Confessions of a news nun

Behind the pomp and circumstance of 24-hour news, one woman wonders how such a cool job can mean such a lousy life


Fufkin Vollmayer
October 31, 1998 1:41AM (UTC)

"Television journalism ... I really love that expression."

-- Reed Hundt, former chairman of the FCC

"What a great job!"

This is what people say when they find out where I work. "You're really lucky to have gotten in there -- it's so competitive." After this round of congratulations, I hesitate, hoping to deflect further inquiries: "Wow, it sounds so exciting -- what's it like?" I have a prepared cocktail party response, and if I'm in the mood to gossip, I'll even throw in a bone or two, some amusing tidbit about the foibles of a certain celebrity. What it's really like, though, is not a topic for polite conversation.

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For example: It is 6 a.m. after a 13-hour, all-night shift. I'm listening to the desk manager make her weekly Sunday morning call to Lucianne Goldberg, in the wake of the Beltway pundit shows. "So what do you think of the impeachment hearings?" she asks. Meanwhile, I'm busy fact-checking two basketball players on their statutory rape arrest. Of course, this story could be bumped with the tiniest utterance from Lucianne about the tapes or the book deal or some new semen-stained article of clothing. It's a 24-hour television news channel and it's all Monica, all the time.

I'm a news nun. I entered the convent without even knowing it, taking the vows gradually, renouncing everything but work. We of the media covenant are mostly female and mostly freelance. Our schedules always vary -- 2 a.m. one day, 2 p.m. the next. I used to say that I was a journalist, but cable has made news into shift work. We who have taken the habit spend our days and nights coordinating satellite feeds, gathering B-roll footage, logging interviews and putting together news stories. In television, they're called packages. I'm a packer. I work on the round-the-clock news assembly line, splicing and dicing videotape, assuring quality control, turning out neat little packages of breaking news.

My function is that of a switcher, constantly tracking and phoning and connecting: crews to the desk, feeds to desk, editors to correspondents, New York to Washington, D.C. All must be fiber-optically connected, all the time, through pagers, hand-held radios, cell phones, e-mail and faxes. I run the equipment that runs a news room: the fax machine, the copy machine, the coffee machine, the voice mail, the TelePrompTer. There's a constant clatter of television monitors, the police radio, the local AM news station, punctuated by the urgent jangle of dozens of telephones. My job skills now require that I have the precision and reflexes of an air-traffic controller. One mistake, one wrong channel given for a satellite feed, and the whole system could melt down.

All over midtown, fall has arrived. The scarlet and copper leaves swirl and crunch underfoot. But even the leaves of this gentle autumn are too bright. They hurt my eyes, which are red from months of an erratic schedule: seven overnight shifts last week, four more this week. Miraculously, a shoot is canceled, and I have an afternoon off, mid-week. I phone around and try to make last-minute plans to see some of my friends. No go. Three p.m. and everyone is at work.

My hours are so odd, I communicate with most of my friends silently now, mostly through e-mail. It's better this way, really; easier than endless rounds of phone tag. Part of it is New York: Schedule-chasing is just a fact of life. More than that, though, after working in a newsroom, I'm so tired of the phone that I can't even lift the receiver on my own behalf. I want to see a face, hear a voice that I know and make contact with something familiar. At home, I reflexively dial 9 every time I start to make a call.

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The next day, I'm back at the network. The guest is having a makeup crisis and requests a delay for her appearance on a political affairs show. "I don't have enough blush and my eyes are too puffy. Call Washington and tell them I'll be on in 15 minutes," says the legal scholar. She was unceremoniously dumped by President Clinton for a political appointment, and has since become a hero of proportional representation. She is brilliant, poised and well-prepared to take on the acerbic anchor of the show. Nevertheless, she has to have her 15 minutes of powder and eyeliner, or no go. I accompany her to makeup.

As soon as I'm finished with her, I'm up in the lobby doing the meet and greet, bringing in guests to the studio for interviews. The 3 p.m. guest, a professor of medicine, has just released the first comprehensive study on fertility technology. "So," I ask him, "what do your findings mean for, say, the disposal of frozen embryos?" After a pause to consider, he answers me in detail. The irony of it hits me: I can barely make my rent, am so sleep-deprived that I'm a subway narcoleptic, and I'm talking to the media man of the moment about in vitro fertilization.

I marvel at the incongruities of my life. The cost of living in Manhattan has forced strange necessities on me. I live above a Chinatown sweatshop with Sharon. She receives SSI benefits, reads Krishnamurti and is the only African-American I know of other than Dennis Rodman to dye her hair orange and blue on a biweekly basis. Yet when I put on my tailored jacket and pearls, and assume the rubric of the network, my weird poverty and disconnected social life disappear. If Dr. Fertility only knew.

Earlier this year, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were stumping for "strategic airstrikes" against Iraq or Bosnia or Sudan. While U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was trying to work out a political solution, I was working on an economic one. Bombing or, as the news director corrected me, sorties, means more correspondents, more producers and, if I'm lucky, maybe a full-time staff job with benefits. I do the math. The destruction of Iraqi civilians equals more work, equals rent money for the month. Bombing equals dollars.

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Rousing myself out of a cost-benefit analysis, I see what I could become if I stick with this racket and succeed. I remember Cynthia, a seasoned producer, whom I have been lucky enough to observe during my apprenticeship. Despite her pedigree -- a Cambridge University education, years at the CBC and then the BBC in England -- she came to New York and had to start all over again. After a year she got work at a network, writing on the overnight shift from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. Now she's here, freelance, with no benefits, no overtime, and is frequently called in on weekends to cover a breaking story. This is success at the network.

So this is my great job, thanks to Ted Turner, who started the first 24-hour news network. Of course, I'm not alone. News nuns abound in the new, expanded operations of television news. Trouble is, if I jump the convent walls, light out for the substantive territory ahead, another will be inducted in my place. I half-imagine I should stay indefinitely, just to protect the next fresh face from entering these unholy chambers. And even when I do leave -- which I know, despite my sympathy for the next news nun, I soon will -- I wonder what I will take from this place where my lifelong interest in politics so quickly shrank to careerist tautologies. When we take the vows, I just wish we were issued a habit of Teflon. It's the only way I can think of to keep the hollow mayhem of the newsroom from sticking.


Fufkin Vollmayer

Fufkin Vollmayer is a former news nun and freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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