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Overcoming 'Animal'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

For five seasons (1978 through 1982) one of the best, most intelligent depictions of the news business ever shown on television was "Lou Grant," starring Edward Asner as the crusty city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune. It was a groundbreaking show in many ways.

First, it was a drama that was spun off from a comedy, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Second, it was one of the first TV dramas to use multiple story lines, a technique that has been used ever since on shows like "ER," "NYPD Blue" and, my own all-time favorite, "Homicide: Life on the Street." Third, it dealt with real issues, affecting real people: abortion, homelessness, rape. (This was more than 20 years ago, remember.)

For all that "Lou Grant" had going for it, however, the show was not without its faults. And its biggest fault was its depiction of a character named Dennis Price, played by Daryl Anderson. Actually, nobody ever called the character by this name. Everyone knew the guy as "Animal."

Animal was a news photographer. He lived out of his car. He looked like a street person.

He was a parody; he was comic relief. Yet he also was an image that many of my news photographer colleagues, even to this day, feel they have to live down.

So it will be interesting to see what happens this fall on CBS when a new dramatic series, "Citizen Baines," debuts. The premise should appeal to Washington-area political/news junkies: a three-term senator from Washington state, Elliott Baines, a widower, (played by the superb character actor James Cromwell) is upset in his bid for reelection and is faced with the unfamiliar task of heading west and re-connecting with his three grown daughters, whose childhood he all but ignored.

The oldest daughter, Ellen, is a lawyer with her own political ambitions. The middle child, Reeva, is struggling through a troubled marriage. The youngest daughter, Dori, so the show's press kit says, "strives to emerge from her father's shadow and carve out a life – and a name – for herself."

Dori Baines winds up as a news photographer.

"Well, at least she's very pretty and young," laughed Lydia Woodward, the show's Emmy-winning creator and executive producer, when asked how she thinks real newsies will react to the character. In fact, it may be unfair to characterize "Citizen Baines" as a show about the news business. In an interview from Seattle, where much of the show is being filmed, Woodward said she prefers to think of the show as a "family adult drama."

Young Dori Baines, played by Jacinda Barrett ("Urban Legends," "The Real World") is, by Woodward's own description "a very spoiled daughter of a famous politician" who manages to fall into a job on a newspaper, the fictional Seattle Sun. (I can't wait to see that part.) She is not especially good at what she does. In other words, she is not an instinctively good photographer. In one episode, Woodward noted, Dori gets called on the carpet, apparently for faking a picture. Which, of course, would be a firing offense in the real world, but this is a TV series that has to fill a season.

To do that – and to the producers' credit – the "Citizen Baines" people have taken the unusual step of soliciting news organizations for input and story ideas. "We are looking for professional photographers to send in their stories and anecdotes via e-mail," noted Karyn Usher, one of the show's writers. "We are looking for tough assignments, mishaps, etc. – things that happen to shooters on the job."

So far, Usher said she has received about 100 e-mails from news photographers all over the United States with "all kinds of stories and advice – photographers are very interested in their (correct) portrayal on television!"

And with good reason.

Before "Lou Grant," television was filled with such turkeys as "Name of the Game," "The Andros Targets" and "The Reporter," which didn't do much for anyone in the business. In the former, Gene Barry and Tony Franciosa were a pair of Gucci-shod, expense account newsies (yeah, right). Andros featured a one-man anti-corruption squad who almost never wrote anything. And "The Reporter" lost it for me when the star kept running out of the building to the same cab that always was waiting for him to go cover the story that was gonna blow this town wide open.

Caveat for those of you who are old enough to remember – "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" was a rare (and funny) gem, starring Darren McGavin. OK, so the premise was hokey: that there were monsters loose in Gotham that Kolchak never quite was able to photograph or get enough on to write about. But the way the show reflected Kolchak's time on a struggling news service (UPI?) and his fights with his editor was deft and close to the bone.

As for movies, while it's probably true that cops and cowboys have shown up on the screen more often than newsies, surely we must rank high among those who have had their lives inflated to mythical – sometimes even sinister – proportions. After all, Charles Foster Kane was no pussycat; Hildy Johnson (in either male or female incarnation) was no pushover; and Clark Kent, for that matter, was no mere mortal.

In the movies, journalists have been portrayed as patriotic "soldiers of the press" – warning against fascism, a la Joel McCrea in "Foreign Correspondent" (1940); defenders of the public against organized crime, a la Humphrey Bogart in "Deadline USA" (1952); or, for a little contrast, selfish power mad bastards, a la Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane" (1941).

In recent years movies have come closer to depicting the reality (and occasional boring routine) of the news business. When an ex-colleague's son, watching the movie versions of Woodward and Bernstein make phone call after phone call in the Watergate film, "All the President's Men," he asked his father, "Is that all you do all day?" Still more recently, "The Paper," with a high-luster cast that included Robert Duvall, captured for me the frenzy and noise of working on what clearly was my old newspaper, the New York Daily News.

The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play "The Front Page," about competition on the Chicago police beat in the '20s, has rightly become a classic, that (surprisingly) has spawned any number of good interpretations both in films and on TV. In fact, if one had to choose two of the best vehicles for showing the news business and its practitioners, you wouldn't be too far wrong picking "The Front Page" and "Citizen Kane."

Still, one should not forget "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," a low-budget British-made flick from the early '60s about the Earth hurtling toward the sun (don't ask) and the chaos and panic that ensues. The star is a reporter who wishes he were doing anything else, but who sticks with the story out of perversity and curiosity. As scientists try to fix things by firing off nuclear weapons (I told you not to ask), the film concludes with a silent pan of a grimy newspaper composing room. On a wall are tacked two front page proofs, each ready to go.

The first says: "Earth Saved – A Nation Prays."

The second says: "Earth Doomed – A Nation Prays."

That's great stuff.

So good luck, Dori Baines. You can bet we all will be watching.

News photographers who want to contribute story ideas for "Citizen Baines" should contact Karyn Usher at karynusher@hotmail.com.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© 2001 Warner Bros. Television. An AOL Time Warner Company.
Veteran character actor James Cromwell, left, and Jacinda Barrett star in new fall series "Citizen Baines" on CBS. Barrett plays a news photographer in Seattle.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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Venice Through a Polaroid Iris

Forbidden Pictures

Pecking Order

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