It’s a tough time for the news business, with local publications having endured, or not, the collapse of the print-ad industry. The few truly national dailies, only slightly less beholden to changes in the wind, have had to adjust as well — seeking, in the short term, avenues towards financial stability and, in the slightly longer term, credibility among not merely their subscriber base but younger potential consumers as well.
That’s “consumers” and not “readers” for a reason. The New York Times, both the perceived paper of record and a leader in newsroom innovation, has staked its claim on new media with “The Daily,” a tidy and fleet podcast launched in 2017 and featuring Times journalist Michael Barbaro interviewing his colleagues about their work. In its wake comes “The Weekly,” a newsmagazine-style show in which journalists explain and enact their process on camera.
A goal of “The Weekly,” which is to air Sunday nights on FX before a next-day episode drop on Hulu, would seem to be audience expansion — bringing the uninitiated into the fold. However, the achievement of the show will likelier be bringing the initiated more deeply into awareness of and allegiance to the Times. This is no small thing, but the mission of evangelizing, specifically, the power and impact of the Times can seem even for a reviewer who subscribes to the paper a bit too zealously achieved at moments. “The Weekly” has a tendency to be less a work of journalism than a show about how hard journalists work, a formula that may be less telegenic than those at the paper realize.
The first episode, about a scandal at an unaccredited private school in Louisiana, most fully exemplifies this tendency; it seems to have been chosen to lead “The Weekly’s” run for a reason. Erica L. Green and Katie Benner broke the story of T. M. Landry College Preparatory School’s doctoring college applications and abusing students. On screen, they work through their process. Green buries her face in her hands as she admits to fears that the story will negatively affect “the kids more than the perpetrators” and, later, decries the school. “It didn’t have to be that way,” she says. “These kids are smart, they could have done it on their own, and someone cheated them out of the opportunity to do that.”
These are sentiments that didn’t, as such, make it into the story; instead, they bleed between the lines, in keeping with the general notion that news pieces are absent of what we might call editorializing. It’s less that readers can’t be trusted to arrive where the facts might bring them and more that arriving there led by facts is more compelling than being told the destination from the outset. Outside the bounds of the original Times story, too, is video of “perpetrator” and school administrator Michael Landry playing to the cameras when given the chance to voice his denial, or of “victims” describing the process by which they came to comment on the story. “If I had to sacrifice myself in order to save a bunch of other people, it was a necessary thing,” says one of the youths in the story.
The question that lodges in the mind, here, arises not from the idea that the story doesn’t make clear this is a story of wrongdoers and those to whom they’ve done wrong. It does that elegantly. It’s that airing a behind-the-scenes video that seems so addicted to narrative — and, at a slim 30 minutes, so allergic to running time-expanding complications — creates an image of Times reporters as crusaders. It works in a case where the protagonists are easily rootable and the antagonists are so harmful, but an image of Times reporters as working towards the fulfillment of a narrative has the potential to do at least a little harm at a moment when the paper is facing down unfounded criticism of hounding political enemies with (apologies, but it must be said) “fake news.” A coda in which the impact of the story is shown to play out — with one young source’s mom declaring “Your voice, and your strength, is what is going to bring him down” — suggests that the story was enacted to fulfill a TV-ready function of delivering swift justice for the righteous rather than the more ineffable long-tail effects of social change.
It’s meta-meta-journalism — reporting on and about the process of Times reporters, in which the ultimate story is not how those reporters arrive at what they finally produce but the institutional reputation of the Times at large. (That same mom brags, as any mom would but as an editor with different goals might have cut, that she’d never have believed her son would make “the cover of the New York Times.”) Other episodes are less assiduously fixated on the impact of the paper and, indeed, create their own impacts. The second and third episodes assay the taxi-medallion crisis in New York City and a story of family separations at the border, and do so elegantly (though the latter makes time to emphasize that the Times’ reporting on said separations had helped move the needle on the legal response, a fairly obvious point and a bit of ball-spiking that jars one out of the human story here.) The best of the first four, based on the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi on the killings of two American tourists in Tajikistan, can get trapped under a certain reliance on attempted lyricism (“the fruit has long been harvested in the orchard where Jay and Lauren spent the last night of their journey,” Callimachi tells us), but is genuinely surprising in its approach. It’s a no-drama take that ends up making the process of reporting seem all the more dramatic — because it’s what Times journalists do each day, not because the tale is built towards catharsis.
This isn’t the Times newsroom’s first time on video. With varying degrees of success, the 2011 documentary “Page One” (largely about the paper’s media desk) and the 2018 Showtime pieces “The Fourth Estate” and “The Family Business” (about the paper’s coverage of President Trump) documented the work of the paper. (The Showtime documentaries, especially “The Family Business,” are quite effective.) All of those, though, were made by people coming into the building from outside. “The Weekly,” whose producers include Times employees like Sam Dolnick, the organization’s assistant managing editor, is so rooted in its view from the ground that it can neglect to bring viewers in and remind them that journalism is important for reasons other than that it happens at the Times. “The Weekly” may reach more viewers than does the daily news report, but it’s a forbiddingly closed circuit standing in for a paper that brings its readers the world. In the largely effective taxi episode, reporter Brian M. Rosenthal asks a cab driver to take him to “the New York Times Building — 40th and 8th.” That no one involved seems to understand that for the viewership, the real street address is more useful information than the presence, there, of the halls where Times journalism is made, is something “The Weekly” can work to rectify in its future as not merely a brand extension but journalism, full-stop.
“The Weekly.” FX. June 2. Four episodes screened for review.
Executive Producers: Sam Dolnick, Ken Druckerman, Stephanie Preiss, Mary Robertson, Mat Skene, Jason Stallman, Banks Tarver