Today I posted the entire story – If you wish you can scroll down until you see
++++++++++ PART THREE ++++++++++
I walked through the revolving doors, across the lobby and showed my identification card to the security guard. He looked at it with obvious boredom and waved me through. I pressed the card between my thumb and fingers to see if I could still feel any of the warmth from the laminator it had been through shortly before. I imagined I could. I knew it was only my imagination, but I was okay with that.
This was the job I had prepared myself for all my life. I always “knew” I’d end up here, but never really expected to. This was it. I had reached the pinnacle for a journalist.
Unlike some of my friends who chased different dreams on different days, mine must have been cemented at birth. In grade school I couldn’t wait until fifth grade when I could work on the school newspaper. In high school there was the school paper, the year book and I was able to get an occasional story published in the weekly section the regional paper inserted for our suburb. I can still see it on page thirteen. Two columns, five inches long sandwiched between an advertisement for “Skin Deep Tattoos” and a public service announcement reminding people to spay or neuter their pets. “Local Volunteers Prepare for Disaster,” read the headline with the article detailing the cities preparation for storm season. It let me include the names of a handful of volunteers. The paper liked that – it was good for circulation, not to mention Skin Deep Tattoos.
College had been a different experience for me than for most. While some people used this time as their social experimentation period, I used it to vicariously live their experiences so I could write about them. It was my first time away from home, but it didn’t seem much different. I never missed class, except one week when I had the flu so bad I had to hold on to the edge of my bed to be sure I wouldn’t fall out. I had every blanket, my winter coat and both clean towels on top of me while I still shivered uncontrollably.
When I wasn’t at class, I was either at the keyboard writing about something, interviewing people for a story or doing research to check my facts. My sophomore year they asked me to be editor. This was an unprecedented honor always reserved for seniors. Nevertheless, I declined; I knew my strength was in writing, not tweaking someone else’s work. The paper had an extraordinarily uncreative name – “The Collegian,” but while I was there we offset that by winning half dozen awards, an equally extraordinary occurrence.
As an award winning writer – yes, I put that on my resume used to find my first job - I started my job search early in my junior year. I mean early, like September 15th. I knew graduate school wouldn’t be helpful for the job I wanted. Let others spend the next three years getting a PhD in journalism so they could stand in front of a class and talk about writing. I was going to write.
As a writer, it was habit to research everything. When I went to an interview I knew as much about the newspaper and its publishing firm as the owners did. I could speak of their history, the “Who’s-Who” of their writers past and present and the demographics of their circulation. Although I was never asked, I was even prepared to talk about their biggest advertisers, both in print and online.
The first three jobs didn’t pay well, but they fleshed out the real world experience I needed and more importantly, gave me a by line. I poured myself heart and soul into my work and it became common to see myself quoted in others’ work. I could have stayed at that job forever, but as fate would have it, I got the phone call. THE call. The call from Cable Headline, the pre-eminent twenty-four-seven-three-hundred and sixty-five and one quarter news channel. We met. They made me a ridiculously low offer.
“Just put me at the same level you started your last reporter,” I countered. “That should be fair.” The discussion wasn’t about pay; they were checking to see if I had determined the market and their hiring practices. Their last reporter, a sports commentator had been hired several weeks earlier. Formerly an NFL standout, his knees had given out before his brains had become too scrambled. He was articulate, photogenic and generally acknowledged as a nice guy. Amid much hoopla he had been hired at 67% of the median rate for new reporters. “And as an added bonus,” I continued, “your health insurance won’t have to pay to fix my knees.” They knew I’d done my homework completely; more importantly, they knew I’d do be just as meticulous researching my stories.
I put my ID card into my shirt pocket, clipped my pen over it to keep it in place stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.
++++++++++ PART TWO ++++++++++
As I stepped into the elevator I glanced at the control panel and noticed that 27 was already lit. That was my floor, the 21st century version of a newsroom. I wondered if I’d have to wave my ID badge near the console so it could read the RFID chip. The other passenger who I had avoided looking at in proper elevator protocol spoke up.
“It already read your card,” she said. “Unless someone is standing in front of you holding a block of metal in his hands, it has no trouble reading the radio frequency signal.” I turned to face her. She was blonde, blue eyes, pretty and dressed in the uniform of a news reader. I remembered seeing her on Cable Headlines, but she looked far more, well, intelligent in person.
“It’s the teleprompter,” she offered as if she could read my mind. “Everyone’s first reaction is that I look like I’m tuned in when they meet me in person. With a teleprompter my eyes focus just ahead of the camera so it creates the appearance that I’m not looking at the viewers. Occupational hazard.”
“I’m the new kid,” I offered, “Brian Kaczmarek. Most people call me Kaz.”
“I’d think you’d prefer Brian,” she offered. “I’m Cathy Pierce, one of the older kids.” The elevator passed continued its progress toward the 27th.
“Are all of these floors Cable Headline’s?” She laughed.
“CH owns them,” she offered, “but is able to rent everything below the 26th at top rate. Every lawyer, CPA, retired general and doctor wants an office in this building. They dream of the day when there’s a breaking story and CH sends a lackey to their office to ask them to be an on-the-air expert. It happens, but not very often. Let’s just say that it happens often enough to encourage people to pay outrageous rents for office space.”
“Aren’t you the cynic!” Once again she laughed. It was a nice laugh that came easily yet sounded natural.
“Oh boy, are you in for some recalibration, new kid,” she replied as the door opened. “Welcome to your new reality!” She headed off with that familiarity that comes with going to the same place every day. I stopped at the receptionist’s desk just as she finished a phone call.
“Brian or Douglas?” the receptionist asked.
“Second office on the left. Mr. Snyder.” I hadn’t expected a big welcome, but I was a little surprised not to at least be greeted with a hello. Maybe the arrival of new staff was more routine than I had realized. I saw Cathy head back to the elevator with a handful of papers. She waved as she got in and I saw the light above the door stop at 26.
Most of the 27th floor was open. Lots of desks in rows. There were a few cubicles and even fewer offices. I had imagined that the actual studio would be on this floor, but it obviously was not. I guessed that when Cathy took the elevator down to 26 that’s where she was heading.
I knocked on Mr. Snyder’s door.
“Brian or Douglas?” asked the voice behind the door. Before I could answer, the door flew open and a man about ten years older than me motioned me into the room.
“Brian, right?” he asked. “Saw your picture on your column. You write some good stuff, but writing for a daily newspaper and keeping up with news on cable is different. However, I think you’ll do just fine.
“Welcome to the tactical control center of Cable Headlines!” he said while shaking my hand and simultaneously patting my back.
“If this is tactical, does that mean there’s a strategic center as well?” attempting to interject a little humor. His expression changed for the briefest of seconds. He started laughing.
“Good one. I forgot you used to write a satire column.
“This is where we decide what is news. In the early days of Cable Headlines we merely reported what was going on. At first people loved us, but we lost a ton of viewers when they got tired of seeing the same stories repeat every half hour until something new developed. People wanted more, new, exciting. We evolved. We adapted. We gave them what they wanted. The viewers came back followed quickly by the advertisers.
“That’s what you’re going to learn!”
For the next six months I was kept busy doing research, running down leads and coming up with ideas for filler stories. Magazines could tolerate a slow news week and newspapers could have the occasional slow day, but the 24 hour news station always needed breaking news.
Years ago they’d tried to get away with labeling whatever was happening as “breaking news.” Somehow even the CH people had trouble convincing viewers that a February snowstorm in Minnesota was breaking news. By digging up stories that could be used at any time, I helped fill that void. I’m the one that discovered the plan to build a mosque on that disaster site. Before CH reported it there was no problem. The city was fine with it, the Christian community had no problem and the Muslims had bought the land from a Jewish congregation who had moved from the site when they needed to build a larger synagogue. Within 3 days of CH airing the story, the mosque was a crisis of world proportions.
The story on oatmeal causing cancer – that was mine, too. I found a small, poorly conducted study that had been published in a minor journal. There was no science to it, but some great sound bites. It was 3 years before many people started eating oatmeal again.
CH was pleased with me, and after a few years, I was promoted to editor and became part of the inner circle.
Each morning the editors would meet and decide which stories CH would carry and in what order. Lead stories were important, of course, but placement in relation to commercials was equally important. It’s not coincidence that the Valentine’s Day stories, or the erectile dysfunction stories just happen to be followed by an ad for the appropriate pharmaceutical company. On a busy news day, the hard part was deciding which stories wouldn’t make the news. On a slow news day it was even more interesting.
“People! People! I can’t believe nothing’s happening. Nothing in Afghanistan?” Snyder was shouting at the assembled staff
“Quieter than a Saturday in Toledo,” I offered.
“No natural disasters?”
“A solar flare is the worst that anyone’s seen. It’ll make people’s radios crackle in a couple of days.” Snyder looked at me.
“Get a story ready for when that happens announcing ‘Major Communications Disruption.’ Compare it to the electromotive pulse from an atomic bomb. If you can figure a way to tie it to terrorists, do it.
“We need something for today!” He looked around the room.
“Bob, call that talent agent friend of yours. He owes us. We need him to set up one of the teen starlets smoking dope or shoplifting. Tell him we need something more interesting than someone not wearing panties. Let him know we’ll follow the legal proceedings, rehabilitation and her come back.” Bob nodded.
“And Jim, what about that penny ante dictator over in northern Africa. If we hadn’t helped restore his reputation five years ago he’d be dead or hiding out in some country more obscure than his own. Have him scare up a coup or something. Have him get some college kids to stage a demonstration so he can clamp down on it. Remind him that ‘If it bleeds, it leads.
“You people need to take this seriously. We’re a news organization. If there’s no news, I expect you to make news.”
Back when I was in college I had always suspected that this was the way it was done. Now I was part of it.
++++++++++ PART THREE ++++++++++
I continued to well in the eyes of the Cable Headline leadership, bringing in stories, and making sure that we did everything possible to avoid the dreaded slow news day. You may have noticed how when a big event occurs, the “news” after that may actually be 2 or 3 days old. I learned the CH way of doing things and to all with whom I worked, I seemed a natural.
Outside of work I tended to keep to myself. You know, one of those people who seemingly live for their job. I had an apartment within walking distance of the CH Building, a convenient library and a selection of restaurants, coffee shops and several small markets nearby. I tended not to socialize with the people with whom I worked; let’s just say that with 12 hour workdays we saw more than enough of one another.
I did bump into Cathy Pierce the news anchor from time to time, but she wasn’t as friendly as on that first elevator trip. About six months after I made editor we had our longest conversation when she got on the same elevator as me. I was off to the side and she didn’t notice me until she had stepped in. Her eyes darted about as though she wanted to get back off.
“I see that you drank the Kool-Aid,” was all she said, with her eyes staring at the numbers above the door as they changed.
“There’s an old Indian saying,” I replied without looking at her. “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
“Next time I’m with an old Indian, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Not too long after that, Snyder called me into his office. “You’ve been doing a real good job for us, Brian. Real good.”
“Thank you, sir,” I replied, wondering what brought that on. The boss was not known for being effusive with praise. He looked at me hard.
“Are you ready for the big time?”
“I thought I was already here,” I replied. “I can’t imagine anything bigger.”
“Most people can’t. That’s why it works as well as it does.” He motioned for me to follow him as he headed for the elevator.
“Most people not only can’t imagine things, they don’t even notice what’s right in front of their face. For example, this building. Floors 1 – 25 are rented out to various and sundry tenants, most of whom want to bask in the glow of CH’s fame. You can bet every one of them talks about how they have an office in the Cable Headline Center. They all come to this building day after day and press the elevator button for their floor and look at the ones marked 26 & 27 and wish they could come up here and just look around. Most of them would prefer the twenty-sixth since that’s where the studios are. Pffh! That’s where people with good hair and teeth read whatever we give them. Half of them can’t order a pizza without a teleprompter. You and I know the 27 is where things happen.” The elevator doors opened and I followed him in. Then I felt the elevator start going up.
“But if people merely opened their eyes and looked as they drove their luxury imports into the underground parking garage, someone might ask, ‘What happens on that top floor?’ People are so programmed to see what they expect that no one realizes that there are 28 floors. All you have to do is count windows, but no one does.
“Remember back when you started and asked if there was a strategic center?” he asked. The elevator doors opened. “There is, and this is it.”
The floor was a large room surrounded by offices; each office was elegantly appointed in senior executive style, but the wall facing the center room was glass. The center room looked like a military operations center or how I imagined the Situation Room at the White House. If anything important was happening, it would instantly be obvious to anyone in every one of those offices.
“We can control the day-to-day occurrences downstairs. However, many of the things that really shape the world are planned and coordinated up here. He walked up to a translucent screen and pressed the lower corner.
“Here’s a time line on how we’re managing the Global Warming issue. Notice that we started ten years ago.” As he pointed to an item on the screen, by bringing his hand down it changed to more detail in a smaller period of time. “Back then we had to undo the belief that the earth was actually heading toward another ice age.” He raised his hand and the timeline showed a wider range of dates.
“Here is our progress on consumer electronics. Next year the incandescent light bulb will be relegated to the same scrap heap as the buggy whip. “
“Those both seem to be laudable ecological goals,” I offered. “But still, I have to ask, ‘Why?’”
“Ever the newsman, Brian. That’s what I love about you. Of course it seems laudable. It is laudable, but more importantly it benefits the companies who support us and advertise with us. Do you think without our work in the background Congress would have made it illegal to manufacture incandescent light bulbs? No politician has the guts.
“And carbon credits, no one realizes how lucrative that is going to be. You want to open a factory in America, you have to buy carbon credits. Want to open one in Chad, no problem. CH and its corporate partners have already struck deals with most of the countries that can expand their carbon outputs. Not to mention that whoever arranges for the buying and selling of carbon credits is entitled to a commission on each transaction. That is going to be one lucrative enterprise.”
“Ingenious,” I replied. “And those who work with the program are made to look good. Anyone who strays…”
“Let’s just say that hell hath no fury like a news network scorned.”
And so began my short-lived career in the upper strata of Cable Headlines. I had been assigned my office and the interior designer had ordered my furniture. It was really going to be quite nice. She had tried to convince me that some exotic endangered Amazon wood was the way to go, but I opted for a high tech stainless steel and smoked acrylic suite. I told her it was less likely to aggravate my allergies.
A very few weeks later I finished reviewing our current status. I had just received my new tailored suit and I wanted to look my very best today. My newest duty was ensuring that the tactical news people on the 27th floor were on track with the right stories while giving no clues to our overall strategic direction. I figured a good suit and an intimidating demeanor would do the trick. I looked at my watch to make sure that I had coordinated everything properly. Right on cue Cathy Pierce the news anchor walked by and stepped into the elevator. I followed her in and the door closed.
“Yes, sir,” she answered coolly. I handed her a computer memory key.
“This is your script for the next telecast. Personally load it and do not deviate from it.” It was obvious that she was none too pleased. “Sometimes it is best to just do as one is told,” I reminded her. She took the key and got out at the 26th floor. I continued to ground floor and headed out the revolving door. It was sunny.
The strange thing about finally being a big shot in a global news organization is that you can really find yourself isolated. I almost never interacted in any professional manner with other news people. As I mentioned before, I tended to keep to myself on my personal time.
I walked into O’Malley’s bar. I’ve always had a thing for Irish pubs, there’s a different feel to them that seems to fit. I took off my new suit coat, laid it on a chair and ordered a beer. I asked the bartender to turn the television to the news.
It was Cathy Pierce on Cable Headlines. Her eyes had that slightly out of focus look as she read the teleprompter.
“And in other news, a story published today in the “Collegian” a small college newspaper claims that major news networks have been manipulating the news in order to gain control over segments of the economy. This copyrighted story was written by Brian Kaczmarek.” As she began to realize what she was reading, her eyes widened.
“I should point out,” she continued reading, “That Brian Kaczmarek was a member of Cable Headline News until the story was published.”
“I’ll bet that school’s journalism department gets taken more seriously in the future,” I offered. The bartender seemed unimpressed. I finished my beer and headed for the door.
“Don’t forget your coat,” said the bartender.
“Keep it,” I replied. “Someday you may be able to sell it on eBay as an historical artifact.” I stepped outside and became just another face in the crowd.
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