For journalists, the yawning gap between the romance surrounding their jobs and harsh reality appears to be growing.
This month two primetime dramas will premiere where investigative journalists play heroic roles: “Zero Hour,” a decades-spanning ABC serial, with Anthony Edwards as a magazine editor trying to rescue his wife; and “Cult,” CW’s spooky addition to conspiracy lore, with a reporter probing a TV show tied to nefarious doings.
They join “Touch,” a Fox series returning Friday, in which Kiefer Sutherland’s former newspaperman now receives help from an ex-Los Angeles Times reporter (sadly, there are a lot of those around) who operates an investigative website; HBO’s little-seen “Enlightened,” where facilitating a Times expose against her company becomes the protagonist’s driving motivation; and the D.C.-set Netflix drama “House of Cards,” where a newspaper reporter portrayed by Kate Mara occupies a pivotal role, albeit more notably for her influence over events — by carrying water for a ruthless politician — than her ethics.
Yet if Hollywood still sees journalists as viable heroes, this image-boosting vote of confidence comes as actual jobs have disappeared faster than guest stars in many of these programs. Moreover, the profession’s esteem in the public’s eyes remains under siege.
Watching scripted TV, reporting still looks like a fairly glamorous occupation. Write for a newspaper or work in broadcast news, and the trend lines are considerably less reassuring.
On Sunday, for example, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about senior staff members taking buyouts in the paper’s latest cost-cutting initiative, and the significant loss those decades of experience and “institutional memory” entails.
As for TV, recent exec changes at CNN and NBC News reflect the tenuous state of journalistic priorities as such organizations pivot to face an uncertain digital future.
Last week NBC News Prez Steve Capus resigned, roughly six months after an exec with little experience related to news, Pat Fili-Krushel, took charge of the NBC Universal News Group, overseeing the network news division and its sister cable channels.
Meanwhile, to find its new chief CNN turned to Jeff Zucker, who established his career at the “Today” show, true, but also had been away from hands-on journalism for more than a decade, since heading west to run NBC’s entertainment division in 2000.
By that measure, Zucker has something in common with ABC News topper Ben Sherwood, a former “Good Morning America” producer who had given up broadcast news to write books and be a web entrepreneur before being tapped as a surprise choice to succeed David Westin (himself a lawyer by training) two years ago.
If there’s an aggregated message it’s the paramount importance of showbiz values in guiding TV journalism, while print — from which television traditionally takes its lead — is diminished in its resources and ambition. As usual, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart neatly summarized the latter’s diluted state Monday in discussing reports Chinese computer hackers had attacked the New York Times, saying, “Why would you target our print media? It’s like trying to starve us by disrupting our vegetable supply.” Hey, it only hurts when you laugh.
Frankly, it’s understandable why dramatic storytellers would be drawn to journalism. Although it’s a long way back to “All the President’s Men,” reporters still convey the ideal of searching for truth, at a time when the cacophony of voices can make it especially elusive. Besides, not every TV show can be built around cops and doctors, even if it sometimes feels that way.
Nevertheless, what amounts to this mini-wave of fictional journalists representing a vanguard against sweeping conspiracies and existential threats plays as an oddly dated framework at a moment when investigative endeavors have dwindled and many in the field are understandably preoccupied with merely saving themselves.
In his farewell memo to staffers, NBC’s Capus — who, incidentally, hired such credential-free correspondents as former First Daughters Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager during his tenure — wrote, “Journalism is, indeed, a noble calling.”
In its purest form, it truly is. But if you’re looking for happy endings from stories involving journalists, currently the best advice would be to skip reality, and wait for the Hollywood version.