On the front row in the Broadhurst Theatre for the Wednesday matinee of “Lucky Guy,” we were so close to the action up on stage that my husband forgot for a minute that he wasn’t actually in a newsroom as a bunch of reporters gathered around to hear a particularly moving Pulitzer speech.
“He was totally cynical,” one character said of another, eulogizing not just a colleague, but our whole business and way of life. Yet ”underneath the cynicism was the same sweet fantasy we all have about this business — that we’re knights, that we right wrongs, and then afterwards you go out and have a drink, because that’s what you do.“
Or what we did, anyway. And when the reporters up on the stage applauded like crazy, the totally cynical knight sitting beside me forgot where he was and clapped too, winning many, many husband points for letting his heart show like that.
Nora Ephron’s last play, starring her friend Tom Hanks, is imperfect but mostly true, just like its subject and its moment and its main character, Mike McAlary, a columnist who burned up New York tabloids in the ‘80s and ‘90s and died of cancer at the age of 41.
I worked at New York Newsday for just a sliver of that time, from 1989 to ‘92, but to me, the most important moment of the show comes when McAlary gets a tip that some cops have beaten and sodomized a man they’ve arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub. Mac is on his way to chemo when he hears the message and doesn’t feel like following up. But his wife, Alice, played with classic making-a-nothing-part-into-something by Maura Tierney, demands that he do it anyway. Who, exactly, will answer that call if he doesn’t, she wants to know. Who will people call, and tell, and count on to do something about it?
In the end, of course, McAlary goes straight from his doctor’s office to Abner Louima’s hospital room, where the columnist learns that some men in badges but no name tags have, in the employ of and in the name of the city of New York, sodomized Louima with a toilet plunger, because they could.
Alice McAlary’s question has never been more important than it is now: Who will do that kind of reported story if we in the dreaded MSM don’t? Think fast, because on top of our ongoing financial problems and the usual attacks from right and left, the White House seems to be trying to criminalize some aspects of journalism, prosecuting more leak cases than all other administrations put together and treating a Fox News reporter like an enemy agent.
Like Ephron, who worked for the New York Post for five years, and like most of the people I’ve worked with at four newspapers over the past 29 years, I never wanted to do anything else growing up, and I am prouder to be part of our poor beleaguered business today than on my first night shift covering cops for the Dallas Morning News in 1984.
New York Newsday was way more diverse than Ephron’s mostly Irish male rendering of it, and we broke all kinds of news that had nothing to do with either crime or The Donald, who was, it’s true, forever trying to plant stories about all the women who were supposedly after him.
Where are the women, you might ask, in this show by one of our best tellers of women’s stories? Well, as Jay Carney would say, I appreciate the question. And unlike the White House press secretary in recent weeks, I know the answer: Plenty of us were out knocking on doors in the middle of the night, too — Elaine Rivera and Rita Giordano and Rose Arce in particular. When photographer Erica Berger and I had a gun pulled on us in a crack house in the Bronx one night, while following around an addict whose attempts to get clean we were chronicling, we didn’t even think to call the desk, as I remember. We just had a calming cocktail or two and went home happy to have gotten the story.
The paper’s stable of columnists in those days included not only Murray Kempton and Syd Schanberg and Jim Dwyer, but Sheryl McCarthy and Carole Agus and Gail Collins. And though the play says over and over that everybody wanted to be Jimmy Breslin, let’s just say that’s not the way I remember it.
Newspapering is the greatest, the McAlary character says, ”because you work in a profession that can make the world just a little bit better.“ And I still believe that so strongly that I’m forever arguing with those who only see our mistakes.
Sometimes, I remind them that we only found out about massive problems at Walter Reed because of Anne Hull, Dana Priest and The Washington Post, and about secret prisons, also thanks to Dana and The Washington Post. How did we learn D.C. Mayor Vince Gray’s election was poisoned by illegal campaign contributions? Nikita Stewart and The Post. About Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s alleged ethical lapses? Let’s see, Roz Helderman, Laura Vozzella and The Washington Post.
We know the Department of Justice used security badge access records to track a Fox News reporter’s comings and goings from the State Department thanks to The Washington Post’s Ann E. Marimow. About David Petraeus’ role in drafting the Benghazi talking points thanks to the paper’s Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung. (Where are the women? Here we are.)
And who will take the kind of call Alice McAlary was talking about if newspapers are not there? No one, that’s who. There is no substitute for knocking on doors. There is no substitute for a working press. And just like democracy itself is, as Churchill said, the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried, the press you’ve got is worse than anything except the press you soon might not have.
Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and She the People anchor. Follow her on Twitter at MelindaDC.