“Is there a problem Sarah?” her producer, Charlie Martin, the WNN News Producer for the early morning shift, asked when he noted her sour expression just before her nine a.m. segment in the anchor test of the WNN morning straight news show.
“It’s just that,” she paused collecting her thoughts, “I always thought a meteor striking a house was a one in ten million event.”
“That story from Australia?” Martin asked.
“Yes” Sarah answered thinking about the story that her college roommate had told her. “My college roommate’s parents and sister were killed when a meteor struck their house.” She tried to remember more details.
Martin shook his head and pointed towards the empty seat in front of the cameras. The early morning news shows were mainly a rehash of last nights news, edited, and Sarah’s job was primarily to introduce the stories without much input to the content. It was a far cry from what she had done when she joined WNN nearly ten years before. Once the Markson Brothers gained control seven years back, the focus changed from straight news and investigative journalism to news slanted to a single point of view that Sarah found offensive. Early in her time there she had been given assignments that needed her investigative skills, but once the change-over happened, her known left of center leanings had been channeled into more human interest stories and now, near the end of her run there, to reading the headlines and introducing canned reports.
“We sugar coat the news Charlie or actually lie to our audience if it makes the point of the right wing owners of this company,” Sarah said walking over to his desk after her hour was finished
“Why is that Sarah,” Ross answered knowing all of her arguments.
“Compare how we treated President King, a man of few morals and who told far more lies than truths, and who even Randall, our chameleon of a New Director, agreed was dangerous to our democratic values, with how we treated President Toure, his predecessor who could, according to commentators and guests on this network do nothing right.”
He waited for Sarah to stop her monologue, then asked, “what is your point?”
“Take the story on General Helmut Reinhardt, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
“A hero by any objective measure,” Martin added, “so what?”
“The great man gave a speech yesterday to a bunch of right wing extremists two days back on the risks we face now that Kirsten Anderson will be our next President. General Reinhardt asserted that Kirsten Anderson didn’t have the ‘ball’ that President King had when it comes to dealing with terrorists, that she’d be more worried about collateral damage for civilians rather than the risk that failure to bomb might have for American troops on the ground, that, Charlie, you know is not true, at least not from what she’s stated many times he saw as the failures of the Toure administration in Syria.”
“Sarah, they were business executives and interested in what happens to the Defense budget with someone like Judith Wilson, Professor of Peace Studies at Cornell now, and rumored to be her nominee for Secretary of Defense gets her way and makes the cuts she’s hinted at . And,” Martin paused, “he said things I think I agree with.”
“Well, in any case, we ignored the most dangerous and inflammatory parts of his speech, letting him seem quite reasonable in his critique of what’s wrong with the foreign policy she laid out last year when she ran for office. Someone like Helmut Reinhardt sounds reasonable, but the underlying message is – we can’t let our guard down, we have to protect the nation from the extremists in the Democratic Party who will now be in charge of keeping us safe.”
“He called,” she paused for effect, “and not in so many words, the incoming administration a bunch of far left progressives without any idea of how to govern or protect the country.”
“I watched a good twenty minutes of the speech this morning. The General pointed out the obvious Sarah; we live in a damn dangerous neighborhood and that simply assuming good intentions are not enough to insure security.”
“You trust that man?”
“I trust that General Reinhardt has our nation’s best interests at heart, yes.”
“General Reinhardt is, at best, well-meaning and patriotic. At worse, he’d like to create a fascist state offering security at the price of basic freedom. It leads to Big Brother, and you know it Charlie! He wasn’t talking about some crazy teenager with nuclear weapons like that nut in North Korea, he was talking about snakes in our midst and how best to weed them out. We have to let the NSA do it’s damn job, not hamstring it.” She stopped. The argument with Charlie Ross was an old one and she knew she was skating on thin ice.
“What if this guy’s a fascist?” Charlie laughed. “They’re all fascists’ honey, spend most of your life saying yes sir, no sir, and you kind of get used to giving orders or taking them, but I’ll tell you what, we’re a few minutes short in the next hour, take a look at the speech, work with one of the editors to add a bit more ‘color’, about another minute okay?.” He smiled. “
“Thanks Charlie.” She touched him gently knowing he was one of her few allies in the news department.
As he was leaving her desk, Ross remembered what he had wanted to tell her. “Sarah, make sure you drop by Randall’s office before you leave, he needs to see you about a story idea he has.”
“What’s it about?”
“Don’t know,” he said then remembered, “something about meteors.”
The message from Ed Randall, the WNN News Director, had been curt, to the point. Charlie Martin had handed it to her after she’d finished without a word, but he was obviously upset. The note, while reminding her of the issue of a special story for the Christmas-New Year’s news drought on meteors, also suggested something more. Perhaps, she thought, as she walked to his office in one corner of the WNN building in mid-town Manhattan, she’d gone too far in adding to the clip on the Reinhardt speech with the few words of opinion she’d added at the end.
“What were you thinking about when you changed that segment on General Reinhardt?” Randall shouted when she walked into his office after the 11 a.m. segment was finished. “They’re going to give me hell about that upstairs. The suits on the 20th floor love General Reinhardt and you made it look like he was going to round up everyone with a grudge against the government and put them in camps. Your comments at the end didn’t improve the picture.”
“Quit fussing Ed. I just highlighted the parts of his speech that made him sound a bit more strident and dangerous then the utter dribble that our editors had selected to show the people who happen to watch in the morning.”
“He’s also our most decorated war hero. Two Medals of Honor, a Gold and Silver Star, that makes him one of a kind especially for a General officer Sarah. He’s a national treasure and likely the next President after the Kirsten Anderson leaves office.”
“And he walks on water too Ed. Cut the infomercial. General Reinhardt is far too political for a general officer.”
“We made him sound like Attila the Hun. I saw it in person. We stood and cheered at the end. And Sarah, he’s pointing out the obvious. We can’t let our guard down, not now, not ever.”
What she’d done to the speech wasn’t anything more or less than what WNN did daily to the words of men and women more liberal than the General. Randall cooled off and sat back in his chair. He’d hired her because she had independence in her journalism rather than simply being a beautiful face with a good voice. It was trait he had searched for when he ran a news desk twenty years before, but which was less in demand in this age of sound bites and top-down ideologically correct journalism. He’d have to ease her out next year to make room for a new face.
“You read that short clip on that family in Australia, the one about that meteor striking their home?” Randall asked.
“Yes,” Sarah felt a cold chill. “Why?”
“I’d like to do a half hour special on meteors and the danger posed to life on earth” Randall said, something to run during the Christmas – New Years week. You’re just too good an investigative reporter to leave reading scripts” he added watching her face for approval. “I need a solid half hour on the dangers of catastrophic events destroying this rat hole. Get me a budget and storyboards. Split it into short segments so we can use it as filler too in the late night time slots when new news is scarce.”
“Something to frighten the children before Santa comes to give out treats?”
“No! Stop being so damn cynical Sarah. I want a story that’s positive and that shows how the government’s working to protect us from disaster. There was a close fly-by a few years ago and then the Russian meteor that struck somewhere in Siberia not too long ago.”
Sarah took the subway home with her eyes barely open. The early morning schedule was exhausting. To reach the studio by 5 a.m., she had to get up by 3:30. To do that she needed to be in bed by seven in the evening, not the usual time to go to sleep and not in synch with any of her friend’s schedule. Too tired to even put the few groceries she’d picked up at the corner convenience store, away; Sarah collapsed on the couch, and dozed until the phone rang.
“I caught your 11 a.m. show. You’re taking some chances aren’t you Sarah?”
“Teddy” she said pleased to hear his voice. Their affair had been on and off again over the past sixteen years with neither one able to commit, and yet they were still the best of friends.
“Sarah, Reinhardt bites.”
“I thought the General was your hero. You made him into a national treasure.” Rothstein had written two best sellers that had glorified General Reinhardt in the minds of the public and highlighted his unique brand of leadership and skills.
“He made himself into a hero, I only reported the story” and Ted added, he saved my life more than once. “Make no mistake Sarah, Reinhardt is dangerous when he’s pissed off. So darling, be careful!”
“Let me tell you, Teddy, that at WNN, and in corporate offices everywhere, the General is like a God.”
“Not surprising, quit, I’ll help you get another job, one that uses your talents better than this one.”
She knew what was coming and she wasn’t in the mood. “I don’t want to hear it today Teddy. I’m a third rate journalist, and you’re a star.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.”
“News anchors are well-paid jokes.”
Sarah let the receiver drop. She looked out at the New York skyline, barely visible through her picture window. The people below looked small, inconsequential. For the first time since coming here, she felt small and inconsequential. Rothstein was right, it was time to change careers, it was time to leave WNN before she was ushered out the door by Randall.