If the mark of a great journalist is the ability to interest the uninterested in the subject she writes about, then Washington Post columnist Lisa de Moraes deserves a Pulitzer, a Loeb, a Polk, and maybe even a MacArthur for her dispatches on the TV industry.
Outside the entertainment precincts of Los Angeles and New York, nobody really needs to be as informed about the inner workings of the TV business as de Moraes keeps her readership. The TV ratings wars don't matter to the man in the street, and the details of producer/writer David E. Kelley's (Boston Public; Ally McBeal; The Practice; et al.) latest battle with network executives shouldn't. Who gives a fig about the fate of the reality shows on air or "in development" or personnel changes in the executive suites at NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CNN, UPN, the WB, or MSNBC?
"The TV Column," which appears three or four times a week in the Post's "Style" section, is so low on celebrity stink it can't hope to attract prurient glances from the folks who read Us, People, and the Star. And yet when I pick up "Style" I turn directly to de Moraes and read her whole column in one gulp.
As a former Hollywood Reporter journalist, de Moraes has excellent sources and commands a nuanced understanding of television. But while great sources are necessary for the kind of journalism she produces, they aren't sufficient. The irreplaceable thing about de Moraes is that she's willing to write with caustic, honest wit about a corrupt and contemptible industry that likes to pretend it is advancing art and enlightenment. Rather than encrypt her sardonic message, as most daily journalists do, hoping their enterprising readers might somehow decode the embedded truths, de Moraes writes it straight from the spleen. The sort of spitballs she heaves at her subjects are allowed nowhere else in the Washington Post—not on the op-ed page, an alleged forum for opinions, nor in the playpen of "Sports," the least consequential but most popular section (only Post TV critic Tom Shales bleeds analogous vitriol for his subjects). You'd have to page through back issues of Spy magazine to find writing that is so consistently cruel, abrasive, and spot-on.
Using her pen like a lacrosse stick, de Moraes head-smacks her self-important subjects. Entertainment and news executives are always "suits," whom she regards as preening and ridiculous liars. Covering the summer TV press tour in Los Angeles, she notes that the critics have invented "Press Tour Bingo," assigning a bingo letter to each cliché they expect the execs to mouth. When NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker discloses to a group of TV beat writers that a Friends cast member is getting his own show and says, "I cannot think of a bigger announcement this summer," de Moraes cheap-shots him with the aside that his comment came "48 hours after Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez announced that U.S. forces had killed the sons of Saddam Hussein." She describes CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves as "a former actor who can actually chew scenery while his mouth is covered by duct tape." After reporting at length the MSNBC-Fox News feud over the latest bit of Geraldo Rivera battlefield grandstanding, de Moraes deadpans, "In their spare time yesterday, both news networks covered the carnage in Iraq."
Even the most mundane industry press release gets the her acid treatment. "CNN has renamed Lou Dobbs Moneyline because, let's face it, it wasn't much about money some days," she writes. "It's been renamed Lou Dobbs Tonight because CNN would not let him rename it I'm Lou Dobbs, Not Some Darn Islamist." When Spike Lee sued Viacom for changing the name of TNN to Spike TV, de Moraes tortured the filmmaker by using his given name, "Shelton Lee," throughout one piece.
She also excels in the art of the one-liner. "Talk Back Live—dead," she wrote upon the CNN show's cancellation. "Michael Jackson's private home movies remain largely private," read her lede when the pop star's special tanked in the ratings. She bested the thousands of reporters covering the White House for the Post by capturing the vapidity of President Bush's March press conference: "Who says viewers have no appetite for scripted programming? A whopping 56 million of them watched President Bush's prime-time show last week in which the president exchanged glib, well-rehearsed lines with a select cast of press corps members."
De Moraes gets away with speaking her mind because the entertainment-information industrial complex matters as little to the Washington Post as the office politics at the Brookings Institution matters to the Los Angeles Times. I doubt Hollywood executives complain very often, or, if they do, it's unlikely the Post management pays them much mind.
Thanks to de Moraes, I know more about the "sweeps" and the cast of Big Brother than I wish I knew. It's a small price to pay, I guess, but I can't help but think that her talents at truth-telling go to waste at the Post. If the TV industry is worth three or four opinionated columns each week, surely the Congress, which is no less venal than Hollywood, could benefit from the de Moraes treatment. Why not hire additional snarks to cover the Supreme Court, K Street, the Pentagon, and city government? (Does de Moraes have any sisters?) This would be a wildly original idea if the New York Times hadn't done this very thing in the '90s by siccing Maureen Dowd on politics and covering it as theater.
Of course, such a reader-friendly idea is out of the question for the hidebound Post, which tends to cover even the most tasty dishes with cold gravy. But here's one idea that isn't beyond the pale: Why not move de Moraes over to the "Reliable Source" gossip column, recently vacated by Lloyd Grove, who's moved on to the gossip pages of the Daily News? She's an outstanding reporter; she knows the entertainment business, she's prolific; she comes with an established following; and she writes like a wicked bitch.
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