What follows today and what I plan to string out over the next twenty to forty weeks will be a novel I call “The End of Romance: Linked Fictional Tales of TV News, Especially in the Morning.” Each section will be about 2500 words. I will title the entries Installment One, Two, etc. This is an experiment in self-publishing. Though I am offering the work in serial fashion and free, if successful, meaning if there are enough readers, I will probably find a way to put it on sale on a variety of platforms for a modest price. But that is anticipating how the work will fare before it appears. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies. Help the novel live. Enjoy.
The End of Romance: Linked Fictional Tales of TV News, Especially in the Morning Episodes, Portraits, Memos, Notes, Journals, Logs, Diaries, Sketches, Monologues, Dialogues, Intimacies, Musings
Copyright Ron Steinman 2015
Robert Morris Remembers
Robert Morris is thinking quietly. He assumes he is safe from prying eyes. More than anything, he knows he must protect himself. He must always do this to maintain his mask. He cannot allow unnecessary exposure. Cynical, yes, but learned from a father who trusted no one, not his business associates, not his wife, not his sisters, not his family. Morris is not alone in this way of thinking. Everyone in the business hides his or her personal views, each for his own reasons. Morris is an executive in television news, notorious for its inability to hold anything sacred. His mission today is to let the sunshine in. He knows it is almost impossible to do, but despite too many years of knowing otherwise, he still clings to the hope he might someday succeed. Morris knows the rules. They are simple. Have an open mind, but keep yourself closed to outsiders. It is an axiom that guides life in the big leagues of network news. Failure is never far from success. Failure is part of success. If you fail, don’t always blame yourself. Be aware that people in TV rarely fail by their own doing. Morris knows there is always someone who is ambitious enough to help you over the edge into nothingness. These persons often nearest to you want you to fail. They spend their days pushing you toward the brink, and finally causing you to the jump into the abyss. That is not Morris’ way. Toughness helps to keep one on top. Skepticism makes it easier to survive, especially when attacks come from all sides. When that happens, paranoia can take over and rule a person’s mind. If you are strong, you come to realize that no one does what you do better than you. That is not complicated. It is that simple. In the end, you are the only one who counts. Those who are selfish get to the top first. To stay in the business you have to accept the distrustful world around you. Robert Morris has been doing just that for years. He is a survivor, but he also good at what he does, which is deciding what gets covered in the news division. On this morning, Morris’ mind is taking him back to places he wants to forget, but never can. He knows, though, that history is important if he wants to make the future count. Though he is in middle age, he is too young for dementia. He is too young to exist only for memories, many pleasant and some sour. He does not want those recollections to dominate, or, worse, mock him, in his dreams or when he’s awake. On this day when he is trying to make sense of his life there are too many other things happening that will not allow him to rest. Sometimes Robert Morris feels as if his forehead has hinges that sit inconveniently above his ears. These operate swinging doors, which, when open, reveal a set of working television screens that anyone can access by pushing a button, turning a knob, using a remote control clicker. He can live with that fantasy. He knows in truth, no one can see how his mind works. Just as well, he thinks. He has spent a lifetime protecting his mind from the mad world of TV news. He believes what is in his head is a metaphor for an openness he knows does not exist in the world of television news, especially in the morning, a time where life on the small screen should be transparent. Thirty years in the business, he thinks, teaches a man him to keep his opinions to himself. It is as if he is in deep cover, a refugee from a spy novel. Noisy thinking is always the start of trouble. He silently concludes that he is at it again, thinking, and therefore, somehow exposing heart and mind to distress. It is necessary at best, but, at worst, unnecessary, and usually filled with danger. His long experience tells him that he should never record his thoughts or think aloud. Eavesdroppers are everywhere. But he does anyway. The year is 1999. Robert Morris rises from his comfortable chair and quietly closes his office door. The door closed, he starts to pour his latest views and feelings into his computer. He fills the screen with 14-point type because that is easier to read. In the past, he had used a small tape recorder a vice president gave him as a gift when management thought it might cut back on secretaries. Before that, he wrote on paper in a typewriter. Earlier than that, he used a notebook. He still uses notebooks with pencils that he wears down to a nub before throwing them away. Now he uses a simple program in his company computer to erase anything he has accessed on the Internet, believing, erroneously, the information will not remain embedded on his hard drive, if anyone ever cared to look. It shows how little he really knows about the new technology that is spreading faster than he can grab onto and make a part of his life. A kid twelve years old could set him straight about the reality of privacy and what little he can hide on his computer. Morris still strikes his keyboard in the time-honored, two-fingered method of old-time reporters, of which he was one. Hunt and peck, pound the keys like a jackhammer, look down, look up, but never in either direction for long. He writes with ease. The words come fast. His spelling and grammar are not always perfect, true for most TV journalists, but he knows how to make his copy respectable. That comes from writing maybe hundreds of thousands of words speedily almost without thinking.
I am again in my office early in the morning before the work day begins. I hate coming in early. I’m here because I have no choice. It is the time when I put my ideas on paper. My thoughts are personal, as they should be. This day is different because I must get some things out of my system. Where to begin? The best way is to listen to my old mini-tapes, the ones I recorded many years ago for dictation every morning thirty minutes before my workday began, as I am doing now. I don’t think they make these cassettes anymore. The Smith-Corona tape recorder is small, really no bigger than a package of Pall Mall cigarettes. I remember how I used to hold it close to my mouth behind closed doors and talk softly into the speaker so no one could hear me. It would have been dangerous then to let anyone hear what I had to say, just as it is dangerous now. The tapes held an hour’s worth of talk. When I recorded meetings in my office and in the conference room I tried to end the meetings before the tape ran out. And so I remember. Nothing much seems to change. Thirty years ago, we faced an aging morning show and an audience we believed would not stick around for more than a few minutes through any one segment. Competition threatened us for the first time. Today our morning show is even older. The audience’s boredom is setting in fast. But we are not alone. All the morning shows are boring, derivative, dull and mostly senseless. I am many years older, thirty to be exact. I already said that. I listen to myself talking. My voice is clear even when I muffle it. My smoker’s rasp adds character to my voice, I think, as an excuse for my not quitting. Now my hair is thinner and my waist expanded beyond good sense. Who am I? I hardly recognize me, but isn’t that always the case? There is much to say and time is soon to run out on my career. When my run ends, I hope I can live the way I want without anyone looking over my shoulder. Ever. The second-guessing wipes out pride and incentive to be creative, to live long and be happy. All of which I want. I like to think what I have inside my head is important. Damn. Down with important. I hate the word important. Everything stored inside me is unusual. I thought it then and I think it now. Unusual is better. Unique. A mystique. Most people in the business talk too much. I kept too much to myself all these years but now I have to let some of it out. It is time for revelations.
Robert Morris paused. He settled into his desk chair, one that cost the company two thousand dollars. He always liked that chair because he never needed it. No one ever needs a chair that expensive just to house your bottom. He found it a good day when he could take something out of company profits in return for what the company took from him. It became a better day when what he did was an unnecessary luxury.
First he reviewed what became known in executive circles as “The Memo.” The following is the internal memo written by VP of News Lew Narren to Robert Morris and Larry Childs that helped change everything in morning news. Morris decided to review it to keep his memory fresh and from drifting, just drifting, as he was apt to do early in the morning.
“From Lew Narren to Robert Morris and Larry Childs. Personal and Confidential. “Let me say that my writing this memo is breaking all the rules of good sense and self preservation. But I don’t care if the word gets out and someone higher up sees it and fires me. I am tired of taking crap from all the wrong quarters. This is about a show that we have the privilege of watching die each morning. We have to do something to stop the suffering. We must make changes on the set to save ourselves from losing the morning war and stem the flow of declining revenues. We must act soon. The reigning host is about to complete his 11th year on the show. Tired and bored, the host is ready to quit. It shows in everything he does, how he dresses, how he conducts interviews, his attitude to the producers in the control room. They are there to serve him, but he doesn’t give a damn. He wants them to bow to him. Even they, men who are normally timid, who need their jobs and enjoy the money and rewards, are starting to rebel against his idiocies. A big public party is in the works to celebrate his success and longevity. There is no competition from the other networks, so his achievement is flimsy. He has all the money he will ever need. I use the argument about money in meetings. The power, that is, the one man in control, his boss and mine, contends that money is not the motivator. Pride motivates those on the air, he says. I don’t believe it, I say back. He has fame. He has met all the interesting and exciting people of the world, or at least the world we project on television. It is time form him to take a prolonged rest and spread his wings elsewhere. I have one problem. I don’t think he has any wings to spread. The anchor strikes me as a cipher. That sense of him may be because I can’t stand his unnatural good looks. He looks unreal, pasted together from old movie magazine covers. Shiny pages in black and white. He looks washed out, especially in color. He’s lost the aura he once had and used to good advantage. Watching him these mornings, no one would ever know he once had been a first class reporter. “In my old Queens neighborhood if someone looked the way he does, he would never last out the day without getting his ass kicked to the Bronx. His face is too sweet. His voice is too rich. He looks like the goy he is. His hair is slick and unreal. We need someone with an ethnic bent to him. I know that is asking too much and it will never happen. If it does, it could ruin the ratings. New York is not America. I guess we need so-called healthy plain. We can’t allow him to go to another network. He can’t do that because his contract prohibits it and he is not strong enough to fight to break it. He can go where he will not damage us. PBS, maybe. Nobody watches PBS. No one cares about bird and animal shows and all that educational crap. Who wants to watch professors pontificate on the unknown when we can give the real goods? We will be better off if he moves to PBS. Anyway, PBS does not have a morning show. Thus, no competition.” Morris knows there is more but it is mostly technical. It seemed to him that Narren had run out of thoughts after his initial outburst. Narren knew that what he wrote was enough to stimulate others in his circle perhaps to come up with some answers.
Later in the day, after he re-read the memo, Robert Morris wrote back: “Can we put him on waivers like they do in baseball and hope that someone picks up his contract just for the sake of having him?” Narren answered with a phone message: “We should be so lucky.” Two days passed and Larry Childs wrote his own memo. He knew he must take care of the morning show, and fast. He realized other people with less ability had similar thoughts. He hoped his memo would be a preemptive strike. After writing it, he delivered by his own hand a copy to Robert Morris and to Lew Narren.
Date: January 10, 1978 Memo from Larry Childs (typed by me) to Robert Morris and Lew Narren. Subject: The Set. “It looks lousy. The damn set with all its dark wood looks like some lawyer’s office in a 1930s gangster film. All corners. Nothing warm or round. I like round. I hate corners. The long shots look terrible. Makes the family shot seem even smaller than it is on most small screens. Too small. Too far away. Too cold. No warmth. The people, our people, our family, dissolve into millions of pixels where you can even see the lines on the screen. Don’t forget, most screens are very small. Who tunes in to watch this stuff? The old saw that no one leaves a Broadway show whistling the set holds, but unless the set looks good, they won’t whistle anything, let alone buy the products we advertise. I wouldn’t watch our show. No way. The set is so distracting that I never pay attention to what our “little” people are saying. Maybe we should put cartoon balloons on top of their heads and translate their murmurs into legible words. By the way, who writes their crap? Or is it more ad-lib? I hate that kind of free-lancing unless the person is unusually glib. It seems these people can’t even order a dozen eggs in their local grocery. Monkeys can do better. We should write their ad-libs. Seriously. No matter. The producers had better write better material because, in the end, if there is no audience, it might not matter what anyone says.”
The flow of memos continued. This time Larry Childs dictated the following note to his secretary, Janice instead of writing it by his own hand. During the day, he never uses his small machine. Today his memo is flaring in his brain. It is too important to speak the words into his tiny machine. Usually when he has words for the record, he buzzes Janice into the office. One long buzz means to pick up the phone. Two buzzes mean come in now. Drop everything and come in immediately. Obedient, she comes in, but with her usual caution and sits in her designated chair on the side of his desk, her wide steno book on her wide lap ready to take down what he says in shorthand. Old enough to be his mother, Janice acts more like his maiden aunt. Very proper about everything, Childs fears dropping curses in front of her, sometimes his only vocabulary. He often wonders how she got a job in news, what with the loud mouths in the business and all the feigned machismo that prevails. Prevails? The real thought is to dominate. To dominate is more like it, with every other word fuck this or fuck that; the words seem to come out of everyone’s mouth, except when the anchors and reporters are on the air. Anchors and correspondents can never use four-letters on the air. The FCC would self-destruct, and, not far behind, the audience would storm the network gates in protest. The fines would be enormous. Outside his office, day in and day out, Janice listens in on every call he receives and makes. She does it openly, as do all the secretaries, using a hand-held earpiece that looks like half a telephone designed for only that, listening to other people’s conversations. Doing it without shame, on his orders, she makes notes, and puts the date and time on each call she records. June holds the “dead” phone extension, to her left ear because she is right-handed. Large and round, the earpiece, attaches to a worn, cloth-covered wire attached to her squat, ugly black phone with two extensions that sits on her desk. Recording in shorthand everything she hears, she listens intently and then types her notes, filing them according to date and time. Janice knew much more than she wanted to know and was the repository of too many secrets for any one person. Over the years, she had become very discreet, with no gossip ever passing her lips. The memo Childs is writing needs Janice’s typing skills. He knows that to dictate it will get it done fast. Though June is loyal, he is never sure how loyal she really is, and when she might decide to make a name for herself by publicly spewing the contents of her memory. More overweight each day, and devoted beyond what Larry Childs thinks, Janice, an unmarried woman, takes great shorthand, types with the best, and is in the office each day before her boss. She leaves her desk after he is on the way to the suburbs, to see his three children and his wife. There, safe at last, he attends school board meetings, the PTA, and his church on Sunday. He plays three on three basketball at the rec center, and in the early evening in fading light, he putters among his roses continuously infested with increasingly hardy Japanese beetles.