While interviewing a police officer once, I asked him what he hated most about cop shows on TV. For him, it was the way cops didn’t remove their guns before entering the booking area. Doctors, I’m told, can’t believe how the interns on Grey’s Anatomy find parking spots right in front of the hospital every morning. As for me, a freelance writer, what I can’t stand is the way newspapers SOUND onscreen – like crinkly 20-pound bond instead of soft, cheap newsprint.
What none of us mind, apparently, is the presentation of our peers in TV and film as impossibly gorgeous and infallibly brilliant – which is why I, for one, don’t mind the ridiculously idealized characters in Aaron Sorkin’s new series, The Newsroom, debuting on HBO June 24. Like Tom Cruise as the cute, fearless lawyer who takes down Jack Nicholson in the Sorkin-written A Few Good Men, or Martin Sheen as the noble, fearless leader of the free world in his The West Wing, The Newsroom’ s curmudgeonly (due to his broken heart), fearless news anchor (Jeff Daniels) is a true hero – a loner who chooses moral duty over self-interest, an honest man in a sea of liars who “speaks truth to stupid,” a leader inspired by a good woman (his executive producer, played by Emily Mortimer), to “reclaim the fourth estate” as an “honorable profession” that will ensure the once-and-future greatness of America because “there’s nothing that’s more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.”
The show, like all of Sorkin’s work, is ambitious – in this case, perhaps more ambitious than even he realizes, for not only is he attempting to raise the level of public discourse via TV drama, he’s doing so by resurrecting a character that has become virtually extinct. “Reporters used to be the good guys in popular culture,” Sorkin told Entertainment Weekly, “and I wanted to write them that way.” I want him to write them that way too; yet one wonders whether Sorkin has considered why the journo-as-hero has almost entirely disappeared from film, and never really took hold on TV.
The absence is a stark change from the early days of Hollywood – during the 1930s and forties, nearly every major star played a journalist at some point. Newspapermen-turned-playwrights Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur established the template for the lovable, low-life newshound in their 1928 play The Front Page, which generated three movies including the screwball version His Girl Friday in 1940. Cary Grant as a ruthless editor and Rosalind Russell as his crack reporter added sexual heat to the wisecracking, amoral characters; what made them – and other reporter characters of the era – even sexier was their rollicking indifference to anything but the scoop. They’d never chase after something so corny as love or social justice, but they’d always win both as byproducts of the game.
By the 1970s, there was a major shift: Journos were finally elevated to bona fide good-guy status in movies like All the President’s Men (1976), but a square-jawed earnestness had leeched all sense of fun from the once-shambolic, hard-drinking rabble-rousers of yore. As Woodward and Bernstein, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman preserved verisimilitude by using actual telephones, notebooks, typewriters and shoe leather – anything but personal charm – to nail down the Watergate story and bring down Nixon, while Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (1974), Peter Finch in Network (1976) and Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome (1979) all died as literal martyrs to the truth. The mythology of the journalist as noble truth seeker was still intact, but something of the character’s original spark had been lost along the way. Since then, journalism movies have declined both in number and quality, from the excellent Broadcast News (1987) and The Paper (1994) to the mediocre State of Play (2009).
As for TV, which arrived just as the heyday of reporter movies was ending, the journo-as-hero genre never got off the ground. Yes there were sitcoms like Murphy Brown, Newsradio, and Everybody Loves Raymond, but their media jobs were mostly beside the point. The only one-hour dramas were Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a seventies procedural starring Darren McGavin as a Chicago reporter who chased paranormal phenomena; and Lou Grant’s avuncular editor (1977 to 1982), along with a couple of Canadian series: E.N.G. (1989-94) and The Eleventh Hour (2002-05). Not even the great Dick Wolf (Law & Order) has been able to pull off a hit series about a journalist – his Deadline, starring Oliver Platt as a crime-solving New York columnist, was cancelled after five episodes in 2000.
An obvious problem with journalists on TV is that the stakes are secondary – cops and doctors and lawyers deal with life and death; reporters deal with missed deadlines. The bigger problem is the nature of the job – the mythology of the journalist as an American hero was based on the image of the reporter as a man of ACTION, grabbing his hat as he dashes out of a chaotic newsroom, knocking on doors, lurking where people don’t want him to lurk, going into dark corners high and low to literally chase down stories. Now, reporters, their cellphones on vibrate, sit at desks in quiet newsrooms trolling the Internet. The iconic crusader journalist on whom we must now base our fantasies is WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange: outside the law, on the run, fearlessly exposing secrets of power-abusers at the highest levels like a proper investigative superhero – but with more than a whiff of the pasty blogger about him. He’d cut a more romantic figure if he weren’t wanted for questioning on sexual misconduct allegations, but even if he’s innocent, the magic isn’t quite there. Julian Assange is no Rosalind Russell.
As a journalist, of course, I lament the tragic loss of reporter as sexy, iconic hero. And I sympathize with Sorkin’s attempt to resuscitate the character as a mythological figure – key to the mythology of a fourth estate as essential to a free society. It’s not exactly encouraging to see the erstwhile journo hero – Denzel Washington protecting Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief – now portrayed onscreen as faceless media scum intent on victimizing the movie stars with whom we now are meant to identify – the paparazzi who abuse Julia in Notting Hill (1999) and America’s Sweethearts (2001).
Unlike Sorkin, I’m not worried about the state of journalism itself. Yes, our boring newsroom jobs defy dramatization. The market is fragmented. Newspapers are dying and pity the poor publisher who still can’t figure out how to monetize the Internet. The important thing is that digging for information and disseminating it has never been easier – whether you’re working for a newspaper or tweeting from Egypt or bashing out your own citizen blog about fixing potholes on local byways. The craft is thriving. Perhaps the image of the journo-hero will eventually catch up.