Why newspapers love the striking screenwriters.

Media criticism.
Nov. 13 2007 6:13 PM

Why Newspapers Love the Striking Screenwriters

For the same reason journalists love themselves.

Writers guild of America on strike. Click image to expand.
Hell, no! We won't ... write

Don't pity the poor pitiful striking screenwriters—let the major daily newspapers do it for you.

Perhaps not since the air traffic controllers' strike of  1981 has the big press lavished such intense and generally sympathetic coverage on a labor dispute. Both the Washington Post ("it hasn't been easy for movie writers") and the New York Times ("my greed is fair and reasonable") have run op-eds by screenwriters demanding that the entertainment industry compensate Writers Guild of America members for digital use of their work on the Web, iPods, cell phones, etc., the sticking point of this strike.

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In the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, writer-producer Marshall Herskovitz lectures about how corporate domination of Hollywood inconveniences him, and a nonscreenwriter laments the powerlessness of today's scribes ("there is nothing without the writer").

The news pages of these dailies likewise abound with supportive accounts of the strikers' plight. No story goes so far as to declare solidarity with the strikers, because it doesn't have to. The saturation coverage says it for them.

Given the number of stories it has run on the clash, the Los Angeles Times must think the Writers Guild strike is to it as Hurricane Katrina was to the Times-Picayune. Even before the strike, the paper was running a weekly column about the craft of writing for movies called "Scriptland."

In its desperation to find a new angle on the strike, the Times reports in its Nov. 9 edition that "The writers strike has all but cleared out L.A.'s coffee shops and other havens for Hollywood's laptop jockeys." Did the Reuther brothers win such slavish treatment from the Detroit dailies when they established the United Auto Workers? Also in peril, the piece reports, is "the Office," a Santa Monica joint that rents out space to screenwriters. "If the strike keeps up, I could lose my business," said Office owner Aleks Horvat, over the telephone. "After all, I am a luxury, not a necessity." Oh, the tragedy!

Besides coffee shops, motion pictures, and TV dramas, soap operas are threatened, too, the Times reports. For the complete overview of the paper's work, explore the gigabytes of data clogging its "The Strike Zone" Web page. There you'll find three "PostScript" columns about the strike filed by screenwriter Peter Tolan. (At least one of them has made it into the paper.) Tolan predictably sketches the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers as the villains and the Writers Guild of America as the victims. "[The AMPTP] lie every time they use the word 'negotiate,' because they haven't done it," he writes in the standard unionese that wouldn't be out of place in a plumbers' union newsletter.

Over at the New York Times, we learn that some of the screenwriters who don't live in Los Feliz mansions reside in third-floor Brooklyn walk-ups. But the Times' Mr. Walk-Up, a struggling former staff writer on HBO's Oz, maintains as much writerly pride in his craft as does Robert Towne. "To have your work go into living rooms and reach millions is a thrill that you never get tired of," Bradford Winters tells the newspaper.

The Ocala Star-Banner matches the Times story by locating its own native son, who has made it big writing in Hollywood. "We are paid well, but, at the end of the day, this is an industry where people are often unemployed. There's no job security," Brad Copeland tells the Star-Banner. "But the reality is, if you look at all the writers in the union, a lot of them are unemployed."

Why the journalistic fixation on the strike? The national impact of the strike (even a lengthy one) won't be great. But dailies such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, whose bottom lines depend on movie advertising acreage, will feel the pain if Hollywood closes shop.

Newspaper reporters tend to identify with their cinematic brethren because writers tend to look out for other writers no matter what genre they work in. One New York Times article from this week noted with no irony how book authors will suffer if Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart's shows, now crippled by the strike, don't get back into production soon. Also, from a distance, the Writers Guild strike shimmers with heroism for liberal journalists at the Los Angeles Times (which has no union) and the New York Times and Washington Post (which have weakling unions). They're living vicariously through their comrades' glorious struggle.

This identification runs deeper than labor politics. Where their predecessors once hoped to write the Great American Novel, too many of today's newspaper reporters and editors will confide over drinks the big screenplay they want to write based on that murder story they covered, that business takeover, that guerilla battle, that crime caper, that city hall corruption saga, and so on.

Some of them have even been contacted by Hollywood at some point in their careers about the stories they've written, and keep copies of one of Syd Field's screenwriting guides on their desks at home. They daydream of joining Nora Ephron, Paul Attanasio, William Broyles Jr., Cameron CroweJoe Eszterhas, David Simon, David Mills, Aaron Latham, or even Peter Landesman as journalist-screenwriter hyphenates.

For the daydreamers, writing about the strike is pure fantasy league.

Addendum, Nov. 14: Dan Akst adds Paul D. Zimmerman and Kurt Luedtke to the list of journos turned screenwriters. Allow me to add Jay Cocks.

Addendum, Nov. 15:Silicon Alley Insider Managing Editor Peter Kafka directs my attention to his publication's tough love for the striking screenwriters: "Hollywood Writer: Screw SAI, The Web Looks Great!," "Er, "Go Writers!": The Role of Unions in a Competitive World," "Another Writers' Strike? (CBS) Why No One Has Sympathy," and "Hollywood Writers' Strike Explained: $7.2 M Apart On Digital." Alex Parker adds Roger Ebert to the list of journalists turned screenwriters. David Samuels does the same for William Monahan.

******

Kim Masters and Troy Patterson, who have nothing in the way of an IMDB profile, have written about the strike for Slate. Defiant (and successful!) whore Neal Pollack is another issue altogether. Why should screenwriters participate in Web revenues, anyway? Brooks Barnes explains in an August New York Times news story that it's a historical accident that residuals exist in the first place. Did I miss any important contemporary journalist-screenwriters in my list? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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