Corner a doctor, lawyer — hell, even a forensic criminologist — and they’ll cite chapter and verse about the dramatic liberties that movies and TV shows take with their professions.
Journalists are no exception, yet after years of grasping for even a moderately realistic portrait, they can finally point to by far the most accurate presentation of their craft ever: the final season of HBO’s dense urban drama “The Wire.”
As with other ailing civic institutions — from beleaguered cops to overwhelmed schools to failing city government — the Baltimore newspaper featured in the series, which returns in January, is fraying at the seams.
Belt-tightening by faraway corporate owners is triggering layoffs and causing foreign bureaus to be shuttered, causing years of hard-won institutional knowledge to walk out the door. Clueless editors seem more obsessed with awards than news, blithely telling their overworked staff to “do more with less.” Investigative reporting, meanwhile, is too time-consuming and expensive, creating openings for those ambitious enough to cut corners — and perhaps worse — to thrive, while grizzled veterans grumble about what it would be like to work at a “real newspaper.”
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David Simon, the program’s creator, knows the territory, having worked as a Baltimore Sun police reporter before leaving to make what those of us in the journalism trade call “real money,” writing the book that provided the basis for NBC’s “Homicide” and subsequently producing “The Corner” and five unforgettable seasons of “The Wire” for HBO. Despite the time away, though, he’s still clearly bitter about what his former field has become and its tacit complicity in allowing matters of substance to fall by the wayside as pages are filled with gossip and minutiae.
Perhaps because of the steady parade of bad news pertaining to the newspaper business — as well as the fact that writers tend to be fascinated with themselves — “The Wire” arrives at an especially appropriate time.
In the last few months, Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell and Slate columnist Jack Schafer have each lauded “Ace in the Hole” — Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic about an unprincipled reporter ginning up his own media circus — as the best movie about their profession. As for the tube, Associated Press’ Frazier Moore recently paid tribute to “Lou Grant,” the entertaining “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoff that CBS canceled a quarter-century ago.
Schafer rightly noted that “Ace in the Hole” details “the mechanics of how the press turns news ripples into tsunamis,” while acknowledging that the excesses of the central reporter (played by Kirk Douglas) are perhaps most reminiscent today of the urgency sought by cable news.
Even the best glimpses of newspapers, however, are generally exaggerated for dramatic effect, making reporters more glamorous, better dressed and frequently more active and heroic (or, conversely, venal) than the norm — along with the cliches of rolled-up sleeves and gnawed-on pencils behind the ear.
In recent years, the gold standard was set by “The West Wing,” which captured much of the give-and-take between reporters and sources, albeit in a peripheral role, thanks to writer-producer Aaron Sorkin’s keen ear.
For obvious reasons, most productions avoid the drudgery of print reporting, inasmuch as the process of working phones and confirming tips isn’t especially telegenic. Indeed, even “All the President’s Men” — a rare example of journalism done right onscreen — created inordinate excitement by virtue of its subject matter and those shadowy meetings with Deep Throat in a darkened garage.
Granted, that’s infinitely preferable to the absurdity usually on display — the journalistic malpractice in “Absence of Malice,” the hyperbolic drama of “The Paper” and the Lois Lane school of journalism, which frequently involves “scoop”-seeking reporters foolishly placing themselves into a life-or-death situation and then waiting to be rescued.
By contrast, Simon’s newspaper is a microcosm of a media industry that often seems to have lost its moral compass, as well as a corporate culture where truth is sacrificed on the altar of neglect more than malevolence.
So in terms of the debates reporters conduct in bars, this one at least can be retired until a better example comes along, and given the historical record, please nobody hold your breath.
The best look at newspapers in movies or TV? Hands down, the prize goes to “The Wire.”