Winter 2000

Journalists Won’t Miss This ‘Deadline’

TV drama’s portrayal of a newspaper columnist was more sleuth than truth.

By Don Aucoin
Television is the medium that invented the rerun (or, in the risible coinage favored by the networks, the “encore presentation”). So perhaps it’s not surprising that TV usually goes looking for drama in all the old places: hospitals, police stations, courtrooms, law offices.

What is surprising, though, is how deeply the best dramas delve into their milieus. Week after week, “ER” takes us literally into the guts of the medical profession: cracking open chests, ramming tubes down patients’ throats, and describing it all in polysyllabic jargon that virtually dares the viewer to keep up. Courtroom dramas like “The Practice” often immerse their plots in arcane legal strategy, while cop shows like “NYPD Blue” don’t hesitate to show what a painstaking, step-by-step process a police investigation can be.

By contrast, the newsroom has historically gotten short shrift as a setting for TV drama. That changed this season with the debut of “Deadline.” Or did it? Canceled after just five episodes because of weak ratings, this NBC drama nonetheless lasted long enough to provide a revealing glimpse of television’s attitude toward its longtime rival, print journalism. “Deadline” suggested that when it comes to depicting the world of the ink-stained wretch, these days TV doesn’t bother to sweat the details.

It’s not that “Deadline” was a complete dud. It boasted a topnotch cast, and it might eventually have developed into, if not must-see-TV, at least might-see-TV. Some analysts believe “Deadline” failed because it immersed viewers too deeply in the unloved realm of newspapers. But I think it possible that the reverse is true and that “Deadline” was undone by the fatal paradox at its heart: This was a show about a journalist that had little interest in journalism.

Ever since “Hill Street Blues” inaugurated the era of the “quality drama” in the early 1980’s, discerning viewers expect TV dramas to be grounded in a recognizable—albeit exaggerated—professional reality. The implicit promise was that if they tune in each week TV will repay them by shining some light on the arenas inhabited by its protagonists. “Deadline” shortchanged viewers on that score by loading up its plots with eye-rolling incongruities that undercut any claims it might have made to verisimilitude.

Initially, there was reason to be fairly optimistic about “Deadline” if you were a journalist eager to see a televised treatment of your trade. It was produced by Dick Wolf, the redoubtable force behind “Law & Order” and its spin-off, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Veteran film actor Oliver Platt headlined as Wallace Benton, the star columnist at the New York Ledger, a tabloid newspaper modeled on the New York Post. Benton was portrayed as a jaundiced crusader for justice, a contradiction that is one of the things “Deadline” got right about newspaper life. The corpulent Platt, with his helmet of jet-black hair and cocksure manner, cut a suitably Breslinesque figure.

But it’s difficult to picture Jimmy Breslin (or any of the other big city columnists who inspired the character of Wallace Benton) gathering blockbuster information through interviews with cops, district attorneys, medical examiners, witnesses, suspects—while almost never taking notes! Was Benton afraid of getting writer’s cramp? Worried about a subpoena down the road? Benton was seldom seen without a cup of coffee while conducting interviews, but he couldn’t exert himself to jot something down in a notebook. This seemingly minor flaw suggested a big disconnect with the world “Deadline” purported to represent. Heaven knows “ER” takes liberties with hospital reality, but it wouldn’t fill the TV screen with doctors who never wear stethoscopes. Even the most mundane cop show alludes to the necessity of obtaining a search warrant or informing suspects of their right to remain silent.

Nonetheless, “Deadline’s” indifference to such basic, nuts-and-bolts journalistic details was probably no accident. In an appearance before TV critics last summer in Pasadena, California, Wolf said he made the character of Benton a columnist instead of a reporter because, in his view, the latter is a “passive protagonist because he is reporting on events that have already taken place. A columnist is somebody who is not bound to be objective, doesn’t have Miranda warnings, can unearth whatever he can unearth, and can write about it from a personal slant, which makes him an incredibly active protagonist.”

What Wolf didn’t say, but what became apparent as the show debuted, was that Benton’s notebook-free ways allow him to be depicted as a Colombo-style sleuth. Further distancing the columnist from workaday journalism, Benton moonlighted as a college professor; each week, the columnist enlisted his students as junior gumshoes who helped him crack a case. In fact, if it weren’t for the fleeting newsroom scenes, it would have been possible to forget that Benton was a newspaperman at all as he lumbered from clue to clue. Whereas medical or legal dramas use their settings as backdrops for life-and-death scenarios, character development, or romantic intrigue, “Deadline” used its setting as a kind of camouflage. This was a detective show masquerading as a newspaper show, and viewers have plenty of detective shows to choose from.

Though perhaps only journalists would care about them, other credulity-straining moments cropped up throughout “Deadline.” For example, the tabloid’s Murdochian publisher (played by Tom Conti) sat in on morning news meetings, where he not only made Page One calls but even dictated headlines. Didn’t he have a business to run? Equally implausible was the presence at those meetings of a gossip columnist (played by Lili Taylor). What, no obit writer in the room?

During one episode, the managing editor (portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth of “Cheers” fame) delivered a lecture on conflicts of interest that journalists must beware of; in the next, she plunged into a whirlwind affair with a political candidate. Then, the gossip columnist printed an item about the dalliance. Displaying a remarkable insouciance in the face of her boss’s fury, the columnist breezily informed the managing editor that “You play the hokeypokey with a public figure, and it’s going to end up in the paper.” The editor shouted: “Not my paper!”

It turned out that her paramour, the candidate, had a secret in his past: He was a fugitive from justice who’d been living under an assumed name since he struck a policeman with a rock during an antiwar rally in the 1960’s. The Ledger published Benton’s story disclosing that past, but the columnist, the managing editor, and the oddly influential gossip maven insisted that it run under this howler of a headline: “Good Man Does Wrong Thing for Right Reason.” Puh-leez. Tabloids may stoop, but never to piety.

In the final episode to air, “Deadline” made clear how far it was willing to go so that its journalist/protagonist would be the story rather than just cover it, as Benton became a suspect in the murder of a mobster’s girlfriend with whom the columnist had a one-night stand.

All of this was a far cry from “Lou Grant,” which ran from 1977 to 1982 and was the last significant TV show about print journalists. (“New York News” and “Ink,” two misbegotten efforts to portray the newspaper world, expired almost as quickly as they arrived in the mid-1990’s.) “Lou Grant” had origins in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a classic 1970’s sitcom set in a local TV news operation that somehow functioned with about five employees. It starred Ed Asner as a gruff city editor of a Los Angeles daily, Mason Adams as the managing editor, Robert Walden as a hotheaded reporter, Linda Kelsey as his newsroom rival, and the late Nancy Marchand as Mrs. Pynchon, a Katherine Graham-like publisher.

Perhaps because it debuted in the heady afterglow of Watergate, when journalists were lionized rather than reviled as they often are today, “Lou Grant” seemed to believe that the inherent drama of journalism was enough to hook viewers. The show actually seemed interested in how newspapers work: Its reporters cultivated sources, clashed with editors over story play, followed paper trails, raced to meet deadlines, and even took notes. Ethical issues were explored through story lines that illustrated the tension between the newsgathering and business sides of the paper. And “Lou Grant” took the time to get the atmospherics right: That newsroom pulsed with reporters pounding the phones or agonizing over their ledes. Even “Murphy Brown,” at least in its early years, was a more faithful mirror of contemporary journalism than “Deadline” was—and that was a sitcom about a superstar anchor/reporter of a TV newsmagazine.

Who knows, it could be that “Deadline” accurately read the public mood. With survey after survey ranking the media just below amoebic dysentery on the public’s list of their favorite things, maybe a realistic show about journalists wouldn’t fly. Or maybe “Deadline” is a symptom of the continuing rivalry between television and print, TV’s way of saying: We will dramatize you, but only on our terms, by fitting you into the prefabricated formulas of our medium. Either way, watching “Deadline” made me wish Lou Grant had been Benton’s boss. I’d like to have seen the old curmudgeon tell the fancy-pants columnist to put down that damn cup of coffee and open up his notebook.

Don Aucoin is a television critic for The Boston Globe and a 2001 Nieman Fellow.

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