20 February 2011

Brooks’ ‘Broadcast News’: A Memoir

Maybe they ran out of Kurosawa movies?

The Criterion Collection, a series of DVDs more typically devoted to arthouse classics and foreign auteurs, has recently released James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, provoking in me a couple of conflicting reactions. First: “What’s next? ‘Scott Baio’s Zapped, the Criterion Edition’?” And second: “I guess it’s been a while, after all.” Enough time has passed that my own life — or a chapter of it — has been deemed a classic, and what once seemed a private snapshot has become a time capsule.

Broadcast News came out soon after I started working at CBS, and rarely have I been so sure that I was watching myself in a major motion picture. For some of us around the newsroom, the movie really did depict scenes from our lives: it was well-publicized that Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News producer, was the model for Holly Hunter’s character; and somewhat less acknowledged that CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger was the model for Albert Brooks’ character. And James L. Brooks had been a CBS News writer, back in the day. For real, not pretend.

Dance with the Devil:
William Hurt and Holly Hunter

The William Hurt character was obviously modeled on somebody at another network, we determined, since no CBS newsman could be so mediocre in intelligence, so unethical in behavior, or, for that matter, so good-looking on camera. Somebody suggested that the character must be based on Tom Brokaw, and the consensus at CBS coalesced around this suggestion. This was patently ludicrous, of course, but we were team players, young and excitable, in love with our newsroom and staunch in our belief that our work was important.

Hey, look up there! It’s us!

Broadcast News captures that spirit, but it also shows its decline, and not only in the massive layoff for which the film drew inspiration from “the night of the long knives,” as Dan Rather called it, which took place at CBS shortly before I arrived there. It’s very hard to think of yourself as a team player when you’re being unceremoniously tossed onto the street, to think of your work as important when a bean-counter informs you the network can’t afford it, or to cling to your ideals and principles (as Albert Brooks does in the movie) when your job is on the line.

My colleagues and I came of age when broadcast reporters — like Dan himself — had become pop-culture heroes. Surely not since Murrow’s Boys (who were also CBSers, of course) had journalists enjoyed such widespread esteem. To those who wanted to see it this way (and I certainly did), reporting on the Vietnam War and on the Watergate Scandal confirmed absolutely the necessary role of a free press in a healthy democracy.

William Hurt as Tom Grunick

This idea seems quaint today, I admit. Maybe it already was in 1987 — maybe earlier. Even in the 1970s, when the persona of the crusading journalist took hold of my imagination, Ted Baxter at WJM offered a prescient antidote to Woodward and Bernstein. And although I came to CBS News expecting to find a certain reverence for that newsroom’s hallowed traditions — something like the atmosphere Jay McInerney describes in the fictionalized offices of The New Yorker, in his novel Bright Lights, Big City (another time capsule) — it turned out that the only person who truly shared my attitude was Dan Rather himself.*

There was considerable debate in the newsroom as to how much — or whether — Jack Nicholson’s anchorman in Broadcast News was based on Dan. “Not at all,” I argued, but some of my colleagues held different opinions. Nicholson’s character remains aloof from the struggles in the newsroom, whereas Dan agonized over every one of them. But then, I worked with him more closely than other people did.

Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman

It was easier (and more fun) for the newsroom gang — “Munchkins,” as SPY Magazine once called us — to identify ourselves in Joan Cusack’s character, especially in what is arguably the most famous scene in Broadcast News, her frantic dash to get a videotape on the air. All of us had enacted that scene on many occasions, and in later years, such sprints became the cornerstone of my cardio workout.

Still, it is a strange thing to see your job and your moral dilemmas played out on a big screen. Stranger yet to see them played out again, in the knockoff that followed one year later, Switching Channels, a forgettable riff on His Girl Friday set in an all-news cable network.

Christopher Reeve, Kathleen Turner, and Burt Reynolds
in Switching Channels
Didn’t these people have anything better to do with their time?

Switching Channels got all the details wrong — its newsroom improbably mixes the major attributes of CNN and a local public-access station — it bypassed the ethical questions, and it’s dull, besides.** This may have been the first indication that James L. Brooks got it right: he understood us and what we were about, and Broadcast News was already approaching classic status the year after he made it.

As the years went by, I don’t think many of us would have proposed our workplace as the ideal setting for any kind of comedy, whether tough and smart like Broadcast News or dopey like Switching Channels. Maybe it was a question of my maturation, or the evolution of my duties, but a lot of the fun went out of the job. We were all bright and sophisticated still, yes, and some of us were funny. But the pressures that Brooks depicts in the background of his film became more and more central to our work.

Joan Cusack (left) in a rare moment of repose.
(One reason I identified so strongly with her was, of course, the hairdo.)

Too many other reporters covered our newsroom as if it were itself a kind of movie, and they gossiped about our anchors as if they were soap-opera stars; “entertainment values” pumped more steadily into our own programs, eroding our credibility and our own sense of worth. And in the quest for higher profits, layoffs and bureau closings kept coming, one after another, making it harder to do the job — for those who still had one.

Broadcast News has come to look like a warning — one of many, as it happens — that too few people noticed as such. It will be hard for me to go back and look at the movie again. But oh, for a moment, it was grand!

*NOTE: From the start, Dan indulged me in our shared fascination with the CBS News Tradition, making a point of introducing me to any of the “legends” (the word he invariably used) whom we came across in our adventures: Janet Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, Fred Friendly, Douglas Edwards, and so on. Sometimes, notably in Friendly’s case, I actually got to know these folks, a little. (And let it also be noted that we met Holly Hunter once on an airplane.)

**However, we Munchkins heartily approved of the performance of young George Newbern, who played us in Switching Channels, and who was extremely cute, besides.


Anne said...

Once again, Bill, you have opened a little window into your world, reached down and helped me clamber in. You lead me into places strange and various...I am almost sure it was the YouTube video of Yvette Horner and Boy George I watched after reading your FB post that prevented me from sleeping last night. Now, CBS...never thought of you guys as idealistic, but hey, so were many of us JP Morgan (!) trainees in the early '80s

William V. Madison said...

Merci. I read Middlemarch while I was at CBS, and came to perceive our newsroom as Eliot perceived the town: all of us came there with good intentions to do great things, but saw ourselves challenged and compromised over time. It was no coincidence, I thought, that one of Eliot's principal (and most idealistic) characters is a journalist. Will Ladislaw, c'est moi.

I'd tell you what my preconceptions were of the House of Morgan in the 1980s, but since they now hold my money, I think I'll let the matter rest.

www.roberthkeller.com said...

A very eye-opening perspective on a classic film and on life inside a newsroom in the 1980's, albeit perhaps a little disheartening as well. (On the upside, William Hurt's hair looked awesome in 1987.)