Hollywood has a love-hate relationship with the news business. I've known a lot of actors and writers who are fascinated with the news, but hate the reporters they have to deal with in their professional lives -- the paparazzi, the gossip press, the celebrity reporters who ask the same dumb questions every time.
Hollywood's portrayal of reporters is the industry's revenge.
A few minutes into the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom on HBO, news broke about the real-life explosion on British Petroleum's oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, but the newsroom characters just stood around debating the importance of the story in rapid-fire Sorkinese.
I turned to my wife and asked, "What's wrong with this picture?"
She said, "Not one person is on the telephone trying to find out what happened."
Instead, the newsroom staff was waiting for the wire services to post an alert that this was a huge story. A burning oil platform with 11 missing people is the lead story, and they all would have known it.
I'm always torn between being pleased that Hollywood thinks the news business is worthy of interest and dreading the portrayal. With some good exceptions, the entertainment business has not traveled far from the days when reporters were portrayed as a pack of men wearing fedoras with a card saying "press" tucked in the hatband.
With The Newsroom, Sorkin is trying to bring high-mindedness to the news business in the way he brought it to the White House in The West Wing, and he doesn't have to be realistic. Fiction compresses reality to make a point -- life is long and art is short -- but sometimes it's just silly. When they finally got down to doing their jobs, Sorkin's reporters developed information in minutes that in reality would have taken days or weeks to gather. To a real reporter it's laughable.
I'm sure lots of cops, lawyers and doctors also have bristled at Hollywood's treatment of their professions, even when worthwhile issues were explored. But the slow reaction of Sorkin's newsies to the oil platform explosion was like detectives debating whether a murder needed investigation.
Some of the inaccuracies in The Newsroom will bother only someone in the business. As a veteran journalist who worked in Vietnam, Sam Waterston's character never would have said he was "embedded" with an artillery unit. In those days, reporters covered the war uninvited. Worse was the producer who complains to the anchorman that, "You yelled at me in front of the crew." He was lucky. In a real newsroom, the yelling goes on in front of the crew, the secretaries, other reporters, visitors from China and even your mother if she happens to drop by that day.
The problems confronting the news business are much deeper than verbal abuse and whether news producers recognize a story when they see it. Expenses are rising and income is falling. Anchors with multimillion dollar salaries sit in on discussions about whether there's enough money to send a camera crew to a story. Less-experienced reporters are hired in the mistaken belief that elusive younger viewers will watch young faces deliver the news. And the deepest cynicism in television news lives in those executives who have abandoned real news in a mistaken quest to please rather than inform their audience.
Sorkin's The Newsroom touches on some of this in its preachy sharper-than-thou dialogue, but it flies by pretty fast.
For some reason the news business is just hard for Hollywood to get. Reporters are often portrayed in movies as unlikable because they are liars, or willing to give away the location of an Army unit to make a call on their satellite phone. Never mind that the unarmed reporter's life depends on those soldiers.
Reporters are often unlikable, but for better reasons. They are aggressive and impatient. They are rude and shout over other people. They want to know what the hell is going on and they want to know right now. They make cruel but funny jokes about the latest dead celebrity. And they are not sentimental because they've heard and seen too much. Unlike in The Newsroom, the job they do is not accompanied by a gauzy sound track of emotional music. They want the truth. Just tell us how many people are dead.
Real reporters are so much more entertaining than Hollywood's. Back in the late '80s, I was sent to cover an appearance by Raisa Gorbachova, wife of the Soviet premier, after she'd had lunch with the cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder and a bunch of other powerful American women. One of the reporters asked, "Raisa, will there be détente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union?" Trying to avert an uncomfortable political moment, the tiny 82-year-old Estée Lauder interrupted in her thick Hungarian accent and said, "Mrs. Gorbachev is not here to... " She was interrupted by a New York reporter who blurted out, "Shut up, Estee! We didn't ask you!"
That's the American press I know and love.