The newsroom and workplace wisdom of Mary Richards and Mary Tyler Moore

Why after 40 years I still keep a little bit of Mary and WJM in my heart every time I enter the newsroom.

With every network and channel from ABC to Sundance running tributes to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the wake of the death of the woman who starred in the landmark series, I feel compelled to add one last thought beyond my appreciation from Wednesday.

I feel like I have been writing about this series for my entire career, and, indeed, I stumbled upon a 1977 piece online today that I wrote about the series in my first months on the job as pop culture writer at the Detroit Free Press.

I was writing about the celebrated finale of the sitcom for the Free Press, but I didn’t understand the deeper reaches of that episode.

How could I? The future of American journalism had not yet happened, and that half hour of TV was nothing if not prophetic about what was ahead for my generation of baby boomers who chose in those heady days after Watergate to work in America’s newsrooms.

I am sure you have read 50 different celebrations of that finale, but what matters here more than anything else to me is a brief speech that Mary Richards, the groundbreaking, professional, working-woman character played by Moore, makes at the end.

The plot that matters involves Mary’s Minneapolis TV station, WJM, being sold and the new owners firing Mary and all of the co-workers she respected most. Ted Baxter, the pompous, empty-headed news anchor is kept on.

Mary had been totally devoted to her job as associate producer of news. If it wasn’t her life, it was a very big part of it.

And, so, near the end of the episode, she asks her gruff boss, Lou Grant, if she can say something to the crew.

“Well I just wanted you to know, that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman,” she began.

“I get to thinking my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with, and not my family. And last night I thought, ‘What is a family anyway?’ They're just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being my family.”

Her words are followed by the most famous group hug in television.

I and a million other folks Wednesday wrote about Mary Richards coming at a time when baby boomer women were looking to start professional careers and the women’s movement was facing some stiff backlash in the culture.

Thankfully, almost everyone now seems to understand how Mary Richards made it all right for a young woman not to immediately get married – but instead throw herself into a career. That role in our cultural history cannot be overestimated.

But what I didn’t realize at the time was what the episode was telling me about believing in an institution and deriving my sense of self-worth from it.

David Simon explored the notion of institutions betraying us in a deep and novelistic manner in  “The Wire.” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was a sitcom that was never designed to plumb those depths. But the notion of a company betraying employees who have invested the best part of their lives in it was sounded here way back in 1977.

The comic icing on the cake is that the new corporate bosses retain the biggest fool in the place in anchorman Ted Baxter. Maybe laughing at that decision made us feel better while watching the poignant finale of this brilliant series, but it didn’t help a lot of my baby-boomer colleagues later in their real lives when they saw themselves prematurely downsized out of the business, in some cases, despite a career of hard and good work.

I have interviewed most of the writers and producers connected with this show over the years. I still keep in touch with one of them via email. They couldn’t and didn’t know in 1977 that they were prophesizing what would happen in virtually every newsroom in America the next 40 years.

Like great writers in any genre, they were just reacting to and trying to articulate something they felt in the air – in this case, about the way Hollywood and network commercial television operate.

I now understand that the people I work with are not my family and that it is a serious mistake to let any institution define your self-worth. Companies come and go out of profit and loss, and employees come and go with them under that hard imperative of capitalism.

But I thank Mary Richards and Mary Tyler Moore for showing me how rewarding the workplace can be when you don’t think of the people you work with only as co-workers and the work you do only as a job.

To this day, as existential as I have become about the future, I keep a little bit of Mary and the best moments at WJM in my heart every time I walk into the newsroom.

Sundance will air an all-day marathon of the last season of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" starting at 6 a.m.

ABC's 20/20 will air a tribute to Mary Tyler Moore at 10 p.m. Friday.

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