Jim Carroll

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Getting the Bird in the U S of A

Oh to have been a fly on the wall as those who unsuccessfully applied for the job of RTE’s Washington correspondant in 2008 watched the closing minutes of Charlie Bird’s American Year last night. There was the bould Charlie, giving …

Tue, Feb 2, 2010, 10:59


Oh to have been a fly on the wall as those who unsuccessfully applied for the job of RTE’s Washington correspondant in 2008 watched the closing minutes of Charlie Bird’s American Year last night. There was the bould Charlie, giving up the ghost a mere 12 months into his four year stint. He did so with a rueful smile, a shrug of the shoulders and a bottle of red wine, sharing the latter with his two co-workers in the station’s office in the US capital. Those unsuccessful applicants are probably dusting off their CVs and updating their interview gags this morning.

I missed part one of this documentary on RTE’s man in America, but going on these reviews, I don’t seem to have missed much. Last night was more of the same: a journalist on the loose in a foreign land struggling with deadlines and culture clashes. It’s a common scenario in the media trade and one where most journalists overcome these difficulties within a few weeks or months.

Not Charlie: here was a man who obviously really, really, really wanted the gig but quickly found that he was out of his depth. Bird grumbled, fumed and complained about his lot at every turn, like an auld wan with a pain in her hoop on the phone to Joe Duffy. We saw him trying to be chirpy with his very patient cameraman and office manager (the views of both on their year with the Bird would be interesting to hear). We saw him having his dinner on his own in an Irish pub. We followed him stomping about Washington DC. Bird and America should have – could have – got on, but it was not to be.

The real reasons for this mismatch were understandably never extrapolated. After all, to do so would be to cast aspersions on RTE management who sent him out to the wild, wild west in the first place. Bird has always been a great man for the big home games. He’s good at sniffing out the big domestic political dramas, but has a habit of placing himself squarely in the thick of the action as if he’s one of the central players. It’s something which has been caricatured down through the years, but also exploited. In Showtime, Pat Leahy’s excellent book on Fianna Fail’s years in power, you can see how that party leveraged Bird’s coverage of Bertie Ahern’s 1997 election campaign to keep their man in the public eye.

However, away from home, Bird is not quite so effective. His US stories to date have lacked any sort of rhythm or analysis as he has struggled to find an angle which is both new and which will appeal to a home audience. Trying to do a Charlie Bird and inserting himself into the story when that narrative usually contains Barack Obama is always going to be a non-runner. Then, there’s the fact that some of his stories have been told many, many times before. I’ve lost count of the number of times at this stage, for instance, that I’ve encountered, in TV and in print, that hard-chaw sherrif with a fetish for making prisoners sport pink underwear.

Bird’s coverage of Haiti in recent weeks is another case in point. For a whole week, he basically filed the same story every single day. There was no sense of finding and exploring a new angle or taking a step back to examine the bigger picture. That didn’t happen until RTE reporters Cian McCormack and Tomás Ó Mainnín arrived and began despatching much more solid and telling pieces.

Many, including Bird himself several times last night, have pointed out that one of the problems was that the new US corr was pushing 60 and getting on a bit. An old dog unable to learn new tricks, though, is not much of an excuse. There are many, many veteran reporters who are well able to adopt to new situations and postings and keep filing top-class copy. It’s not about age, but ability. Look at last night’s show, for example, and Bird’s interview with Helen Thomas, the leading lady of the White House press corps. She hits 90 this year, has covered the comings and goings of 10 US presidents and still comes across as someone you wouldn’t cross if you knew what was good for you.

While Bird and America has turned out to be a horrific, costly mismatch, the more pressing question is why RTE management sent him out there in the first place. Past US correspondants have tended to be rising stars in the newsroom – Mark Little, Carole Coleman, Robert Shortt – and not established “national treaures”. Did RTE management really think Bird was the best candidate? Was this some sort of stroke to keep Bird happy? Who are they going to send out now? At least Charlie has a job to come home to.

(Part one of Charlie Bird’s American Year is here and part two is here)