THE REVELATION THAT FORMER FBI official W. Mark Felt was Watergate’s “Deep Throat” revived discussion of that period, causing reporters to lament their deflated image since the glory days of “All the President’s Men.”
There’s no doubting that the media’s reputation has taken a drubbing, thanks to orchestrated attacks as well as little peccadilloes like fabricating or screwing up stories. Yet does the path to redemption, as with most things in modern life, begin with television?
To become more sympathetic, reporters must embrace TV, asserting their role as crusaders and informers, not defamers and partisans. Parrying attempts to paint them as a “media elite,” journalists should present themselves as ordinary schlubs who do it for love, not a big salary. In reality-TV parlance, think NBC’s “Average Joe,” minus the dodgeball games against the extremely attractive.
Still, as those in Hollywood can attest, it’s wise to maneuver cautiously when placing one’s head in the lion’s mouth, testing the water before diving into the pool.
My fear is that this message hasn’t reached management at the New York Daily News, which agreed to open itself to Bravo’s cameras for a “fly on the wall” documentary series promising to expose “the working lives” of the paper’s journalists.
“It’s a great opportunity … to see what a fantastic paper the Daily News is,” said editorial director Martin Dunn, who clearly hasn’t watched Bravo’s verite series that entertainingly made fledgling filmmakers, showdog owners and stage moms all look like utter numbskulls.
Granted, Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart built empires and Donald Trump polished his public persona through TV, but as with any Faustian bargain, there’s a catch.
Television thrives on drama and conflict, which for a vocation like journalism can be problematic. Reviewing my workday, what passes for dramatic exchanges would go something like this:
Editor (via email): Do you mean to say that NBC’s schedule was weak last year, or that its fall lineup looks shaky?
Me: Both, sort of, but mostly the latter.
Publicist (by phone): So would you be interested in covering the Legalize Marijuana to Save the Whales Ball? The third lead from CBS’ “NCIS” will be attending!
Me: Have you ever seen me cover a cetacean charity function before?
Publicist: Well, um. . .
Me: Then why the hell would I cover this one?
The truth is that beyond rare exceptions like “All the President’s Men” and “Broadcast News,” journalism hasn’t fared well in movies and television because the need to spice up the action perverts what reporters do. In “Absence of Malice,” Sally Field’s character breaks every ethical rule there is and finally gets a pat on the head from her editor. In the new movie version of “Bewitched,” reporters applaud wildly at a press conference.
Another recent indignity came in 2001, when TNT surprisingly produced a thoughtful series about an all-news network, “Breaking News,” then shelved it before airing a single episode. The program eventually saw the light of day, albeit briefly, on Bravo.
Even a memorable series like “Lou Grant” — which premiered in 1977, the year after “Men” was released — labored to develop issues worthy of an episodic drama. And while the star of “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a sports columnist, the producers knew enough to mostly stay away from his workplace.
This hasn’t stopped news organizations from pressing into TV, or TV from tapping into newspapers as a cheap source of material. Just the other day, in fact, I confessed to a Discovery Times Channel rep that I’d rather simply read the New York Times than watch a program about how it’s assembled.
So as respect for journalism wanes, what does the dramatic world bring us? Try “Pepper Dennis,” an upcoming WB series starring Rebecca Romijn as an investigative TV reporter who runs around in tight skirts shoving a microphone under people’s noses. “We terrify parents, it’s ratings gold,” her boss tells her regarding a day-care scam.
Fortunately, the show has little to do with broadcast news, as Pepper’s life is complicated by her relationship with the station’s new anchor, exuding the kind of smoldering sexual chemistry journalists quietly generate. (It has something to do with writing in the inverted pyramid … but perhaps I’ve revealed too much.)
Let’s hope the Daily News’ close-up will reflect favorably on reporters, and the profession as a whole masters responding more articulately to ideologues that use “the media” as a convenient punching bag.
An educated guess, however, says the Bravo series will focus on the News’ hair-pulling fight with the New York Post and that zealots will keep journalists on the defensive. Forgive the lack of optimism, but let’s face it, more sober portrayals have seldom been a guide for following the money.
HOLLYWOOD SLIGHTS: Speaking of unflattering depictions of entire professions, last week’s tepid ratings for HBO’s showbiz-centric “Entourage” and “The Comeback” offer a wake-up call to everyone entranced by Oz-like glimpses behind the town’s velvet ropes.
Although programs such as that HBO duo and Showtime’s “Fat Actress” have done a yeoman job in garnering media attention, as a viewer it’s painfully hard to care whether “Entourage’s” up-and-coming actor Vince and his buddies can afford the $4 million hideaway or must make do with something less ostentatious.
Breathe a sigh of relief, Larry David, since one self-obsessed Hollywood neurotic is apparently quite enough. And while I’m eagerly awaiting a new batch of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it’s high time for those driving the obsession with inward-looking fare to curb their appetites.