Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fun With Aaron, Tom and Jane

Aaron (Albert Brooks): Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn–on?

It was 25 years ago today that "Broadcast News" premiered.

As a journalism professor with many years of newsroom experience under my belt, I feel there ought to be something profound I should say about that. But I'll be darned if I know what it is.

Of course, my experience is exclusively in print, not broadcast, and there is a world of difference between the two. Within that difference, perhaps, is the insight that is needed to discover whatever lesson "Broadcast News" was intended to teach.

But I lacked that insight at the time, and I am afraid I still do.

Of course, I've seen newsroom romances, so the relationship between Holly Hunter and William Hurt was not, ahem, virgin territory for me. In my experience, it was a bit exaggerated at times — but, hey, can you name a romantic comedy that wasn't exaggerated?

It's the exaggeration that makes it funny. That's important in a romantic comedy.

But I kind of felt "Broadcast News" was more than a romantic comedy. It was also something of a spoof on broadcasting — not as biting as, say, "Network," but, in its way, just as prophetic.

And I guess there were no moments in "Broadcast News" that were as memorable as Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell" rant in "Network," but they were often just as clever — and every bit as telling.

One of my favorite lines was when Brooks was feeding information to William Hurt by phone via Hunter. He said something to her and, a few seconds later, the same thing, practically word for word, came out of Hurt's mouth.

"I say it here, it comes out there," Brooks remarked.

Hurt's presence created a romantic triangle that William Shakespeare might have envied. Brooks, naturally, was in love with Hunter, but, while she was Brooks' friend, it could never be more than that for her.

However, she was strongly attracted to Hurt, an aspiring anchorman who excelled at reading what was put in front of him and the nuances of visual appeal on camera, but he was not a reporter. He read others' prose flawlessly but often could not comprehend what the stories really meant.

Hurt's character didn't pretend that wasn't an issue for him, either. "It's not that I'm down on myself," he said. "Trust me. I stink."

And yet he was on an upward professional trajectory.

It was hard, really, to argue with Brooks' reasoning for why Hurt's character was the devil.

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? ... He will be attractive! He'll be nice and helpful. He'll get a job where he influences a great God–fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing! He'll never deliberately hurt a living thing ... he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he'll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women.

In many ways, that sums up my feeling about modern journalism.

Or, at least, broadcast journalism.

When I was growing up, journalists were dedicated to one thing — pursuit of the truth, regardless of who might be hurt by its revelation.

But most modern journalists — primarily on the broadcast side although there are some in print, too — give their allegiance to their political agenda, whatever that may be. For most, I guess, it is a progressive agenda, but there are some whose agenda is conservative.

Either way, a political agenda has no place in news reporting — in fact, I can remember a time when anything with the slightest whiff of partisanship was clearly labeled opinion. But a place is being made for it in news coverage by reporters who, more and more frequently, insert themselves into their stories.

There is a shallowness to that that I find disturbing. And I shouldn't be surprised when my students seek to emulate it — although it really is surprising just how often I am surprised by that.

"Let's never forget," Brooks told his colleagues at one point, "we're the real story, not them."

This is more relevant to me today than it was when I saw it on the big screen.

As a journalism professor, I am constantly dealing with students who insert themselves into the story, and I am reminded of what Brooks said to his co–workers. When journalists are on the scene, we are the real story, not them.

I have had students who would have felt entitled to be given a comment by the relative of a victim of some horrific event — and would have felt ripped off to be denied one.

When journalists are covering great tragedies, like Friday's shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, it isn't about getting the facts right. It's about having something to say first, whether it is factual or not.

And it's about looking good when we say it.

But there's more to it than that.

In my newsroom days, there was always a distinct line between editorial and advertising. There were times, I'll grant you, when the relationship could be adversarial, and that was understandable, considering that it was really a territorial squabble. Editorial always wanted to have as much space as possible, and advertising looked upon space as a commodity to be bought and sold. Something had to give.

I never worked in broadcasting, but I assume a similar dynamic was — and still is — at work in that arena, in which time was/is the commodity, not space.

Hurt's character may not have comprehended the stories he read to his audience, but he understood the concept of selling:

"Just remember that you're not just reading the news, you're narrating it," he advised Brooks. "Everybody has to sell a little. You're selling them this idea of you, you know, you're sort of saying, trust me, I'm credible. So when you feel yourself just reading, stop! Start selling a little."

For anyone who has worked in journalism, be it broadcast or print, it is a familiar tug–o–war.

And, as far as I was concerned, the greatest flaw of "Broadcast News" was its failure to address that dynamic. It got off to a great start — when Hunter's character was seen lecturing a drowsy conference audience about the declining standards of broadcast journalism.

The audience was revived when she ran a video clip of an event that had been carried by every network news program on a particular night — a clip of an extended domino run that produced exactly the opposite reaction from the one for which Hunter's character had hoped. No indignation, but plenty of appreciative "oooohs" and "aaaahs" and applause.

The point had been made, and I believed the movie's message would be the triumph of style over substance. I thought it would be a lot more like "Network."

But it quickly became a romantic comedy with broadcast journalism as the backdrop.

In that respect, it probably succeeded in entertaining the audience, like the domino clip — but, like Hunter, I felt disappointed and let down, and I continued to feel that way as the movie frequently flirted with the possibility of exploring the issues it raised but always pulled back at the last moment, going for the kind of gags you've laughed at in every romantic comedy.

The cast did a great job with what it was given, and I admit that there was a very human quality to the characters. That's important for a romantic comedy. It can't succeed if the audience doesn't care about the characters.

Still, though, I was disappointed. I really expected more of an indictment of broadcast journalism than I got, and perhaps that was unfair.

I cared — and still do care — more about my profession.