Manhattan Project #13 (a lesson in not always speaking your mind)

(Berman is upset over his station’s revenue-driven decision to do extended live coverage of the post-9/11 Iraq war at the local level. He shares his concern with viewers.)
Here’s where things went off the tracks, or maybe I should say where I went off the tracks. I listened to her instructions and then—and to this day I cannot give you a rational explanation for this—I leaned toward the camera, but not quite the way I usually do when a segment ends and it’s time to run commercials. I looked down for an instant, then up at the camera.
“When we launched this extended live, local coverage of the attacks on American soil, we promised to do our level best to bring you critical information that would help us all understand what happened and what needs to happen next. If you’ve been watching us so far, you are as aware as we are what a dismal failure this exercise has been. We are a local TV station. No one here really has the kind of connections to the major players in this tragedy that you would find at the network. So what you’re getting is a steady stream of unqualified individuals.”
I didn’t really remember this next part, but I’ve seen it on tape, so I know it happened. I paused after my opening salvo, sat up straighter and extended my hands palms up toward the camera.
“Not that they aren’t good people, good Americans. It’s just that they don’t know squat about any of this.”
I paused very briefly, looked down at the desk, and came back to the camera.
“We obviously don’t, either. And that probably has you wondering why we’re doing this. Well,” I let out a little sigh, “I guess it’s time I let you in on our dirty little secret.”
They told me later that everyone in the control room lunged for my IFB button but the director got there first.
“Jed, don’t do this,” he hissed. “If you’re feeling the strain from being on so long, let’s give you a break. In any case, do not tell viewers what I think you are planning to tell them. That’s an order.”
Talk about a death wish. In less than the time it takes to snap your fingers, I considered the possible outcomes if I kept going. It wasn’t as if I’d never been on the brink before. I wouldn’t have been sitting in that chair at that moment, if I hadn’t done some ballsy things and stood up to management. Hell, even DeMarco threatened to give me a time-out more than once. This didn’t seem so different. The voice in my head, maybe it was conscience or whatever, came in loud and clear. And it told me viewers had a right to know—especially at a time when the entire nation was traumatized by devastating terrorist acts—what my station and lots of other local stations were up to with this live, local, late-breaking coverage of events that took place thousands of miles away. In that instant, the voice convinced me to plunge ahead. On the tape you can see that when I looked up at the camera, my face looked relaxed, it was the face of a man doing what he wanted to do. I pulled the IFB out of my ear and let it dangle down my shoulder so no one could interrupt me,
“First let me say this. You have been faithful to us, through thick and thin; you take time to call us and write letters and greet us in the grocery store. You trust us to play it straight. But we haven’t been entirely faithful to you. We haven’t told you the whole truth. And you deserve to know that the real reason you’re listening to us right now, and not our network, is money. Many of you will remember back to the cold January night in 1991, when George H.W. Bush launched the first Gulf War. The nation followed every second of it on television, and the networks chalked up great ratings and made lots of money on advertising. Seeing that great success, with the advice of their consultants, local stations started gearing up for the next one. They put together packets of information for news anchors, right down to silhouettes of military aircraft, so we could look at video shot by whoever and talk about it for all of you at home, which would keep you tuned into us, so we could capitalize on the great ratings and make tons of money selling advertising.”
“The shame of it, as we’ve just demonstrated here today, is that we can’t give you the quality of coverage you deserve. We don’t have the clout to make people talk to us. We do want to understand, along with you, these terrible events, and what they might mean for our future. But I’ll be damned if we can do it ourselves.”
I sat back in my chair, and finished up.
“So that’s the dirty secret. Some of you probably had it figured out already. Now we all know. It’s time for me to surrender this chair to my colleague, Tamara Gonzalez and invite you to stay tuned for more, live, local coverage of the terror in New York and elsewhere. We’ll be right back.”
The director threw it to the break, and they told me everyone in the control room sank into their chairs, dazed by what I’d just done. I sat in my chair, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. I felt surprisingly calm. Just before I unplugged my IFB, my young producer’s voice was back in my ear.
“Jed, Lenhard would like you to stop by his office when you get back to the newsroom.”
When I stepped into Lenhard’s doorway, he was standing behind his desk, looking out the window into the darkness. He turned around when I knocked on the open door and motioned to the chair in front of his desk.
“Sit down, Jed.”
I sat down and waited for what I knew he was going to say. For what seemed like an hour, Lenhard stood there, staring at me. There was anger in his face, but something more, a weariness I’d never seen before, even though he and I had tangled over news issues a few times since he replaced Fred DeMarco.
He finally cleared his throat and launched into it.
“You know what’s coming, don’t you, Jed?”
I nodded and said, “I think I do, Jon.”
“Then let’s get it over with. I’m not going to play shrink today and ask you why you would do such a thing. I suspect I already know the answer to that. Somewhere in that convoluted brain of yours you decided you just had to tell the truth about why we’re dealing with the attacks this way. You can’t have it that the interests of the station need to be factored in at least as much as your journalistic virtue. Well, Jed, I’m here to tell you that you are a self-righteous prig.”
Lenhard’s voice rose and he spoke more rapidly as he continued.
“You and I aren’t really friends, but until today I have had great respect for your abilities as a reporter and an anchor. But after today’s performance, I can’t help wondering if part of the reason you did that isn’t connected to your ego—those interviews, if we can even call them that, didn’t go very well. The FBI guy actually got the better of you, and I think that embarrassed you. And God knows,” Lenhard, who wasn’t a particularly religious man as far as I knew, raised his right hand toward the heavens for dramatic effect, “you can’t stand looking bad in front of all your adoring fans.” He paused for a moment, then continued in a flat monotone.
“I really don’t care what happened inside your head that made you do it. Here’s how this is going to play out. I’m invoking the clause in your contract that allows us to terminate you for behavior unbecoming a station employee. As of this moment, you are off the anchor desk and out of this station. You are not suspended, you are not on unpaid leave, you are fucking fired. You just did a lot of damage out there, Jed. And there’s just no room for Howard Beal on our staff. The station and the people of this community deserve better. Now, go.”
He pointed toward the door. I started to standup, then sat down again and tried to appeal the verdict.
“But, Jon, don’t I get a last cigarette here? Don’t you want to hear my explanation?”
Lenhard trained his tired eyes on me and said, “No.”

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