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The Front Page

Press-sure Cooker

By Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Broadhurst Theatre, New York, New York
Saturday, January 28, 2017, E–107&108 (middle stalls)
Directed by Jack O'Brien

The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was one of the worst to hit the United States in more than 80 years. It shook the San Francisco Bay area during a live television broadcast of a World Series baseball game, collapsing buildings and highways, and killing 63 people. This was big news, even in Anderson, South Carolina, where I was then working as assistant city editor for the Independent-Mail daily newspaper. My experience on newspaper editing desks over the years includes working through the assassination attempt on President Reagan, John Lennon's murder, Anwar Sadat's assassination, and the 1981 collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway (I had to go to press even as the death toll, which eventually reached 114, was being updated every 15 minutes). Yet, the front page of the October 18, 1989, edition of the Independent-Mail is the most noteworthy I've been involved in.

The earthquake earned a banner headline "above the fold," as we say in the business (the portion of the paper you see in a newspaper vending machine); however, two local stories occupied boxes above the quake headline. To the left was an article about the hundreds of dollars in unpaid parking fines the County Commission chairman had racked up. To the right, in what is considered the most important position of the entire newspaper, was an exclusive interview with a woman being held in the Anderson County Jail who had tried to perform an exorcism on her son. I didn't design this front page, but I was part of the decision group, and I ended up being the one to defend it weeks later at an industry consortium when an evaluator claimed my newspaper didn't undertand the value of real news even as other editors in the room were buzzing over the dramatic page and wanting to read the rest of the exorcism story.

"Exorcism" over "Earthquake"—literally. What does that tell you about the media (and the people we serve)?

Which brings me to The Front Page, the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play that was revived this past winter on Broadway. As I'm a journalist, this seems as good a time as any to review a show about journalists. After all, there "ain't much respect for the press around here." That's a line from the play, as is "newspaper fellows are worse than anything." These and other such media bashings receive knowing laughs from the Broadway audience grown accustomed to a just-inaugurated president's obsessive-compulsive derision of the media, even before he announced via tweet that journalists are "enemies of the people."

One of my favorite media-bashing lines in The Front Page is this: "Newspapers are a cross between bootlegging and whores." That's not really true, of course: we don't get nearly the respect or the pay that bootleggers and prostitutes get, and our profession is at least legal in the United States—for now (though not in some other nations). However, for a change, the press is getting a greater measure of respect these days (thank you, Mr. Trump, and, in a heroic turn, Meryl Streep) than it did just a couple of months ago when we saw the Jack O'Brien-helmed production of The Front Page at the Broadhurst Theatre. Though the production has since ended its run (we saw it on its last weekend), reviewing it provides a perfect platform to discuss what it is to be a journalist and what professions we journalists have more in common with than bootlegging and prostitution.

The Front Page has always been one of my favorite scripts. For obvious reasons, yes (I love All The President's Men, too, mainly because its depiction of the daily news meeting is so accurate), but also because it is a brilliant piece of playwriting with a tapestry of colorful characters: even the archetypes are singularly drawn. The Front Page also is amazingly timeless, though it was written in 1928. It is set in the press room of Chicago's Criminal Courts Building on the eve of the hanging of an alleged communist conspirator, Earl Williams, who fatally shot an African American police officer but who claims he did so by accident and, given his behavioral traits, is probably telling the truth and being rushed to execution for political purposes with a city election just a week away. That sentence alone touches on many of the hot-button issues America is dealing with today, from Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter to the politicization of law enforcement.

Most of all, though, this is a play about the media. Its timeframe is not only preinternet and pretelevision, it predates the proliferation of news radio, so this pack of reporters all work for daily newspapers (eight in all). Nevertheless, journalists (at least the real ones) are journalists, no matter the era or the medium, and what they will do to get the big scoop is the basis for much of The Front Page's timeless hilarity. Poignantly, the play also illustrates to what lengths journalists go to make sure the stories they file are accurate; yet, how they make sure their stories are accurate and actually read ignites my deepest-from-the-belly laughs. At the center of the story is Hildy Johnson, reporter extraordinaire for the Herald-Examiner, who that very night is leaving with his fiancée and her mother on a train to New York City and a higher-paying career in advertising (a purposeful joke). He only stopped by the press room to say goodbye to his colleagues and gloat that while he's off to a cushy life, they are all on track to ending their careers "hunched over a copy desk."

I actually started my postcollege journalism career hunched over a copy desk (my career as a reporter began while I was in high school), so I love what happens in the play to the Tribune's Bensinger, a feature writer given to filling his stories with flowery prose and poetry. Complaining that his editors abuse his work, he says, "You just can't lop off the end of the story; it changes the meaning of everything." Yep, and I've lopped off more endings to stories—including my own—than you've put on shoes. In the newspaper "back shop," the composition room where printed articles with hot-wax backing were stuck to the gridded pages before going to platemaking and the presses (this was before we did all our composition on computers), I came upon many a wonderfully written article hanging over its allotted space and into a furniture ad. I would speak the mantra, "What the readers don't know was there in the first place, they're not going to miss," and slice off those paragraphs with an Exacto knife. We could even slice off the tail of a comma to create a period and surgically turn three long sentences into one short one right there on the layout boards. Nothing has changed except the tool (InDesign has replaced Exacto), and even this article has been subjected to the "What the readers don't know was there in the first place, they're not going to miss" mantra.

Such moments—in the play merging with my experience—exemplify how The Front Page captures the humorous truth of journalism (Hecht and MacArthur had worked for newspapers before writing the play). However, despite my love for the play, except for the 1974 Billy Wilder film with a Hollywood's who's who of a cast (Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon, Vincent Gardenia, David Wayne, Carol Burnett), I'd never seen it on stage before. So when I got notice of the Broadway production in a limited run (it opened last October), I squeezed it into our schedule.

Who was actually in this production didn't matter much to me, though it was a Broadway's who's who of a cast. You know how Broadway audiences applaud when the star comes on stage? Well, this one had applause from first scene to the last: John Slattery as Hildy, Jefferson Mays as Bensinger, John Goodman as Sherriff Hartman, Holland Taylor as Mrs. Grant (Hildy's future mother-in-law), Sherie Rene Scott as Mollie Malloy (Williams' girlfriend), Robert Morse as Mr. Pincus (the messenger carrying the governor's pardon of Williams), and Dann Florek as The Mayor. If you don't know them by name, you'll recognize them from something (but maybe not John Magaro, making his Broadway debut as Williams and nearly stealing the show though stuck inside a roll-top desk much of the play).

The production's biggest star plays Walter Burns, the bellicose, brutally incisive editor of the Herald-Examiner and Hildy's boss. For two-thirds of the play we only hear him on the telephone, a Tony-worthy performance in itself. When Burns does appear, he gets no applause because he unobtrusively slips into the press room, hat low over his face, observing for several minutes before finally being left alone with Hildy and revealing himself to be Nathan Lane—and then comes the applause. I knew who he was when he first slipped in; editors such as Burns have an aura, like Hannibal Lecter, and Lane nails it. Watching Lane play Burns is double the pleasure. As a guy who loves theater, I appreciate how Lane works the stage, the audience, and, most of all, his fellow actors, sharing the wealth of laughs and giving their characters room to flourish even if his own character dominates Manhattan like King Kong. As a journalist, my appreciation is that of quaking in his portrayal of editors similar to those I've worked for.

Jake, for one, back when I was on the copy desk for the Daily Oklahoman and Oklahoma City Times. "WHY SHOULD I COMMEND YOU FOR DOING YOUR JOB?!" he once roared at a colleague. He often spoke in all-caps. One of my fellow copy editors happened to ponder out loud, "Is under way one word or two?" "IS IN PROGRESS ONE WORD?" came the Mufasa response from across the desk, singeing everybody's hair in its wake (thus, when the Associated Press Style Manual ruled a couple of years ago that it was OK to use underway as one word, it caused a crack in my foundational makeup). Shakespeareances.com's copy editor, Carol Kelly, often refers to Jake, though she has never met the guy except through my accounts of him. Jake, a retired Navy chief petty officer, was actually a nice guy when he wasn't being an editor, and that was one of many lessons I learned from him and other editors I worked for: editors aren't bad people, but editors are in themselves flaming assholes—at least the good ones are.

Such is Lane's Walter Burns. You could argue he's not a good person (what he does to keep Hildy from leaving is really low), but I would argue that he has an all-consuming dedication to his profession and his newspaper. With the big scoop inside a desk in the press room and the rest of the media members out with the police hunting for that scoop, Burns envisions headlines on how the Herald-Examiner not only captured Williams but exposed the corruption of the sheriff and mayor. Meanwhile, Hildy is typing away until Burns demands to hear his lead paragraph. I will tell you that with more than 40 years' professional experience as a journalist—including as an asshole editor—I think Hildy gets off to a great start. Lane's Burns, though, yells that it doesn't mention the Herald-Examiner. When Hildy innocently tells him that's coming in the second paragraph, Burns replies, "WHO THE HELL'S GOING TO READ THE SECOND PARAGRAPH?" (he, too, often speaks in all-caps).

Hildy absolutely loathes his boss and can't wait to leave him. But Slattery portrays Hildy intently listening and admiringly accepting Burns's revision of his story. As much as Burns lives and breathes (like dragon fire) journalism, it is in Hildy that we see the true journalist exemplified. Word of Williams's escape comes while Hildy is visiting the press room. His fiancée, Peggy, is waiting on the street for him, and he is so looking forward to getting away to a new life. Yet, after Slattery gives this moment all-consternated consideration, his Hildy goes to work. "I couldn't help it, this is the biggest scoop in the world," he later tells Peggy (Halley Feiffer). She's heard it before and reminds him that all of his previous "biggest scoops ever" were forgotten in two days' time by everybody but him. Still, he promises, "I'll cut out drinking and swearing and everything else connected with the newspaper business." We don't believe him. He might be an adrenaline junkie; but there's also an ingrained sense of duty.

And though it's a moment that inspires the most sustained laughter of the show, it's not ironic that the two people enlisted to help the journalists in a climactic scene are a Boy Scout and a sailor.

Tom Brokaw, the former NBC Nightly News anchorman, addressed the Association of the U.S. Army's annual meeting in 2005 (I was then a copy editor for the association, which honored Brokaw with its highest award). Soldiers and journalists, Brokaw said, have the same DNA. Amen! say I, son of an Air Force chaplain, husband of an Air Force maintenance officer, and a journalist who has extensively covered and worked with America's armed services. Military members and journalists are dedicated to protecting the nation's constitutional freedoms in our specific ways, and both maintain a high sense of duty, sacrificing time, family life, and sometimes lives in carrying out that duty (and not just in wars; journalists have been killed—including targeted assassinations— doing their jobs within the United States, and soldiers have been killed doing their day-to-day duties). The Pentagon even has a memorial to journalists who have died in conflicts. Yet, journalists and military members are woefully underpaid relative to other professions (and civilian counterparts) requiring much less time commitment, training, and standards of conduct. Other professions I'll add to this DNA are police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, as well as career teachers. All have in common dedication to service and community despite pay inconsistent with that commitment plus the risks they incur to their lives and health, their constant need for training, and the high standards of behavior demanded of them by the community. Also similar among these professions are the waves of intense denigration over the years that hardly balance out the occasional expressions of gratitude (yeah, but, Eric, look at all the appreciation for the military we see these days; hey, I see it, along with ongoing financial and employment discrimination toward veterans and reserve military members, plus voting disenfranchisement for military families).

Right now, people are booing journalists—encouraged by a president of the United States to do so—and those journalists are responding by maintaining their sense of duty, to their profession, to their nation, and to those people haranguing them, by guaranteeing their right to boo. After all, it is them we serve, not the president, even if those people have no idea how much they are front-and-center in our minds as we do our jobs.

As Hildy works on his story in The Front Page, Walter Burns is on the phone with his news editor reconfiguring the Herald-Examiner's front page, standard practice when a major story breaks as press time approaches. "I DON'T CARE ABOUT THE EARTHQUAKE IN CHINA," Lane's Burns roars into the phone. In increasing exasperation, he counters his news editor that it doesn't matter how many Chinese perished. He likewise jettisons other important news. But then we see Lane stiffen, and he says with steely insistence: "Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest." It might even run in the upper right corner of the front page.

Eric Minton
February 27, 2017

Reader response:

I love your review. Yes, Soldiers and Journalists do have the same DNA, Mr. Brokaw!! It was my distinct privilege to work closely with many journalists while I was a Soldier, and I published a couple of articles on my positive, if often challenging, experiences. One article was titled, "The Military-Media Relationship… for better or for worse," and I truly believe it is very much like a marriage: each side takes the bad with the good. And both walk together into the valley of the shadow and come out the other side with greater respect for each other.

Barry Willey
March 5, 2017

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