched him as he read Tyler's script for the Titanic tie-in. He spent most of the time mumbling incoherently and rocking back and forth in his seat like an autistic kid, but overall he seemed to approve of what he was seeing. Until --

"Uh, wait a minute here," Stu said, looking up at Tyler like a disappointed parent.

"Something wrong?"

"Well, yeah." -- as if the error should be obvious.

Tyler expressed appropriate concern, apparently willing to give Stu the benefit of the doubt -- or at the very least humor him.

"Okay, what's the problem?"

"Well, this is part one of the story, right?"


"It runs after part one of the movie," Stu said. It was no longer a question at this point but a statement -- a lecture.

"Yes, and?" Tyler shot back. The cracks were already beginning to show in his patience; he knew full well that something completely ridiculous had already been formulated inside Stu's head and was well on its way to spilling out of his mouth.

"Well, you mention here about the ship sinking."

Tyler just stared at him, saying nothing. You could practically see what he was thinking:

Here it comes.

"By the end of part one, the ship won't have sunk yet," Stu continued.

Tyler's focus didn't move; he simply stood frozen, waiting for the inevitable.

A little closer. Almost there.

Stu kept his eyes locked on Tyler's as if willing him to understand the logic.

Finally --

"You're gonna give away the ending."

We have lift off.

Tyler just looked down at his slack-jawed EP, his face a mask of incredulous confusion. Stu meanwhile let his words of insight hang in the air with all the understatement of a Catskills comedian, curious as to why something so simple could be overlooked by one of our producers.

The pause seemed endless -- the perfect punctuation to a conversation of such absurd proportions.

Tyler finally gave his head a quick shake, snapping himself out of his bewildered reverie, and asked the obvious.

"Are you saying that you don't want me to tell people that the Titanic sank?"

"Right! Don't give away the ending," Stu responded with a satisfied look, one frighteningly devoid of even the slightest hint of irony.

His dignity and spirit in almost visible tatters, Tyler reacted the only way he could given the situation.


He gently took the script out of Stu's hands, turned, and walked away calmly.

After that incident, "Don't Give Away the Ending" became the catch-phrase of choice between the four walls of KCBS, and the story behind it became the cautionary tale I told to my civilian friends, typically right after they informed me that they assumed -- as I once did -- that TV news people just couldn't be that fucking stupid, could they?


Schwa Love said...

So has this book been published yet, or is this question answered elsewhere in your blog?

spikeowen said...

stupid things said in newsroom. when the news was breaking that patrick kennedy got into an accident on capitol hill, an unnamed producer at my shop went straight to google.. and then yelled.. "he's a democrat!!!"

Anonymous said...

thaaaaaaat was nice,perfect

Anonymous said...

You want to put a "spoiler alert" on this post or something?

Aggie said...

That was the best laugh I've had all week--Thank you. Keep your chin up!

Anonymous said...

"... have sank ..." ??? Are you going to do a follow-up piece on newsroom grammar? I regularly hear "have went" also (and from the super-annuated boy-wonder, Dennis Miller, yet).

Anonymous said...

The "penguin" comment reads like the sort of pedestrian irony favored by Jay Leno -- and, to be effective, it must be delivered with a "completely straight face", disingenuously portraying complete innocence, ignorance and/or stupidity. Of course, the attribution (however seemingly biased) does favor your point -- they do rattle on.

Anonymous said...

Can you please tell the story of how stupid Rick Sanchez was when you guys worked together and he was interviewing someone, I think regarding the first Iraq war.
when he asked someone how they felt about a love one dying.
Your responce was pricless...." well how the hell do you think they feel Rick". I can't remember all the exact details but it was good. Besides Rick's such an ass.

Paul said...

This still makes me laugh out loud when I read it...I would like to see this guy take on a Civil War Ken Burns' documentary. DOn't tell the audience the north won!

Anonymous said...

Chez, long to we have to wait for the hardcover????
Seriously, do publishers have it yet????

laughin said...

I've worked in local news. I am not surprised.

Let me guess, Stu is working is either a big-shot producer now or managing a Burger King.

Blenderab said...

Holy shit, I know this guy.

Stu must of had a sex change, is now working under a new name, and has been my boss for the past 3 years.

Honestly, it reminds me once again of just another example of the "Dilbert Principle."

“Incompetent employees are intentionally promoted to prevent them from doing harm (for instance reducing product quality, offending customers, offending employees, etc.) Drawing upon the idea that in certain situations, the upper echelons of an organization can have little relevance to the actual production and the majority of real, productive work in a company is done by people lower in the power ladder.”

However, instances like Stu’s will occur when they tend to micro-manage everything.

What a tool! Too funny, man.

Adam said...

I was reading this and I had the strongest sense of deja vu, and then I noticed you said you "resurrected" it for today. I had no idea I'd been reading Deus this long, but that was originally from June '06! Man, time files when you're ranting entertainingly. Either that or I read the entire archives at some point, which I suppose isn't out of the realm of reason considering how worthless I am at work some days.

Anonymous said...

hahahahahahhahahahaha uh, lol.

Anonymous said...

That was GREAT!!!

Harris said...

"Tyler just looked down at his slack-jawed EP, his face a mask of incredulous confusion. "

I look at my managing editor like that at least once per week.

Anonymous said...

Do I understand what Blenderab is saying! My dad used to have a phrase, "Promoted above their level of incompetence" that he propbably picked up somewhere, to cover just such eventualities as this.

Anyway, I never did get around to seeing Titanic, so I'm grateful to have saved the cost of the DVD rental! :)

Gunny Geek said...

So, now I'd like to know if Stu Charles has seen this post, and whether he understands now.

tamara said...

When you start the signing tour for The Book, would you puh-leeeeeeeze come to Canada?

Thanks for the great daily reads, Chez....anxiously awaiting the "whole shebang" in book form.

WordFaery said...

"Hurricane Genghis"...... I live in a suburb of Buffalo, NY, I SO know what you mean. And with the doppler toys and computer models, they can work it for ten days. And all three stations when been even worse this season after all of them missed "The Columbus Day Surprise" in 2006.

Terrific article. I'll be waiting for the book too.

Rosenblum said...

Ha ha ha
About 10 years ago, I produced a series for TLC called Breaking News. It was a reality show, and we shot the pilot at KCBS. Of course, you can't use the best stuff in the show (because no other station will ever let you in). This is true of all reality shows, not just Breaking News. But the stuff from KCBS was priceless, as are your stories.

Captures it perfectly.

Doug M.Cummings said...

I worked as a broadcast street reporter for about twenty-five years. I remember one anchor who decided to ride-along with me for a shift just to get a feel for the beat I worked. As we strolled the courthouse, I pointed out the refuse department office and told her the director had been the source for some excellent stories. Honest to God, she asked me what people did in the refuse department, pronouncing it ree-fuse (as in, "I refuse to comment.")Of course, I told her anytime anyone made a request of county government and were turned down, the ree-fuse department was behind it.
A couple of jobs later, I worked a story where a young boy was sexually assaulted and raped with a Coke bottle. Another anchor wondered aloud,(totally true, I swear),"Can we use the word 'cornholed' on the air?" The News Director, ever the dry wit, called back,"Nah. Just say 'butt-fucked.'"

Stephen said...

Thank you for the laugh....I can't wait for the book! Hope you left room for WTVJ.

Chris said...

Wait, wait, wait... are you saying the Titanic sank? I guess I can cross that off my Netflix list...