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Requiem for an anchor: bizarre, brilliant

IT WAS A DEFINING MOMENT for John Schubeck. At the end of his 11 p.m. news show, a story popped up on his “prompter” that he had already read 10 minutes earlier. With more than two decades of experience as an anchorman, Schubeck had to decide whether to read it a second time or ad lib the remaining two minutes. He opted for a third alternative: Fuming over this screw-up, he simply glared at the camera for two minutes and remained utterly silent — perhaps one of the longest interludes of silence in recent TV history.

John Schubeck died last week, penniless at age 61. In his prime, he was a $ 1 million a year anchorman in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He was also one of the most brilliant, yet downright goofy, denizens of the TV news fraternity — a man who, despite his considerable success, was absolutely convinced that what he did for a living was absurd and vaguely demeaning.

THERE WERE TIMES he put his attitude on display in dopey ways. A big burly man who enjoyed his alcohol, Schubeck kept a coffee mug full of rum just off camera, but viewers now and then could see him take a swig during what he thought was a break. Once, upon finishing his 5 p.m. segment, he started introducing the anchor for the next hour, but couldn’t remember his name (it was Warren Olney, who looked on, astonished). Sometimes he would run stories together, so that an explosion in Montebello resulted in four casualties in Pacoima — viewers were left to their own devices to figure out the surreal melodrama.

Nonetheless, Schubeck was a serious and highly intelligent man who read the New York Times and the Economist in the newsroom and, while anchoring at night, completed law school by day. He also wrote two fascinating screenplays that vividly depicted the innate absurdity of his calling as he saw it. In his scripts, TV newsmen planted evidence to embellish stories, rearranged crime scenes to create better camera angles and carefully rehearsed witnesses to describe scenes they hadn’t observed.

NOW AND THEN a “news reader” in Schubeck’s scripts would escape from his desk to break an important news story and expose bureaucratic hypocrisy, but these incidents clearly represented Schubeck’s own fantasy life. He thought the format and content of local news shows were downright ridiculous — the twin anchors of predictably diverse ethnicity glued to their desk, rattling off inane items about local muggings and gang wars. “Why does everyone have to do things in lockstep?” Schubeck would rage when we met for an occasional dinner or drink. “Why does everything have to be exactly alike?”

On several occasions, Schubeck presented to management daring schemes to break the pattern — ideas for free-flowing news shows in which the anchors were in the field covering important news stories, not freeway chases. The ideas were rejected. So were his screenplays. They were funny but chaotic, like their author — filled with vivid incident, but structured in a stream-of-consciousness manner. The late Paddy Chayefsky could have cobbled them into memorable movies, but alas he wasn’t around for a rewrite.

FILLED WITH INDIGNATION over the state of his profession, Schubeck ricocheted from station to station, at one time or another working for all three of the network affiliates in Los Angeles. “They can’t fire you in this job once you’ve achieved a certain level,” he once told me. “They don’t have enough imagination.”

But they did fire him. By the time he was in his late 50s, he was rattling around independent stations in places like Palm Desert, and it had become quite obvious, even in those sleepy places, that Schubeck was drinking too much.

He was also fighting all sorts of other demons. He had a habit of marrying with great frequency. When he got bored, he would announce, “I’m going to a celebrity golf tournament in Spain,” but in fact no one ever knew where he actually went or why.

I find myself thinking of Schubeck this week, now that the lockstep of local TV news has spread to that of network newsmagazine shows. The new TV season is awash in “Datelines” and “20/20s” and “Inside Editions,” all of them dishing out their stories about Princess Diana or “road rage” or other supposedly sure-thing topics. The proliferation has been so great that it’s no longer possible to differentiate the supposedly more serious shows like “48 Hours” from the hard-breathing “Hard Copy” or “Extra.” They’ve all become a blur.

BRYANT GUMBEL, FOR ONE, finds all this baffling. In starting his new show, “Public Eye,” last week, he insisted it was possible to start a newsmagazine without “chasing down the latest celebrity who picked up a transvestite.” He started out with a vivid glimpse at famine in North Korea plus an interview with the Army sergeant major accused of sexual misconduct. It was a promising start greeted by unpromising ratings.

In surfing through these news shows, however, I got the feeling that all of them could have used a bit of the nihilistic, let’s break-the-mold spirit of John Schubeck, that brilliant and bizarre man who loved making a million bucks a year, but hated the price he had to pay.

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