Lou Grant: s04 e06 – Libel

Irena Ferris. Better her than anything from the episode.

I cannot believe how bad this episode was. In fact, in my eyes it doesn’t even qualify as an episode, given its structure as the first half of a two-part story which then never produced its second part. The story just vanishes up itself on a procedural point and stops abruptly with every plate left spinning in mid-air.

The episode is about exposing the National Enquirer for what it is, namely a supermarket scandal sheet devoted to exaggeration, distortion and lies to sell sensationalist stories about the rich and famous. Does this sound in any way familiar? Of course it does (it even has the cheek at one point to suggest the blame belongs to Britain).

The point of the story is that this is 1980, and the National Spectator (as the paper in the episode is named, as minimalist cover) is the only paper doing this, and very successful it is. We enter the story via popular and successful married couple tennis star Eddie Daniels (James van Patten) and fashion model Monica Daniels (Irena Ferris, a genuinely gorgeous woman with the most modern look I’ve yet seen in the whole series). Monica discovers a front-page banner headline story claiming the baby she’s carrying is not Eddie’s but rather that of a photographer, one of many with whom she’s sleeping around. The stress and upset leads to a car accident in which she loses the baby. Sent to interview Eddie, Billie Newman is berated by him just for being a reporter.

That’s the entree, though Eddie also crops up later, provoked into giving the Spectator a sensationalist photo. From here, Lou Grant decides to do a piece on the Spectator as a disgrace to the entire newspaper business.

The story was oddly dull, or perhaps that was just because nothing in it shocked or surprised the way it was hoped to do in 1980. Even then, the Spectator was not the (massively successful) outlier that the programme clearly hoped it was, but the forerunner as newspapers in general were dragged – completely willingly – into its wake until that is the norm these days, even among the so-called quality press.

The story spent a lot of time pursuing its target and exposing to the unsuspecting audience the tactics. There was a warning line early on when Joe Rossi interviewed the Publisher, George Lester (Alan Oppenheimer), a waistcoated, sleek, smooth, confident man who was clearly far cleverer than anyone on the Trib. Lester’s eager to show off his paper’s humanitarian awards for re-uniting families, exposing health scandals, but the moment Rossi starts creeping up on the scandals he’s accused of having come with pre-conceived notions, intent only on a hatchet job, and the interview is over. The funny thing is, Lester is spot on.

I’ll mention the British angle briefly. This is ex-Spectator editor Claude Whitcomb, who you know is British because he’s called Claude, he’s played by Bernard Fox (who once played Dr Bombay on Bewitched) with a fruity voice, Whitcomb’s an import from the London Daily MirrorThe Sun would have been a better example though the Mirror, which I used to get in my pre-Guardian days, wasn’t off the mark – and cheerfully outlined the tactics the tabloids used to get their stories, including lies. Fox also got to drape his arm across Linda Kelsey’s shoulders for an unconscionably long time without her kicking him in the nuts which was a bit of a character-breaking detail. Whitcomb even contrasted theĀ Mirror and it’s fun appeal to a tired worker in the evening with the serious and off-putting stories of the ‘ManchesterĀ Guardian‘ which was a seriously outdated reference to the roots the paper had long since abandoned even then. Ok, that wasn’t all that brief a mention.

All of this is set-up for the immediate response of the Spectator, which is to sue the Trib for $60,000,000 for malicious intent and irreperable harm to reputation (manifesting itself in increased cirulation, hah!). The rest of the half-episode was all about the legal aspects of handling such a serious case, culminating in Lou exploding in deposition and refusing to answer questions about his state of mind, his doubts, etc., when editing the story.

It was a matter of principle, a refusal to let outsiders into his head, on behalf of editors everywhere. It would cripple journalism. It even had Adam Wilson second-guessing and self-censoring himself. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a legal defence. Lou ended up being fined $100 a day until he agreed to answer these questions, and the paper not paying for him.

So, after five days and $500 he couldn’t afford, Lou backed down, told the paper’s legal representative that he’d testify, but under protest, slammed down the phone and it was fade-out, closing theme music, end of episode and an immense feeling of being cheated. I checked: the story does not continue next week.

All the issues the story raised, and in particular a lawsuit that could close the Trib for good if it were won, not to mention confirm that the bad guys win (as indeed they have done in real life), vanished like that, never to be resolved or mentioned again.

Whatever possessed the show to imagine that this was in any way a satisfactory story, I have no idea. The best I can think of is that it was planned as a two-parter but the National Enquirer got wind of it and threatened, the perfect irony, a massive libel suit if the second half, in which they got chopped down, was made. That would explain an episode that, on any kind of artistic or even professional level, is incomplete, badly-structured and just plain inadequate.

Seriously, if anyone’s following this series and watching the episodes for themselves on YouTube, don’t bother with this one.