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Now More Than Ever, We Need TV Dramas to Get Journalism Right

Shows like The Girls on the Bus become hate-watches because even the sensationalized version of a newsroom is inherently interesting.
  • Melissa Benoist and Carla Gugino in The Girls on the Bus (Photo: Max)
    Melissa Benoist and Carla Gugino in The Girls on the Bus (Photo: Max)

    This is not a groundbreaking or an especially hot take, but it is, sadly, an evergreen one that has only become more glaringly obvious in the age of fake news, partisan media, and Twitter (currently known as X). While the work of real journalists remains an undisputed and important pillar of our democracy, it can never have too many advocates in its corner to ring that bell. Unfortunately, scripted television isn’t often one of them.

    Now, we’ll preface this by saying film has long been a champion of the hard work and sweeping change that can come from true, boots-on-the-ground journalism, with sterling examples like All the President’s Men, Spotlight, The Post, and Good Night, and Good Luck. But TV has far fewer worthy examples to its credit.

    Many people got their first glimpse inside a newsroom with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which found comedy in the hustle to break the story. Murphy Brown was a trailblazer in its time, and The Newsroom drew attention even if it wasn’t always for the right reasons. ABC has been adventurous lately and tried its hand with two shows — the Hilary Swank-led Alaska Daily (canceled after one season) and Gina Rodriguez’s ongoing Not Dead Yet, an absurd fantasy about a newspaper that employs someone to only write obituaries. Apple’s The Morning Show is also out there, but we will get to that.

    When journalists pop into other series, they are often used as the equivalent of a gnat, buzzing around the grueling workforces that drive procedurals, looking to draw out corruption and wrongdoing. When the protagonist's profession suffers because a journalist did their job, the villain in that scenario is often the person writing the story — you know, not the actual bad guy.

    While TV has no obligation to revere and exalt the profession of journalism, it should offer more ethical and sound depictions of it. This is made all the more apparent by the new Max original series The Girls on the Bus, based on the book Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling by Amy Chozick, who was among the pool reporters following Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 presidential runs. The series, created by Chozick and Julie Plec, stars Melissa Benoist as Sadie McCarthy, a political reporter for the fictional New York Sentinel, working to redeem her professional reputation by following candidates squaring off in a Democratic primary.

    As she travels from small town to small town on a cramped bus, she scoops, spars, and, ultimately, finds common ground with three other reporters — seasoned veteran of campaign reporting and alliteration Grace Gordon Greene (Carla Gugino), TikTok star and social activist Lola (Natasha Behnam), and right-wing Candace Owen stand-in Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore). In theory, the show should be a timely defender of not only the urgency for day-to-day political coverage in an election year but also the undeniable importance of female voices at the forefront of the media. It is neither of those things.

    Right out of the gate, The Girls on the Bus falls prey to the misguided and eye-rolling trope that the only way to create drama in this genre is by watching journalists blur the lines of ethics and accountability. Already somewhat of a pariah for a very public meltdown following her last political assignment, Sadie wades further into dicey waters by continuing a questionable relationship with a source, gets somewhat flirty with a candidate (played by an admittedly handsome Scott Foley) and, as the premiere’s cold open suggests, may have committed at least one federal crime. This is not a judgment of Sadie’s life or choices — just merely the list of things on which the show chooses to base the character. Despite those professional missteps, we are also asked to believe she is someone so obsessed with journalistic credibility and gonzo journalism as an idea that Hunter S. Thompson is a walking-talking extension of her consciousness on screen (not even kidding).

    The Girls on the Bus also kneecaps its own narrative by simply not doing the research on how a modern newsroom works. In early episodes, Sadie’s boss Bruce (Griffin Dunne) is sequestered to an office the size of a spacious New York apartment with a singular mission to talk her off a ledge at every turn. He interacts with no other reporter, nor does he edit any other stories. He also elects to put her personal column about the campaign — featuring the insane line, “I want to pour my heart and soul into every story” — on the front page of the Sunday edition. That sound you hear is the collective groan of the already exhausted editors of America.

    Then there’s the show’s language, which is so densely laced with journalism jargon and obscure historical political references, it feels as though the only audience that could decode it are reporters. But are they really looking to shows for accurate and fair depictions of their profession? Probably not. Instead, it is the average person who will tune in and get a blind sketch of the job that is both messy and mostly inaccurate. Yet that is the exact audience who is educated through what they watch on TV and could benefit from a lesson in what real reporting looks like.

    All of this should make The Girls on the Bus unwatchable, and unbearable for anyone who has even remotely intersected with the world of news. And yet, this laughable fantasy of journalism is entertaining enough as a TV show to keep watching — out of sheer curiosity or contempt. Either is understandable. But that’s the problem. Shows about journalism aren’t what we should be hate-watching right now.

    Too often, these shows are hate-watched because even the sensationalized version of a newsroom is inherently interesting. We don’t buy into what we are seeing, but we are intrigued enough to digest what we are given. As a society increasingly satiated by 24-hour news, we like to see how the sausage is made, as it were. Take HBO’s Emmy-winning but critically lambasted The Newsroom (2012-2014), which became a punching bag for critics both mesmerized by its audacious storytelling and triggered by its exaggerated approach to the actual newsmaking. It famously unfolded the reporting of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting in 2012 to the tune of a Coldplay song. The night President Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, the show’s lead, evening news titan Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), reported the story while high on air. And let’s not forget the entire second season is one big story of journalistic malpractice. The Newsroom aimed for realism and fell somewhere south of it, finding more fascination in the stumbles of journalists than the strides.

    The same could be said for The Morning Show, which, in its third season, found further ways to compromise the credibility of its two leads played by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in the halls of the Capitol Building on January 6 and in the bedsheets of a billionaire savior, respectively. Fortunately, the show has started to learn it can't be a vehicle for accountability in the media while leaning into the soap opera of its mega-media personalities. Rather, it stands as a reminder that those within the media industry also behave badly, like every other industry. But at a crucial point in history, is the moral ambiguity of our nation’s journalists where we should be finding our next dishy drama?

    This is not a problem any show currently on the air is positioned to fix, nor is it something that will rest on the shoulders of a single show — certainly not The Girls on the Bus. As a free country, we are interested in journalism because we are fortunate that it works for us and holds people to their word. Journalists are eternally rich characters because we quite literally see the world through their eyes and words. It is just a shame that television — the very space where so many people still go for their news — hasn’t been a safer place for a profession that makes up one of its cornerstones.

    Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.

    TOPICS: The Girls on the Bus, The Morning Show