If you judge journalism by how it’s portrayed on stage and screen, you’re liable to conclude the profession is filled with some pretty unsavory characters. There are exceptions, of course—heroic truth tellers like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men and nose-to-the-grindstone Boston Globe reporters in Spotlight. The good guys are few and far between the fabricators (Shattered Glass), power-mad manipulators (Citizen Kane), blackmailers (Sweet Smell of Success), ink-stained “buttinskis” (The Front Page), and vultures making meals out of the pain of others (Nightcrawler).
But two shows currently on Chicago stages—Jackalope Theatre Company’s Rolling and The New Sincerity at Theater Wit—take the typical journalism-gone-wrong plot and use it instead to reflect on larger contemporary issues.
Rolling was inspired by the fallout surrounding a 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story, “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Erdely, about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house. Later investigations, however, found that Erdely’s source, the alleged victim, had made the story up, prompting a full retraction of the article from the magazine and hefty lawsuits from the accused.
Local playwright Calamity West became fascinated by the scandal, particularly the critics who used the high-profile false report as an example to discredit other rape victims—a practice that is largely limited to sex crimes, according to West. False accusations of theft, she points out in an email, are rarely said to reflect poorly on all robbery victims. “The way in which the media and the general public took this one story and tried to mirror it back to all rape victims is what ultimately drew me in,” writes West.
West found herself considering what she’d do in Erdely’s position. The answer: “I’d go home.” And so in the play, a disgraced journalist named Valerie (played with seething anger by Dana Black) returns to her parents’ house to hide out after her reporting is discredited. But the folks at home—Valerie’s sweet-voiced yet sharp-tongued mother, Janet (Ann James), and bitter alcoholic sister, Molly (Abby Pierce)—aren’t much nicer than the world outside. The three women spend most of the play being cruel to one another, showing how the characters’ internalized disdain for women is a distant echo of the rape culture Valerie tried to combat in her article.
“I don’t know enough about journalistic ethics to write an entire play about it,” West writes. Instead, the play is about "how deeply rooted misogyny is in our culture,” even amongst women themselves. Valerie's discredited article was an attempt to do something about that, too, but thanks to her arrogance and corner-cutting (at one point she says it's not her job to verify a source's story), she ends up undermining her own cause.
The New Sincerity
In a way, Alena Smith’s The New Sincerity takes a look at another common critique of media: liberal bias. But the real target of the satire, set in the offices of a small literary journal in New York City, is the millennial do-gooder—embodied in the play by the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011. Idealistic twentysomething writer, Rose (Maura Kidwell), is drawn to the leftist, egalitarian spirit of the movement and becomes a wholehearted crusader for it. Rose’s boss and crush object, Benjamin (Drew Shirley), also becomes heavily involved in the movement, but he’s primarily concerned with promoting his magazine and himself as a New New Left public intellectual. Meanwhile, the only Occupier we meet in the play, a shaggy wastrel named Django (a charismatically louche Alex Stein), interprets sharing the wealth as a license to boff whomever he pleases.
The Los Angeles-based Smith, who wrote the play in 2012 before taking a job on HBO’s The Newsroom (speaking of earnest journalists), says the conflict of the play lies in the clash between sincerity and selfishness. “If you become an activist, are you doing it because you really want to change things? Or are you doing it because you want to change how people see you?”
The hard part for any writer, according to her, is keeping your principles intact while making a living. “I was very sincere and idealistic about playwriting,” she says, “and then I was turning 30 and realizing that I didn’t have any money. So I have to find a way to enter a world of commerce."
And that's not just a problem that faces journalists, real or imaginary.