NBC’s Today show was on as I got ready for work. I could hardly hear it over the bathroom fan, but the little bit of noise made me feel like I wasn’t alone, so I kept it on in the mornings.
It was December 31, 1999 - a Friday - the turn of the century and the millennium. I expected it to be a very quiet day at the printing company, a Casual Friday, for sure. We’d probably be out of there shortly after noon, because everybody on earth had a party to get to. It was the biggest day ever for The Artist known as, formerly known as, known again as, and eventually eulogized as, “Prince”. Tonight, only the nerds would be at their computers, watching their networks die in Y2K chaos. The rest of us would be showering in champagne.
Shaved, scrubbed and dressed, I took a final cup of coffee to the sofa so NBC could tell me what was happening in the world. Most of the Today show was fluff, but if you’d wait a minute they’d run through the headlines. And so they did. After rattling-off five or six other stories, the news babe said - and I believe this is verbatim - “in other news, Boris Yeltsin resigned today as president of Russia. Here’s Al with the weather”.
“Whoa, wait a minute”, I shouted at NBC. Was that it? Was that the entire report? I was dumbfounded. Surely there’s more to that story. Did Yeltsin have one of those famous, fatal Russian “colds” that weakening Soviet leaders seemed to develop? Was it a coup? Was there a power struggle? This was a nation which had nuclear missiles pointed at us - it was kind of important to know who’s in charge over there. But, NBC wasn’t going to tell us.
Al, of course, didn’t have any weather news that was even remotely useful. He did have a bunch of idiots standing outside on the sidewalk wearing New Year party hats and waving bedazzled birthday signs at the camera. It was the last time I ever watched the Today show. I mean, shit, there’s just nothing there.
Was it a big day? Was this a big story that should have had “breaking news” or “special report” status? With the whole Y2K and Party Like it’s 1999 things going on, did the story of leadership change in Russia merit extra coverage? Russia wasn’t really a superpower anymore, and there were those great fireworks videos from Sydney and Kuala Lumpur where the party had already started - that’s what the people want to see, right?
Seventeen years later, Russia is still led by Yeltsin’s successor: belligerent, elusive, imperialistic Vladimir Putin so as it turns out, it was a pretty big story. I can’t hold NBC responsible for not having perfect foresight - nobody has that. And, I suppose it is possible that they just didn’t have any more details to share at that moment. But choosing the party stories over hard news … this was the day I realized that the news networks are really in the entertainment business. Here’s Al with the weather.