This just in: Drama mixes ethics and wit
'Breaking News' brings to life a 24-hour news channel
No guts, no glory. That should be the motto of every TV show set in a newsroom, because that's what they are always about. We've seen a number of newsroom TV shows come and go the best of which have all been comedies, like the critically acclaimed "Sports Night," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "Murphy Brown."
A new dramatic summer series makes a dandy effort at ferreting out the real ethical issues complicating the lives of reporters and news producers. "Breaking News" (Bravo, beginning July 17, 8-9 p.m., with back-to-back episodes) is a little exaggerated perhaps, but good news just the same.
A fine ensemble cast including Tim Matheson ("The West Wing"), Clancy Brown ("Shawshank Redemption"), and Patricia Wettig ("thirtysomething") makes us feel we are in several places at once.
The show owes something to "Broadcast News" as well as to "Sports Night" and "The West Wing," for its pacing, rapid-fire repartee, and characters consumed by their careers.
The newsroom is modeled on MSNBC, where cocreator Gardner Stern spent a few weeks researching his subject, and, to a lesser extent, CNN.
"I found MSNBC to be a little more vibrant, a little younger [than CNN]," says Mr. Stern. "And since our fictional network was supposed to be new, I thought they were a better template than CNN, which has been around 20 years."
A self-confessed news junkie, Stern is fascinated by the juxtaposition of commerce and community service, show business and journalism, that TV news represents.
"A free and open press was important enough to us to have been included in the Constitution, yet the press generally has to make money," says Stern. "To do that in television you have to get ratings and get sponsors.
"With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, [TV reporters] are under incredible time ... pressures to beat the other guy and to have something new to say all the time. So there is pressure to go with stories before you get the corroboration you would like."
There is constant pressure to confront ethical issues, which provide much of the dramatic conflict.
In one episode, the writers take a gentle jab at CBS News for including in one of their broadcasts what amounted to a 20-minute promotion for "Survivor," CBS's own hit series. In another, the executives want the journalists to go soft on a particular subject a sweatshop because of corporate ties between the network and the company that owns the sweatshop. Will the news editor knuckle under to the powers that be?
One reporter, played with suave sensitivity by Jeffrey D. Sams, goes to jail rather than turn over tapes that have not been aired. He finds the experience horrific, but First Amendment issues are at stake.
The writers search out the ethical issues of the times and the medium. How far is it appropriate for reporters to delve into the private lives of their subjects? There are issues of the public's right to know versus national security. There are issues of weighing the public's right to know against the harm a story might do to innocent lives.
Then there are the personal lives of the reporters and production staff, who are ambitious to begin with, says Stern. In one case, a charming feature reporter played by Myndy Crist is thrust into a hostage crisis, acquits herself like a pro, but still can't escape fluff assignments afterward.
For others, like Rachel Glass (Lisa Ann Walter) and reporter Mel Thomas, their jobs are their lives and they spend too much time in the newsroom and out in the field. That creates more pressures in their personal lives.
"There are down times in a newsroom, of course," says Stern. "In the second episode, we start out on what appears to be a dull news day they have nothing of importance to report. Then it suddenly shifts into action. I do know it is that exciting when there is a big story breaking."