As if Richard Lester had decided to hang out with newspaper reporters instead of Beatles, Tabloid Wars is A Hard Day’s Night times six. Executive producers Jerry Shevick, James Deutch, Belisa Balaban, and Ted Skillman spent the summer of 2005 inside the central nervous system of the New York Daily News. They’ve edited that experience down to half a dozen antic, handheld, docudramatic hours, stampeding toward a first-edition deadline. We leave the computerized city room for the mean streets of Queens and Harlem in pursuit of real news (Robert De Niro’s jewel-thief nanny, Christian Slater allegedly grabbing ass, a black man beaten by white men with a baseball bat in Howard Beach, a jumper in the projects) in the company of real reporters (Jonathan Lemire, Tony Sclafani, and especially Kerry Burke) who talk to their editors on cell phones and to the camera on the run, between door knocks. The optical result is part peep show, part mosaic, part jazz.
Never mind those editors. Ever since the movie version of All the President’s Men, every editor asked for a sound bite thinks he’s Jason Robards, full of principles and testosterone, the quick-draw law in Tombstone. This is particularly risible when, like Daily News editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, your English accent is so thick that on occasion you have to be translated into subtitles. (Cooke has since returned to Chicago.) Nor dwell upon the gossips. George Rush and Joanna Molloy are such an odd couple they can’t be generalized. Lloyd Grove’s brief appearance suggests a surprising magnitude of jerk. And Grove’s legman last summer, Hudson Morgan, has already gone where he belongs (Men’s Vogue). But don’t miss Lenore Skenazy, a delightful cake-taking flake who gets one column out of chatting up the turtle-walking Reptile Man and another going underwater for a wedding in a swimming pool.
The best of Tabloid Wars, however, is shoe leather, stakeouts, teamwork, and ambulance chasing—tainted heroin, an East River copter crash, a Brooklyn babysitter murder, the decapitation of a child, Victoria Gotti. Race matters, even if it starts a riot. Beating the half-price Post is paramount. And celebrity is the crack cocaine of the infotainment racket. (By the end of the second hour, you will probably decide, as I did, that the tireless Kerry Burke is our hero, not only because he sounds public-school instead of preppy and always talks to strangers with respect, but because he hates celebrity stories.) Which isn’t to say Tabloid Wars tells us the whole truth about newspapers. For instance, nobody ever complains. In my experience at three dailies and four weeklies, as much time is spent griping as reporting. It’s an entire subculture of prurient bitching. But Tabloid Wars does tell us something almost always left out of newspaper stories on television: These people aren’t in it for the money. Like teachers, they have a different set of priorities, and less to feel ashamed of when they go to bed at night. Nor, here, have they been fantasized about.
Television has fantasized about newspapers from Barney Blake, Police Reporter in 1948, The Front Page in 1949, Big Town in 1950, and Front Page Detective in 1951, to Deadline to Action, Honestly Celeste, Jack and Mike, Maggie Briggs, The Roaring Twenties, and Stop Susan Williams. You will remember The Name of the Game, if only for Susan Saint James; The Naked Truth, if only for Téa Leoni; and Lou Grant, if only for the weekly seminar on ethics. To those we can add Hard Copy, with Wendy Crewson and Michael Murphy as L.A. crime reporters, and Capital News, a pre-Deadwood David Milch production with Helen Slater and William Russ working for a parallel version of the Washington Post. But my favorite fantasy of all was the 1989 TV movie Money, Power, Murder, in which Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica reimagined himself as an investigative reporter, played by Kevin Dobson, so much tougher than tar and nicotine that, after wandering the wet waterfront at night, drinking beer from a wet paper bag, and stopping to ask a bluesy street musician to play “Tenderly” on his sax, he not only solved the disappearance of a network anchorwoman, exposed a fraudulent TV evangelist, and tracked down a serial killer with an ice pick, but also got to sleep with Blythe Danner.
After more decades in the business than Kerry Burke, I regret to say that none of this has ever happened to me. Especially Blythe Danner.