When I tell you that “Alaska Daily” is a really good show — certainly the best new show on broadcast TV this fall — it’s going to sound somewhat self-serving.
Oh, this new ABC series, which debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. on KTVX, Channel 4, is definitely good. But it’s also an ode to journalists and the job they do. Specifically, to newspaper reporters.
The show’s creator and executive producer, Tom McCarthy, won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the 2015 film “Spotlight,” which he directed, and which also won best picture. That was the story of how Boston Globe reporters uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of a massive child molestation scandal. McCarthy brings a similar sensibility to “Alaska Daily.”
Two-time best actress Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as Eileen Fitzgerald, a high-powered investigative reporter who falls prey to some faked documents and is knocked off her lofty perch in New York City. Without a lot of options, she takes a job at The Daily Alaskan in Anchorage, seeking redemption.
And she’s not there long before she starts seeking answers about the disappearances of Indigenous women and girls. Eileen begins investigating the murder of one young woman, and the story expands. Why are these murders and disappearances not being solved? Is the system broken?
“I feel like Eileen Fitzgerald is a truth seeker,” Swank said. “And she wants to make sure that justice is done and that people see the truth in situations and people who are corrupt.”
She’s not a perfect person. As a matter of fact, Eileen is rather annoying. But she’s the hero in “Alaska Daily.” As are her editors and fellow reporters.
McCarthy said he wanted “to understand not only the work that journalists do, but who they are and what drives them. What makes them tick, and why is their work so important not just to our communities and our country but the world at large.” And decried the “recurring violence against reporters that’s come after years and years of sort of really targeted and systemic demonization and dehumanization of these people in an attempt for a power grab.”
He pointed to the recent murder of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter German; the man accused of killing him, Robert Telles, was a local government official he had written about.
Executive producer Peter Elkoff said the show is “trying to reach people who may or may not have lost their respect for journalists.” And, he added, “We’re trying to help [journalists] regain that. … We’re trying to fight against that current that has been flowing for the last 6½ years or so.”
That may not be easy, after years of self-serving politicians and their followers demonizing reporters.
“It is a challenge,” McCarthy said. “But I think how we reach people is through great characters and a great story.” And he’s hoping that people of all political persuasions will take away that “in most cases, journalists are hardworking, overworked, underpaid and well-meaning members of their community.”
I could complain about how “Alaska Daily” isn’t an altogether accurate portrayal of how a newspaper works. You know, the way cops complain about cop shows, lawyers complain about legal dramas and doctors complain about medical dramas.
But this is not a documentary, it’s a fictional story intended to entertain. And it does. It also gets enough right about newspapers that I’m not going to quibble.
“Just like good reporters, we’re trying to get it right,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying to be as authentic as we have to be.”
And, no, I’m not trying to claim that all newspaper employees are heroic on a daily basis. They’re never going to pin a medal on a TV critic, for example.
But I’ve worked with enough outstanding journalists to know that their primary focus is telling the truth — and telling the truth to power, effecting positive change that benefits readers and local residents.
“Really, the significance of this show is local reporting,” McCarthy said. “And that’s something I wanted to drill down on. Why it’s important. Why it matters.”
McCarthy has done his homework. He knows that “local journalism is really, really struggling,” calling the number of local newspapers that have shut down “staggering and terrifying.” He knows about “news deserts that are evolving across our country, where there’s no more local journalists or local papers,” which is “really detrimental and not just to a democracy and politics, but just to the communities that they represent” because “these small papers in many ways identify the kind of personality of these communities and the identities of these communities.”
So I’m rooting for “Alaska Daily,” both because it’s good and because of the good it might do.
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