Jessica Yellin Draws On CNN Career For Novel About Women In TV News
With David Folkenflik
Former CNN White House correspondent Jessica Yellin sends up the TV news business in a novel way.
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Jessica Yellin, founder of News Not Noise, a digital platform that seeks to inform viewers about current events told differently than on traditional media. Former CNN chief White House correspondent. Author of “Savage News.” (@JessicaYellin)
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Savage News” by Jessica Yellin
1: The Girl On The Bus
Natalie Savage stepped onto the asphalt driveway ringing the North Lawn, looked up, and felt her breath catch. She was hit with the sense that she was on a Tilt-A-Whirl, unsure which side was up. How many years had she imagined this moment? Her first time walking up the curving path to the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, her first time passing the tents where the network news reporters go live from the White House, her first time looping by the marine at the West Wing entrance, mere yards from the Oval Office.
You’ve made it. She smiled to herself, wrapped in an almost giddy delight. You’re here.
What are you doing? her self shot back in a tone Barbara Walters might have used to greet a bright-eyed intern. There’s no time to be awestruck. Get going.
With little warning, the White House had moved up the briefing by an hour and she was about to be tardy her first day on the job. Hurrying up the driveway, she said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t be captured barging into the White House briefing late, excuse-me’ing into her seat, on every cable channel in America.
She reached the white door to the briefing room, pulled on the brass handle, and
Inside reporters were moving at double speed: barking into cell phones, madly texting or tweeting, bouncing in and out of their chairs.
Thank god, it hadn’t started.
Flooded with relief, Natalie pushed into the scramble of bodies and felt the intensity of a breaking news event in the air: a pupil-dilating f lush of oxygen, the heart-pounding thrill of being at the center of an all-eyes-on-this story. She made her way to the American Television Network’s (ATN) seat in the third row and relaxed enough to look around. At the back of the room was a warren of cubicles, each assigned to a network. A row of cameras stood in front of the cubicles like leggy sentries, and in front of those were the seats for the correspondents. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
It smelled of mold and sweat.
Why does success always smell like a men’s locker room? she wondered.
Objectively, it was a crap hole. Despite the administration’s claims to have no money for infrastructure projects, Natalie suspected that the shabbiness of the tiny press room was by choice, not necessity, like an aging duchess who uses chipped Limoges not because she can’t afford better but because she likes it and relishes the discomfort of her judgmental guests.
She heard the crackle of static and a young man’s voice came through an overhead speaker. “Sorry for the change folks. The White House briefing will now be delayed by fifteen minutes.”
All around Natalie reporters collapsed back into their chairs, shaking their heads and murmuring as they began angry-texting on their phones. Everyone had rushed here and now this delay would throw live shots and lunch plans into chaos. But for Natalie it was a relief. Fifteen minutes to get used to breathing the air of a White House correspondent.
One of Natalie’s phones buzzed and she pulled it out to watch it fill with messages from her mother, Noreen.
MOM: Why haven’t you been answering my texts? MOM: You’re being very selfish.
MOM: This is about my special day. My wedding. My chance at happiness. Are you trying to destroy it?
The temptation to write back, Yes! Yes I am! was almost overwhelming but she was saved by a text from her sister.
SARAH: So, you’re trying to ruin Mom’s wedding. NATALIE: Either that or it’s my first day at the White House. SARAH: Excuses excuses. Are you excited? Nervous?
Natalie hesitated for a moment and then typed: I miss Dad.
SARAH: Well, you know what he’d say right now?
Natalie smiled as she remembered their dad’s favorite advice. I didn’t raise my girls to be shrinking violets. Silence helps no one. Be noisy!
NATALIE: Be noisy?
SARAH: Or maybe that he’s really proud of you. You’re going to be great.
NATALIE: Thanks for saying that. But I could easily land on my face.
SARAH: When have you ever failed at anything?
NATALIE: I call your attention to the eighth grade high dive. Hives at prom. The scorched earth that is my dating life.
SARAH: Character building moments. On the topic of scorched earth, will you please pick a bridesmaid dress so our mother will stop looking like a boiled owl and torturing your little sister? Her wedding is in less than two weeks. I’ll re-send you the pics right now.
NATALIE: Gotcha. As they say in DC I’ll make it priority No. 1.
SARAH: God bless. A grateful nation thanks you. Can’t wait to see you live from the North Lawn!
Not if I face-plant first, Natalie thought.
Putting down the phone and looking around the press room, Natalie was struck by how little it had changed since she used to watch the briefings on TV with her dad years ago. How many hours had she and her father spent sitting on the couch in his study watching what happened in this space? The memories came back to her now with a painful clarity, how grown up she’d felt sitting next to him, the smell of books and furniture polish, the sound of ice cubes clinking in his big crystal tumbler of bourbon.
“That’s history being made, right in front of our eyes,” he’d say, gesturing at the TV with his glass. Sitting on that couch, with their basset hound Murrow between them, her dad had imbued the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room with a kind of enchantment that still held her in its sway despite the coffee-stained institutional blue carpet and balled-up newspapers on the f loor.
He’d died sixteen months ago and she thought she’d done her grieving. But being here now brought back an unexpected f lood of missing him that had tears pricking at her eyes.
At that moment, one of her phones vibrated again, saving her from an unforgivable lapse that might have risked ruining the fake eyelashes and mask of professional makeup she’d applied that morning. She had gotten used to torturing her hair into silky straightness and wearing one percent of her body weight in foundation and eye shadow, but the lashes were now a compulsory, and already itchy, new addition applied at the insistence of ATN’s head of talent. “Everyone at the White House has lashes. They are a must. Otherwise viewers won’t see you!”
When Natalie had protested, “But I can’t see so well when I wear them,” the head of talent had given her a pained look and said, “Many people can’t see at all, dear,” as though Natalie had been brazenly taking sight for granted up to that point.
Natalie angled the screen so it was easier to read through the forest of lash and watched it fill with the dress pictures from her sister, providing vivid evidence that their mother was going through an unfortunate hippie phase. The dresses looked like they’d been designed by someone who hated women or eyeballs or both. She tried to come up with a criteria for evaluating them—“Well, at least I can wear a bra with that one” versus “Well, at least that one doesn’t look like Janis Joplin’s burial shroud”—when a smug male voice over her shoulder said, “The one on the left.”
“I beg your pardon?” Natalie twisted toward the guy speaking. Her first impression was one of doughy plumpness. He looked about her age and wore a dark suit and a rumpled blue button-down shirt that she would have bet was chosen by a woman who told him it brought out his eyes. Probably his mother.
“The dress on the left,” he repeated, looking not at her but her phone. “Absolutely. A classic of the ‘I hate my bridesmaids’ genre. You can’t go wrong. When’s your wedding?”
He unbent and Natalie saw that he was tall, taller than she’d realized. His brown hair was a little too long and his mouth a little too small for his face, giving him the look of a naughty toddler. His lips were pressed together in a tight smile but he looked like he’d be more at ease with a smirk.
“It’s not my wedding,” she said. “It’s my mother’s. The dress is for me.”
“And therein lies a story,” he said, folding himself into the seat next to hers and immediately taking out his phone. “Don’t worry, I’m not asking to hear it unless it’s scandalous and on the record.”
Natalie stared at him.
He glanced up from his screen and held out hand. “Matt Walsh. Beltway dot com. Uh-oh. I see the nickel dropping. Now you’re thinking, ‘Ah, that explains the smell of sulphur in the air.’”
Natalie laughed but her guard shot up. Beltway. The website was the gossipy mean girl of the political set, bringing the same cannibalistic enthusiasm Us Weekly brought to uncovering affairs and baby bumps to its coverage of the Bubble. The Bubble being what Washington Insiders—the types who read Beltway—called themselves, as opposed to everyone else, whom they referred to with subtle condescension as “regular” or “real” Americans. That sorry-not-sorry superiority suffused Beltway. Written in the key of snark with an undertone of kissed-it-fucked-it-over disdain, the posts glorified the most banal aspects of politics, sucking any whiff of substance from a story with the efficiency of a college student taking a bong hit.
She was shocked when her first news boss had told her every important political reporter reads Beltway and if she cared to be one, she’d better start. The last Beltway story Natalie had read covered a White House meeting about the president’s energy goals as “Kiss My Fat Ass? Elizabeth Warren Eats a Cookie for the First Time in Six Weeks While Talking Solar in the Oval Office!”
What kind of reporter would do that, she’d wondered.
Well, now the answer was sitting right next to her. The man who had, in fact, written that very story. She was wary but fascinated, as if she’d found herself dining with someone who’d asked the waiter to remove his steak knife, explaining, “I don’t trust myself around weapons.”
She aimed for a warm but not too friendly tone and shook his hand. “Natalie Savage, ATN.”
Matt appeared impressed. “Any relation to the esteemed First Lady of News?”
“You mean Jessica Savitch?” Natalie asked, trying to keep the sound of her mental eye roll out of her voice. “No, we’re not related.”
Natalie was baff led by the way news people always asked with unbridled excitement if she was perhaps a niece or cousin of the trailblazing news anchor Jessica Savitch. True, as one of the first women to anchor network news, Savitch had been a talented pioneer. But she’d also led a slightly tragic life that included a string of broken relationships, an on-air meltdown, and an early death by drowning in a car that f lipped into a canal. Natalie hoped she would have a slightly different trajectory. She was fairly sure that Savitch, with her clear-eyed view of the world, would have wished that for her successors as well.
“Our names are spelled differently,” Natalie explained.
“Too bad. Always good to have a famous relative. Anyway,” Matt said, gesturing grandly to the podium at the front of the room, “welcome to the Big Show. First day at the White House?” he went on. “Nervous?”
He snickered. “Good, we have something in common.” Typing on his phone, he continued, “If you’ll take a bit of advice from someone who got here before you, there’s no reason to be nervous. You’re thinking it’s the White House, the big top. Screw up here and it’s available for viewing on YouTube for the rest of your life! Worse, YouTube is the only place you’ll ever be seen. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what you say at this briefing. Nobody listens or cares.”
From SAVAGE NEWS by Jessica Yellin. Reprinted with permission by MIRA, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises. Copyright © 2019 by Jessica Yellin.
Vanity Fair: “Jessica Yellin’s New Novel, Savage News, Well, Savages the News Business” — “Jessica Yellin spent two decades running the gauntlet from MSNBC to ABC and finally CNN, before launching her own media brand, News Not Noise, last year. Savage News, her roman à clef, sinks its fangs into the biz.
Vanity Fair: The fun of the book is trying to discern truth from fiction, who’s who.
“Jessica Yellin: It’s an amalgam of experience—nobody’s a one-to-one. There’s a scene where our heroine, Natalie, is trying to prove herself: She gets a scoop, and as soon as she goes on camera—her big moment—it comes out of her competition’s mouth. Her boss gave it to him. In journalism, you make your name by getting scoops. If you’re losing all your work, how do you get ahead? It’s devastating. I gave that to friends to read and across the board, people came back saying, ‘You have to take that scene out, it’s implausible.’ I tell my reporter friends and they double over laughing. They’re like, ‘It happens all the time. Are you serious?’ One of the biggest challenges is that the things people think are broad are real. Then there’s the hair thing.”
The Hollywood Reporter: “CNN Alum Jessica Yellin Bows a ‘Savage’ Novel About News Media” — “Six years ago, Jessica Yellin was doing CNN stand-ups in front of the White House. Today, she’s broadcasting stories from her West Hollywood apartment for 130,000 Instagram followers. ‘There is an audience for the outrage shout-fest and then there’s another audience that wants calm, clear information,’ she reasons. It’s why she walked away from a 15-year TV career — which began in 1998 in Orlando and culminated at CNN, where she was chief White House correspondent when she left in 2013. And it’s why last summer, she began delivering her own Instagram updates — #NewsNotNoise — designed for users who hunger for information minus overheated rhetoric.
“Along the way, Yellin, 46, also penned a fictionalized take on her career — to show ‘what it’s like to be a woman [in TV news],’ she says, “and how in the end it’s all about your hair.” Savage News, which comes out April 9 from Mira Books, ($27), is about a young female White House correspondent navigating internal rivalries, sexist assumptions and a corporate culture that values profits over public interest. It serves as a fictionalized account of her own career.”
Recode: “Everyone in TV news goes for outrage. That makes it ‘ripe for disruption,’ says former CNN reporter Jessica Yellin” — “Packing 24 hours of cable news with pundit arguments is (usually) cheaper to produce than original reporting and (supposedly) what the people who watch cable news would prefer to see. But CNN’s former White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is trying to disprove that conventional wisdom.
“‘Everybody thinks there’s one way to do it and I think I’m the person,’ Yellin said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. ‘I’m trying to do that.’
“For a start, she’s using her Instagram feed, @Jessicayellin, to deliver video updates to more than 130,000 followers that she describes as ‘news, not noise’ — facts and analysis, without the conflict and outrage. She contrasted that mission with the M.O. of cable TV, where ‘I was told explicitly to make the news like ESPN.’ ”
Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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