Wednesday, October 13, 1999

Seek Books Update: Tabloid Baby


Two weeks back this column focused on the enthusiasm the people at HarperCollins have for the upcoming memoirs of TV honcho Roone Arledge. But his book won’t be out for about a year. Already, for those interested in the history of journalism, and especially TV journalism, there is a book just out worth serious attention. The book is Tabloid Baby by Burt Kearns.

Burt Kearns was a young and talented reporter for local Connecticut newspapers before he moved to NYC and latched onto a job in television with NBC News. From there he moved to the new Fox Network. Next thing he knew he was producing shows for A Current Affair, the smash tabloid news TV show Fox introduced in the early 80s. For years A Current Affair set a hot pace, outdistancing its many imitators. It also shook up programming trends and practices within the American TV industry. Much of this was due to the influence of imported British and Australian journalists, TV reporters, producers and directors.

Shows like A Current Affair and its less successful spin-off Hard Copy changed the face of American TV journalism. They also changed the way all news was reported. They changed the way stories were selected for feature treatment. They changed the tone and treatment accorded stories. They even dramatized the manner of reporting a story. They were up-close, they were personal. They were humanly engaging in a way news stories had never before been. Traditionalists loathed their new, let-it-all-hang-out style. But today the reverberations of that style are to be seen everywhere, even on once stodgy network news programs, as the subtitle of Tabloid Baby boldly asserts: "Out of the Babylon of Reality Television Rises a New Generation of Network News."

A Current Affair and shows like it went gonzo. They pioneered guerrilla reporting by such swashbucklers as Steve Dunleavy, now a featured columnist on the New York Post. Dunleavy was a sort of gangsta investigator, a reporter more akin to Spiderman than to Walter Cronkite. The younger reporters and producers like Burt Kearns learned from Dunleavy. Kearns also learned a lot about TV delivery from Australian producer Peter Brennan, who never met a story he couldn’t spice up, jazz up, personalize, and dramatize. Brennan could have spun the obit of Mother Teresa and slashcut her funeral for pace.

Dunleavy and Brennan were only two of the manic characters whirling with energy and talent Burt Kearns worked with. There was also wizard reporter and interviewer Rafael Abramovitz, the distinguished TV show host Maury Povich, the giant and intimidating reporter Gordon Elliott, the sparkplug reporter David Miller, and the manic and nearly berserk producer Wayne Darwen, who contrasted with the calm and measured producers Ian Rae and Dick McWilliams. All of these guys would have attacked the Great Wall of China with a safely pin if a great story had been on the other side. Reading about them in Tabloid Baby you feel that Burt Kearns has done for them as marauding journalists what Robert Louis Stevenson did for pirates in Treasure Island.

Tabloid Baby is published by Celebrity Books, appropriately enough, and priced at $27.95 for 490 bristling pages. Every big news story of the 80s and early 90s is showcased in here. What’s more, Burt Kearns proves the old journalism adage that the story behind the story is often the best story. Tabloid Baby provides as much high-octane entertainment as any Hollywood expose, and, into the bargain, it concerns a very serious subject, and sheds a sharp light on it: the nature of journalism at the dawn of the millennium.