Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 11, 2003

'Dirty Laundry' goes beyond movie

By Tom Brislin

Much has been made of the similarities between Honolulu TV anchor Joe Moore's stage production "Dirty Laundry" and a 1986 made-for-TV film, "News at 11."

Joe Moore portrayed top anchorman Bryce Edwards in "Dirty Laundry," a play with striking similarities to the 1986 TV movie "News at 11." It also has major differences.

Advertiser library photo • March 26, 2003

However, the similar themes of what can happen when the rampant, and rabid, ratings race trumps basic journalism values also contain differences. These differences — some significant — help define playwright Joe's message that we need to engage in discussion of what's happening to local TV news (that includes anchor Joe) before it all goes down the tank.

Joe-isms: Some of the obvious differences come from the simple localization of the plot. (But kudos to Joe for showing a diversified newsroom in his play. The "News at 11" crew is uncomfortably monochrome, even, or especially, for a mid-'80s depiction of San Diego.)

Joe portrays himself (and he has stated he and his Bryce Edwards role are inseparable), so his character is happily married and the long-running local leader in the ratings race. However, this leaves him with few career alternatives, as his success has left any other station in this small market without the ratings punch to match his (needed) salary.

The Martin Sheen character in the teleplay has a more portable career. He's returned to San Diego from New York (where his "numbers" have slipped), and points out that he can get out from under the thumb of his overbearing news director by transferring laterally within the corporate chain of stations.

Guilty or Not? This difference plays a key part in the more black-and-white/good-and-evil portrayal of the relationship between Joe and his news director and leads to a resolution that is more "scorched earth" than the teleplay.

Significantly in the teleplay, the teacher accused of engaging in sexual relations with his junior-high-school students is apparently guilty. The news director was right in his instincts of going after the story, but horribly unethical in the collateral damage caused to the 14- and 15-year-old girl victims/witnesses along the way. The insensitive treatment of the youths — using them as a means to the news director's ultimate commercial ends — forms the essential ethical dilemma of the on-screen version.

On the stage, the priest who is accused of engaging in sexual relationships with the boys in his charge is actually innocent, we learn from one of those phone calls relayed at the last minute, like the ones from the governor that save the innocent prisoner from execution just as the switch is to be thrown.

Final Status of Principals and Principles: This deus ex machina (last-minute saving, from Greek drama where the gods came down from the heavens to settle human messes) device shifts the emphasis from the kids back to adults. It becomes symbolic as a statement of the ultimate value and importance of the reputation of kind, humane and clear-thinking authorities (the priest and Joe) versus the abuse of hierarchal authority by the news director.

The news director wasn't just wrong in the way he exploited the kids as news sources, he was wrong — period. The story was bogus and so was the news director's judgment. It wasn't enough to show the news director was wrong; he had to be defeated.

Why? Because at the end of the teleplay, we see Martin Sheen's character, now fired, walking out the door with complete confidence the higher road he took will lead him to another anchor spot, while the news director will be stuck with a newsroom that's the laughing stock of the profession and community.

At the end of the play we see Joe still in the newsroom, now vindicated. Even though he was fired earlier by the news director, there's little doubt he'll be back at the anchor desk the next night while the news director is packing his bags and heading back to sales.

What About Ethics? The plot device in both the teleplay and stage play that led to the news director's downfall, however, still leaves a bitter taste. The paragon-of-virtue anchors in both cases intentionally plant false news they know will be broadcast to show the shallowness of the news director and his newly placed passive-aggressive anchor-bunny and their unfamiliarity with the community they are covering.

Planting a false news item? Is this an ethical paradox — using deception in pursuit of the truth — or just a flight of bruised ego and an abuse of power in knowing how to manipulate the news machine? It's a question that goes unaddressed, much less answered. And in each case, the false news item further defames the character of the story's subject — the teacher or the priest — by claiming they are pornographers as well as sexual predators. Despite the supposed ludicrousness of the item, it's still broadcast at 11, and both characters presumably are aware of the power of the medium even when it's wrong. Isn't that the point of the story?

New Character: A very significant difference in Joe's play is the addition of a character not found in the teleplay. He's the assignment editor, played nicely on stage by Ray Bumatai who, although a news veteran, finds the news director's seduction into sensationalism irresistible. And like the news director, he manipulates some of the basic principles of journalism to justify that descent.

If we are to follow Joe's exhortation to more closely examine what we see on our small screens at 6 and 10, this character becomes pivotal in that critical assessment. It's those decision-makers who dispatch news teams and help frame the angle, tone and value of the stories they cover that are the primary gatekeepers of what's collected for the Joes of the news world to present. They can hold the line for high standards, or blur the lines between news and nonsense to create a diet of infotainment.

News directors and anchors are important, and they will always have arguments. But what happens when the critical mass of a newsroom decides it's more lucrative to travel the low road?

Joe has given us a valuable insight into newsroom dynamics beyond the parallel plot lines and devices that create the dramatic text of the teleplay and stage production. The subtext, in this case, is far more important. TV news itself — not just a San Diego or Honolulu ratings-hungry station — has fallen down. Can it get back up? Who will write the play about an audience revolt that demands more from its TV newsrooms than to be counted as a rating stat?

Tom Brislin is a professor and former chairman of journalism at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.