BULLETIN: "Dog Kills Local TV News Writer!"
See a version of this story in Vancouver magazine
By Claude Adams
July 11, 2011
This is a story about a dog who died and then came back to life and ended my career in local television news. When I put it that way, it’s funny. People can’t help giggling when they hear it. And I often end up laughing too, that edgy scratchy laughter that comes at one’s own expense and leaves little welts on the soul.
But the larger context of the story is sad. Sad because it relates to issues at the heart of journalism, especially the local TV kind. But I’ll get to that later. First, some background, and then I’ll share the funny part.
For the last eight months or so, I’ve been working as a casual writer at the local CBC supper hour television news. Casual means they call me in when a regular writer is sick, or on holiday or otherwise unavailable. Which means I go in for an eight-hour shift about eight or 10 times a month.
It’s called a writing job, but in fact it’s both much more (and much less) than that. We write the introductions (intros) to reporter’s stories that are read from the teleprompter by our two anchors. We write voice-overs: the 15-second scripts of local, national and international stories that the anchors also read. We edit the video images of those stories. We spend a lot of time writing “supers” (the names of the people in the reporter’s stories that flash up on the screen), and location tabs (the cities, or street addresses, where the particular stories take place) and other things. When you see the flashing tabs on the screen that say “Live” or “Breaking News” or “File Pictures,” or the reporter’s name, that’s the writer’s job. When you see images of rioting in Bahrain, or a pub fire in Victoria, it’s the writers who edit those pictures together online, and who write the words spoken over them, and who make sure those words and images are “pushed” into the computerized system that drives the newscast. We are required to be adept at highly sophisticated software programs with names like iNews and Instinct.
To do this work, in short, you need to be a lot more than a writer. You need to be an editor, a technician, a keyboardist extraordinaire, an expert in the style and spelling of place names and titles. And you have to work fast. Sometimes very fast. So fast that, often, you force yourself to forget about good writing; just throw down the words, make sure the facts are approximately correct, and “get it out.” (You’ll notice that among the many economies in TV news copy is the elimination of verbs: “A raging fire in Surrey. Three firefighters with smoke inhalation. A devastated neighbourhood. The full story at 6!”)
There are two regular writers on every shift, along with a show producer and a lineup editor. One or two anchors, a sports guy, a meteorologist with a sense of humor. And maybe six or seven reporters. Every weekday, they produce a 90-minute news show. It’s an impossible task, but it’s one of those impossible things that happens every day, without fail.
I just said “without fail.” But of course, that’s a lie. In real terms, the failure of local TV news is structural, spiritual and immense. But that’s the serious part of this story, and I need to tell you the funny part first.
Last Thursday, I get a phone call at home just before 10am. Can I come in right away? A regular writer has called in sick.
I say yes and shower and my wife drives me to the Skytrain and I’m in the newsroom at 11:30am—75 minutes after the start of the normal shift. It will be a short compressed day. I sit in my cubicle and log in. On my computer screen appears the projected lineup for that day’s show. Oh-oh. This will be a tough one.
Here’s what my day looks like:
1. A 30-second “sting” about the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
2. A 30-second voice-over on the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie in London.
3. A 40-second voice-over about the rescue of a lost hiker in Lions Bay.
4. A voicer on a seniors home in Abbotsford targeted by a robber.
5. A voicer on a plane crash in Harrison Bay, with two dead.
6. A voicer about the coroner’s report on a UBC student who died of a cocaine overdose.
That’s the easy part, I tell myself. I can handle these half dozen stories. But it will mean passing up lunch. Because I’ll have to find all the videotape for these stories, assemble the tape, edit it and then write the six scripts to fit the time allotted to them. And make sure everything is properly ingested by the voracious computer monster that delivers the show to our handful of viewers.
But there is more. I was also the writer assigned to three reporters’ “packs.” These are the full stories, prepared by individual reporters, that would appear on the night’s newscast. The three stories have names assigned to them. One is “War Over”—a 2-minute story on an Abbotsford couple who lost two sons in Afghanistan, reflecting on the fact that today is the last day of the Canadian combat mission in that country. The second is “Stranger Tattoo”—an offbeat feature about a foreign student in Vancouver who approaches strangers on the street, and asks them to tell the stories of their tattoos for a blog and a book she’s writing. (Hey, it’s local news.)
Both of these stories (I’ll tell you about the third one in due course) will require me to huddle with the individual reporters, approve their scripts, make changes if necessary, make sure I have all the names and titles of the people they interview, write a snappy anchor’s intro, and input everything into the computer. These stories will appear on the 6 o’clock segment of the show. But that’s only part of it. I also have to prepare 30-second voice-overs for both these stories, for the 5 o’clock segment of the show.
I swallow hard, glance at the clock (it’s already 2:30pm—two and a half hours to airtime.) I’m hungry, and my bladder is sending out worrying signals. But I’ll eat and piss later. There’s work to do.
I take a quick look at the last item on my agenda ( the third story.) No big deal. It’s a story that will be fed in from CHEK-TV in Victoria by 5:15pm for a quick turnaround into our 5:30 show. It’s labeled “Hot Dog”, about a police dog left in an SUV for three hours. One of the “shocking treatment of animals” stories. It sounds straightforward. I have a 17-minute window to make sure the story is in our computer, and to write the intro for it, and to insert the proper "super" information. No problem. (I can hear you laughing. Haha. Maybe you know what’s coming.)
The next two hours are a blur. I work my way furiously through seven voice-overs while the other writers, editors, producers and reporters enjoy lunch and toilet breaks. By 5 o’clock, I stretch, take a much-needed visit to the urinal and congratulate myself. I tell myself I’ve done pretty well for the new kid on the block. Just need to wrap up one more voice-over, then tackle the “Hot Dog” story, and my workday will be done. Another $230 in the bank, and I’d proven something to myself.
The lineup editor drops the Hot Dog script on my desk. I look at the clock. Holy Jesus, what happened to the time? It’s 5:15, and this story is slated for 5:36 in the lineup. This will be tight. I start to write the intro. There’s no time to scan the reporter’s script. Poor dog. Who would leave a mutt in an SUV, in sweltering heat, to die a cruel death? Given the short time frame, I write what I think is quite an evocative intro, a eulogy to 10-month-old German Shepherd who would not live to do the heroic police work he’d been trained for.
I type the 100 words into the computer, include the “super” information, and am delighted to see that there’s a minute to spare before anchor Tony Parsons has to introduce the Hot Dog story. Another deadline achieved. Then, he reads my words exactly as I have written them, throws to the reporter’s story . . . and my world freezes.
“The dog didn’t die,” somebody shouts over my shoulder.
“Yeah, he survived,” somebody else says.
“Who wrote he died?” It’s a Greek chorus of recrimination.
There’s a funny hollow sensation in my ear.
“I wrote that, it’s mine,” I say, raising my hand like a schoolboy caught passing notes.
“Somebody write a correction for Tony. NOW!!” I recognize the voice. It’s Wayne, the executive producer. He’s hovering just a few feet away. I look at him but he studiously avoids eye contact.
A minute later, Parsons, a consummate pro, veteran of a million newscasts, with a voice that can make even a mistake sound like music, intones on the air: “We apologize. The dog, of course, didn’t die.”
Then, (I think) the entire newsroom goes silent. For minutes I hear and feel nothing except a faint pressure in my ears. It’s the kind of dead silence I remember in Bosnia during the war years, just after a bomb exploded. Sucks the air and all noise out of the environment. Then the silence breaks when somebody shouts “Dog-killer” across the room. There is laughter. I laugh back. I recall the famous National Lampoon cover photo with the headline: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Half an hour later, leaving the newsroom, I wonder why we would carry a story on a newscast about a dog who DIDN’T die; who, in fact, was in pretty good shape when they opened the SUV door. I hate the damn dog for surviving. He will grow up and never know how he’s contributed to my humiliation.
The next morning, I’m fired. “You’ve broken a trust,” the executive producer (that’s Wayne) tells me after calling me into his office. He doesn’t even bother to shut the door. “How can the anchors ever trust anything you write after this?”
I blink. “It’s a damn dog, Wayne, for heaven’s sake. A mistake made in the heat of the moment, at the end of a crazy shift. I was called in late to fill in for somebody, thrown into a very hectic show . . . ”
“In any case,” he interrupts me, “we feel you’re not suited for this job. You’re too slow. There’s nothing wrong with your writing, but we need somebody who is fast and who can handle the technology. I’m sorry. In fact, we’d like you to leave right away. Invoice us for the day’s work.”
I have the feeling there’s some deep subtext here. I’m a 62-year-old hack with white hair, working among a bunch of kids. In fact, three of the people in the newsroom were my students when I taught broadcast at UBC. I’m doing this job because I need the money, and because it’s a connection to the profession I love. Nobody has the temerity to ask me what the hell I’m doing here. I’m the ancient mariner, taking up an entry-level space.
Hell, years ago I invited Wayne, the exec who’s just fired me, to talk to my class about local news. I was a visiting professor. He ran a local newscast that hardly anybody watched. Now, here I am, an anachronism near the end of his string, trying to defend a wretched piece of copy about a puppy.
We have a few more words, back and forth. He mostly keeps his head down; he clearly doesn’t like saying these things. I clearly don’t like hearing them. (Note: This is the first, only and last time anybody in this shop has criticized my work.) I’m particularly stung by the comment about breaching trust with the anchors. I’d rather hear it from them. Breathes there an anchor with a soul so dead who wouldn’t laugh off a silly mistake about a dog? But it’s not to be. My time here is up.
On the way out, I shake hands with Drew, the lineup editor, and say good-bye. “I hate to sound selfish,” he says, “but are they bringing somebody in to replace you today?” (Somewhere, in some parallel universe, I’m lying in a fetid trench, my legs blown off, shrapnel in my gut, and the platoon sergeant looks at me and barks: “Where the hell are the reserves?” In the distance, a German Shepherd is barking.)
So this is how it ends. But I’m told that everything in life, the comedy and tragedy alike, carries a lesson. In the wreckage of this fiasco, there must be something useful to extract.
I started this essay with the idea of writing a critique on the nonsense that passes for local TV news. But I can’t get away from that poor overheated dog. He overwhelms me. I don’t deny my culpability, but how did a highly-trained journalist with 42 years of experience both overseas and in Canada find himself in a newsroom, sweating bricks, writing about a dog that was left in a SUV for 3 hours? (There’s a lead for a producer who wants to pursue a good human-interest story about the job market in Canadian journalism.)
What management wizard put me in that chair, and assigned me that work, in a pressure-cooker deadline situation?
Would I have made my fatal mistake if, a) I hadn’t been called in on a short shift, b) I had taken an earlier toilet break, or c) I had had the time for lunch?
How is it that a news anchor, who’s job it is to read words from a teleprompter, and who is paid an enormous salary to do that and only that, was not given the time or the opportunity to read his copy before he went on air? One glance would have spotted the error. (I would understand reading raw unedited copy if we were talking about an earthquake, a hockey riot, or a serial killing, but a fluff piece about an undead dog! )
Animal stories are, along with murder, fires, sex, celebrities and weather, the staples of television “action news” fare, if you believe the style-over-substance gurus at Frank N. Magid Associates who have advised the CBC and other networks for decades. If the stories aren’t powerfully visual (i.e. the bulls at Pamplona, Anthony Weiner’s crotch, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, police car lights flashing over a corpse on a darkened street, etc.), they probably won’t make the local news. It’s got to sizzle to get into the 6 o’clock lineup. Media scholars call it the victory of "information mechanics" over journalism, entertainment trumping news.
That’s why, for example, during the Stanley Cup playoff series in Vancouver, a hugely-important story about the record-breaking debt load of Canadian families was pushed aside for drivel about how much people were paying for Roberto Luongo jerseys, and the adventures of the Green Men. The daily battle for ratings requires an embrace of the flashily trivial. These stories are known in the trade as “talkers”—the things people are discussing around the water cooler. Once, long long ago, it was TV news that set the agenda of public discourse; today local news is an income generator that sniffs the wind and follows the public appetite. It's called pandering. That’s why you see so many “news” stories about new iPhone apps, and the new KFC bunless chicken sandwich. (Yes, I wrote that voice-over too.) News directors get instant updates on how many people are watching; the Suits will tell you those rating numbers don’t dictate content. Trust me. They do.
And that creates a working culture that disrespects the talents and the professionalism of the many fine reporters, producers and writers who work in the newsroom that I was asked to leave. (To be honest, they rarely make bone-head mistakes like the one I made.)
Hunter S. Thompson said it better than I can: "The TV business is uglier than most things . . . a cruel and shallow money trench . . . where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.”
That’s how the dog story came to land on my desk at 5:15 p.m. on that fateful day. Only one of us would survive the encounter. It wasn’t me.
POSTSCRIPT, July 28: Everything has consequences, of course, and so did my decision to post this blog. On the upside, the story was picked up by a B.C. magazine, and will be published in a somewhat shortened form soon. My experience was also highlighted in a column in the Vancouver Province newspaper, a column that took the CBC to task. On the downside, it may have cost me a full-time CBC radio job in another city. I was a leading candidate for a hosting position, but the manager crossed out my name because of my "unwillingness" to take responsibility for my dog story mistake (I thought I had, but never mind) and for supposedly unkind things I said about Wayne. The fact that I'd criticized CBC local news was "not" an issue, I was told.
For more on this story, here's an essay on OpenFile Vancouver.