9/11 changed everything. The killings of Leslie, Charlie, Zoe and Dana made Avoiding Armageddon into a personal crusade. On rare occasions, when a project comes together, you find that you are a vehicle for forces larger than yourself. In Normandy: the Great Crusade, the veterans and casualties of that terrible twelve-week battle, both civilian and military, seemed to speak through me. I simply had opened myself up to their message.
I felt the same intense personal connection with a need to understand the terrorists who threatened us and the weapons they might be able to use against us.
9/11 also changed the media environment in which the series would appear. Knowledge about terrorists and weapons of mass destruction had been damned up in universities and think tanks. Now it poured out in newspapers, magazines and books. Much of it even found its way onto American radio and television. Our series had been co-opted. To be at all relevant, we would have to become journalists and “advance the story.” “What is the next step? Where is this story taking us?” as ATC story editor Dave Clark used to ask when I ran NPR’s All Things Considered.
Joel said the project was not funded nor staffed to function journalistically and he was right, but we had no choice. As we developed our stories, journalism seemed more and more inevitable. Joel continued to resist. He lasted another four months. In January 2002, Wussler fired Joel and Lynn and asked me to Executive Produce the series.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” poet Alexander Pope warned. In hindsight, the project seems doomed from the start. Although I was able to hire my own producers, Wussler refused to give me either editorial control or control over my administrative team, which was already almost dysfunctional. You’d think by the age of 65 I would have known better.
Robert Wussler led the Avoiding Armageddon team. A CBS whiz kid of days long gone, he was near the end of his career, still frustrated by not becoming Roone Arledge. A big man, always impeccably dressed in pale suits, with soft, white skin and the general bearing of a man with many health problems. He moved about cautiously, with dignity, grace and one suspected pain. Robert had a droll sense of humor and he was a delightful companion over a glass of good, but if he were buying not expensive, red wine. His management style was ruthless Mafia.
He once screamed at me over a speakerphone in language so foul that our African American bookkeeper, Sylvia, stuck her head in from the office next to mine and said with a shocked look, “That man talks like a field hand.” The issue was hiring Ted Turner’s son as our director of photography. Rhett was a nice young man, but he had little documentary news experience, no foreign experience and was unwilling to travel to the many dicey parts of the world where our producers would be gathering their footage. Robert made clear to me that I wasn’t going to win that one and Rhett became Avoiding Armageddon’s director of photography.
Robert began most of our staff meetings by humiliating someone in front of the rest of the staff. He would do this by calling public attention to a mistake made by a senior staff member. The rebuke always came as a complete surprise, because Robert never talked to the recalcitrant staff member first and the charges were often bizarre. If anyone remembers any of them, please remind me. My mind is blank. He would verbally lash out at that meeting’s victim and threaten summary dismissal, then go forward as if nothing had happened.
Robert, like many powerful people, used words for their effect rather than their meaning. I was with a group of WETA and PBS executives, standing in a hallway outside a hotel Grand Ballroom, waiting for a presentation before the Television Critic Association. Robert was telling everyone how much Ted Turner loved the shows he’d seen to date. Moments later, Coby Atlas, PBS President Pat Mitchell’s top programming assistant, walked up to the group. She hadn’t heard Robert’s comments about Ted. Coby warned us to be careful during our presentation. The press was asking questions about funders buying their way onto the network. Pat had just announced that funders were forbidden from looking at programs before they aired. Without losing a beat, Wussler announced that Ted had never seen a frame of video. The rest of us made uncomfortable eye contact.
Robert’s favorite sport after humiliating people was firing them. I’ve never seen anyone take such glee in it. I was fired twice. Joel Westbrook and his wife Lyn, who hired me, were both fired. Susan Koch was fired. Tom Devries was fired. Rick King was fired four days short of the end of his contract, just for the fun of it! I think our bookkeeper Sandy eventually was fired. Or maybe she quit.
Suzanne Arden was Wussler’s Vice-President. She came from New York City where she worked in the Time Warner publicity department. Suzanne was a neat, single woman of a certain age. She was fit if not slim, and like Robert always dressed carefully in demure business suites. Robert and Suzanne ran Turner Pictures out of Atlanta at the time. For most of our two-year production cycle, they were preoccupied with another loosing proposition, Turner’s 3 hour and 18 minutes Civil War drama, Gods and Generals. It had bombed with the critics and audiences after it opened on February 10th some $50 million dollars over budget.
Suzanne was ambitious, absolutely certain she knew how to produce a television series, and frustrated that I stood in her way. “The first thing you have to do,” she lectured me repeatedly, “is craft your message points.” Suzanne convinced Robert that this was a critical part of producing television documentaries, and Suzanne hired Equals Three in Bethesda Maryland, to craft them. We had several long meetings with “the three blonds” as they were called affectionately in the industry.
Suzanne said the next step after message points was to establish the sub messages that would lead viewers to the main message. Then we should put these message points in a linear structure, and go out and shoot the video and do the interviews that made these points. I said this was like making a painting by coloring in the numbers. Actually, it’s a shocking concept for a public television documentary series.