Even Worse Than We Had Hoped: Inside Local TV News

Note: This is the second of two book “reviews” I’ve been hoping to do since about August, but my fall got so busy with actual paying work that they were both pushed off until the delightfully slow week between Christmas and New Years.  “First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers” was the first, but Jonathan kinda beat me to that.  This is the second.

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We’re all lawyers here, right?

If you’ve ever regretted your career choice, I have the antidote:  Paul B. Spelman’s “Even Worse Than We Had Hoped: A Journey Through The Weird Wild World Of Local TV News,” the memoir of a former local TV news reporter who is now a lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission (and until 2010 was an associate at my firm).

After leaving the truly small time as a radio reporter in Telluride, Colorado—where Christie Brinkley made a donation to his station in gratitude for Spelman’s lack of killer instinct in investigating the story of her ski accident, Spelman’s first assignment as an on-air TV reporter was in the perfectly named Whiteville, North Carolina, where he found a sign outside one of the 86 (no joke) local churches reading “Let Jesus Fix Your Achy Breaky Heart.” Spelman is “something of a curiosity” to the townsfolk as a “half-Jewish New Yorker whose only religious experiences came from attending classmates’ bar mitzvahs.” (I am confident that many Whiteville residents are, like you, puzzling over whether that should have been “B’nai Mitzvah.”) There, Spelman gains experience operating a one-man news “bureau,” or “one-man band” in industry argot, simultaneously serving as his own cameraman as he videotapes himself reporting from the scene day after day. Spelman explains how local reporters work to turn mundane events into seemingly hard-hitting stories—the book’s title comes from a statement a local anchor supposedly made to the reporter covering a story about how an accident had been worse (and thus more newsworthy) than expected.

One sample grab comes describes how Spelman, by then working in East Tennessee, was dispatched to get footage of the farm of a former judge who had been arrested for growing marijuana there. By this point, Spelman had achieved the seniority necessary to warrant having an actual cameraman, Dan, accompany him to cover his stories. Because of delays in finding the farm, the judge had posted bond by the time they got to the scene, and Spelman’s admirable efforts to explain his rights to collect footage from a public roadway came to naught when the judge pulled a rifle case from his truck. Recognizing that the judge had the better of the argument,

We drove off, but unfortunately, we drove in the wrong direction, heading farther down a windy back road that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. So with a sinking feeling, we realized we’d have to turn around and head back to the farm. We decided that if we were going to get shot, we should try to get it on video, so I drove and Dan got in the back seat with the camera. I generously allowed that if the guy started shooting Dan was permitted to duck. “But keep rolling,” I said, “if we survive it’ll be good footage.”

When a highlight of your career is deciding how to caption your response to a sur-reply brief, that is infotainment. Spelman’s book is filled with this kind of gentle, self-deprecating humor, the observations of a person who in many ways is a visitor in his own country. Spelman spares no details, even (or especially) when it is embarrassing; his account of one evening when he spent so long in a courthouse bathroom that he arrived late to cover an aviation mishap ends with the memorable phrase, “luckily for me, it’s unwieldy to remove plane wreckage.” (His account of how he got the story anyway, maybe better than his speedier competition did, is illuminating.)

Admittedly, I grew up in Peoria, Illinois. My standards for a good time may not be the same as for some of you swells who grew up where “entertainment” consisted of something more sophisticated than listening to AM radio in the back of a Plymouth Belvedere as you drove out to a strip mine to shoot beer cans with BB guns. But as I read this book, I kept thinking, “There is a movie in this.”

When I was in my second year at law school, I went to go see the movie Black Robe, about a Jesuit priest trying to make converts in 17th Century Canada. There is a scene where the priest has been captured by hostile Iroquois and he stands waiting, hand held fast to a post, as the Iroquois chief impatiently sorts through clam shells to find one suitably dull to maximize the pain when he uses it to sever his guest’s finger. I left that movie thinking that, even though I had chosen to be a lawyer, life could be worse. Reading Paul Spelman’s book, I had the same feeling. But I laughed a lot more.