Our subject today is the depiction of print journalists — or, as we like to call ourselves, “ink-stained wretches” — in the entertainment media.
This isn’t exactly a Golden Age of journalists in entertainment, but it’s interesting to note how many of them are being depicted on TV now, including in “Ugly Betty,” “Dirt,” “My Boys” and the now syndicated “Just Shoot Me.” Magazines particularly are attracting the attention of TV scriptwriters these days, as shown in “Ugly Betty” (and the movie it seems to have been based on, “The Devil Wears Prada”), “Dirt” and “Just Shoot Me.”
Many other movies and TV shows have featured journalists as characters, but neither “The Odd Couple” movie nor TV series is about newspapers. In most cases, journalists are plot devices to move the story along — for instance, “Then Came Bronson,” a 1969 series about a newspaper reporter who decides to travel around America after a friend of his commits suicide and leaves him his motorcycle. (Travel the country on a reporter’s salary — that’s how you know it’s fiction.)
Charles Foster Kane, the lead character in “Citizen Kane,” was based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, but “Citizen Kane” is not a newspaper movie. “All the President’s Men” chronicled the Watergate investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who are to Watergate what any number of TV reporters were to the John F. Kennedy assassination. “All the President’s Men” helped create the brief genre of reporters as rock stars, due no doubt to casting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, but it’s arguable whether it’s a newspaper movie or political thriller. Jack Webb, creator of “Dragnet,” did one newspaper movie, “-30-” (which reporters typed at the end of their stories to indicate to the typesetter that that was the end of the story), which imdb.com describes as depicting an “implausibly active day in the life of a metropolitan newspaper.”
My favorite in the newspaper movie genre is “Deadline USA,” with Humphrey Bogart as the editor of a daily newspaper about to be sold. “Deadline USA” ends what might be one of the best endings of any movie: The bad guy, a mobster, is about to be exposed in the pages of the newspaper, and as he’s threatening editor Bogart on the phone, the newspaper’s press begins to run. When the mobster says he can’t hear Bogart’s character due to the noise, Bogart’s response is: “That's the press, baby. The press! And there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing!” (The movie also includes another line: “A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness.” That contrasts to the definition I heard in college of “journalist”: “an out-of-work reporter.”
The best known TV series about newspapers is probably “Lou Grant,” which also is notable for taking a character from a sitcom (the title character’s boss, a Minneapolis TV station news director, on “Mary Tyler Moore”) into a drama. Ed Asner played the TV news director-turned-Los Angeles newspaper city editor, the lead character in one of TV’s first ensemble drama casts. “Lou Grant” was loved by critics and those who give out awards; the series won 13 Emmy Awards, three Golden Globe awards, a Peabody award and nine other awards in its five-year run. (The first season can be seen at hulu.com.) The series was canceled, despite its being in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings in its last month, largely because Asner used both his role in the series and his office as president of the Screen Actors Guild as a soapbox for his views on the U.S. presence in central America, to the discomfort of CBS and advertisers.
The cult classic “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” is an example of the genre of journalist as investigator, a detective armed with a notebook and a camera instead of a gun. (Of course, police detectives carry notebooks and guns, and sometimes cameras too.) In fact, just as there are more serial killers on TV or in movies than in real life, there may be more investigative reporters depicted on TV than actually exist in real life — for instance, Raymond Burr got out of his wheelchair on “Ironside” to play the title role in “Kingston: Confidential,” described thusly: “An investigative reporter, backed by the head of a newspaper and TV chain, uncovers a plot to utilize nuclear power plants in a scheme to take over the world.” (I wonder if the staff of the Green Bay Press–Gazette or the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter is aware of this fiendish plot involving those nuclear power plants along Lake Michigan.)
Other TV shows that have featured journalists as major characters include:
- “The Adventures of Hiram Holiday,” a 1956 series about a newspaper proofreader (a position unknown at Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers) who is “thought to be a meek-little nobody by everyone around him” until he’s “discovered to have a range of skills that would make James Bond green with envy.” The publisher of said newspaper, “recognizing the sales potential of Hiram's story, sends the young man on a trip around the world” with a reporter “to document his adventures for readers back home.”
- “Big Town,” also known as “Byline Steve Wilson,” about “The Illustrated Press, the largest and most influential newspaper in Big Town, whose driving force was crusading editor Steve Wilson.” (Every TV series set at a newspaper has a crusading publisher and/or editor, you see.) This was one of the first TV series featuring the print media, on at the same time as a series called either “News Gal,” “Byline,” or “Your Kaiser Dealer Presents Kaiser–Frazer ‘Adventures in Mystery’ Starring Betty Furness in ‘Byline.’” (For those who think advertiser tie-ins are bad now, they used to be worse.)
- “Deadline” (not to be confused with this “Deadline,” or “Deadline for Action,” or “Deadline Midnight”), a 2000 series about a New York tabloid newspaper that got a lot of PR push from NBC, which was so successful that it lasted 13 episodes.
- “Hard Copy” (not to be confused with the “Hard Copy” tabloid “news” show), a series that CBS premiered after Super Bowl XXI in 1987. Despite the prime premiere time slot, it lasted six episodes.
- “The Name of the Game,” an example of the rotating-star series popular in the 1960s and 1970s, featuring Gene Barry as the head of a publishing company for whom “People Magazine” (no, not that People magazine) investigative reporter Anthony Franciosa and “Crime Magazine” editor Robert Stack worked.
- “Slap Maxwell,” a Dabney Coleman star vehicle about a stereotypical hard-bitten sportswriter. Coleman won a Golden Globe, which didn’t stop ABC from canceling the series after one season. This is not to be confused with "Buffalo Bill,” in which Coleman played a stereotypical egotistical talk-show host. That show too won a Golden Globe (costar Joanna Cassidy), and that show too was canceled after one season. A sportswriter not played by Coleman, the title character of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” fared much better, lasting 10 seasons, but then again, how often was Raymond depicted at his employer?
There have been a couple of journalist-as-superhero depictions. Clark Kent, of course, was a “mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet” when he wasn’t being Superman, either in one of the Superman movies or, on TV, “The Adventures of Superman,” “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” or the current “Smallville.” Some readers may remember “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl,” two reporters for something called “Newsmaker Magazine” when they weren’t battling “a bevy of costumed villains.”
My personal favorite of that genre is “The Green Hornet,” a comic book turned into a radio series, a film serial, and then a TV series featuring the publisher of a newspaper who fought crime on his off hours, dogged by one of his own reporters who was trying to find out the secret identity of the Green Hornet, thought to be a “ruthless criminal.” (Hint to reporter Mike Axford: He signs your paychecks.) Besides having a great theme written by trumpeter Al Hirt based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “The Green Hornet” TV series was the U.S. TV debut of martial artist Bruce Lee, who played the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato. (It should be noted that their favorite vehicle was not a green Hornet, but “Black Beauty,” comparable probably to a black Chrysler 300 of today, but with such special features as rocket launchers, smoke guns, etc.)
I’m sure you’re shocked — shocked! — to discover that Hollywood, well, Hollywoodizes its depictions of journalists. (For one thing, any media outlet depicted on TV appears to have far more staff than an actual media outlet of that size would have.) The reason there haven’t been very many good depictions of journalists is that most of what journalists do, though important, frankly isn’t very interesting to watch. Interviews, particularly hostile interviews, can be entertaining to watch, as demonstrated by CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes.” But the process of putting words on paper (or into word processing program now) isn’t very interesting to watch if you’re not in the profession, any more than the process of watching photographers take photos, radio reporters edit sound or TV reporters put a story together in an editing bay is interesting to watch. Nor is, say, sitting in a courtroom at a trial or at a city council meeting. And if you think those wouldn’t be interesting to watch, watching an editor come up with a story list for an edition of his or her publication, or editing reporters’ stories is as exciting as watching trees grow.
I haven’t seen very many non-TV reporters you’d want to see on the screen from an appearance standpoint either. (Guess where the phrase “you have a face for radio” came from.) Few are tall, baby-faced in a rugged sort of way, with graying curly hair, piercing blue eyes, facial hair that varies with the season … sorry, got lost in the moment there. The reporters and editors I’ve known over the years aren’t fashionably thin or, for that matter, thin at all or, for that matter, fashionable at all, and don’t have hot significant others, cool cars and funky living quarters. (Media types, however, are quite adept at violating traffic and parking laws, thanks to those pesky deadlines.) There are more married people than in your typical TV series setting (although journalism is known for its unpleasantly high divorce rate).One of the most bizarre incidents mixing (fictional) TV and real life occurred in 1992 over "Murphy Brown," a sitcom set at a TV newsmagazine that looked a lot like "60 Minutes." The title character gave birth to a child with no father in the picture. That prompted Vice President Dan Quayle to blast the show during the 1992 presidential campaign for a depicting "a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'" That was misread as an attack on single mothers who were not single by "just another lifestyle choice," criticized by others who praised the show for not having the title character get an abortion, prompted the series' creator to have her (fictional) show give a response to Quayle's comments, and then, from one to many years later, resulted in a series of admissions from places you'd never figure, including from Candace Bergen, who played Brown, that Quayle was, uh, right. (If this paragraph didn't make sense to you, nothing about that made sense at the time either.)
Most of the time, the personality of reporters doesn’t come across in their on-screen depictions. I find that to be too bad, because one reason I’ve liked working in the media is because of my fellow aberrant personalities in this profession. There is more drinking and smoking in journalism than in society as a whole (although media companies tend to frown on bottles in desks nowadays, and media owners have the same no-smoking-at-work policies as everyone else), and there is more, shall we say, use of colorful vocabulary than in your typical workplace. Black humor and situationally inappropriate humor is a trademark of this profession, as is automatic skepticism. Some media types seem to be engaging in a contest to see who can be more cynical than the next media type, particularly those who specialize in political reporting, for ample reason. That is portrayed better in "Dilbert," which isn't set in a media workplace, than in most TV and movie depictions I've seen.