by Tom Farmer
Life in the Wrong Lane: Why Journalists Go in When Everyone Else Wants Out by Greg Dobbs is a vivid time-travel dispatch from the heyday of big-iron network TV news.
“Sadat has been shot. If you can get to Cairo, do it.”
Breathes there a real reporter who would not thrill to this flash, sent June 6, 1981 by ABC News to its forces across Europe? Got to ice that dinner date, honey. Here’s another chance to narrate history… and spend a fresh bucket of money.
In Life in the Wrong Lane, former ABC News correspondent Greg Dobbs speeds from London to Cairo within minutes of that terse directive, no doubt savoring the frisson of here-we-go adrenalin (I have no cash! No suitcase! Don’t know when or where I’ll sleep next! Let’s go, go, go!) that was once a basic fringe benefit of big-league TV news. Recounting stories in Egypt – or Libya, Belfast, Beirut, Gulf War I, pre-perestroika Moscow, you name it – Dobbs takes us inside the tense, addictive, free-spending, 24/7 subculture of global network news production as it used to be. In doing so he highlights its comparatively modest and curtailed state today.
Dobbs held down a gig at ABC News for 23 years, from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. He worked domestically, but the great stories in Life in the Wrong Lane are datelined overseas. Reading this breezy, fascinating memoir – the title points out that as reporters cover catastrophes, they plunge down the wrong side of the road towards the action, past sane people clogging the escape routes – is like bellying up to the hotel bar after a filing deadline for a night of literal and figurative war stories, funny and sobering, from a man at the epicenter of the newsgathering business in its heyday.
Epicenter? Greg Dobbs? You thought Cronkite, Brokaw, and Jennings were the epicenter. Of editing and presentation, yes. But Dobbs takes us along for the dusty, dirty, dangerous, crazy-making field work that gave the anchors something to present, and makes us appreciate the logistic miracles behind worldwide TV news.
The ride can be terrifying and infuriating. Dobbs is nearly shot to death taping a standup in Teheran during the 1979 Islamic revolution. Trying to contact renegade ex-CIA arms runner Frank Terpil in Beirut, he misses getting car-bombed by seconds. He rides into Uganda with Tanzanian troops toppling Idi Amin, sees horrific atrocities amid days of misery and filth, but his work is all but bumped from World News Tonight by the simultaneous Three Mile Island nuclear crisis. Two motifs recur: the struggle (now quaint-seeming) to transmit words and video in a pre-digital, pre-broadband era, and the fight to get his New York bosses to air the best stuff. (Covering the aftermath of a ruinous Italian earthquake, Dobbs gets exclusive, heartbreaking footage of Pope John Paul II kissing the head of a deceased victim, then fields complaints from New York, asking if he has some inoffensive shots to “cover the scene of the Pope kissing the dead guy.”)
While Dobbs never explicitly answers the question in his rhetorical subtitle – why do journalists go in when everyone else wants out? – it’s clear enough. Going in is a narcotic. Reporters have to see. It’s also, um, fun.
It would be nice to say Life in the Wrong Lane will make you a smarter viewer of today’s news. But so much has changed, it ain’t necessarily so. There’s an elegiac how-I-slew-that-mastodon quality to Dobbs’ yarns. Today the buckets of money for all-out coverage are mostly gone or underwrite expensive anchor talent, and much of our appetite for foreign news seems gone too. What Dobbs mainly did – travel; see; report – is done less often and more gingerly. In their parlous states the American networks have for decades assiduously hacked at their own newsgathering capacity. Today many ABC News foreign bureaus are one-person home-office outposts equipped only with a laptop and DV camera. ABC covers the entire African continent this way, off a single kitchen table in Nairobi. (NBC News bases no staff in Africa at all, and neither NBC nor CBS staff India.) Next time there’s a ferry disaster or terror attack in Malaysia, Manila or Mumbai, watch carefully: a reporter in London will likely “cover the story” from her distant desk, scanning wire dispatches to narrate video beamed in from “partner organizations.” Sending guys like Dobbs to faraway places used to guarantee the provenance of the reporting. It’s cheaper not to, and the American public doesn’t seem to mind, but that doesn’t make it right. (Reporters do keep taking heroic risks in Iraq and Afghanistan, but see much of their work spiked in New York by show producers bored with the wars.)
This book appears coincidentally with news of Diane Sawyer’s ascendancy to the ABC World News Tonight anchor chair. Jack Shafer at Slate wrote urging her to reject this tarnished, irrelevant prize – all the evening newscasts’ audiences are shrinking and increasingly doddering – and suggested that if Sawyer really wants to be remembered by her news peers, she can have her colossal salary redirected to hire “50 to 80 additional reporters to break stories.” That is, dozens of next-generation Greg Dobbses. This would indubitably be better for ABC News, journalism, and us; it is also indubitably not going to happen. So with Dobbs now laboring in relative seclusion on the little-seen HDNet channel with Dan Rather while the major networks collapse into dross, Life in the Wrong Lane makes the reader happy but wistful. Like an appreciation of Detroit muscle cars, it’s a resonant snapshot of an all-but-concluded era in which the product had more heart, soul and meaning.
Tom Farmer was a CNN supervising producer and executive producer of Larry King Live. He is managing partner of Solid State Information Design (www.solidstateid.com).