Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Anchors away

Former newsman mines satire behind the screens.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Grant Munro: Television news anchor. Rugged outdoorsman. Champion of journalistic integrity. Untarnished reputation. Aging, but still sexy. Perfect teeth. His own hair. OK, maybe slightly sagging jowls and a few more folds of soft skin around his eyes than looks good on the evening news, but still a star-quality talking head if there ever was one.

Trouble is, this handsome Gregory Peck of a news anchor is facing not only his 60th birthday, but also the challenges of keeping on top of an increasingly commercial business. If Munro stands for the old-school, news-with-integrity side of TV journalism, he’s standing on shifting sands.

Unfortunately for him, Grant Munro’s well-known pronouncements against the more dirty-handed of his fellow muckrakers have made him look more stodgy than stalwart, at least in the eyes of those younger and more ambitious than he needs to be any more. And thus the tension of the story: Old versus new, integrity versus commercialism. It’s timely, if not timeless.

Breaking News is Robert MacNeil’s third novel, and one that must have come effortlessly to the former co-anchor of PBS’s "MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour." MacNeil’s inside knowledge allows for a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the television news industry, and provides fodder for some witty satire and parody.

If Munro stands for all that’s right, true and good in television journalism, his arch-rival, Ann Murrow – she of an erotic-photos-surfacing-from-her-past subplot, and no relation to broadcast news pioneer Edward R. Murrow – stands for all that’s wrong, sleazy and bad. Murrow, who comes across as a cartoon character – Brenda Starr personified – exploits the tawdry and manipulates her viewers as skillfully as any "Hard Copy"-style seductress could. And, as expected, she gets the drool-soaked, all-important ratings.

When Murrow is rumored to be on the verge of jumping networks to replace Munro in his anchor’s chair, the less-than-vibrant Munro begins to worry about his job, spiraling into a self-absorbed, preretirement crisis. Through Munro’s crinkling eyes, MacNeil exposes the appearance-is-everything side of television news. At 60, facing the downside of his career, Munro decides to get a facelift. His glory days as a Vietnam war correspondent and his numerous interviews with the crowned heads and celebrities of the world all mean nothing when he’s faced with being replaced by someone younger and fresher-faced than he.

Trouble is, readers are likely to have little sympathy: Other than stodginess, Munro, alas, lacks fatal flaws. Sure, there is potential for a fiery downfall, but even his adultery (only twice, and he didn’t inhale) and his temptation (despite rumors, he never sleeps with the hot young number from the network’s Cleveland affiliate) are merely lukewarm. Munro’s greatest weakness is, of all things, his vanity.

The novel’s witty references to news networks Taupe and Beige, and events that mirror the present – a presidential sex scandal, a JonBenet Ramsey-style murder, those pesky photographs of a female celebrity – are timely enough to tempt readers into feeling as though they’re getting a Primary Colors-style exposé.

Even News Mait, the now-defunct Web site that dished the daily dirt on the network newsrooms, has a part, in the guise of a black drag queen and Internet gossip columnist who goes by the name of Hollygo Lightly. Unfortunately, when Hollygo – arguably the novel’s most vibrant character – is inevitably unmasked, she’s not who we think she is. Or anyone we might’ve wished her to be, either.

Throughout Breaking News, MacNeil skewers the industry he knows best, but it’s clear that he still cares about it enough to wield his poison pen with a gentle hand. As in Christopher Buckley’s The White House Mess, a 1995 novel of an ill-fated American presidential term, there are enough hints and similarities between the novel’s characters and real-life celebrities to give a taste of intrigue – but never enough to incriminate the not-so-innocent parties. The result is an entertaining read, despite its slim store of narrative tension.

When Rick Siefert, a freelance reporter, is assigned to write about Munro for Time magazine, his thoughts about Munro’s "Evening News" more or less sum up the novel’s highs and lows: "Siefert thought Grant’s news show agreeable to watch, not offensive, but not compelling. You could see and hear the newsmakers, but in brief flashes, like being offered a lick of ice cream from a passing car."

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