From 'Lou Grant' to 'The Bold Type': What TV gets right, and not so right, about journalism
It's not just doctors, lawyers, and cops who may occasionally feel misunderstood by TV writers looking for over-the-top conflicts and tidy resolutions.
If you've ever shared a job with a TV character, you've probably rolled your eyes a time or two.
It's not just doctors, lawyers, and cops who may occasionally feel misunderstood by TV writers looking for over-the-top conflicts and tidy resolutions. Scientists, teachers, stay-at-home moms — if you're working, chances are scripted TV doesn't completely get what you do.
And journalists — who can watch Netflix's House of Cards to see Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) using reporters like Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) for his own ends (and then, in Zoe's case, literally throwing her away) — feel your pain.
How would you like to be represented by Leon West (Brian Huskey), the fictional Washington Post reporter on HBO's Veep, who, after being a thorn in the side of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) since the first season, appeared to have been bought off with a speech-writing job in the June 25 season finale?
Last season, Amazon's Good Girls Revolt managed to capture some of the fervor, and the fun, of life in a newsroom. The 1969-set drama from a former Los Angeles Times reporter, Moorestown's Dana Calvo, was inspired by Lynn Povich's book about a sex-discrimination case at Newsweek. It was canceled after only 10 episodes.
Others may have cheered the return of Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) in Netflix's The Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, but some of us cringed at seeing what had become of Rory's once-promising journalism career. Reality: Someone like Rory might well be working freelance, given the shrinking number of staff jobs. Reality check: No freelance writer in her right mind would be flying back and forth from London on a project for which she didn't have a contract.
And as much as I once loved Lou Grant — which premiered in the predigital days when I was a college student, paid by the column inch to cover small-town government meetings for a newspaper — I never mistook it for reality. I didn't care how great a city editor Lou (Ed Asner) was. I knew he couldn't put out a daily metropolitan paper with only a couple of reporters and a photographer.
So when a show gets it even a little bit right, as Freeform's soapy new drama The Bold Type does, I notice.
After a post-Pretty Little Liars preview last month, The Bold Type officially premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on the channel formerly known as ABC Family. Like so much on television, it's aimed at viewers who may not own TVs, and set in an industry — magazines — that's also fighting for the attention of the younger audience that advertisers pay to reach.
It's a long, long way from All the President's Men, but what The Bold Type does, smartly, is give us a glimpse of what the battle to stay in business looks like.
Inspired by the experiences of one of its executive producers — Joanna Coles (Project Runway, So Cosmo), the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and now chief content officer of Hearst Magazines — the show stars Katie Stevens, Aisha Dee, and Meghann Fahy as three twentysomething friends who first met as assistants on the Cosmo-like magazine Scarlet. We meet them as they're working their way up, one tricky step at a time.
Melora Hardin (The Office, Transparent) plays the magazine's formidable editor, Jacqueline Carlyle, who has just promoted Stevens' character, Jane Sloan, to staff writer, a role in which she'll be expected to share with readers more of her personal life than she had expected.
Dee is Kat Edison, who's in charge of the magazine's social-media presence, and Fahy is Sutton Brady, who hopes to be the next to make the leap from fetching juice and answering phones.
Their personal lives are entertainingly messy, and their aspirations may not be wise ones — magazine staff-writing jobs, for instance, seem about as secure these days as the subscription cards that fall out of the print editions — but it's good to see someone acknowledge that serving readers who may be found only on Twitter or Snapchat is someone's job, and a complicated one at that. Our own audience team might be surprised to see that Kat appears to be a one-woman department, but not that she has a voice in decisions about what stories have the best chances of breaking through online, or that she's working to find new ways for Scarlet to tell stories.
It's good, too, to see The Bold Type's recognition of the behind-the-scenes gatekeepers, like a certain congressional aide, who stand between writers like Jane and the more substantive stories she hopes to do.
The four episodes I've seen, including the two that air back-to-back Tuesday, demonstrate the immediacy of the digital-first model, where stories are posted when they're ready, often long before they appear in print; where reader feedback, too, may be immediate, and success measured in clicks. When Kat runs afoul of an online troll, things get ugly in a way that, sadly, rings true.
On the plus side, when Jacqueline decides to increase coverage of a topic — politics — that the male-dominated board of the winkingly named Steinem Publishing doesn't consider fluffy enough for Scarlet, she's acting not just on instinct, but on reader behavior. The online analytics show, she says, that "young women want to be politically engaged." These could be the numbers Teen Vogue was seeing when it, too, increased its focus on politics.
This, admittedly, is the sunnier side of click-driven journalism. For a darker view, you can watch this season of Broadchurch (10 p.m. Wednesdays, BBC America), where community newspaper editor/reporter Maggie Radcliffe (Carolyn Pickles) is fighting to hold on to her principles, and her job, in the face of a parent company that's less and less willing to invest in local news.
Why should it matter to you if television shows do a better job of showing how the media sausage gets made?
Because at a time when "fake news" competes with the real, misunderstanding how news is reported, and vetted, hurts everyone. And because you might not guess how much power you have. You've always been able to write or to call, and more recently, to comment online, about what you read. But as news organizations, including this one, increasingly realign their priorities according to readers' interests, not just their own, what you click on, what you share, what you spend more than 30 seconds reading, matters. Whatever it is, you're likely to see more of it.
And maybe that's what we should be putting in bold type: Readers matter.