It's true. It's better for your career and for your soul to be in a lowly job working for a great boss than being the head of--oh, let's just say the highly rated "Jerry Springer Show." I've learned this through experience.
After busting my butt at the Philadelphia station and then busting my brains in Baltimore and Los Angeles, I got a huge break. I was hired by CBS News to be a junior reporter on the "CBS Morning News," working out of the L.A. bureau. This was the network news that I was always aiming for! I was in! At the bottom again, but in! In over my head and terrified.
I need to tell you that I survived there--and even thrived there--not because I was so great, but because a brilliant, wisecracking, hard-of-hearing, tough-nosed producer happened to be in a good mood the day I asked her for help. Now, she was a street-savvy veteran from Brooklyn and I was--well, let's just say, not from Brooklyn. We couldn't have been more different. I don't think anyone who knew either of us imagined we would ever get along, much less become friends.
When the powers that be in the CBS L.A. bureau told me they were assigning this incredible producer to work with me, I was mightily impressed. They told me she'd started with CBS back at the Radio Network, that she was a great writer and producer. She'd worked with Walter Cronkite and Hughes Rudd. Wow! She knew all the players and procedures. She was great on deadline and knew her way around microwave and satellite trucks. She would always get me on the air. Most important, she'd teach me all about writing and story structure.
I was crazy with excitement. CBS News likes me! They're interested in cultivating me, nurturing me, teaching me! They're going to invest time and talent in my career! When can I meet this great lady?
Oh, in just a few weeks, they said. That's when your producer is getting out of a drug rehabilitation program in the desert, and you two can get right down to work. Whoa.
What they didn't tell me about my producer was that she made the maniacal producer in "Broadcast News" look like a sleepwalker. Her life had spun so out of control personally and professionally that CBS had sent her away to clean up. Oh, boy. I told you I wouldn't be bored.
What I also didn't know until much later was what happened at about the same time out in the desert, when she found out she was going to work with me. She was in group therapy at the treatment center when the counselor read her a letter from CBS News informing her that when she came back to work she wasn't going to be a hard-news producer anymore. "We're hiring Maria Shriver, and you are going to help make her a star."
I'll never forget the first time I met her. I was sooo thrilled. I waited for her to come out of the bureau manager's office her first day back from treatment. I stuck out my hand and said, "Hi. I'm Maria. I'm so excited to meet you." She looked at meet, rolled her eyes, and kept walking. I followed her like a puppy dog. Perhaps she hadn't heard me. I reintroduced myself and babbled on about how great this was and what a killer team we'd make. She waited until I was finished and then looked me dead in the eye. She explained that she hadn't heard a word of what I'd said because she was hard of hearing and her hearing aids were off. She went on--and I'm paraphrasing, because most of it is unprintable--that she would be working with me only because she had to. That she considered it a demotion, but she supposed she had to pay dues for behaving like a maniac all those years. That her main priority in life was not making me a star but staying clean, learning how to live without drugs, and paying off her drug debts. Teaching me was at the bottom of the totem pole. All of a sudden my news director in Philadelphia looked like a pushover.
I remember our first few stories extremely well. My producer had no respect for me and didn't care if I knew it--and seemed to want everyone else to know it, too. Whenever we were out on a story, I'd make suggestions--"Why don't we shoot this?" or "Why don't we set up the interview over here?"--because after all, I had been producing for a few years. In response, she'd make a big show of turning off her hearing aids so she could "pretend" she hadn't heard--indicating I couldn't possibly have anything useful to offer.