Setting the Table for Law and Order
On the first Sunday after the attacks of September 11, pictures of the eventual head of NBC littered the streets and stuffed the garbage cans of New York City; Jeff Zucker was profiled that week in the New York Times Magazine. The piles of newspapers from the weekend were everywhere at 30 Rockefeller Center. Normally, employee talk would have been about how well or badly Zucker had made out in the Times. But the breezy profile was plainly irrelevant that week.
The next morning I was in the office of David Corvo, the newly installed executive producer of Dateline, when Zucker entered to announce that the network was going to resume the prime-time schedule for the first time since the attacks. The long stretch of commercial-free programming was expensive, and Zucker was certain about one thing: “We can’t sell ads around pictures of Ground Zero.” At the same time, he proceeded to explain that the restoration of the prime-time shows Friends, Will and Grace, and Frasier was a part of America’s return to normalcy, not a cash-flow decision. He instructed Corvo that a series of news specials would be scattered through the next few days, but as it was impossible to sell ads for them, scheduling would be a “day to day” proposition.
Normally I spent little time near NBC executives, but here I was at the center of power, and I felt slightly flushed at how much I coveted the sudden proximity. Something about Zucker’s physical presence and bluster made him seem like a toy action figure from The Simpsons or The Sopranos. I imagined that he could go back to his office and pull mysterious levers that opened the floodgates to pent-up advertisements and beam them to millions of households. Realistically, though, here was a man who had benefited from the timing of September 11 and also had the power to make it go away. In a cheap sort of way it was delirious to be in his presence.
At the moment Zucker blew in and interrupted, I had been in Corvo’s office to propose a series of stories about al-Qaeda, which was just emerging as a suspect in the attacks. While well known in security circles and among journalists who tried to cover international Islamist movements, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and a story line was still obscure in the early days after September 11. It had occurred to me and a number of other journalists that a core mission of NBC News would now be to explain, even belatedly, the origins and significance of these organizations. But Zucker insisted that Dateline stay focused on the firefighters. The story of firefighters trapped in the crumbling towers, Zucker said, was the emotional center of this whole event. Corvo enthusiastically agreed. “Maybe,” said Zucker, “we ought to do a series of specials on firehouses where we just ride along with our cameras. Like the show Cops, only with firefighters.” He told Corvo he could make room in the prime-time lineup for firefighters, but then smiled at me and said, in effect, that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine.
With that, Zucker rushed back to his own office, many floors above Dateline’s humble altitude. My meeting with Corvo was basically over. He did ask me what I thought about Zucker’s idea for a reality show about firefighters. I told him that we would have to figure a way around the fact that most of the time very little actually happens in firehouses. He nodded and muttered something about seeking a lot of “back stories” to maintain an emotional narrative. A few weeks later, a half-dozen producers were assigned to find firehouses and produce long-form documentaries about America’s rediscovered heroes. Perhaps two of these programs ever aired; the whole project was shelved very soon after it started. Producers discovered that unlike September 11, most days featured no massive terrorist attacks that sent thousands of firefighters to their trucks and hundreds to tragic, heroic deaths. On most days nothing happened in firehouses whatsoever.
This was one in a series of lessons I learned about how television news had lost its most basic journalistic instincts in its search for the audience-driven sweet spot, the “emotional center” of the American people. Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone’s lost kitty.
It also explains why TV news seems so archaic next to the advertising and entertainment content on the same networks. Among the greatest frustrations of working in TV news over the past decade was to see that while advertisers and entertainment producers were permitted to do wildly risky things in pursuit of audiences, news producers rarely ventured out of a safety zone of crime, celebrity, and character-driven tragedy yarns.