Manhattan Project #12 (wherein Jed Berman prepares to torch his own career)

It was working okay until Clinton replaced Bush and started threatening to send the troops back in to kick Saddam Hussein’s ass again. Things got ugly when I came into work one afternoon and found a half inch thick packet of information on my desk, all about military stuff, the warplanes and all the different kinds of weapons we’d be using. Lenhard was among the local news directors who learned something important during Desert Storm. They saw all the money the network made with its extended live coverage of the war. This time, they planned to cash in, by staying local. Essentially, we were going to cover a war thousands of miles away, live, hour after hour, from a mid-size city in the Midwest.
That put me in a tough spot; I had gotten through the first round of the war by letting the networks do all the pro-war, flag-waving stuff. This time, it was our responsibility. And we didn’t have much to work with, just a stack of pictures and descriptions of military equipment, and some old, retired military officers to interview. I did not look forward to it. Then, at the last minute, Saddam backed down and we didn’t have to do it. But I wasn’t off the hook, because management resurrected the idea when W. and his gang decided to head back to Iraq after 9/11. And that was the beginning of the end for me at that station.
Lenhard put out a memo telling us the “Action Plan,” as he liked to call it, would be instituted as of September 12, 2001, and the anchors would follow a rotating schedule to provide 24-hour live coverage of “The Nation in Peril.” I admit I had serious doubts about whether it was going to work, and I took my first step out the door when I sat down to anchor a war.
The first guy I interviewed taught government courses at the local community college. He was lousy; getting him to say anything meaningful about the terrorist attacks was impossible. We had just started this marathon lunacy and my patience was already running out.
I wrapped up the interview and said, “We’ll be right back.”
I waited until the commercial break rolled in the monitor, then grabbed the phone under the desk and punched up the control room. My producer picked it up.
“Yeh, Jed. What’s up?”
“Where’d we come up with that guy?” I asked her. “Has he ever been in New York? Does he even know the meaning of the words terrorist attack? If we’re gonna’ try to pull off this live, local, extended coverage of what happened, don’t you think we ought to interview people who actually know their ass from a hole in the ground?”
The producer was a young woman, only a couple of years out of Syracuse University’s hotshot advanced news producing program. I heard her take a deep breath. From the tone of her voice I knew I’d already hurt her feelings.
“I guess we disagree about how good that guest was, Jed. But we really don’t have time to discuss it now. We’re back in 30 seconds with the regional F.B.I. guy. Stand-by.”
She hung up the phone gently, I slammed mine back onto the hook and glared into the camera. Nobody else in the studio made a sound. The floor director gave me the count back to air, his hands under the camera, ten fingers pointing toward me.
“We’re back in five—four—three.” He mouthed the last two seconds as he folded the fingers into his palm, and cued me to the camera.
I looked up from my script and started to read. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my face on the monitor, wreathed in graphics. Across the top were the words “Newsbase Continuing Coverage,” across the bottom the words “Terror Takes New York.”
“Welcome back to our extended live Newsbase coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York. To recap what we know so far—roughly twenty-four hours ago, terrorists somehow managed to hijack four commercial airliners in this country. They flew two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, another into the Pentagon in Washington, and may have been heading for the White House with the fourth, but passengers on board that plane fought the hijackers, and the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania farm field, killing everyone on board. The other three crashes also killed all passengers, including the terrorists who had commandeered the planes.”
“We have been on the air live since shortly after the first crashes took place, trying to bring you the very latest information and analysis available about these terrible happenings.”
Actually, the network had been on the air for those first hours until Lenhard’s new strategy took effect.
“From time to time, we will switch to our network correspondents, but for the most part, we—your local Newsbase team—will be putting this together, trying to help us all understand what happened and, if we’re lucky, why.”
The floor director crouched under the camera and signaled me to switch to camera two. I glanced down at my script, swiveled in my chair until I was facing the other camera and looked up.
“We are joined now live by James Morrow, head of the Southeast Regional Office of the F.B.I.” Morrow was sitting in his office in Chicago; we were hooked up to him through a satellite truck outside his building.
The director punched up two boxes, those windows they use when they want to show you two people talking from different places at the same time. I was on the left and the F.B.I man on the right. He looked a bit dazed and uncomfortable, squinting in the bright stand lights shining in his face. I welcomed him to the broadcast and launched into the list of questions the producer and I had drawn up.
“Mr. Morrow, has the F.B.I. ever been called on to investigate a series of incidents this large and this tragic?”
Morrow reached up and fiddled with the plastic earpiece the studio crew had shoved into his right ear, but didn’t answer the question. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t hear you.”
We weren’t getting off to a good start with this.
“Looks like we’re having some technical difficulty hearing from the F.B.I.” I said. “While we try to get things straightened out, let’s take another look at the amateur video that captured the dreadful happenings at the World Trade Center yesterday morning.”
On the monitor, the director replaced the boxes with images showing one, then the second jetliner approach the towers and plunge into them. The editors had looped the footage together to let viewers watch the crashes several times in a row. I didn’t say anything as I watched the pictures; by now, twenty-four hours later, most of the world had seen those pictures more times than we cared to count. After the third replay, the producer talked to me in my IFB—that’s what we call the earpiece that connects us to the control room.
“OK, Jed, we’ve got Mr. Morrow’s I.F.B fixed. He can hear us now. Why don’t you introduce him again?”
The floor director cued me as I came back on the screen, along with our guest.
“Let’s try this again. Our guest is James Morrow, Regional Director of the F.B.I. We invited him to join us to help us understand what happened yesterday and how the F.B.I. is responding to it.”
“Mr. Morrow, has the F.B.I. ever faced a bigger or more tragic series of events than yesterday’s terrorist attacks?”
Morrow could obviously hear now, but he still looked a little confused, and his response sounded like it.
“I’m sorry, sir. But who am I speaking to?”
“This is Jed Berman, news anchor for Newsbase News. We are providing extended, live, local coverage of the terrorist attacks for our viewers.”
My answer didn’t do much to reassure him.
“If that’s the case, Mr. Berman, why are you talking to me? We might end up playing a role in the investigations into these incidents, but none of the planes crashed in our region, and response operations are being coordinated out of New York and Washington.”
Now I was getting uncomfortable. I will admit I’ve always considered the term déjà vu a cliché, but as this interview got ragged much as the one I had just complained about, I feared I was experiencing it. I wasn’t looking for trouble; I wanted to believe this man had some information that would be useful to our audience. I junked the prepared questions, and start digging for any useful information I could squeeze out of this guy.
“I understand your confusion, Mr. Morrow. If we gave you the impression we were coming to you for the basic facts of what happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, I apologize. I wouldn’t expect you to be on the front line of response to those incidents. But I think you can help us understand how that response will take shape. May I ask you this—are there any ongoing F.B.I. investigations into possible terrorist activity here in the U.S.? Do we start the probes of these incidents with some knowledge—or at least suspicions—already in hand?”
As Morrow locked in on that question, his face got red.
“Are you accusing the bureau of negligence in this matter, Mr. Berman? If that’s what you think, I’d strongly encourage you to think again. The F.B.I. is the finest investigative agency in the world, bar none. And nothing the C.I.A. says about any of what happened before yesterday or what is happening now in its aftermath can change the facts.”
Finally, I saw a chance to advance the story and I went for it.
“Mr. Morrow, thanks for that response. That is exactly what we would like to know—what are the facts in this case? What do we know about whoever did this and when did we know it? Was there any way we could have prevented this terrible loss of life on U.S. soil? Can you tell us that, Mr. Morrow?”
Morrow’s face changed from angry to anxious. He looked pale and nervous. I guess he realized he’d gone too far. It was clear he wasn’t really trained to talk to newshounds like us. We really can be a bunch of vultures. And he’d just given us a glimpse—through a tiny crack in the agency’s public façade—of the long-running rift between the bureau’s domestic spying and the work done by Langley, regardless of the law, on American soil. He glared at the camera. I’m sure he was thinking something like, this prick TV news guy twists me up and now he’s sitting there waiting for an answer. When he found his voice again he did what he could to patch things up and make it look like I was the one who’d stepped over the line.
“Here’s the deal, Mr. Berman.” He spat out my name through clenched teeth. “Here’s the deal.”
“You’ve been in this business, I presume, long enough to know how it works. If the F.B.I. was investigating anything that might be related to what happened yesterday, we—I,” he jabbed a stiff index finger hard into his chest, “would have absolutely no authority to reveal to you what we know, what we don’t know, or even what we’d like to know.”
He was so vehement that I realized I was in danger of losing control of the moment, and know-it-all anchors aren’t ever supposed to look like they’re not in full control, so I jumped back in.
“Yes, I understand that, Mr. Morrow. But isn’t this different? Haven’t we turned some corner, hasn’t the world changed dramatically when terrorists can infiltrate this nation’s airlines, take to the skies, and pull off the absolute worst terrorist incident on American soil in the history of our nation?”
I liked the way I put that, framing the dimensions of the terrorist attacks and giving viewers a sense that I grasped the full implications of the violence, in domestic and international terms. But the F.B.I. guy had a distinctly different and, frankly, unexpected reaction.
“That’s it, Mr. Berman. You’ve really gone too far. No, dammit, we cannot talk about what happened yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. Yes, I can tell you we are investigating. But, no, I will not tell you what we know nor when we did or didn’t learn it. These are very serious times, Berman, and you media people,” he actually wagged his finger at me and the entire news industry as he said this, “you news people had better watch it. I personally take great offense at the insinuations that are always part of your questioning. And, I know I speak for everyone in the government up to and including our distinguished President when I inform you that continuing on in this vain not only jeopardizes what we’re trying to do to protect the American public, but because it questions the ability of our elected and appointed representatives to do the job, you are, in my humble opinion, behaving in a grossly unpatriotic fashion. For the sake of what, I don’t even want to speculate, but I suspect we all know what it is. I don’t have time for any more of this.”
He snatched the microphone from his lapel, stood up so quickly that his protruding gut filled the screen in the close-up camera shot, tossed the microphone onto the chair, and walked out.
They told me later that up in the control room my young producer froze for a moment and watched him go. Then she told the director to lose the boxes and punch me up in a close-up shot. I looked down at my script for a moment, then up at the camera. Then I heard the producer in my IFB.
“Don’t say anything, Jed. Just throw it to the break, and we’ll figure out what happens next.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s