Manhattan Project #47 Here’s a Thought!

(wherein TV newsman Jed Berman pitches the idea of a story on mirror neurons to a skeptical Fred Demarco, his news director)

Chapter Fifteen

I know, you never expected me to sound this positive and enthusiastic. Truth is, I probably sound more excited than I really am, at this point. After I discovered all of that stuff, I thought I might be able to kick off the New Manhattan Project in a story at work. I mean, that stuff just came to light in the last couple of years, and I don’t think most people have heard anything about it. I certainly hadn’t. And if the research holds up, I honestly believe we’re talking about something very profound. It certainly answers a lot of my questions. And the work is being done by people who deal in facts and the scientific method, not some New Age prophets or something, who came up with all of that by channeling Mahatma Gandhi or someone. So I pitched it to DeMarco after I had read enough to think I understood it pretty well.

I knocked on his door, which was partway open, about two months after Doris pointed me toward mirror neurons. DeMarco told me to come in, but it sounded more like an extended grunt. I assumed my usual chair in front of his desk. He was reading a script and didn’t look up as he spoke.

“Okay, you’re in here. What do you need?”

I launched right into my story pitch.
“Fred, I’ve got a great idea for a story, maybe a special report, on an amazing scientific discovery that touches virtually every human being on the face of the earth.”

That got his attention. His head snapped up and he drilled me with his eyes.

“Say what? This better be good, Jed. I don’t expect hyperbole from anybody, least of all you.”

“I don’t think I’m making too much out of this, Fred. It’s pretty interesting stuff. It could impact all of us.”

“So what is it? Enough of the mystery, already.”

I launched into the story of mirror neurons and the link to basic human nature and the impact our more recently evolved ability to think and formulate beliefs and ideology have had on our natural, biological inheritance. Fred listened attentively, at first, but I could see his eyes start to glaze over after a while. He finally raised his hand and cut me off.

“That’s kind of interesting for science nerds or whatever, but how does that become a story in a local newscast?”

That’s when I realized maybe it wasn’t such a good story. I thought it was important because I have always wondered about those things. But anybody who didn’t dwell on the same questions might not. I tossed in the only other card I had. I recited that quote from Marco Iacoboni.

“So, you see, Fred, we’re talking about a discovery that goes to the very heart of what it means to be a human being, the every essence of our nature. And if Iacoboni is on target, and this discovery really gets around and people realize what it means, it has implications for the way we all relate to each other.”

“In an increasing global community, think what that could mean? Nations might not be able to raise armies and wage war, because the people who have always been the cannon fodder would react out of their true nature and refuse to go out and kill their fellow human beings. That’s a pretty dramatic effect from a scientific discovery.”

“I think it’s a very big deal, and we should be the station where people hear about it first. I mean it’s not going to change society overnight, but if this news gets out there, I believe things will change. Isn’t that a story? The local hook is that this research touches every person in our DMA. Don’t you think they’d want to know about it?”

DeMarco sat back and started rubbing his hand over his bald head. I thought that was a good sign. But he didn’t say anything for a long time—actually it was about fifteen seconds, but that’s a long time for Fred Demarco to consider anything—then he reached his verdict.

“Okay, Jed, we do this as a straight-up science report that’s relevant to everybody in our audience. I don’t want any namby-pamby bullshit about what a wonderful world it’s going to bring us. The angle is that scientists may have come up with some solid evidence that speaks to the age-old debate over human nature. People would probably pay attention to that, at least the ones who don’t spend all day voting for the next American Idol winner. And we certainly want those thinking people to be happy with what we’re doing. They’re probably better educated and more affluent, and that’s exactly who our advertisers want to reach.”

“You could throw in some people-on-the-street. But here are the real questions: Who can you talk to around here that knows anything about this? You got any local experts in mind? I assume that Bobobino or whatever guy you just quoted to me doesn’t hang out in Maine.”

“No, you’re right. Iacoboni’s originally from Italy, but he’s at UCLA now. I could do a phoner thing with him, if worse comes to worst, but I’m thinking somebody in the psych department at UMaine might be up to speed on this. I thought I’d give Jeff Barr a call and see who he’s got.”

“Okay, then get to it. We gonna’ have this for today?”

“Might be kind of tough to pull off this afternoon, can we slot it in for tomorrow? I can set up interviews this afternoon and come in early tomorrow to shoot ‘em.”

“Good enough. Get busy.”

He dismissed me with his usual magisterial wave of the hand. But he stopped me just as I reached the doorway.

“Hey, Jed, wait a second.”

I turned around and looked at him.

“Just one more question: How’d you come up with this idea? If nobody really knows about it, how’d you discover it?”

Knowing the suspicions he had about my general attitude toward things when we did the Afghanistan stuff, I figured I’d better tread lightly.

“Hey, you know me, Fred. I’m always reading, always trying to find good stories to work on. Actually, a friend of mine put me onto it.”

I knew I couldn’t tell him it was Doris; if he thought I was getting my inspiration from a convicted drug dealer he would have laughed me out of the office.

“He just said he thought I’d find the stuff interesting, and when I checked it out, I did. Plus, you know nothing jazzes me more than breaking a story before any of the other bozos in town. Remember, back in the Midwest, we were the first station in our market to tell people cow farts were damaging the ozone layer? This is just another story like that. It probably fits in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not category. Something different that people might find interesting. You know?”

I smiled, but he didn’t.

“That sounds reasonable. But don’t jerk me around on this. You better not be turning into some bullshit pacifist or something. If I thought you were using our newscast to spread some kind of left-wing propaganda, I’d spike the idea in a heartbeat. You know what I’m saying? We gotta’ play it right down the middle here. It’s just an update on new science, not a formula for saving the world and its teeming billions.”

I tried to look as sincere as I could.

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