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Jon Robin Baitz Headshot

The Placement of a Story

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The decision by the editors of the Huffington Post to place the writers' strike at the top of the masthead yesterday reflects (in my opinion) an understanding of exactly why this fight matters. It did not reflect, as has been both humorously and impatiently suggested by some comments I read, a sudden and overweening disconnection with the greater horrors of the day, both politically and socially. Nor did it necessarily suggest that the editors are Hollywood-addled and quivering watchers of the entertainment business. They would probably admit to these qualities cheerily. Duality is everything, as is being able to shift your weight. And, yes, the pages of the HuffPo often resembles a horrific cocktail party in the smoggy and listless hills above Sunset Boulevard; a Babel of preening and swanning show-offs. I know. I am, sadly, one of them. But then again, it casts a wide net, does the HuffPo,and for those of you who like to read the end of western civilization into this, I say to you, as I say to myself almost always these days - 'think again but slower this time'.

The act of attempting to break the union, which seems to have been the zero-sum game played thus far by the studios' representatives, has wide-ranging implications for how you and I relate to corporate gigantism. Let me give you an example: Most of the mass media reporting of the strike has been largely unsympathetic to the WGA. That's because the owners of those news sources happen to be mainly the same companies the writers are fighting with.

Newspapers and local stations also take in vast sums from movie and television ads, so there is a quiet and insistent hesitancy when it comes to being critical of the hand that feeds them. The studios have framed the debate, gotten ahead of it, and now we have many people commenting on HuffPo about the spoiled and over-paid mediocrities who write TV and movies. The fact that the future livelihood of thousands of families is at stake does not really come into the reporting. The actual income of the majority of writers in the business does not come into the reporting.

For instance, in any given year, over half the members of the WGA are unemployed. They rely on residuals to pay mortgages and tuitions. To maintain middle-class lives. But the major media, married to, or owned by the conglomerates that also own the studios, has successfully gotten ahead of the story, and 1-2-3, turned what would should be a dialogue about how we earn our wages into something much less important. The studios have been able to deflect the public from examining what it is to be an individual who is not fairly compensated for the work they do, while the corporation that produced it reaps endless streams of profit from said work.

Let me put it this way: If your child were a writer, who was lucky enough to sell one script, and then hit a long and painful dry spell - then that child - under the terms proffered by the studios and networks, would receive virtually nothing every time that movie or TV show aired online or was downloaded. The less ownership workers have in the products they create benefits mostly a handful of media-giants, such as NewsCorp, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Disney, (where my own TV show Brothers & Sisters is produced, and where -- I must note -- the studio executives treat me with patience, respect and generosity.) In conversations with executives, they muse sadly and skeptically over the studios' proposal that it is going to take three years to study the profitability of on-line streaming and downloading while, at the same time, the CEOs paint rosy pictures for stock holders about the great new opportunities that have been developed.

That's why I am saddened by the tone of derision present in so many comments on the placement of the Writers Guild Strike story. It reflects a contempt that I think would not be present if the authors actually were truly well-informed about the implications at hand. I think most of the sarcasm would most likely be replaced by the idealism that lives in most Americans who crave fiscal justice.

And to the people who commented today that after years of watching garbage on TV, no new TV shows for a while seems like a blessing, I can only say, smiling, "I understand." Yes. The miasma is sickening. The numbing mediocrity of so many aspects of what passes as entertainment is a horror, and a pollution. I agree. And we are gonna pay for that, and already are in an uneducated and unmovable and cynical polity. An eternally distracted citizenry. But THAT is not the issue. At all. And for every dull and listless bit of programming, there is still a Sopranos, a The Wire, a West Wing, a Dexter, a Brothers & Sisters (I must, forgive me, fire-away...), a Six Feet Under and a a Mad Men to consider. An All in the Family. Should the writers of those shows be denied what they are due in the future? Because a percentage of what we see and make is arguably toxic? Not the issue at hand.

But I think this is: This is the first time in years that writers are standing up for the economics of the author's voice as a principle, and it's the first time in years that a challenge to giant-media corporations is being thrown down in a way that scares the owners. As we move into the 21st century, it is important that the monopoly of those giant corporations be challenged from within and without.

At Brothers & Sisters there are young writers starting out. They have no foothold yet, barely in the door. What is their future going to be like? There are writers with children and families and medical expenses, just like anyone else in this country. They are not rich. There is one writer at my show who had not worked for a couple of years, simply because there are not that many jobs when you're starting out. Yes, they are well paid compared to many in America, God knows. But screenwriters should be paid fairly and proportionally, and to stand for that does not mean you are abdicating any greater societal concern.

And the placement of the discussion on the top of the HuffPo page yesterday, reflected the broader attempt to inform readers in ways that the story is not being told elsewhere. Just like every other story on the Huffington Post. Which is why you come here.

Tomorrow morning, I will be joining my fellow writers on the picket line. (To be continued.)

Read more thoughts about the strike on Huffington Post's writers' strike opinion page