In a top five market, a spurious local TV report on the bombing of a nuclear plant has caused a mass exodus; the city’s highways are at a standstill, its citizens frantic. Other local stations, afraid of missing out on the giant breaking story, parrot the bad tip. Fatalities climb past 100 as people scramble to get out.
Thankfully, this has not actually happened. But it very well could, says former Philadelphia anchor Larry Kane, who depicts the above scenario in his novel Death by Deadline. The book is a thriller, but could just as easily be read as a 248-page screed against local TV news.
“There are a lot of uninformed people in newsrooms that don’t read and don’t understand the power and impact of their broadcast,” Kane says. “There are a lot of people who’d rather be No. 1 than be second and be correct.”
Kane, who turns 69 this month, is a decorated newsman. He got his start on radio back in 1957, is credited with breaking the Bay of Pigs invasion story in 1961 and spent almost four decades at Philadelphia TV stations, including WPVI, WCAU and KYW, starting in 1966. Kane also worked in New York for a spell, at both WABC and ABC News. He stepped off the Philly stations stage at the end of 2002, and has rightly earned the market’s news “dean” title, says Philly/ New York news veteran Al Primo.
“Larry’s a real hard driver, a dedicated guy who never quits,” Primo says.
These days, Kane is host of The Voice of Reason on the Comcast Network, and contributes to KYW Radio.
He’s a prolific author as well, with a pair of books on the Beatles and a memoir in his oeuvre. Kane says fiction represented a vastly more challenging enterprise than reporting the truth. Death by Deadline took 13 years to write, he says, including four complete rewrites.
While he’s teamed with major publishers for his previous books, Kane self-published Death. “Publishing fiction is almost impossible,” he says. “Unless you’re Stephen King, it’s not gonna happen.”
While Death features a handful of honest reporters, the book is filled with a rogue’s gallery of news hacks: a cocaine-addicted star anchor who can’t keep his pants on, an anchor with a history of reporting untruths who commissions the murder of an emerging female co-anchor, a pottymouthed news director who’s made a long career of failing upward, and a bloodless station owner in New York who cares for nothing but the bottom line.
The book recounts reporting lowlights Kane witnessed firsthand, such as a reporter referring to Malcolm X as Malcolm “the tenth,” and another asking a judge where the heck “Absentia” is after he said a high profile trial would be held in absentia. Some of the incidents are real, but Kane says the characters are composites and are not based on people he’s worked alongside.
The characters often speak in clichés that strain credulity, but the suspension builds toward a harrowing and entertaining climax. Anyone who works in local television should appreciate Kane’s behind-the-scenes rendering, first-time novelist flaws and all, of a TV newsroom.
Kane insists he isn’t out to blast local TV, but he clearly has strong feelings on the topic. The original e-book’s cover tagline read “The story of what could happen when local TV news runs amok”; for the paperback edition that which was changed to “Can out of control local news kill people?”
“I’m not dumping on the business I’m in,” he says. “There are quality people in broadcast journalism, but there are more and more renegades. In some markets, stations are in the hands of people with no idea about ethics.”
A Pew Research Center study released last week showed that local TV remains the outlet of choice for breaking news, with 55% of respondents getting it from stations, way ahead of the Internet (16%) and newspapers (14%). But Kane finds local TV content increasingly irrelevant, especially to a younger generation. He says Philadelphia’s biggest scoops consistently go to the newspapers; he’d like to see stations do a better job of covering the environment, education, financial news and local elections.
“News directors, with the rare exception, hate politics,” he believes.
Prompted for instances where he saw bad reporting harm people, Kane mentions a suicide at a suburban Philly school in 2006 and a station that sparked an uproar by reporting that several students were killed.
Kane is hopeful local news can retain its relevancy. “We’ve got to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “I hope we do, because I love the business.”
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