If we can’t get what we need, we’ll grow our own.
(More from the mcarp archives… the prophetic genius and brilliance are his;
the ones/zeros, pixels, pictures and subheads and pull-quotes are mine.)
This is the very last of the mcarp essays, written over a decade ago by former broadcast journalist Michael Carpenter. I got his permission to share these, because they are not easy to find, and like most brutally honest musings, they deserve to be read.
After this essay, I’ll share a little about why this cuts so close to home for me.
I was a junkie.
An adrenalin junkie, that is. I was hooked on it.
I can’t speak for every TV news reporter in America, but I can speak for myself. I grew up in a household where there was a lot of suspense, drama, and anxiety. Mom and Dad drank a lot. They fought. They had affairs. After they split up, my mother drank even more, and disappeared for days at a time.
I’m not telling you this so you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m telling you this because it set me up for my career in television news. I couldn’t have been a reporter without it.
Living in that kind of environment produces the same physical sensation as parachuting from an airplane, or skiing down an expert slope. Except that you have itÂ all the time, and it’s only noticeable when it’s absent. When youÂ don’t have it, it feels like something’s wrong â€” like life is empty and meaningless.
A freshman anchor I once knew left the business after her first contract ran out, saying, “This is not a business for adults.”
Having grown up in the kind of environment she did, which is to say a fairly healthy one, TV news made no sense to her. Having grown up in the kind of environmentÂ I did, which is to say one filled with irrational demands and wildly inconsistent expectations, TV news made perfect sense to me. Well, maybe notÂ perfect sense. But I was comfortable for many years with the notion that truth could change from day to day, and even hour to hour. One of my news directors had a name for it: “functional reality.”
I got the buzz living in the constant craziness of home, and I didn’t really have it again until I immersed myself in the constant craziness of television. It was no wonder I spent so many hours at work, and so rarely took a vacation â€” as sick and depressed and miserable as it eventually made me, the newsroom was the closest thing to a family I’d found since I’d left home.
I’m not the only newsperson I know from what is sometimes called the ‘alcoholic family of origin.’ And once you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot fellow travelers.
They’re the ones who, when the boss comes in drunk and raving, don’t bat an eye. They’re the ones who, when they’re reprimanded for something with which they were not involved, and over which they had no control, shrug it off as if it were nothing. (Even before I was familiar with the term ‘triangulation,’ I understood that principle. I was surprised to learn there was a name for it.)
They’re the ones who, when insulted or mistreated by abusive or chemically-dependent bosses, not only shrug it off, but make make excuses for them.
I once worked for a news director who frequently referred to his assistant news director as ‘bitch,’ and other sexist, demeaning terms. He insulted her and ridiculed her in front of the staff. A reporter asked her one day why she put up with it.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “He and I just have a very special relationship.”
“Yeah,” the reporter replied. “He treats you like shit, and you take it.”
Confronted for the first time by the undeniable reality of their years-long ‘partnership,’ she burst into tears. The reporter got fired.
It’s just my opinion, but I think most news people are hooked on adrenalin, and addicted to doubt and uncertainty. They judge their surroundings and relationships by whether they induce the familiar physical effects of an adrenalin rush: tightness in the chest, dry mouth, accelerated pulse. And if they don’t feel that, they think something’s wrong.
Noise and Narcissism
I think that’s why so many screamers and tantrum-throwers thrive and get ahead in this business. Their ‘intensity’ can give everyone around them an adrenalin buzz, even if there’s nothing happening to justify it.
Of course, nothing will keep that rush going like a steady stream of murders, accidents, fires and catastrophes. I don’t think you can blame consultants alone for the business’s infatuation with tragedy and violence. I think that if a group of TV reporters were allowed to operate their own newsroom, unguided and unrestrained by any management, most would instinctively gravitate toward ‘death and destruction’ reporting. That’s where the rush is.
And absent a real train wreck to keep the pulse punding, a lot of people in this business seem willing to create a metaphorical one â€” either in their own lives, or in their coworkers’. If newsgathering is job number one, leading a drama-filled life is job number two, and rumor-mongering is job number two and a half.
It’s worth the price of a six-month subscription to peruse the Newsblues web site, on which TV news staffers are encouraged to post anonymous rants and raves about their workplaces. A significant percentage are about the soap opera aspects of their coworkers’ lives.
You can also occasionally find complaints from anchors themselves on news-themed web sites to the effect that “I’m afraid people are talking about my personal life.” Which can be translated to, “I’m afraid people are not talking about my personal life, so let me get the ball rolling.”
And off the Internet, you’ll hear a lot more about that in the typical end-of-day shoptalk than you will hear, for example, about who’s on the take from contractors down at city hall.
My personal life? “Dull and boring,” as one coworker dismissed it. “You and your Moon Pies.”
Not that I didn’t try, you understand. I just wasn’t very good at it.
I get it.
This essay in particular had a very profound impact on how I viewed my job. There were so many things in hindsight that were wrong with the way news is produced and arranged, and it isn’t all about bias or lack of experience or agendas.
It has everything to do with the unprofessional way most newsrooms are managed.
In the business world, you can’t get away with the things that news managers do. To be fair, some news managers cross the line and get spanked, yanked or tanked as necessary. But it’s the little things that just don’t happen as often in other sectors. I was blessed to work for better-than-average news managers, but even then I had head-scratcher moments.
One glaring piece missing in newsrooms is any sort of program for professional leadership. My brother was fortunate to work for an NBC-owned station when GE was in charge, and he got the full benefit of the GE Management Training program. I don’t know of any broadcast ownership that commits a dime to it, and if it exists, it’s at a small scale. (Maybe Belo. Maybe.)
Most of the business world seems to understand that when you start getting higher up the chain, it’s about finding, motivating and mentoring people. You are a manager of people above all else. Not a manager of equipment or widgets.
In news, the managers of people are not promoted because they are motivators or have natural ability to lead. They are promoted because they came from the ranks of producer. The job of a producer has more to do with creation of a product and less to do with managing people. Unless you count yelling at people.
I don’t know of any stations (other than the NBC/GE combo, which no longer exists) that gave management training to producers who aspired for more. Producers became Executive Producers, who became Assistant News Directors, who became News Directors. And at no point along the way was there any development of the skills the rest of the business world takes for granted. If you A) Got the job done and B) Didn’t get us sued for harassment, then you got to move up.
In an ideal world, you break the cycle of dysfunctional leadership with positive examples. In newsrooms, it just doesn’t happen.
The other epiphany had to do with the toll the industry takes on your life. Not measured in what you visibly lose, but in what you never attempt because of the nature of news.
It’s preached constantly that you are so lucky to be working, and only a fraction of those who dream of being in a newsroom ever make it. Competition is fierce, and pay reflects that in the form of depressed compensation. Your job is more than that, though… it is a calling of the highest order.
At least that’s what you are expected to believe.
The world will indeed end if you balk at the ten and eleven hour days. You’re there for greater purpose! If they need you for a six o’clock live shot 45 miles away, no problem! Can do!
After a while, you stop trying to plan social engagements during the week. Date night with the spouse, dinner with friends, Wednesday night church, softball leagues. They all disappear from your vocabulary, because you simply get tired of canceling things.
In that environment, you don’t recognize the odd position you are in. You’ve surrounded yourself with a peer group that places an inordinate amount of their self-esteem and identity into their employment. They cease being people, and instead are TV People. And when you are suddenly aware of what you’ve become, it’s both jolting and revolting. Even worse, everyone around you thinks you have either gone crazy, or are now a bad apple, newsroom poison, or a morale assassin.
There are many people who are perfectly happy in that environment. At this point, I am not sure they have ever known life any other way. I might as well show them a hypercube.
Only now, with audiences shrinking and staffing imploding to match, I am suddenly being asked for advice by those seeking life after journalism. And everything mcarp wrote above still applies to this day; I am just as much a psychological counselor as an employment one.