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.
"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.
"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?