Manhattan Project #16 Dirty secrets

Chapter Seven (in which Jed Berman shares some dirty secrets of the TV news business))

I carried that invention stuff around in my head for weeks, stewing on it, trying to decide if it really made any sense. But I was back working in TV news, by then. I should probably explain how that happened, and how I ended up here in the Maine woods, after making it to a much bigger market in the shadow of Chicago.

After Lenhard threw me out—okay, it was as much my fault as his, if you look at it from the station’s point of view—I got pretty depressed. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a dangerous difference of opinion with management, usually over some ethical or moral concern, but sometimes just because I thought the direction they were taking the local news business, prodded by the asshole consultants they hired, struck me as shallow water, more infotainment stuff, and less real information that people could actually use. I know it sounds pretty self-serving, but I really thought our role in the community, wherever we were, was to be a service to viewers, to give them the stuff they should know about, information they needed to deal with serious issues and make decisions about circumstances that directly affected their daily lives.

Listening to a TV news guy say that, I can see how you’d be tempted to sneer at me. Most people are hip to the fact that commercial broadcasting is majorly about attracting a big audience that you can sell—as advertising time—to local companies that want to pitch their products. I realized that way early in the game, back when I was in radio news. And the message was hammered home to me lots of times over the years I’ve been in the business, especially after I got into TV.

I remember when we got a new, hotshot GM, that’s a general manager, the big cheese, at my old station in the Midwest. This guy was pretty full of himself, which we later had some basic doubts about when we checked up on him and discovered that he’d taken the last two stations where he worked from number one in the market to number three out of three. But, in the mystifying world of executive searches, we’d ended up with him. He was awfully tight with the consultant we had. We always figured the consultant pulled the levers to get him the job.

Anyway, this guy comes blowing in the door, and immediately calls a staff meeting, where he introduces himself and tells us all the great things he’s going to do for us and with us. And one of those things was what he called advocacy journalism. We’re going to go out there and work for the people, he told us. They’re going to tell us about the problems they can’t solve, he said, and we’re going to investigate them, and we’re going to fix them. We’re going to be the station everyone turns to for entertainment, for news, and for help. I think we were supposed to clap or something, at that point, but no one did. The news people just looked at each other, wondering how he intended to deliver this great gift to our viewers.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out, and I was one of the people invited to the meeting to talk about it. Lenhard was there, along with the young woman who ended up producing my last newscast at the station, so was the promotions director, and, of course, the GM. He was pretty excited as he introduced a new, feature we were going to add called Contact 12. We were going to advertise a phone number that people could call and leave a recorded message about whatever problem they were having. Then the producer and I would get in touch with them and see if it was something we could make a story out of. If it was, we’d go after the company or whatever that was not cooperating with these people, and basically threaten to expose them on the air if they didn’t provide our caller with satisfaction. He was talking pretty fast and excited by this point. He finished up like a football coach at half time; he punched the air with his fist and said, “Now, let’s get out there and do it!” Then he turned to me and the producer and asked us to stick around for a minute.

He waited until the other two left and then leaned across his desk and told us there was one basic rule about how this hard-hitting, consumer investigation team was going to work. The rule was just two words long—no retail. Now, that may not strike you as significant, but it did me and the young producer. I’d done a fair amount of investigative reporting by that time, and one of my cardinal rules had always been let the chips fall where they may. If we could nail down the story of anyone—a politician, a business executive, the director of a charitable organization, hell, even a librarian—who wasn’t playing fair or was somehow cheating the public, we put it on the air. I figured those stories were the reason this guy chose me to be part of Contact 12. And up to this point, other than picturing this guy hovering over us while we tried to do our jobs, jobs news people like to do with a lot of independence, I was thinking that tackling this new assignment might be kind of interesting. Now I was a little apprehensive. The GM apparently thought we needed some clarification, so he looked us straight in the eye and repeated the rule—no retail. And that, he told us, meant exactly what it sounded like.

Well, as he went on, it didn’t mean exactly what it sounded like. It meant that there were some companies we might get complaints about that we would not be investigating. You can probably guess which ones, basically anyone who spent a lot of money advertising on the station. I have to admit my heart sank. I had built my reputation on not pulling any punches. I had a feeling this whole Contact 12 thing was going to get damned uncomfortable once we invited the public to call our hotline number with their problems. And I was right.

Some of the first calls we got were about local car dealers who were ripping people off, especially when they took their cars in to be fixed. I checked out a few of them, and it was clear that the dealers were guilty of overcharging for parts and labor. But the rule said no retail, and we couldn’t do anything about it. We took on smaller companies that didn’t advertise with us, and intimidated them enough to get them to set things right with their customers. But we didn’t touch the car dealers.

I can tell you now, since I don’t work there anymore, that my producer and I walked around town hoping no one would ever ask us why we didn’t do stories on those crook car dealers. It was not a good feeling and the idea that we were basically being dishonest with our viewers gnawed at me along with my discomfort over how we were supposed to cover the war stuff. It was definitely rattling around in there the day I committed suicide on the air and lost my job. And it was still on my mind as I tried to figure out what I was going to do after I got fired.

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