Friday, June 20, 2008

Broadcast News at 20

In July 1984, Democrats convened in San Francisco for what they hoped would be an historic convention that would impel them on to the White House. I had a front row seat working as the “podium producer” for CBS News with correspondent Bruce Morton. Dan Rather anchored our coverage from a three-story booth located across the floor. The air was electric when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the party’s vice presidential candidate, the highest position in government for which a woman had been nominated.

On the Friday morning following the convention I awakened in my Fairmont Hotel Suite truly inspired. I rolled over to face the woman I loved, and had been living with for five years, and I proposed we elope that afternoon in San Francisco. Susan Zirinsky immediately accepted and I called City Hall.

Susan had worked the convention as Ed Bradley’s floor producer. At five feet tall she was called “Tiny Z” by most of her colleagues but was respected as a formidable dynamo. CBS News allowed us to work together as producers in the Washington bureau, in fact at the time I was her boss, and they assigned us to the same hotel room when we traveled together on assignments.

Susan and I arrived at City Hall early in the afternoon and grabbed a couple of seats in the bustling and crowded courtroom. Love was in the air. When our names were called we stepped forward to the judge’s bench, and were married in about the same amount of time as an average evening news report. We raced out of the courthouse and posed for our “official” wedding picture with the words “City Hall” framed behind us on the door.

In the cab back to the hotel Susan suddenly remembered that she had an appointment in an hour with a Hollywood producer named James L. Brooks. She really didn’t know much about him other than he was a successful producer researching a movie about women in television.

We called our parents from the hotel, then Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite and a few other close friends. Soon the champagne and caviar arrived, but Susan was off to her appointment.

Susan met Jim in the hotel lobby and they went to a quiet place nearby where they sat and talked. At the outset Susan said, “If I really like you I will tell you something interesting that happened to me today.” The conversation then progressed for a couple hours when, finally, Susan blurted out, “And so I got married today.”

Excitedly Jim asked, “Wow, when? Where’s your husband?”

“If I know him he is back at the hotel taking a nap,” she said.

I remember stepping off the hotel elevator and into the enthusiastic embrace of a bearded stranger who was acting as if he had won the mega-lottery. “Wow, great to meet you!” he said, “Wow this is so great!” “Wow!” So, on that sunny July 20 in San Francisco, Susan and I began a remarkable and amazing friendship as well as our marriage. 

As part of his extensive research for “Broadcast News,” Jim visited newsrooms, he went to black-tie galas and he attended White House briefings. But Jim’s roots were at CBS News, where he began in 1964 as a writer. Later Jim jumped into programming at ABC. Then in 1970 he went to work for Grant Tinker as the creator and producer of the brilliant Mary Tyler Moore Show. This was the first time in network television a leading character had been an independent career woman.

Meanwhile, CBS News had begun hiring women as reporters in the Washington bureau. Marya McLaughlin, Lesley Stahl, Connie Chung and Diane Sawyer were all learning while working in support of Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Daniel Shorr and the Kalb brothers. They held microphones and asked questions for the star reporters; if they were lucky the back of their head would appear on-air. Slowly and begrudgingly women began getting more airtime and recognition.

In the early 1980’s the network news organizations began feeling financial pressure. The owners were debating whether news should be a public service or a profit center. By 1984 CBS News had its first round of cuts, as did the other networks. 

Jim Brooks was very aware of these trends when he began doing his research for the movie. He dug deeply into the personalities, their eccentricities and the operations and its unique lingo. His script was brilliantly authentic, insightful, revealing and very funny.

The story revolves around three main characters. Jane Craig, a very talented and driven news producer, becomes attracted to reporter Tom Grunick, whose superficiality epitomizes everything she hates about the business. Meanwhile her best friend, Aaron Altman, a gifted reporter with limited on-camera skills, is bitter about her rejection of him. “Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?” Aaron observes in the movie. 

As casting began, CBS News allowed Susan to sign on as a technical adviser, and I played a smaller supporting role. Bill Hurt was selected for the role of Tom Grunick and Albert Brooks was picked to portray Aaron Altman. But Jane Craig would prove a challenge. At the eleventh hour Susan traveled up to New York to meet the woman finally selected to be Jane: Holly Hunter. She was a powerful and intense beauty whose strong spirit and passion earned her the role. Most people seeing Susan and Holly together noticed they were about the same size and similar in appearance.

Actors and producers began assembling in Washington and making regular research visits to the CBS News Washington bureau. They practiced their roles in a private production studio next door. And nothing was more anticipated than the day Jack Nicholson came in to film his cameo role as network anchorman Bill Rorich. “This is a brutal layoff,” Rorich quipped, “and all because they couldn’t program Wednesday nights.”

“Broadcast News” was released in mid December 1984 to critical praise as a satire on journalism’s egos and a real life tribute to the urgency, immediacy and complexity of television news. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards but took home none.

Twenty years ago Jim Brooks brilliantly and humorously threw a spotlight on important questions roiling network newsrooms. Today the real broadcast news plays an ever-diminishing roll in American lives. “Mass media” is massively eroding, audiences are being sliced into niches and profit margins continue to cut into important news coverage. Broadcast news executives are scrambling to hang on while diverting resources and attention to other platforms, like the Web or mobile devices.

These technology driven changes mean speedier access to content, information and production tools. Change is good as long as it is done responsibly. Quality journalism strengthens democracy and must trump egos, personalities and profit margins, no matter the medium, if the mass is to be well served.

A lot has changed in 20 years; or has it? In Aaron Altman’s words, “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.”

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