It was December l987. An “NBC Nightly News” colleague, Cheryl McDermott, hounded me to see a new movie about the news industry, “Broadcast News.” Truthfully, the last thing I thought I wanted to see was a movie about work, but when Tom Brokaw, my boss, said it was worth seeing, I had to go.
As I sat in the theater next to Cheryl, I found myself laughing and crying. When the film was over, I looked over at Cheryl and she said, “Oh my God, this is our lives.” I said, “Cheryl, they could never downsize the Washington bureau. It would be a disaster!” Cheryl was right. And so was James Brooks, the writer/producer/director of the film.
That was more than 20 years ago, and a great deal has changed since the movie — or has it? To answer this question, I spent months interviewing journalists, producers, former researchers, correspondents, anchors and a former news president. The discussions began with the film, but the conversations soon turned to the role of women in the industry, and the industry itself, then and now.
Searching for a heroine
How could anyone get these characters so right? “Well, I worked in (journalism) … and so I think it was one of the things that was there for me,” said James Brooks, producer of “Broadcast News.”
Brooks is a former news writer for WCBS Radio in New York. But people know him as the man behind such iconic television programs as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi” and “The Simpsons” and the talented producer/director/writer for the films “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets.” Brooks has won three Oscars and 19 Primetime Emmy awards.
What intrigued Brooks was a “surge of women pictures” at the time he was developing “Broadcast News.”
“I was trying to catch some new heroine,” Brooks said. “That was really my goal.”
In l984, it all came together. A friend of Brooks who was a managing editor of a newspaper invited him to the l984 political conventions. And it was in San Francisco where he met some pretty powerful women. In the mix was Susan Zirinsky, a young floor producer with CBS News.
Zirinsky recalls that first meeting with Brooks: “I wasn’t really paying attention. And he’s chitchatting,” she said.
Brooks asked her if they could get together so he could pick her brain and do some research for a screenplay. Zirinsky, known as “Z” to everyone, replied, “It’s kind of hard.” But she did tell Brooks she could meet him the following evening.
What she didn’t tell Brooks: “I was living with somebody who also worked at CBS [Joe Peyronnin], and my boss gave me a reprieve from cutting an evening news piece. So I looked at my roommate and said, ‘What should we do today?’ And he said, ‘Did you bring the blood test with you? Let’s call City Hall and see if we can get married.’”
And so they did. Zirinsky had neglected to tell her new husband that she promised to see “this guy, Jim Brooks,” for a half hour just to chat. Peyronnin told her it was fine.
That half-hour meeting was more like two hours. Brooks wanted to know about the industry and what a female producer does.
Meeting Joe was important, Brooks said. Peyronnin was then chief of the Washington news bureau at CBS.
“I was hearing about the layoffs from every perspective, so that was important,” Brooks said. Brooks also spent time at another network.
“It was in the NBC newsroom that I saw them actually running a tape before the show,” Brooks said, which was the inspiration for the scene in “Broadcast News” where the production assistant played by Joan Cusack gets bruised as she runs to get the tape on the air.
Zirinsky added that Brooks “would call me at 6:l5 p.m. and say, ‘If you were producing a piece and you had this idea and wanted a still picture and it was like 6:30 …’ “and I’d say, ‘If I don’t ****ing hang up this phone, I’m not going to have my picture on the air, so I’ll call you after the show.’”
So Zirinsky became a consultant and got an associate producer credit for the film. She got the OK from her boss, then-president of CBS News Howard Stringer, to work on the picture.
That’s the role she played on the set. Today, Zirinsky and Peyronnin have a 12-year-old daughter, Zoe, whom they adopted from China. Zirinsky is the executive producer of CBS’ “48 Hours,” which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. She has been at that network her entire career, starting as a desk assistant on weekends and then working for nearly every CBS News program.
“Truth be told,” she said, “I was even fired from one CBS News broadcast, but in the end I was held to my contract and was not allowed to leave the company. Turned out I outlasted the man that fired me, and now I have his desk. And I spit on it once a day.”
“Nightly News” executive producer Alexandra “Alex” Wallace remembers: “I was about 22 or 23 when I started working at the foreign desk at CBS. I watched Susan Zirinsky and I said, ‘I want to be her.’”
As far as the movie went, Stringer told her, “Remember your job is not to represent the broadcast industry. You are trying to help somebody do a realistic movie … which is fiction.”
But was it just fiction? Is the Jane Craig character played by Holly Hunter a dead-ringer for Susan Zirinsky? And how about those scenes where Jane breaks down? Brooks spent a great deal of time doing a lot of research.
“My rule is when you hear something for the third time, it might be generally true,” he said. “And three times I heard women telling me that they frequently cried and sometimes had to take a break from work.”
That sentiment was shared by others. Connie Chung, former anchor/correspondent of all the three major networks, told her own story starting out. Female correspondents “were being tested constantly and scrutinized. Covering Capitol Hill and the Washington establishment was so male-dominated that we were unusual. I didn’t find it particularly easy.”
Steve Friedman, former executive producer of NBC’s “Today” Show and former vice president of morning broadcasts at CBS News, said: “I think the ’80s were when women and television news were married. Television news became a place for the best and the brightest of women to be.”
Though some women were making strides, others felt that the road was still rough. Roberta Spring, an assistant director at NBC News who began working at the network as a page in l975, recalls getting a job on “Nightly News” as a production associate.
“When I got the job at ‘Nightly,’ I was nervous. The newsroom was run by men, and they didn’t understand the P.A.; [they] didn’t treat you the same as producers. But when they needed you, they needed you desperately. I knew I was important.”
Anchor Brian Williams echoed that sentiment. “The best boss I ever had was a woman named Betty Endicott (who worked at WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C.) … because she was just the best meat-and-potatoes journalist I ever worked for.”
Mimi Peteet, a former researcher and assistant producer for NBC’s “Weekend Nightly” adds, “Women during my time couldn’t be married and have work. It just wouldn’t have happened.”
Peteet recalls when she was asked to go on assignment with three male staffers.
“We were staying at this small hotel that literally had no phones in the rooms,” she said. “There was one phone at the desk. I remember all the male staffers waiting in line to call their wives. I had no one to call. It was an eye-opening experience.”
Williams says that the newsroom he works in today is close to 70 percent female, and most are married.
Tom Brokaw, the former anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” added: “There are a number of women who might have become executive producers at ‘Nightly’ but then decided — and I completely understood and supported this in many instances —that they wanted to have children…. I see that in my family.”
But Brokaw stressed, “Now that’s not the only reason by any means. For far too long, news and journalism, frankly, was dominated by a white male, middle-aged culture, and it was not as responsive to women coming along.”
Perhaps the toughest part of the job has been witnessing the change in the industry. Technology was constantly changing, and everything could be done faster. A lot of the standards were lowered, and so came the dumbing of the news.
“The role of the networks has changed forever. There will always be a need for a place where people can turn to disasters and the elections, but for the average day-to-day, it’s not going to come from networks,” said Cheryl Gould senior vice president at NBC.
If Brooks were to make the movie today, how would he do it?
“I would begin with the ‘memo.’”
The memo is the one written by James O’Shea, the former editor at the Los Angeles Times who told his staff in January 2008 that he was forced out for opposing news cuts by publisher David Hiller and the paper’s parent firm, Tribune.
From the L.A. Times blog:
‘Although I didn’t really accomplish all the goals that I set when I arrived, I know that this newsroom today is better off than when I walked into the door, and I am proud of all that we did together. We’ve accomplished a lot in just 14 months. When I came to this newsroom, I pledged to maintain the quality of the L.A. Times, and I did, even though I had to cut budgets and shrink the staff.’
“It’s a thought-out memo about what’s facing print journalism,” Brooks said. “It’s not about broadcast journalism. There’s something to say about print journalism, which is teetering on some moment. I don’t think you begin to talk about journalism without talking about the business side. But with this memo, you begin to see the compromises you make. There’s something very simplistic you can say about looking for the soul of the profession.”
Gemma Puglisi is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. She worked for “NBC Nightly News” from 1985-1991. She has also worked as a media relations executive for the Nasdaq Stock Market, Edelman PR Worldwide and Powell Tate. In June 2006, she was knighted Cavaliere by the Italian Republic for her work promoting Italian language and culture. Gail Ziegler, a former graduate student at American University, was the research assistant for this piece and helped with the transcriptions of the interviews.