MacNeil's 'Breaking News': We're shocked!

November 08, 1998|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

"Breaking News," by Robert MacNeil. Nan A Talese Doubleday. 406 pages. $24.95. Revered network news anchorman Grant Munro - "Gregory Peck" to the mysterious and jivy online gossip columnist "Hollygo Lightly" - is facing 60 and the biggest decision of his aging career: Should he get a facelift?

It's hard to imagine that revered television newsman Robert MacNeil ever spent a nanosecond pondering a nip-and-tuck. But in all other ways - and maybe in this way too, who knows? - Grant Munro is MacNeil.

Both are 40-year veterans of television, both cut their journalistic teeth chronicling the defining moments of the last half of the 20th century, both are distinguished, civilized gentlemen with a capital "G." And both cannot stop fretting about the way the business built by Murrow and Cronkite is going to hell in the handbasket woven by Jerry Springer.

"Breaking News," the third novel from the former co-anchor of PBS's acclaimed "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour," is MacNeil's Lament.

Network news has put style and sensationalism above substance (we're shocked, shocked) and woe to the viewing public, not to mention democracy.

We know this is true because MacNeil, in the voice of Munro, tells us it is so. Munro and all the honorable characters worry on for pages and pages about the sorry state of their beloved television news industry.

But MacNeil, the author, doesn't give us much evidence that things in teeveenewsland - as "Hollygo" calls the biz - are as bad as Munro thinks they are. His villains are a kid producer, a callow pretty-boy reporter, the grasping star of a news magazine show (with nudie pictures in her background) and a ratings-driven, sold-out executive.

His case in point is a tepid, running story about the JonBenet-esque murder of the young daughter of a Grade B movie actress. Munro draws his line in the sand over this one: The network will not stoop to interview the mother's accused slimeball boyfriend as long as he, Grant Munro, controls the anchor desk.

Munro is a good and decent man in a business that is becoming ever less so. His musings and struggles against the forces of late middle age in an industry that values only youth make for lighter than airwaves reading. But that is about it.

Pre-publication press touts "Breaking News" as a cross between "Broadcast News" and "Primary Colors," peopled with "actual television personalities (albeit disguised)." But the reader who buys this tease, expecting to find juicy tidbits or the real scoop, is likely to be disappointed.

The "actual television personalities" are either so well disguised or just so blandly generic that even industry insiders may have trouble putting names with the naughty bits, which, by the way, aren't all that naughty.

MacNeil is too far above the fray to wield the wicked stiletto that skewering satire requires - or that the network news business deserves.

Much, indeed, is wrong in teeveenewsland, from ABC's capitulation to the tobacco industry's bluff years back to everyone's recent preoccupation with the salacious details of the presidential sexcapades. And MacNeil is right about all that.

But his characters and situations never approach the venality and baseness that threaten the real evening news, as it grasps to hang onto viewers increasingly stuck in traffic or just too busy to care. And his hasty, dismissive references to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which broke as the book was going to press, only serve to underscore the novel's shortcoming: The truth about television news is definitely stranger and more interesting than this fiction.

Debbie M. Price is a reporter for The Sun. During the 1980s, she lived in Philadelphia and worked for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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