Breaking News

by Robert MacNeil

Published by Doubleday

371 pages, 1998

Buy it online





Sex, Drugs and Network News

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

It is a given that Robert MacNeil knows the news industry. He knows it perhaps as well as anyone alive. Over a career that spanned some 40-odd years, MacNeil became one of the most respected names in American broadcast journalism. He retired in 1995 with his reputation -- and, I suspect, his integrity -- still intact.

While Robert MacNeil is practically a household name in many households, what is less known about him is that he's a storyteller of merit. Two earlier novels might have made us suspect what Breaking News confirms: MacNeil might have been a helluva newsman, but he weaves a pretty good yarn, as well.

Breaking News centers on Grant Munro, a not-quite-sixty-broadcaster who finds himself questioning every aspect of his life and profession in the twilight of his career. Munro is the poster boy for television journalism. He cut his teeth covering the JFK assassination and rose to prominence as a field correspondent in Viet Nam. Think Jim Dial without Murphy Brown. Now the anchor of a network newscast, Munro is one of the most visible news personalities in an industry that's changing quickly and in ways Munro isn't sure he wants to be a part of.

If you watched any television with sound off, a music video, a commercial, a news program, and concentrated on the number of shot changes, never mind the content, you could see it. Flip, flick, flip. Every few seconds, sometimes faster. If the shots lasted longer than a second or two, you were probably watching an old movie. The heartbeat of America was being driven by a pacemaker constantly set faster and faster by this collective, generational impatience.

MacNeil takes us through Munro's changes in a way that is both elegant and logical. As well, it informs readers about the state of broadcasting in the late 1990s. A fictional exposé of the modern news industry might be entertaining but would not -- one suspects -- have a lasting or satisfying value. Like most really well spun tales, however, Breaking News speaks to us on several levels. Seeing the inner workings of a network newsroom in the way that MacNeil is able to show us is a rare and entertaining treat. As well, we see the main character grappling with issues of aging in a profession where youth has gotten to be one of the most prized assets. And -- for a time -- they are issues that Munro doesn't handle well.

Reagan's people said the nightly network news drove his White House; each day revolved around feeding and shaping those three nightly assessments of the presidency. But now the reality existed only in books, the outspoken memoirs of the Reagan staff. Electronic media might drive the news, might catalyze history hour by hour, but they didn't preserve it. Television might provide raw materials -- videotapes, voice recordings and scripts -- it provided them, for the most part, to people who wrote history.

MacNeil brings us a well-crafted book peopled with believable characters. So much so, in fact, that a mystery that ends near the book's conclusion -- the identity of the Hollygo character who is seen only through her posts on an Internet Web site -- is not a huge surprise. MacNeil has managed to render his characters so well that their actions are as understandable as those of people you know.

MacNeil's character's are entirely recognizable: sometimes uncomfortably so. You recognize the failed broadcaster, the pushy young producer, the stereotypically agent-y agent, the trash journalists looking for dirt. There are mentions, as well, of many real life people and events. The Princess Diana funeral, the Clinton scandals, the OJ trial. Some of these will, I think, cost Breaking News the long shelflife it might otherwise deserve. This is a novel of 1998: maybe 1999 at the latest. There is nothing of timelessness about the book and MacNeil opts often for the quick identification rather than the more elegant and hard to pin down fabricated identifications of pure fiction.

Characters out of the main line are in some cases more compelling. Munro's wife Winona is beautifully realized. Munro's college sweetheart, Winona is a successful therapist who is part of the reason her husband has managed to keep his feet firmly planted for as long as he has. Their relationship is lovely, as well. Filled, as is much of the book, with the small details that make this a rich and satisfying read.

And Breaking News does satisfy. A tight peek at contemporary television news, a commentary on aging in a society that doesn't value maturity and a story that entertains in the classic way: because it's good, tightly written and makes you want to get to the next page. Robert MacNeil delivers it all. Once again. | November 1998


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.