“It’s trench warfare,” says Van Gordon Sauter, an ex-president of CBS News. “There’s everything out there but mustard gas.” He’s not talking about the Gaza Strip. He’s talking about network news, the once peaceable kingdom of Walter the Great that in recent years has been turned into a combat zone by the white knights of public service and the green-eyed dragons of private profit. That behind-the-videocams struggle has now been made dramatically public in the year’s most talked-about movie. Broadcast News, written and directed by James (Terms of Endearment,) Brooks, is a hilarious comedy of character with some wickedly pointed things to say about what’s happening to TV news.
Whipsawed between ballooning costs and shrinking audiences, the new corporate masters of the networks (NBC is now controlled by General Electric, ABC by Capital Cities and CBS by conglomerator Larry Tisch’s Loews Corporation) have taken a meat-ax to blubbery news budgets. At CBS News alone, 215 employees have been fired since Tisch took over in 1986, and public watchdogs are yelping that global coverage is now crippled. News execs also protest that money-mad management, panting for Nielsen points, has forced them to cut back on information, replace it with glitzy trivia and excite anchormania with promo campaigns for the gorgeous guys who read the nightly news; Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.
Filmmaker Brooks gift wraps his satiric grenades in a deft romantic comedy about three network news staffers. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a brilliant reporter who longs to be an anchorman; unfortunately, he looks like an anchorman’s pants-presser and, when at last he gets to sit in the hot seat, exudes a Niagara of flop-sweat. Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a rookie reporter, may be a card short in his mental deck but his no-sweat style, ice-prince appearance and situational ethics guarantee that he’ll fail steadily upwards to anchordom. And Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), the sassy spitfire both these gents pursue, is a demon producer who can quarterback a news team in any man’s league but can’t decide between Tom and Aaron.
The issues raised by this hypermodern romance have provoked a lively controversy. Is the movie, as Brooks insists, true to life in network newsrooms? Are the new owners just greedy hatchet men? Do fine reporters wind up in the sticks because they don’t look cute on camera? Are anchors merely puppets who are told what to say by unseen producers?
On such questions, newsmen heatedly disagree. CBS’ Mike Wallace, though he found Tom Grunick an implausible anchorman, considers the film “very realistic—the ambience, the egos, the pressures.” But ABC’s Sam Donaldson objects to the movie’s view that “good people are pushed out, bubbleheads get rewarded and management are all venal wimps.”
Who’s right? Although Rather and Jennings declined to comment on the film’s relationship to their own newscasts, Brokaw allowed PEOPLE to follow him through an illuminating day on the job.
Unplugging his earphone connection to the control room on the NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw jokes to his intense, frizzy-haired producer, Cheryl Gould: “You made me look very good tonight, Cheryl. You know,” he adds, dropping into a deeper baritone, “growing up, I wanted to be a male model. But I had to settle for being a network anchor.”
Anyone who hadn’t seen Broadcast News might think Brokaw was serious. With his trim physique, tailored wardrobe and youthful grin, he could have easily stepped out of the pages of GQ. In fact Brokaw’s inside joke refers to the movie’s version of a network anchorman, played by William Hurt as an attractive airhead whose newscasts are directed by unseen minions in the control room speaking to him through his earphone. Those tempted to buy that version of how the news gets on the screen will have to reckon with Brokaw. “There are times during live coverage when people are yelling instructions in my ear like ‘Tom, we’re going to Chris Wallace at the White House’ or, on rare occasions, suggesting a question if I’m running out of gas,” he says. But that’s the extent of it. Adds Brokaw: “You cannot have an empty vessel go out there and be filled up through an electronic ear connection to somebody in another room—and get away with it.”
Brokaw does concede that appearances count in TV news. “I don’t think my cosmetics are all that great,” he says. “I tell Peter Jennings he looks more like the classic anchorman.” But Brokaw is dead serious when he objects to the movie’s premise that the cult of personality counts for more than content in the TV news ratings scramble. “People will not watch me or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather for our charm or our personality or our wink or our sweater unless they believe that they’re being well informed,” he says.
Though filmmaker James Brooks says “there are things in the picture that are true about all the anchormen,” he denies basing the Hurt character on any of the Big Three. Still, finding the real life parallels to Broadcast News has become a popular insiders’ parlor game since the movie opened to rave reviews and enthusiastic ($26 million to date) audiences. Hurt’s character has Brokaw’s boyish charm and Midwestern upbringing, Jennings’ lack of formal education and former ladies’ man reputation and Rather’s penchant for addressing the audience personally—even tearing up on-camera. But who of the Big Three is going to own up to the description of the anchor in Brooks’s script as delivered by his romantic and professional rival: “He’s the devil…. He will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important, just coax along flash over substance…”
Most TV news hands place the blame for any flash-over-substance emphasis at the network news divisions clearly with the new, bottom-line-minded network owners, who have no special feeling for TV journalism. Says one producer: “They [the owners] would put on Paul Newman if they thought they could get away with it and win higher ratings.”
That puts unique pressure on the anchormen. “It’s a Faustian bargain,” admits Brokaw. “You get to be in the cockpit every day, covering the major stories and having a big impact on the place where you work.” The other half of the bargain? “The show business aspects. They’re the part I feel least comfortable with, but they come with the territory. Hell, even Walter Cronkite did the Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Show business aspects aside, today’s anchors are far from being mere readers of the day’s headlines. Brokaw, Rather and Jennings exert enormous influence over who and what gets on the evening news. They are given management as well as editorial dominion for the same reason that they’re given huge salaries: To many of the 50 million viewers who tune in every night, they are the stars of the news. What do anchors actually do to earn their millions in dollars and viewers? Going behind the scenes on the Brokaw broadcast—which resembles the film in its personalities, intensity and tension between showbiz and journalism—reveals some surprises.
At 10:30 a.m. on a cold Manhattan morning, Tom Brokaw, who has been in his small, spare office at NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios for an hour, is participating in a conference call with the network’s U.S. bureaus about the day’s lineup. After establishing what stories should be covered and by which bureau, Brokaw saunters out to his even tinier newsroom cubicle—where he will spend most of the day.
In the cubicle behind Brokaw, Gould, the 35-year-old senior producer and Princeton graduate, is going over bureau messages on her computer terminal, talking on the phone to correspondent Chris Wallace in Washington. (“What do you mean, ‘Am I the lead story?’ ” she asks. “Does it make a difference in how you do it?”) She’s simultaneously looking for her blush-on. “Has anybody seen my makeup kit?”
“And where did you lose that 6’1″ guy you were going out with?” Brokaw asks. Gould, a dead ringer for Holly Hunter’s film character in size (5’2″), smarts and single status, confides, “Ever since Broadcast News came out, I’ve been getting flowers from old boyfriends who’ve seen the movie and assume I have no personal life. In fact, since I’m always in the office, my personal life is conducted on the phone here. Tom hears all about my love life, and he’s always trying to fix me up.”
Leaning his jogger’s frame against the door of Executive Producer Bill Wheatley’s office, Brokaw fits the nickname given him by NBC management: the “Prince.” Although Brokaw works closely with Gould and Wheatley throughout the day, it’s clear that Tom is the one in charge. “This is a collegial enterprise,” he says. “But, ultimately, nobody can order me to say something I don’t want to on the air.”
Brokaw derives his power from his title as managing editor of the newscast. That means he has final authority over which stories will air. He cannot be overruled, but he can be persuaded by Wheatley and Gould. Managing editor power was given to Dan Rather when CBS made him the successor to Walter Cronkite in 1981. On ABC’s World News Tonight, Peter Jennings has not yet been handed the title. But, sources say, his clout is increasing with his ratings.
At least one network news executive feels that the anchors have become too powerful: “We’ve created a monster with these people. Being on the air all the time does something damaging to journalists.” Maybe so. When Rather walked off the set last September in protest against sports programming delaying the news, he caused an unprecedented six minutes of blank screen. Such was Rather’s power that no one, not even the president of CBS News, felt he could order the anchor back to his chair. The Old Guard was outraged. Walter Cronkite said Rather should have been fired.
Though the film also sees anchor power as “dangerous,” Brokaw does not. “As one of the most conspicuous symbols of the network, the anchor ought to take responsibility for the entire news division,” he says. “My fortunes rise and fall with [NBC News], so I ought to have a hand in how it’s run. Besides, I’ve had more journalistic experience [see box] than anybody out there in that newsroom.”
Beyond influencing the newscast, Brokaw takes an active role in hiring and firing correspondents. Brokaw wins praise from his colleagues as a well-grounded news star, but since he accepted in June an additional mediating job as chief of correspondents, one staffer has wondered: “What if my problem is Tom Brokaw?”
At 2:15 p.m., just before Brokaw is to read a Digest newscast, producer Marc Kusnetz starts pitching the news and visual virtues of a story from the Middle East. Brokaw says good-naturedly, “It’s the same old Gulf story—it ain’t gonna make it.” (It doesn’t.)
At 4 p.m. Brokaw sits down and starts writing the opening section of the newscast, the headlines and lead story, plus the close. Newswriters contribute the other sections, but Brokaw works like a hard-boiled city editor as he goes over correspondents’ scripts. Broadcast News makes a joke of reporter Albert Brooks feeding information from his home phone through producer Hunter to anchor Hurt (“I say it here, and it comes out there”). On Nightly News it frequently works the other way. “This beginning is redundant,” Brokaw says, referring to Andrea Mitchell’s script for a story about President Reagan meeting with Senator Dole for Dole’s endorsement of the summit treaty. “Why can’t we just say, ‘This is just the picture [George] Bush’s people didn’t want to see?” The way Brokaw wants it is the way it airs.
At 4:30 p.m. the producers and Brokaw are in their final lineup meeting, deciding which stories will air and in what order. “Hold everything,” a writer yells. “Madonna‘s called off her divorce from Sean!” Celebrity news and other soft stories have made inroads on all three network news programs. But the Sean-and-Madonna story isn’t even considered. It’s Bush and Iran-contra, the Dole endorsement and an AIDS breakthrough, plus a 4½-minute segment on incest that Brokaw says is sensitive, not exploitative.
Brokaw believes the movie overdoes the conflict between “infotainment” and news. “The movie tweaks us where we ought to be tweaked,” he admits, “but it vastly exaggerates the conflict between the serious and the lightweight.”
At 6:20 Brokaw leaves his computer terminal, puts on his coat and walks one flight down to the studio.
At 6:29 Cheryl Gould, legs dangling from a stool in the control room, is still calling for a late-breaking story. “Cue Tom!” the director shouts. To grandiose new theme music (another showbiz touch the film satirizes) by Star Wars composer John Williams, a relaxed Brokaw says to the camera, “Good evening…”
Twenty-two minutes (plus commercials) later, it’s over. Brokaw goes back upstairs to watch a tape of the newscast. In real broadcast news today, Brokaw says, a good-looking glibster like Hurt’s character “wouldn’t last” in one of the three major anchor jobs. But what about tomorrow? Dan Rather, citing Broadcast News as “an appropriate warning about the dangers of whom you put on the air,” is disturbed about the future. As Rather sees it, the corporate bosses will go increasingly with the anchor who brings in the ratings. “In the end the viewers are going to decide. If they want a William Hurt kind of person, they may very well get him.”
Brokaw sadly agrees. “I got into this business to be a reporter,” he reflects, “but many young people who want my job only talk about moving from the 20th largest market to the 10th. In too many places they can succeed. It requires vigilance to protect the integrity of what we’ve got.”
They Bring Broadcast To Life
William Hurt: “I’m no good at what I’m being a success at.” That’s Tom—a nice dumb blond on the network news who is scared somebody will realize there’s nothing inside his gorgeous talking head. That’s definitely not Hurt, 37, a man of dazzling intellect and recondite eloquence. “Tom wasn’t easy, believe me,” Hurt acknowledges. “I had to break the mold again and again.” His decision to accept the part, says director Brooks, “was an act of creative daring. Frankly, if he’d said no, I would have canceled the picture.”
Hurt took some curious detours on the route to superstardom. A foreign-service brat, he was raised on Guam but landed in luxury when his parents divorced and his mother married Henry Luce III, son of the founder of Time Inc. “I’m lucky,” says Hurt. “I love all my parents.” A Tufts College theology major with a passion for the theater, Hurt learned his craft at the Juilliard School and achieved stardom on Broadway (Hurlyburly) and in films (Body Heat, The Big Chill and Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which he won a 1985 Oscar). “Fame scares me,” he admits. “I’m continually mistaken for someone I’m not.”
Since Broadcast News, Hurt has begun shooting The Accidental Tourist. He recently terminated a two-year relationship with his Children of a Lesser God co-star Marlee Matlin and may also have terminated a lengthy battle with the bottle. Just before Broadcast started, he spent a month at the Betty Ford clinic. “Therapy’s helped and living’s helped,” he says. “There’s been a real change in my life.”
Albert Brooks: “There’s a lot of me in Aaron Altman,” says Brooks. That’s not surprising, since writer-director Jim Brooks (no, they’re not related) shaped the character of Aaron the untelegenic to fit Albert like a body stocking. They’re both brilliant, lovable, workaholic, funny peculiar and, above all, funny ha-ha. Aaron the reporter is the kind of guy who, when slapped down by a superior, mutters to a friend: “Please laugh so they think I’m not dying inside but have so much style I just said something funny.” Albert the comic is the kind of guy who, when he got lost in the country, stopped his car and asked directions from a cow. “It ought to know,” he said. “It lives around here.”
Brooks, 40, has comedy in his chromosomes. Son of the late Harry Einstein, a Greek-dialect comedian billed as Parkyakarkus, Albert grew up in Beverly Hills. He went to high school with Richard Dreyfuss and Rob Reiner, studied acting but turned to comedy “because I couldn’t get an acting job.” In the ’70s he was a stand-up smash on the big talk shows and released two classic comedy albums.
Since 1979 Brooks has directed and co-written three sly, dry movies (Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America) starring Albert Brooks. Aaron is his richest role to date. To prepare for the part, he haunted TV newsrooms and even went out on his own with TV camera and notepad to cover the Voyager landing.
Unlike Aaron, who keeps agreeable digs near Capitol Hill, Albert is a hopelessly bohemian bachelor. A friend once reported finding a single lonely egg in his otherwise empty refrigerator, and in his clothes closet one plaid bathrobe, two plaid shirts and a clown suit. In the mid-’70s he lived for a year with Linda Ronstadt (“He taught me to be a human being,” she once confessed, and Albert replied, “That’s right. When I met her she was a Volvo”). But right now, he says, “My private life is boring—I’m in between heartaches. Just when I’m about to get married, I have dinner with somebody who just got divorced. Still, I know that in my future there’s gonna be a woman I’d be willing to be divorced from.”
Holly Hunter: Jim Brooks had gnawed his fingernails to the shoulder. Jessica Lange, Sigourney Weaver, Anjelica Huston—none of the famous actresses he’d interviewed had brought to life his image of “a new kind of romantic heroine, a girl who is sexy because of her brain.” So here he was, only 48 hours before the first day of rehearsal, with no leading lady for Broadcast News—and only one interview left. His heart sank as a huge wrinkled overcoat waddled into his office and a disheveled runt (5’2″) stepped out. Broomstraw looked better than her hair, dark circles cupped her eyes, and she twanged like a Georgia banjo out of one side of her mouth. “But when she read a scene, magic happened,” director Brooks remembers. “I knew after five lines that she was the one.”
Magic happens whenever Holly Hunter is on the screen. In scenes of broadcast crisis she explodes blue bolts of energy like the Bride of Frankenstein. And when the boss chews her out (“It must be nice to always believe you’re the smartest person in the room”), she brings down the house with a cry from the heart (“No,” she gasps. “It’s awful!”). Jim Brooks adores her: “We’ll be watching her for decades.” And Hurt notes, “As an actress she has incredible guts. Throw her a rattlesnake and she’d field it.”
Hunter, 29, also has terrier tenacity. To prepare her part she spent six weeks in the CBS Washington Bureau with Senior Producer Susan Zarinsky, the role model for her performance, and wrote a 90-page analysis of a news producer’s job. Even as a little girl, her family remembers, she was “bossy.” She grew up on a 250-acre cattle farm in Georgia, studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University and starred in three plays by Beth Henley, including Crimes of the Heart, before landing her first big movie role—as the “shrieking violet” in last year’s Raising Arizona. Nowadays, Holly lives in Manhattan with photographer John Raffo, but last month, when the New York Film Critics Circle named her Best Actress of 1987, she was rehearsing a West Coast production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind and sifting through movie offers. How’s she feeling? “Lucky as s—.”