I’m not a Boomer about to spit old-man wisdom to kids who need to get off his lawn. However, I’m a journalist who loves the profession who loved a TV show from the late 1970s that — turns out — spins dated stories into journalism profession fables that are relevant even in 2021.
Wisdom, people. Wisdom.
Who am I talking about? Of course, I’m talking about the curmudgeonly Lou Grant, he who hates spunk. After getting fired from WJM-TV in Minneapolis (confirmed in Lou Grant, Season 1 / Episode 2, “Hostages”), he returned to his newspaper roots to take the city editor job at the L.A. Tribune.
It’s the best journalism show to ever be on television. Bar none.
And in every episode is a lesson. Take S1E1, “Cophouse.” There were micro-lessons all through the pilot about reporters getting too close to their sources, but ultimately — for me — the No. 1 lesson came when publisher Margaret Pynchon agreed to print the story critical of the local police department on Page 1 of the Tribune. That lesson underscored the power and necessity of having great newsroom leadership, a publisher, news director or GM who will always lean into the best values of journalism.
S1E2 is called “Hostages,” and its core lessons were two-fold. First, reporters shouldn’t automatically accept the first version of the so-called truth. The story arc is about an alleged self-defense shooting between a store proprietor and a teen. At first, the authorities make it look like the store owner was defending himself. That turned out not to be true. The second lesson was when Mrs. Pynchon instructed Lou not to print all the hostage stories on Page 1 because the news isn’t about us.
Mrs. Pynchon had her pet projects but when it came time to take action, she was a righteous boss.
My wife and I are rewatching all these old ‘Lou Grant’ episodes, which unfortunately can only be found on YouTube, some of them not in the best of shape. I’m hoping to one day get the entire series on DVD. She’s a saint for watching these with me; she knows how much I love them — and how much I loved Ed Asner.
Ed died at the age of 91 last week, just two days after his final tweet:
That hashtag is ‘Do What Lou Would.’
It was always my hope that Asner was a bit like Lou Grant in real life. We have decades of evidence that Ed stood up for the proverbial little guy. He was definitely the best kind of humanist, a ‘comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable’ sort of man. It was hyper-believable to me that in real life, Ed Asner probably appreciated high-quality journalism, too.
And the lessons of newsrooms old apply to the modern digital-first newsrooms of 2021.
- Focus on your readers or viewers, how stories impact their lives.
- Make the product about them and not you.
- Distinguish between the public’s need to know and its curiosity.
- Double-and-triple check your sources.
- Accept nothing in the way of gifts or gratuities.
And I could go on and on and on. As Kristi and I are watching these episodes, I’m trying to see if we can spot the lessons that still apply to journalists today. Maybe we’re not allowed to order Scotch at lunch, but virtually everything else on Lou Grant is a basic Journalism 101 lesson waiting to be soaked up by students young and old.
If you love journalism, I can’t encourage you enough to re-watch this show or introduce it to a young journalist in your life. The images and video are dated, but the lessons are still on-point.
And lest I forget, the theme song is perfection.