Saturday, September 1

Something About Mary

It's 2007. Can you tell a job applicant she's "perky" in 2007? Don't know, sounds like a lawsuit to me. How about cute? A little more acceptable, maybe, but you'd probably best run the word by Platoon A, Company B of your TV station's legal staff before you say it, and make sure your insurance is up to date and that you know a good bail bondsman. Telling a job seeker she's "perky" or "cute" can get you in more trouble than tapping your foot in a Minneapolis airport men's room.

And omigod, what if you used the word "spunky"?

That's pretty much what hard-boiled news director "Lou Grant" (Ed Asner) called "Mary Richards" (Mary Tyler Moore) when she applied for an associate producer's job at WJM-TV in Minneapolis: "You know what? YOU'VE…GOT…SPUNK! I HATE spunk!"

I was already working in TV news when The Mary Tyler Moore Show was first broadcast on CBS in 1970. Everyone in the business—at least everyone I knew—loved the show. It didn't have much in common with the workings of a real newsroom (but hey, was the old west populated by gun-slinging gamblers like Maverick, was your doctor like Marcus Welby, M.D., did Starsky and Hutch solve crimes in your town? It was entertainment, dammit!).

The larger-than-life characters, while broadly played, did ring true. In those days most TV stations in America had courtly, white-haired, avuncular, slightly pompous stuffed-shirt anchors like MTM's fictional "Ted Baxter." I'll bet staffers in a quarter of the newsrooms in America said, conspiratorially, "You know, Ted Baxter is actually based on the guy in our shop."

Some people thought Lou Grant was based on their news directors. I don't make that claim for my first news director, the late Dick Cheverton (see Man and Mentor, 04/12/07), even though Chev was Lou Grant BEFORE Lou Grant.

My favorite Lou Grant hard-bitten, hard-drinking, seen-it-all, world-weary line? "Bartender, a drink for everyone in the house. And bring them all to me."

When I tried to grow my first beard and got a scraggly patch of peach fuzz for my efforts, Chev didn't want to order me to shave it. Strike that. He desperately wanted me to shave it, but it was the late 60s; protesters were fighting their own Vietnam War in the streets, authority was being questioned at every turn, and Chev knew I'd resist. I'd comply if he ordered me, he knew, but I'd resent the hell out of it.

So. One day he passed me in the hallway and said, gruffly, "You're looking uncommonly seedy today." End of beard.

As for the character of Mary Richards: did she merely reflect the times, or did American women respond to her example--was she a pioneer? Before Mary, women on TV were housewives like Donna Reed or The Beaver's mother, June Cleaver, or Ozzie's wife Harriet (with maybe an occasional "Aunt Bea" thrown in). Now, for the first time, we saw a career woman featured. She didn't need a man to support her or to complete her. She may have had regrets about the twists and turns her life had taken, maybe even doubts about the future, but her chin was up and she was moving forward.

And watching her led a lot of smart young college-aged women to decide on careers in television news. I wanted to be Dick Cheverton (and by extension Lou Grant). The Jane Pauleys of the world wanted to be Mary Richards. They were singing along with the show's opening…

Who can turn the world on with her smile?
Who can take a nothing day,
and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Well it's you, girl, and you
should know it
With each glance and every little movement you show it
Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have the town, why don't
you take it?
You're gonna make it after all
You're gonna make it after all

So we watched, and we laughed, and we cared about those people. And the show was just real enough that maybe we learned some life lessons along the way. Mary and the gang had it right—right up until the end. In the final episode the entire WJM news staff is fired—all but, of course, the semi-competent Ted Baxter. And in the end, in the newsroom, Mary gets to tell her co-workers how much they have meant to her:

"I just wanted you to know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me, and I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with, and not my family. And last night, I thought, 'What is a family, anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone...and really loved.’ And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being my family."

Nope. Sorry. Not even close. You had it right the first time: the people you work with ARE…just…the…people…you…work…with. Get over yourself, woman! If you hit 65 and have three people from the business you can honestly call friends, you’re doing very, very well. It’s 2007: ask Katie Couric about the people she works with.

Of course, most of my last 30+ years have been spent as a news director. Hard to build close relationships, hard to be “one of the guys” when you’re the boss. Hard when you’re moving around the country. Hard when you have to fire people. Even the best news directors don’t have fan clubs.

(Did you see that Bill O’Reilly took a shot at his old Dallas news director the other day? He called the late Marty Haag—one of the giants of broadcast journalism—an “idiot.” If Bill O’Reilly can pee on Marty Haag’s grave, no one is immune.)

Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no Marty Haag. Truth is, I’m a bit of a plodder. That’s why I always worked 60-plus-hour workweeks: I spend a lot of time mulling things over, trying to do what’s right, agonizing over decisions, second-guessing myself.

I’m also not political. I’m not a good judge of people’s motives. I tend to take people at face value. I tend to believe them and to believe in them. So I have, at times, been tricked, been fooled, been bamboozled. I naively have always assumed that my coworkers share my conviction that it’s good for all of us if the newsroom keeps doing its best—that striving for excellence every day and working as a team benefits all of us. Go hard or go home!

Guess I’ve seen too many episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

A news director is plagued by the “If Onlys.” IF ONLY the ND would give me a raise. I work nights, IF ONLY the ND would put me on dayside. I’m a reporter, IF ONLY the ND would make me an anchor. I’m an anchor, IF ONLY the ND would take me off the 11:00. I’m a photographer, IF ONLY the ND would get me a better camera—buy Lexus SUVs as news cars—switch to a 20-hour workweek. And on, and on, and on. The news director stands between the entire staff and happiness.

Maybe I’m a little bitter right now. I won’t name names, but there’s a man I worked with and for thirty years ago (I was a producer, he was assistant news director). He and I got along well. We never hung out together (he was married, I was not), but I don’t recall ever having a cross word with him. I supported him. We haven’t had any contact in 25 years, but I’ve always thought of him warmly and with respect. He went on to considerable achievement (if I were to mention his name you’d probably recognize it). I’ve been happy for him, felt he had earned his success, and never begrudged him his position.

But the other day, in an e-mail to a mutual friend, he demeaned and insulted me. That friend forwarded it to me. Now I’m hurt—hurt and puzzled. Did I do something to this man 30 years ago that he carries around to this day? What could it be?

As Mary Richards would day, “Thank you for being my family.”

I wrote a letter of reference for a man who says he considers himself my protégé, and he jumped several dozen markets for his latest news director’s job. He wrote me, “I wouldn’t be here today if not for [you].” He wrote, “You have always been [my] mentor!” He wrote, “I hope you know I would do anything in the world for you…” And he concluded by writing, “Simply put, you are one of the most talented News Directors in this crazy business!”

Scanning the trades I saw that he had three openings on his news management team. Now, this retirement/consulting thing is going OK, but I still think about getting back into the business, and I thought maybe I could help. He turned me down saying, “I would be embarrassed to offer someone with your experience anything here.” Now, I don’t mind that I wasn’t hired: he knows his new station and his needs better than I. But why blow all that smoke my way? Why the inflated, unnecessary flattery?

As Mary Richards would say, “Thank you for being my family.”

Maybe I lack gratitude. So I'd like to publicly thank the four people who visited me in the hospital or at the rehab center after my bypass surgery. The other two--you were on assignment in the hospital and merely stopped by, but I'm grateful anyway.

Thank you for being my family.

The co-worker whose son had major drug problems and got arrested? I broke the law, but he and I worked out a deal where he could take time off anytime to handle his boy's problems and it wouldn't be charged against his vacation time. Last time I saw him was in a supermarket. OK, I saw him but he didn't see me. When he caught a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye he ducked his head and scurried the other way.

Thank you for being my family.

Maybe my old GM at KWTV in Oklahoma City, Duane Harm, had it right: maybe people will always try to screw you (In Harm’s Way, 05/10/07). His rule of thumb was, Always expect the worst. That way the only surprises you get will be pleasant ones when people surpass your (low) expectations.

Maybe Duane was right and Mary was wrong.

But hey—she was on a TV show! WJM was no more real than Mayberry or Metropolis. The last episode aired thirty years ago. Time to get my head out of the clouds. Time to stop believing in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and that coworkers will support and nurture you and are rooting for you.

To everyone reading this, “Thank you for being my family.” Yeah, sure.

By the way, it’s a long clip—but here’s a link to a YouTube replay of the closing minutes of the final episode.