Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Alias" and journalism

I'm currently writing an urban fantasy novel in which one of my protagonists works for a weekly newspaper in Denver. I've worked in newsrooms since 1998. I know how newsrooms operate, and I know how a lot of popular culture portrayals of newspapers get it wrong.

This past week, as I've been fighting off a nasty cold, I've been semi-binging one of my favorite 2000s television shows: Alias. In the first season, one of the main characters, Will Tippin, played Bradley Cooper before he became an A-list movie star, is a reporter for an unnamed Los Angeles area newspaper.

Alias gets a lot of the journalism stuff right. The newsroom looks about what newsrooms look like. Busy, close quarters, and a little worn-in and messy. The relationship between Will and his editor strikes me as pretty realistic.

There's also plenty that the show gets wrong.

The little things:
  • Journalists don't dress that nice unless they have to. Ties every day? Dress pants and skirts? Most of us wear jeans to work. A few of my colleagues prefer sneakers and hoodies.
  • There's a scene in which Will's editor bugs him for a story on deadline, and he pulls out a folded-up bundle of papers and slaps them onto her desk. Uh-uh. We have these things called computers. We write, submit, edit and lay out stories electronically. Even in the dark ages of the early 2000s, we did this.
  • The Alias newsroom has no televisions. What's with that? How are you supposed to keep up on major national and international stories, and watch the local sports teams play, without TVs?
Those are nitpicks, but then there are other things that make me want to yell and throw things at the television.

Will has an assistant. She's a pretty 19-year-old named Jenny who has a crush on him, and fetches him coffee and phone numbers. Reporters don't have assistants. No one in a newsroom has an assistant with one possible exception: the editor-in-chief of a Top 10 circulation newspaper. If you want coffee or a phone number, you get it yourself.

But then it gets worse. A few episodes into the first season, it's mentioned that Jenny isn't an assistant. She's an intern.

I was an intern right out of college at a major metro paper, and I've seen dozens of interns come and go over the years. If you're hired as a reporting intern, you report. You get assignments, cover events, do interviews and write articles. If you're a copy desk intern, you edit and write headlines and other display type. Interns do the same things that staff writers do, carry the same work load, only for half the pay (or less).

If that poor girl Jenny is an intern, it's no wonder she's so sarcastic and bitter all the time. She should be writing articles and instead is fetching coffee for Will Tippin.


Here's the other big error in Alias. Will spends the entire season investigating the murder of his best friend's fiance. Of course we the audience know why Danny was killed. His murder is what initially fuels Sydney to take down SD-6. Poor Will is completely ignorant of the spy game, which means the audience knows more than he does, which turns the audience against him. But that's a different issue all together.

Under no circumstances should Will's editor be letting him pursue this story. He's too close to it, too personally involved. Any decent reporter would have interviewed Sydney and Danny's friends and family, but Will doesn't. Because he doesn't want Sydney to know he's investigating Danny's death. When Sydney does find out, she begs Will to drop it, which in turn makes Will question whether he should do just that, even though he has stumbled onto a larger conspiracy than a man murdered in his bathtub (which is a big story in itself).

And don't get me started on how quickly Will seems to get a hold of things like Social Security numbers, traffic camera footage and information linked to license plate numbers.

Despite all this, I still love Alias. Probably because Will's newspaper plot line is secondary to Sydney's spy stuff and lasts only one season. Then he gets fired, and that's it on this show for the unnamed L.A. newspaper.

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