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Don Shelby: 'Anchorman 2' spotlights painful truths in TV journalism

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I laughed until I cried and I hung my head in shame this past weekend in New York.

BringMeTheNews had sponsored a trip for two contest winners (Shane Kitzman and Derek Ketcho) to go to New York for the premiere of Will Ferrell’s movie "Anchorman 2." Along for the ride, and as adult chaperones, were former real-life anchorman and BringMeTheNews founder Rick Kupchella and me.

The premiere, with the whole red carpet thing, was held at the historic Beacon Theater on Broadway. Inside the theater was a who’s who of Hollywood and Broadway talent. Most people struggled to get next to Will Ferrell or Jeremy Piven for a selfie. My night was made when I ran into my old friend and colleague Bill Kurtis, the legendary anchor and narrator’s voice for both "Anchorman" movies.

Also in attendance was Mort Crim, perhaps the most historic figure in the world of real anchormen. Louisville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit all claim him. Somebody snapped a picture. Lots of white hair and 150 years of local anchoring in one bunch of old guys. It is proper that it happened at a movie about an anchorman.

The movie was filled with funny lines. There were parts that were so hilarious the laughter in the audience drowned out the next lines spoken by the actors. I’ll have to see it again to find out what I missed. I laughed, too - until the shame began to cover me like a wet blanket.

This is why I felt ashamed – the comedy might as well have been a drama based on true events. Without giving away too much of the movie, "Anchorman 2" picks up where the first movie left off. It is the 1980s, and Ron Burgundy and his team move up into the brand new world of 24-hour cable news. No one thought it would work. One executive says, truthfully, “There’s not enough news to fill 24 hours.”

For laughs, the producers of the movie have a solid story killed because it might hurt an advertiser. The audience laughed. I cringed. I was there when it really happened. “We call this ‘synergy,’” says one news executive. The audience howled. I closed my eyes. "Synergy" was introduced into newsroom lexicon while I was on the anchor desk.

One thing is clear in "Anchorman 2," and that is the importance of ratings. The buffoon Burgundy, in an attempt to get ratings, suggests that news is not really important, but he could drive the ratings up by reporting interesting stories that will help take people’s minds of the important stuff in their lives.

Ron Burgundy, in this telling, was the first to discover the car-chase video. No one had ever shown a car chase live on the air, so he demands the director put up the live feed of police chasing a vehicle on an interstate. He guesses at who is driving and why the driver is fleeing. Across town the competing news station is airing a one-on-one interview with Yasser Arafat. But Ron Burgundy’s car chase video wins the night. In fact, the other station cuts short the Arafat interview to go live to the car chase. When informed he’s being bumped, the Arafat character says, “I’d like to see the car chase, too.”

The audience is beside itself. Mort Crim, Bill Kurtis and I slink further down into our seats. We are watching a comedy about our own careers in a business that used to be about finding ways to give people information that would make us all better informed. But something went haywire. Television corporations found they could make a lot more money with far fewer reporters by covering squirrels caught in downspouts, car chases and extensive coverage of snowstorms, as though snowstorms come as any news to anyone living in this state.

Every time the audience laughed hysterically, Kupchella and I glanced at each other and our faces betrayed the same emotion as if we were watching a live execution.

As we were leaving the theater, people were saying what a wonderfully funny movie "Anchorman 2" was. Comedy is tragedy told with a laugh. For the old time news people watching, Anchorman 2 is pure tragedy because it is essentially the truth.

You ought to go see "Anchorman 2." Ron Burgundy is the kind of pompous, under-informed haircut many people believe an anchorman is anyway. So no further harm there. But in the end, even Ron Burgundy realizes what he is doing is not really news.

Anchors are granted a wonderful gift. They are believed and respected. In return the anchors must read the tough lines and tell the truth, good and bad, about our communities and our country. It is not, as television management sees it, a popularity contest.

After you see the movie and laugh at the ridiculousness of television news as Ron Burgundy portrays it, go home and ask whether what passes as journalism today – really is. For those of us who tried to inform, it is not easy to see television journalism turned into a punchline.

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