Asner gave us comedy, drama and an indelible portrayal of a hardworking journalist (copy) |
The opening sequence for Season 1 of the long-ago television series “Lou Grant” was an ironic little wonder. It starts with the chirping of a bird in a forest, followed by the roar of a chainsaw and the transformation of a tree into newsprint, all with a few quick cuts.
Newsprint rolls in giant presses. Folded newspapers are thrown to subscribers. One landed in a puddle, another on a roof. But a copy is unfolded and read on a breakfast table. In the last shot, he finds himself at the back of a bird cage, where another bird chirps.
A whole way of life was packed into those few seconds. Today, anyone with a wireless connection can jump into the journalism game. Before the digital age, however, the stakes at the table were huge: enough capital to build a content business attached to a manufacturing operation attached to a last mile distribution business attached to an advertising store.
The barriers to entry, as economists say, were high. The need to have deep pockets and tolerance for risk has had the strange effect of making newspaper owners both more powerful and more responsible than today’s online publishers. They were powerful enough to get away with throwing the paper in a puddle every now and then. But responsible so that only people with sunk costs and fixed addresses are responsible.
“Lou Grant” was something rare in television history: a weekly drama spinoff from a weekly comedy. Lou was born as a middle-aged television news director on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a brilliant sitcom that ran from 1970 to 1977. Licensed from this job when new owners bought the station of Minneapolis, the traveling reporter landed as the city’s editor-in-chief of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune in the hour-long series that bore his name.
Ed Asner played Lou in both series, becoming the first actor to win Emmy Awards for the same role in a comedy and a drama. This tells you something about the depth of the character and portrayal of Asner – for what could be truer of human existence than its inseparable tangle of comedy and drama?
Asner died on August 29 at the age of 91. His acting career included other memorable roles. He played a no-frills Santa Claus in the modern holiday classic “Elf” and gave the voice to Carl Fredricksen, the animated hero of Pixar’s triumph “Up”.
But Lou Grant was his defining creation, an embodiment of the gruff publisher with a heart of gold – but also something more, something deeper. Lou was not smart, but he was wise. He had learned some things, and – although he never really put those things into words – he was determined to survive long enough to carry what he knew into an uncertain future.
“Lou Grant” was a great show, if not as good as its magical ancestor. Within the narrow confines of network television formats, the series really tried to probe the dilemmas of journalism at a time when newspapers still set the nation’s agenda. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” wasn’t really about TV news, but “Lou Grant” was only about newspapers and what it means to create a version of the world in a matter of hours, always with the wrong one. somehow, but try again tomorrow and everyday forever.
The first episode, which aired on September 20, 1977, dealt with a problem now known as “media capture”: the very human tendency of very experienced reporters to become protectors of their sources. The special place of youth in the news industry is subtly revealed – not just the energy of youth, but its monstrous moral clarity. Everything is black and white with young people, which makes for a great copy – and sometimes ruined lives.
Episode 2 plunged into the problem of insufficient information. A young man portrayed as a one-day front-page thug turns out to have been innocent – but world events overtake history and the truth is pushed inside the newspaper. “Lou Grant” went on like this for five years, riddling the moral dramas of imperfect humans trying to do a good job when their only tool was a hammer.
Maybe the show – and Asner’s death – touches me because it captures the moment I walked into my first newsroom. As at the Trib, typewriters were still banging on old metal desks. (Lou looks suspiciously at a computer, ready to be installed, on his first day of work.) Everyone knew big changes were coming, but we couldn’t say exactly how they would play out.
This does not change much: the tension arises when fallible people set out to deliver what is called the truth. Things always go wrong. Whether it comes to the typewriter or on Twitter, good journalism demands honor, humility, and thick skin – qualities that have defined Ed Asner’s masterpiece.