I love seeing the surge in non-fiction TV programming, as more and more news and information platforms try to find new audiences with new formats in a medium some critics have been incorrectly calling a dinosaur for the last 20 years.
I have sung the praises of docu-series like Showtime’s “The Circus” and celebrated the arrival of more traditional, in-depth documentary films than any one critic can keep up with. I’m talking about works like “Charm City,” a deep and uplifting dive into the resilient Rose Street community in Baltimore, and Frontline’s “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis” on PBS.
Last Sunday, saw the return of one and the premiere of another of the new, shorter format, non-fiction TV productions with the start of the second season of “Axios on HBO” and the debut on FX of “The Weekly” from the New York Times. (The second episode of both shows will air this Sunday at 6 and 10 p.m., respectively. First episodes are available on demand.)
“The Weekly,” with a commitment for “a minimum of 30 episodes” in its first season, according to an FX spokeswoman, and the editorial and promotional muscle of the Times behind it, should have been the one to make the bigger splash. But Axios had the show almost everyone in the media was talking about for more than 24 hours Sunday night and Monday — a very long time to be at or near the center of the cable news conversation with today’s nano-second news cycles.
There are some serious lessons for everyone in the media to be learned form these shows as we scramble to find new platforms and revenue streams in this moment of watershed media change. One of the most important might be to finally repudiate the conventional wisdom about TV being an all-but-dead medium in the digital age.
Yes, it is declining, but it’s a slow, slow death, and every two years for the last two decades, the vast majority of political advertising has been done on TV — billions of dollars worth. Ask Sinclair or Tribune Media (not to be confused with The Sun’s parent company, Tribune Publishing) how much money they made in recent election cycles owing local TV stations in battleground states. That’s going to be the same story in 2020.
And for all the media consultants and really smart people working at places like the New York Times who are trying to develop genre-busting formats to gain a foothold on the small screen, new is not necessarily better. Axios seized the buzz last Sunday with one of the oldest formulas in the medium and hardest of hardcore staples of journalism: a well-prepared and fearless interviewer sitting down one on one with a shady and smug character and shredding his facade one tough question at a time.
In this case, it was Jonathan Swan grilling Jared Kushner, son-in-law-in-chief in Donald Trump’s White House. But it could have been Mike Wallace in the 1970s on “60 Minutes,” as that iconic show found its footing on CBS thanks in no small part to Wallace interviews.
Journalistically, Swan was actually better than Wallace, who was more a performer than journalist. Wallace used the raised eyebrow, the look of incredulity, the sigh of exasperation and expressions like, “come on now,” to challenge the people he was interviewing. He was not above using stage tricks, and he had more than a bit of hot dog in him.
Swan, on the other hand, was firm and insistent, refusing to back down or go silent when Kushner tried to stop him with expressions like, “Look, Jonathan.”
But he showed his incredulity or lack of acceptance mainly with words, not facial gestures or body language.
One of my favorite moments came during a series of questions on Kushner’s role as negotiator in the Middle East.
As Kushner started talking about “what the Palestinian people want,” Swan stopped him in his tracks by asking, “How do you know what the Palestinian people want? … You’re not exactly walking the streets of Ramallah everyday.”
Swan stopped Kushner again before he could get into a proper spin when he asked Kushner if he thought Trump was a racist.
Sounding as if he was repeating a talking point, Kushner said, “You can’t not be a racist for 69 years and then run for president and suddenly be a racist.”
As Kushner then launched into a claim that Democrats who call Trump a racist “are doing a disservice to people who suffer from real racism in this country,” Swan came right back with, “Was birtherism racist?”
“Um, look, I wasn’t really involved in what,” Kushner said.
“I know you weren’t,” Swan replied. “Was it racist?”
I won’t replay the interview blow by blow, as pieces of it were shown, re-shown and then shown again and again on CNN and MSNBC and other cable channels all day and night Monday. Online and print platforms were filled with moments from it into mid-week.
But I will say that any journalism instructor who wants to show her or his students in 25 minutes or less how to do a great interview, this is the video.
And it was incredibly compelling in TV terms, not just because of the conflict and confrontation, but because of the way it fit into that familiar TV formula dating back to the start of “60 Minutes.”
Don Hewitt, the creator of the most successful series in the history of television, described part of his early success formula as “black hat, white hat.”
In an era when westerns were a major genre in TV and film, Hewitt claimed he cast Wallace as the black hat, or bad guy, and Harry Reasoner, a genial Midwesterner, as the white hat or good guy in their interviews.
Viewers who might not know all that much about politics and the conflict of interest allegations made against Kushner could plug what they were seeing with the president’s son-in-law and Swan directly into that Sunday night TV formula.
“The Weekly” was working with some TV and film formulas as well in its story about two New York Times reporters, Erica L. Green and Katie Benner, who cover education and the Justice Department, respectively, going into the Deep South to investigate possible corruption and violations of rights. Both work in the newspaper’s Washington Bureau.
After the opening credits, the piece begins with Green behind the wheel of a car driving into Breaux Bridge, La., to visit the T.M. Landry School, which she describes in voiceover as a “small, private school in an old factory building.”
It had come to her attention through viral videos that claimed a phenomenal record of getting its students into Ivy League and other prestigious colleges and universities.
“I’ve been an education reporter for nearly a decade,” Green says, “and if there is one thing I’ve learned it is that many poor and black students have the odds stacked against them, especially when trying to get into elite colleges.”
She tells viewers that she thought the school had “shattered a glass ceiling” until Benner got a tip that there were serious problems with the school and its claims.
So, Green tells viewers in voiceover, “Katie and I decided to go down to Louisiana to investigate.”
That’s the set-up, and it’s a good one.
The story they did in November for the newspaper was outstanding.
I was moved when I read the way some students were exploited, abused and emotionally and physically scarred by their experiences at the school.
But this TV production, which is essentially a story about that story in the Times, not so much. It did a lot of TV things well, but, in the end, it left me a little cold.
Maybe part of it is me. I was conflicted even writing about this because of my relationship with Green. Not only did I work with her at The Sun, I was her academic and student newspaper adviser at Goucher College. So, I am biased more than I probably know despite all the self analysis I did before writing this piece.
I thought she and Benner were excellent choices. And I thought the producers made a great call in letting some of Green’s passion and concern for the students come through. I wish they had given her more space to talk about her fear that what they wrote might hurt some former and current students.
But, in the end, I thought this piece was too self-congratulatory and promotional of the Times, which holds the copyright on the show.
I raved about “The Fourth Estate,” a 2018 Showtime docu-series from director Liz Garbus on how the Times was trying to cover the Trump White House.
The Times looked great in that series, but Garbus, one of the finest documentary filmmakers going, did not do a PR piece for the company. She showed Times reporters and editors doing great work, but she also showed them struggling, stumbling and sometimes getting beat by the Washington Post. She explored the tension between the Washington bureau, which was in the trenches trying to cover this unorthodox administration, and the editors back in New York second guessing and occasionally overruling the team in D.C.
“The Weekly” has tremendous potential to become a Sunday night TV staple. But the people calling the shots for the show need to decide whether they are going to celebrate journalism and the role it plays in democracy first and foremost — or mostly just promote the Times.