Life a Story: Natalie Jacobson Reporting. By Natalie Jacobson. Peter E. Randall Publishers. $29.95.
The insistent, misguided American belief that celebrities have value
long ago infected the U.S. news business with the designation of certain
on-camera people as very high-paid “anchors” and with the use of star-studded
promotional campaigns featuring them – while other nations far more sensibly
called the same people “news readers” and made it clear that TV news was a
collaborative, fact-focused endeavor. The fragmentation of U.S. broadcast and
cable news in more-recent years has only intensified attempts to “celebrify”
the gathering and presentation of facts in order to boost ratings in an
increasingly competitive field – and, not surprisingly, facts have now blended
to such an extent with opinions that many viewers (and many on-air people
themselves) no longer know where one element leaves off and the other begins. One
segment of broadcast news, however, has been slightly more resistant to
“celebrification” than other parts of the business: local news, in which some on-air people have managed to make
decades-long careers with a focus on communities that they genuinely care about
and know very well. These presenters themselves may actually be known in the
local area by some portion of the audience, unlike the distant “anchors” and
national on-air people whose lives will never have the slightest impact on 99%
or more of the people who watch them.
The thing about the people who report on their own communities is that
they are wholly unknown elsewhere, and whatever recognition they receive at
home provides no connection in other places. Therefore, someone such as Natalie
Jacobson, who spent 35 years on air with WCVB/Channel 5 in Boston (out of a
40-year career), may have much of interest to say to people who “knew” her from
her decades in a local market, but will be a nonentity to people anywhere else
– resulting in a very limited (although potentially enthusiastic) audience for
her memoir, Every Life a Story.
Jacobson worked at WCVB from 1972 to 2007, so the story she tells of her
time in the business is also the story of major changes in news and society
during more than three decades – three very specific decades. This means that
many references she makes will have little or no meaning for younger readers:
“Arch [MacDonald], who[m] many people thought of as the Walter Cronkite of New
England….” The Walter who? “Marcy
[Carsey] enjoyed an extraordinary career. She and Tom Werner, now of the Boston
Red Sox, formed Carsey-Werner Productions. It was Marcy who convinced Bill
Cosby to play the role of Dr. Huxtable in the popular Cosby Show.” Umm, wait, that Bill Cosby? Umm, is this good?
The name-dropping here is inevitable, but most of the names will mean
little to most readers. Of greater interest will be the comments on how it
feels to do TV news, or at least how
it felt until 15 or so years ago. “I would come to know that life in television
news moves fast. Perhaps only a trading floor moves faster. …Minutes evaporate
at warp speed. New information pours in, from the wires, the telephones, police
radios, reporters. Before computers, typewriters were constantly clicking.”
This sort of writing makes Every Life a
Story into a kind of period piece, along the lines of The Front Page (whose original conception dates to 1928!). Very
little of the gathering and presentation of news described by Jacobson is the
same now, and even the notion of being first with a story is rarely meaningful
nowadays, since Internet speed makes the difference between being first and,
say, 14th, less than meaningful – it is the spin of the story that so often matters, and it may take a bit of
time (even if only minutes) to come up with an angle that will generate more
On the other hand, some of what Jacobson says in her memoir makes
considerable sense even today, and has applicability beyond the Boston area: “I
would come to learn that the crux of news is how it is defined and reported.
…Why is this important, and to whom? Is the information honest, factually
correct? How do you know what you think you know? Who is your source? Can you
trust it?” At a time when it seems most purveyors of news (perhaps that should
be “so-called news”) seem less than concerned about accuracy, fact-checking and
sourcing, Jacobson’s words have an upstanding if slightly musty feeling to
them. Whether anyone who might benefit from them will read her book and pay
attention, it is impossible to know.
Because of the time period in which she worked at WCVB, Jacobson had
concerns that were endemic in society for a while but will now seem like
ancient history to many. The Vietnam War is one. The proposed Equal Rights
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is another. And some of Jacobson’s writing
assumes reader familiarity with and attention to topics that may not be
uppermost in many people’s minds: “Today, sex discrimination and abuse in the
workplace have replaced the balancing debate. Harvey Weinstein is the poster
boy for such discrimination, but his case and comments by his female attorney
broaden the discussion.” Umm, what is all that about, and what comments, and…?
Well, you can look it up – but you have to be so inclined.
You also have to be inclined to want to know Jacobson herself as a person if you are going to enjoy reading Every Life a Story, since much of the book details elements of her personal life and her relationship, personal and professional, with another Boston on-air fixture, Chet Curtis: they shared the anchor desk (or co-reader desk) for 20 years. Not much about their story is unique, and not much will be meaningful for any non-Boston-area readers who happen to pick up this book; the whole situation just reaffirms that this is a locally focused work about local people doing local news. In fact, some elements that get short shrift here, because they are not central to the story, are fascinating, notably the career of Jacobson’s father, a onetime taxi driver who became president of Gillette. And of course the book deals with Jacobson’s private life, her trials and triumphs at home as well as in the public eye; that is scarcely surprising in a book of this sort. Jacobson is enough of a celebrity in a specific geographic area so that her book will make people who have never known her, but might run into her sometime, believe they know her better, and take pleasure in that. It is a book for a highly limited audience, and it is focused on a journalistic time period that is now gone – making it as much a history book as a personal memoir.