Dan Rather, Barbara Walters and the other network news stars are playing a dangerous game.
At least that's the insight offered by "The Myrmidon Project," the fictional story of Harvey Grunwald, anchorman for the American Communications Network (ACN).
As someone "more accurate than Murrow, wittier than Brinkley, better loved even than Cronkite," Grunwald decides he's worth "half the gate" -- half the profits that his ratings lead brings into the network. His price tag: $10 million a year.
ACN's crusty 75-year-old founder and board chairman, Larry Hoenig -- clearly modeled after CBS chieftain William Paley -- requests time to mull it over. But instead of bargaining in good faith, he calls in an experienced Cia killer named Crawford. Shortly afterwards, two torpedoes sink a boat carrying Grunwald's wife, a DC10 carrying his children nosedives into Kennedy Airport, and Grunwald himself disappears.
Unlike Rather, Walters and the rest, Grunwald didn't hire an agent to protect his interests (which could account for his rough treatment at the hands of ACN). But authors Chuck Scarborough, the prominent evening news anchor for WNBC-TV in New York, and William Murray, author of 13 other books, including "Malibu," which will soon be made into a TV mini-series, argue that something far more pernicious than tough bargaining techniques is at play.
The "digitalyzing" of picture and sound, they postulate, will eventually replace live human beings with three-dimensional electronic images. They foresee an unholy wedlock between cameras and computers that breeds TV personalities without benefit of flesh and blood. Anchormen making exorbitant salary demands would become expendable. The result: a newsteam of Myrmidons. (In Homer, according to Scarborough and Murray, "the Myrmidons were the soldiers of Achilles . . . utterly loyal to their master, unquestioning followers.")
Unfortunately, Scarborough and Murray fail to focus on the dangers inherent in such a future, and use their best ideas as a mere backdrop for a karate-chop-in-the-throat, hop-under-the-sheets thriller. Their principal source for tension is not television and technology, or even what happens to Grunwald; it is ACN bully-boy Crawford. "The sight of the helpless human body of either sex," they say, "nourished him like the rain over a parched desert."
For example, Crawford meets a young ACN employe with "just the sort of looks -- innocent, unspoiled, with long limbs and a slender figure -- that could arouse him to frenzies of inventiveness," and he zeroes in on her with the accuracy of a treat-seeking missile. As he gets his hands (or, more accurately, his well-worn, pain-and-humiliation-inducing devices) on his victim, "The Myrmidon Project" lapses into soft-core titillation with enough heavy-breathing adjectives to sell books.
But while all of this is going on, a Vietnam-toughened cameraman, his heart filled with love, sets out to rescue the young lady. On this frantic effort rests the fate of Grunwald, ACN and, presumably, the nation.
"The Myrmidon Project" is well-paced and tightly written, and falls loosely into a genre defined by Paddy Chayefsky's 1977 movie, "Network." Chayefsky correctly determined that network power and greed could best be depicted through exaggeration and satire. But his numerous imitators, including Scarborough and Murray, have left out the satire. Instead, they all invent evil upon Hitlerian evil for the networks to perpetrate. As a result, in this and similar books, attacks on the networks quickly dissolve into silliness. Television networks are extremely vulnerable to all sorts of cirticism, but not even the most virulent critic would contend that Fred Silverman blows up a jumbo jet to punish an egotistical anchorman.
This failure to hit the network target is particularly troublesome in "The Myrmidon Project." Communications technology does promise some sort of brave new world -- at a minimum it could become a haven for hucksters -- and the distance separating Harvey Grunwald from Dan Rather and Barbara Walters is much shorter than it seems.