THE BLOGGER WOLF
by Douglas Sovern
When you met Wolf Thomas for the first time, he had this way of introducing himself as if he were James Bond or something, keeping his hands tucked away and simply saying, “Wolf. Wolf Thomas,” with a sly smirk. Except he got it backwards. His whole name. If he had really been James Bond, it would have been “Thomas. Wolf Thomas.” But instead he confused you and left you wondering why the hell his parents gave him this backwards name. Or was it an affectation on his part? And invariably you would ask, “Oh, you mean like Thomas Wolfe?” Except being twenty-three or however young he was, he’d never heard of Thomas Wolfe, let alone read him, even though here he was pretending to be some sort of writer himself. So then you would go to Tom Wolfe, figuring even young people have read him, especially some hotshot blogger claiming to be a “new kind of journalist,” but no, you’d just get another blank stare, and he’d repeat that ridiculous inside-out name of his: “No. Wolf. Wolf Thomas.”
What this person was doing in your newsroom you couldn’t exactly be sure. It was a land of giants. People with iconic names had walked those halls: Sevareid. Murrow. Cronkite. Rather. No one was ever going to say “Thomas” and have future generations respond, “Ah yes, you must mean Wolf.”
He actually looked more like a squirrel than a wolf. He was shorter than my Aunt Minnie and had chipmunk cheeks that bulged as if some absent-minded dentist had forgotten his cotton. Perhaps to soften the effect, he’d grown bushy sideburns that curved toward the corners of his mouth. He had thick, curly, dark hair that fell over his forehead, threatening to merge with his unibrow. He was so hairy that you decided he must have popped out of the womb this way and that’s why they’d slapped the name Wolf on him. There was no chance he could ever appear on television, so you knew he was no real threat, but for some reason that made his presence all the more rankling.
You’d try to find out where he’d gone to school and he’d be cryptic. “Oh, here and there,” he’d murmur, again with that sly grin. Obviously, he was bright, and smugly self-entitled, and he came from the kind of family that named its children after predatory animals, so perhaps he’d been home-schooled by a succession of frilled nannies and stern governesses, tutors he knew only as Frau and Herr. At night he would take apart motherboards by flashlight under the covers, and he’d learned hacking via secret communication with an underground network in Shanghai, and now here he was to wreak havoc on the American corporate media complex.
Or perhaps he was the last in a succession of generations that had squandered the family fortune, or Father took a flyer on some mortgage-backed securities and it all went wrong, or the family dot com had gone bust, so there was no money left to send poor little Wolf the Fifth for proper schooling, so you pictured him sneaking into classes at West Nowhere Community College and then learning computer science at some as-seen-on-TV technical institution, before joining a cabal of radical code-crackers where a programming guru named Hugo had taken him under his wing and taught him backdoor ways to destabilize foreign currencies and break into celebrity Twitter accounts.
You’d never get it out of him, so you’d just have to keep an eye on the shifty kid in the corner, fingers flying on that keyboard, tweeting and Facebooking and hacking and cracking or whatever he did, taking your finely honed who, what, when, where and why and reducing it to an alphabet soup string of abbreviations and symbols inscrutable to most sentient beings but somehow indispensable to his Twitter “followers,” turning deeply reported investigative segments into a series of catchy online blurbs, blogging out “breaking news” in hipster speak without so much as a fact check or attribution, while you sweated blood to commit real journalism.
As it turned out, the truth about Wolf’s background was far less exotic than you’d imagined. He hadn’t been reared by rodents or feral canines at all; his dad was an electrician and his mother, a social worker. He was originally from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He wasn’t taught by terrorists either; like me, he’d been schooled in his early years by nuns, although in my experience that was essentially the same thing.
But there our educational paths diverged. I was class president and a pretty good athlete at a highly regarded high school, studied communications in college and held a master’s in journalism from Medill. Young Wolf had scuffled his way to twelfth grade, tinkering at home in his father’s basement workshop, keeping mostly to himself, and getting a job at GameStop after graduation while he tried to figure out what to do with his life.
He was working in the IT department at the Providence Journal when he happened to sit next to a network vice president on the Amtrak Downeaster. Wolf was heading to Maine to visit his aunt and uncle’s maple syrup farm. The TV guy was doing advance work for the New Hampshire primaries and scouting local talent while he was up north. When his laptop crashed and he threw a fit because he couldn’t screen demo reels, Wolf came to his rescue. Somehow he fixed the damn thing, saving the VP’s bacon, and the exec was so impressed he gave Wolf his card and told him to call him in New York.
Wolf was too green for the network newsroom upstairs, so they stuck him with us, the local affiliate. We were two floors down, but essentially one operation. I often came in at exactly the same time as the network’s lead anchor. We went to the same dry cleaners, too, so here we’d come, the two anchormen, identical suit bags over our shoulders, ready for another night of exposing injustice, revealing truth and bringing the world a little closer together, word by precious word.
The entry-level job in the big city and the cramped studio apartment in Brooklyn were definitely a step up, but Wolf was still from one of the lesser parts of Woonsocket and had never been to college, and clearly his aloofness was a defense mechanism to ward off the inquiries that would inevitably expose him as a fraud. There were overqualified Ivy Leaguers willing to kill just to get their foot in the door of the newsroom, and here was this shaggy clown, a pretender in a house of heavyweights. Deep down, you knew, he knew he had no place here and it was only a matter of time before he was found out.
It wasn’t long after Wolf’s arrival that the powers-that-be initiated one of their periodic Soviet-style purges, parachuting in some new programming genius to manage our station cluster. The new cluster-fucker, Con Connolly, like so many we’d seen come and go before him, slashed and burned and fiddled and faddled, getting rid of people who’d been there too long and bringing in new people whose primary virtue seemed to be that they came from somewhere else, moving one pretty face from mornings to evenings and another from evenings to midday, hiring a recently disgraced politician to begin the rehabilitation of his image with a nightly opinion segment, and spending the money I’d been denied for my clothing allowance on a “magic wall” of Twitter monitors and LED touch screens. Incredibly, Wolf not only survived the upheaval, his responsibilities increased. Connolly bumped the weather gal over to give Wolf more space, and he rewired that end of the newsroom with all kinds of extra, uninterruptible power. God forbid his steady flow of OMGs and LOLs be cut off. At least Con had the good sense to keep Wolf and his corner lair far from the set, lest a straying camera lens somehow find his furry little face.
It was never easy when people were let go, but you got used to it in this business. I couldn’t even begin to count how many people I’d worked with over the years. I’d need five more fingers just to keep track of all the news and program directors. It got so I didn’t even bother learning the names of the production assistants and other various and sundry underlings. They either moved up or moved on, so why waste the energy until you had to? Most didn’t survive one regime, let alone straddle two. Luckily, I had a damn good agent and an ironclad contract, so I knew my job was safe.
Wolf, on the other hand, had no seniority, and as a blogger, he wasn’t even in the union. I mean, he wasn’t a “television artist,” per se; he was just a kid at a computer. He wasn’t even really a newsperson. He could just as easily have been posting recipes, or pictures of his cat, for all you knew. He served at the pleasure of Con Connolly—for as long as Connolly lasted—and somehow, he was bringing Con inordinate, inexplicable pleasure, from the looks of it.
Maybe it was that damn name of his, or all that hair, or the distinction of being our first blogger, but Wolf stuck in my craw far more than most, certainly much more than he should have.
One afternoon, while I was editing my interview with the archbishop about the latest sex abuse charges, I sensed the kid hovering. I actually felt some of his sideburn hairs penetrate my personal space. I wheeled around to find him clutching a printout.
“What!” I admit it was more of an accusation than a question.
He told me he was posting links to resources for victims, and also wanted to show me the timeline he’d prepared. I guess I didn’t appreciate the interruption.
“Very pretty,” I told him, giving it about a two-second look. “If you don’t mind, we need to finish something people will actually see. But thanks for sharing.”
As he slithered away, my video editor chided me.
“I don’t know why you’re so hard on that kid. He’s pretty sharp, you know. One of the best writers in the newsroom.”
“Really? Then why isn’t he writing news? If his work was worth a damn, they wouldn’t waste it on Facebook.”
“You should be nice to him. He really looks up to you. Besides, you never know. The way this business is going, we could all be working for him someday.”
“Ha! That’s the day I retire.”
The church abuse piece killed. We entered it for some major awards.
I didn’t see it coming. Connolly took me out to lunch one day, about a month before my contract was up. I assumed he wanted to open negotiations. It was a dance I’d done every three or four years with a succession of bosses who always pleaded poverty, but eventually gave me most of what I wanted. I mean, the ratings were strong enough, and you couldn’t stroll three blocks in Manhattan without seeing my face on the side of a bus. I would give him a number, he would protest, and in a few weeks my agent would call me with the good news.
Except this time, I’d been trying to delay the meeting as long as possible. At the cleaners one day, the network anchor had mentioned in passing that he was mulling retirement, and I passed that intelligence to my agent, instructing him to move stealthily to get me elevated to the big chair. I’d have to stall Con until the deal got done.
Connolly surprised me with a clandestine agenda of his own. He told me he was making some more changes. He couldn’t even look me in the eye. It took a few minutes before it sunk in that one of the positions he was eliminating was mine. Or rather, the position would still be there; there’d just be someone else filling it. Like an idiot, I even asked him what my new slot would be, if I really wasn’t going to be anchoring the evening news.
“I’m not sure you get it. We’re not renewing your contract.”
The medium was changing, he told me. Viewers want things to be more interactive. Everyone is second-screening. It’s podcast or perish. Profits were down and the company was trying to maximize non-traditional revenue while reducing labor costs. I was a relic, projecting the wrong image. Et cetera, et cetera.
I wasn’t the only one. They were really cleaning house this time. The show would have a whole new look.
For a moment, I allowed myself to panic. This would be a stunning blow, and not just financially. My son had a job at an ad agency but he wasn’t off the old man’s tit just yet. My youngest was in her second year at Fordham and it wasn’t cheap. Their mother had been shacked up with some loser musician for years now and they were deliberately not getting married, just to keep my alimony checks coming. Would I have to give up the eighteen-year-old Macallan and start buying Dewar’s at Costco? Cancel the lease on the Mercedes and take the damn A train? I made more money in a year than half the newsroom combined, which probably had a lot to do with why they were chopping my head off. But this was Manhattan, and I had grown accustomed to a lifestyle befitting my stature in the industry.
Then I relaxed. My agent was probably sealing my network deal right now. If not, there were three other local stations across the street who would kill to have me captain their ship. The news was still the news, whether it was carved into stone tablets or flashing on a computerized one, and Moses himself wasn’t better at delivering it than I was. All the focus groups said so.
It was a few years later, at an industry convention, that something made me remember Wolf Thomas. I still hadn’t found a publisher for my memoirs. I was doing some consulting, and had a commentary slot on the local cable news channel. My agent thought I should work this conference, keep myself visible, remind everyone I was still vital and involved and not just languishing on the beach.
They’d set up a social media booth, where college broadcasters were tweeting live from the confab. Out of nowhere, an image of furry little Wolf flashed into my brain. It’s funny how you suddenly think of obscure people at random times. I wondered what in the world had ever happened to him. Maybe if he’d had some college experience, like these kids, he would’ve made it in this business. I knew that Con had been blown out himself, just a year after he canned me, and it was hard to imagine Wolf lasting much longer than that.
In fact, I imagined him kicking around in Brooklyn, out of work, barely hanging on, sending home to Rhode Island for rent money, until he latched on at one of those web startups in Chelsea. That went belly-up after a year or so, and his social worker mom, worried sick about her poor Wolfie, persuaded him to give up on the big bad city, so he’d gone crawling home to Woonsocket and taken over his ailing father’s electrician business. He went into remodeling and his business flourished. Soon, he was driving all the way to Providence to do fancy renovations on College Hill. He’d see the Brown kids going to their engineering classes and computer labs and think about what might have been. Eventually, he’d married some squat, French-Canadian Woonsocket girl, rather hirsute herself, and they’d whelped a couple of Wolf pups. He’d sit at the corner bar at night, crushing cans of Narragansett with his blue collar buddies, dropping names of all the famous newspeople he’d rubbed shoulders with during his heady days on West 57th Street. In his version, he’d helped break important stories and exposed a corrupt politician or two, and the plumbers and carpenters would be wowed when the network news came on the bar TV and Wolf would nod and say, yup, I knew that guy, we were wicked good friends.
That convention didn’t yield anything, but a while later, a gig came up that I was perfect for. The longtime host of a cable talk show was retiring. It was five nights a week, a two-hour show, live from New York. It would give me the national exposure I had long deserved. I sent in my resume and reel, and damn if I didn’t land an interview. I was representing myself by then; my agent hadn’t really worked out.
I told myself not to get my hopes too high, but when I came out of the building, I realized how desperately I wanted that job. This might be my last chance. People were forgetting my name. Maybe only once a month now, someone recognized me at the deli or the drugstore. I was in a cab and the driver actually asked me, “Hey! Didn’t you used to be that guy?”
This gig was my shot at getting back in the game.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The executive producer called a few days later and thanked me for coming in, but said I hadn’t made the cut. They were going in a different direction.
I found myself wandering down that block again a week later and stopped outside the network headquarters. I gazed up at the giant logo and the walls of glass like a lovestruck schoolboy pining over an unrequited crush. I couldn’t help just standing there, watching people go in and out, thinking, damn it, that should be me. Everyone was on deadline, stressed-out, rushing to do something important. I missed the pressure. I missed the energy. I missed the juice.
And then I heard it. That name. That ridiculous name. “Wolf. Wolf Thomas.” The person saying it had his back to me, and was extending his hand to an attractive blonde, who was telling him how much she’d heard about him and how nice it was to finally meet him. She and another woman were on their way out of the building, and had run into Wolf and another guy on their way in.
“Wolf!” I heard myself boom out his name. I don’t think I’d ever actually said it out loud before that.
He turned to face me. And there he was: a domesticated, defanged version of the Wolf-child I’d known years before. The bushy sideburns were gone. His cheeks seemed thinner. Maybe he’d had some molars pulled or something, the way Cher removed a rib to look skinnier. The unibrow had been waxed or plucked into submission. The unruly mop of hair was decidedly more ruly. He wasn’t wearing an electrician’s workshirt; he was in a smart suit, and not off the rack either. There was a gleaming gold wedding band on his left hand. He still had to look up about eight inches to meet my eyes, but there was a sharpness there, a confidence I didn’t remember from before, and he took my outstretched hand with no hesitation and a firm grip.
We went to a bar off Columbus Circle. He was Executive Vice President of Programming and Interactive Media, or something like that. He’d single-handedly rejuvenated the world’s largest cable news operation. They were landing all the young eyeballs everyone else was chasing. The sky was the limit for Wolf. He’d married a pretty young TV reporter, and they were hoping to start a family soon. He made so much money his dad had retired and spent most of his time fishing off Newport, though his mom still worked half-time, bless her heart. We reminisced about the people we’d worked with. He knew what everyone was up to; he’d kept pretty close tabs. He’d seen my cable spots and I could tell he knew I was getting just a little desperate.
When I called for a second round, he said he really had to get back to the office. He finally gave in, a reluctant favor to a guy he’d idolized years before. I ordered another scotch for me, and a second Jack and Coke for him.
“Wolf,” I told him, “I know I barely gave you the time of day back then. There’s no reason in the world you should help me. But there’s a gig at your shop I’m perfect for. If there’s anything you can do…”
I wasn’t really sure how to ask what I was asking, not of a kid like that. I felt like a fool. Lucky for me, he was good at this stuff. He cut me off.
“Listen,” he said. “You don’t owe me any apologies. Are you kidding? I learned so much from you. I was just a child. So young. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t deserve any more attention than you gave me.”
Maybe it was the second drink, maybe it was the rush of finally being treated as an equal by a man who’d stood on the mountaintop, but Wolf opened up, telling me about his struggles back then, his insecurity, how hard he worked to overcome his lack of pedigree. He had been painfully aware that he was the only guy in the newsroom without a degree. That wasn’t all in my head, after all. He had started taking classes at City College, and as soon as he could afford it, he had enrolled part-time at NYU, and after all these years, he was finally on the verge of getting his BA. You had to admire his tenacity.
He drained the last watery sip of his third drink.
“But I’m not going to help you get that job,” he said.
All those scotches kept my face from hiding my disappointment.
“Not because I have anything against you,” he went on. “You’re just not right for it. I’m really good at what I do, and if I want to keep doing it, I can’t make a mistake like that.”
So that was that. This was what I had become. A mistake, to be avoided. He was where I used to be, where he had dreamed of being. I had stomped on his fingers as he tried to crawl up the cliff, so now there was no way in hell he would reach down with a helping hand, to let an old man scramble back up the rocks to the high ground.
“But I have a better idea,” he said.
It turned out, he told me, that while his channel was dominating the younger demographic and had cracked the code for integrating on-air news with its online content, it was lagging in middays. They were developing a one-hour news magazine for the early afternoon, a slot dominated by ads for arthritis medications, hearing aids and reverse mortgages, because the midday audience was mostly shut-ins and other older folks. They had hit upon a concept: an upbeat, but leisurely paced show focusing on the day’s health and lifestyle news, with updates on retirement investments and travel. It would hit all the right buttons for older viewers, but still have live cut-ins with the latest headlines and stock market reports. All they were missing, Wolf said, was the right host. They’d been looking for someone familiar and comforting, someone the seniors could feel was one of them. Someone authoritative but not condescending, who could bring old school gravitas but also serve as a bridge to the hip, young, high-energy guy whose show would follow.
Someone like you.
You had to audition, of course. Go in for a round of interviews. And then another one. And then do a demo show. And then endure an interminable wait while they tested it with focus groups. You hadn’t had to jump through this many hoops to land a job since your first live tryout for that idiot news director in Kankakee, fresh out of J school. But in the end, you got it. No more bridge loans from the 401k. No more having to persuade your increasingly skeptical accountant that a new suit should count as a business deduction. You were anchoring a live hour on the top-rated cable news channel. Take that, Con Connolly.
OK, so it’s not 60 Minutes. So you’re stuck in the ghetto of early afternoon. So your lead story the other day was about the hidden dangers of hip replacements. It’s the news, baby, and you’re the face of it, the voice of it, the man on the billboards who millions of Americans turn to and trust. Older, decrepit Americans, yes, but it’s only a matter of time before there’s a tsunami or something on your watch and you show the nation what you can really do. You’ll juggle live elements from the Andaman Sea and ad-lib flawlessly over unedited footage of fleeing villagers. You’ll strike just the right tone of horror and compassion while still bringing authoritative objectivity. The viewers will be so moved, and Wolf so impressed by the way you own that story, that you’ll be the one they chopper to the previously unheard-of tropical island that you’re suddenly an expert on. You’ll be the one hosting a live prime time special while the network’s pretty boy bigfoot anchor stews and steams back in Manhattan. It’ll be you the critic from the Times raves about, you who gets the fancy medal and the gala lunch at Columbia University, you who helps Wolf really make a name for himself at last.
You might even be willing to blog about it.
Douglas Sovern is a veteran reporter for CBS Radio in San Francisco with more than 175 journalism awards to his name. He previously worked at The New York Times and the Associated Press, and has written articles for The San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of TweetHeart, a critically acclaimed novel written entirely in tweets and distributed live on Twitter. Sovern plays bass guitar and writes songs for two bands: Eyewitness Blues Band and The Fallopian Dudes (the musicians’ wives are all gynecologists).
“The Blogger Wolf” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize by members of Pushcart’s Board of Editors.