(this is the 17th installment of “The Manhattan Project”…you can find the other 16 in earlier posts…in this one, Berman mostly feels sorry for himself and then, with the help of his partner, Jane, he finds a glimmer of hope.)
For a couple of weeks I just sat around the house feeling sorry for myself and getting pretty depressed. As I said, I’ve tangled with management before, but in all the years I’d been doing news, I had never been fired, not even when my station was cutting back during tough economic times. I didn’t have much respect for Lenhard from the start, so it was extra hard having to sit there in his office and listen to him condemn me. Jane and I went for a lot of walks in those days, after she got home from school, and we talked about it.
I haven’t told you much about her, but as far as I’m concerned she is a saint. She’s very attractive and good at what she does, but her real beauty is inside, in her heart and her mind. She could have done anything in the world, pursued much more self-centered careers, like mine in journalism, but she chose teaching because she honestly cares about people, and turning kids on to reading is a tremendous gift, maybe one of the most important things you can do for another person. As she says, it turns on the light and opens the door for someone to learn and grow and be successful in the world. She’s amazingly mature; she’s gotten a little perturbed by my antics on occasion, but I have never seen her totally lose it and throw a tantrum, like I’m capable of doing over some pretty insignificant stuff.
Anyway, as we walked and talked, she tried to help me sort things out so I could move on and do something useful with my life. She thought I’d make a great teacher, and suggested a couple of times that I should grab a quick master’s degree and teach journalism in college someplace. I thought about that. I’d done a little part-time teaching while I was anchoring, but it didn’t really move me. I told her that, but she didn’t let go of it.
“Think about it, Jed. How do you feel about what people like Lenhard and your GM are doing to the news business? How many times have you come home fuming about how trivial it’s all becoming? You’ve even told me that some of your younger reporters don’t even need to be pushed by those jerks. You said they show up psyched to be TV celebrities and just want to do fluffy, feature stuff.
Remember that one young woman who came in that day right after she was hired and hung a big yellow star on the bulletin board in front of her desk, and turned around and told anyone who was listening, ‘I’m going to be a news star.’ Remember that?”
I did remember it. I couldn’t believe anyone who studied journalism in college could show up with that kind of attitude. But I didn’t feel any responsibility to deal with it in the newsroom. If anything, it made me work harder to do stories that mattered, so we could send the message to our viewers that we took them and their lives seriously and would be there for them when they needed us. I reminded Jane of that.
“I know you did, but it didn’t seem to matter how much harder you worked. Things have just gotten worse. And I think a big part of the reason is that someone in the j-schools around the country has sold out, maybe a lot of someones. And that’s why I think you could do some good things as a teacher.”
“Like what?” I asked, although I already knew what she was going to say.
“Like get into a journalism program and be a subversive influence, convince those bright, young people to get back to doing real journalism. Get the stars out of their eyes and the fire back in their bellies for tackling the hard stories and being our watchdogs. How many times have you told me that’s what journalists used to do, when just about every station had an I-team that kept the heat on in their community to make sure the rest of us didn’t get ripped off?”
I sighed, stopped walking, and turned to her.
“Sweetie, I appreciate your faith in me. No one else on earth would have stood by me all these years like you have. And you make a good argument; I think somebody ought to do exactly what you’re talking about. But I don’t think it’s me.”
She looked at me with that wonderful, caring expression she always got when we had these conversations.
“Why not, Jed?”
“Because that’s not where I want to be. I know I’m a little fucked up in ways that create problems for me in the business, but I still believe I was born to do the news. Maybe I could influence some young minds to resist the evil forces of commercialism that have permeated the news for so long, but it just doesn’t feel right to go there.”
“Then where should you go, Jed?” she asked, a little exasperation creeping into her voice, in this umpteenth rendition of basically the same conversation. “What do you want to do?” She already knew the answer to that, but she asked it again, just the same.
“There’s only one place I want to be, Jane, in the newsroom, doing the stories that people need to hear. That’s how I can make my contribution to society. You do wonderful things as a teacher; you give kids a fighting chance to make it in this world. But that’s not for me, at least not at this point, maybe later. What I want to do now is the news. Not talk about it, and try to teach someone else how to do it. I’ve still got lots of energy to give to it and there are still lots of stories that need to be done. I want to do the news.”
Jane reached up and held my face in her hands, and then leaned toward me and kissed me.
“Alright then, Mr. Berman, then that’s what you’re going to do. Find another gig, Jed, and don’t worry about where it is. My skills are portable; I can get a job just about anywhere. Get that job, Jed, and let’s get you back on duty protecting us all from evil.”
She smiled when she said that, and I knew, beneath the slight razzing, she meant what she said and she still believed in me as a reporter. We headed home and I started hunting for a job. But it wasn’t easy to find. Over the years I had often heard people say that even though there were thousands of radio and television stations in this country, the broadcasting community could be very small. Because people jumped around so much, climbing the ladder to the big time, they naturally developed friends and contacts in lots of other markets, and those collective contacts had twisted into a grapevine that stretched all over the place, a grapevine that buzzed with activity when something out of the ordinary happened. And what I discovered as I started putting out feelers for a job was that my final performance at the station had been judged unusual enough for people to take note of it.
I checked job listings and called news directors at dozens of stations all over the place, but as soon as I told them my name, they would often chuckle a little and then say, “Are you that Jed Berman? The one who self-destructed at that station in the Midwest?” I usually pretended I didn’t know what they were talking about, but they persisted. “You know, the anchor who went on the air and talked about the dirty little secret.” When I tried to avoid the subject, they would finally say, “Are you the guy who worked for Jon Lenhard?” I had to answer that one directly, and as soon as I did, they’d tell me they weren’t hiring right now, thank me for calling, and then hang up. A couple of times, just before the call disconnected, I’d hear them yell to somebody in their newsroom, “Hey, Jed Berman just called me, the guy who went up in smoke on the air. Can you believe it? He wondered if I had a job for him.” Then they’d dissolve in laughter.
That went on for quite a while. And even when they didn’t recognize my name, they still didn’t have a job. I kind of expected that, too. Over the years, I saw the consultants and talent search companies reaching lower and lower on the food chain to get young, up-and-comers into their stable, so they could pitch them to client stations when they needed somebody. They were a smug bunch, very impressed with themselves, the consultants, I mean, not necessarily the reporters.
The guy we had at our station, Autry Domain, would sweep into the newsroom periodically, act like he gave a shit about every single reporter and anchor, then glide into the news director’s office for a confidential session. It was Domain who brought Lenhard to my station, and I know he planted sensationalistic jerks like him at stations all over the place. They were disgusting people to relate to; their sincerity was about a millimeter deep. But while things were going well, I never stopped to think about what they had accomplished with all of their oily machinations.
Now, I was confronted by the reality they had wrought in the broadcast news business—you couldn’t plead your case directly to a news director anymore, show them your stuff and explain why you’d be good for their organization. When a station needed someone, the news director or the GM picked up the phone and placed an order with the consultant. Because the consultants and talent agencies had built up such an extensive catalog, the station could be very precise in what they asked for—a twenty-five’ish female with red hair, slender but well endowed, with a flair for entertainment news, or a thirty’ish male, brown hair and a square jaw, who knew how to dress and could read fairly smoothly from the teleprompter. I suppose they actually asked for some reporting skills on occasion, but all the way up to the networks it looked to me like the primary ingredients were youthfulness, a sense of style, and dazzling good looks.
I mean, think about the people who bring you the news every day on TV.
Especially in major markets and cable channels, they look like models or something. And if you doubt my accusation about a lack of intelligence and reporting skills, just watch what happens when the teleprompter goes down while they’re doing a live interview during a crisis or disaster. For my money, what makes an anchor worth the big bucks is their knowledge and the ability to think on their feet, and weave together all the information they’re fed through their IFB by the producer into an intelligible, informative narrative. Yeh, I know, I’m showing my age and I sound like a grouch. Well, I really felt that way in those months after I was let go.
I was in a pretty sad state when Jane came home one day with her face lit up like it does when she has a really good idea.
“Jed, what ever became of Fred DeMarco? Is he still in the business?”
I was so depressed by that time, it took some effort to respond to her, but I knew I should, because she was only trying to be helpful.
“Beats me. The station just broomed him in the dead of night and we never heard from him again.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh, geez, a bunch of years ago.”
“Do you think you could find him? He really had a lot of respect for you and your work. And he was your friend, I thought. If you can catch up with him, and he’s still working, maybe he’d offer you a job.”