President Kanye West’s first order of business in 2021 should be to mandate that every journalism student watch the rebooted “Murphy Brown” premiere.
This will serve two purposes. First, the threat to their sanity posed by 30 minutes of offensively lame Boomer humor should be enough to make half of the wannabe blue checkmarks just drop right out of school. (The haunting echo of the laugh track lingers long after the final credits roll.) Second, those who remain committed to learning the craft will be forced to watch a glistening example of everything that’s wrong with it.
By that I mean the obliviousness of “Murphy Brown,” and its cast of coastal elites, is a case study in why public trust in media has eroded.
The reboot opens on election night 2016, with the leading lady jolted out of a nap to discover Hillary Clinton has lost the presidency. “NOOOO!” she bellows, outfitted in an “Original Nasty Woman” T-shirt.
That may sound like a parody. Indeed, had I been tasked with writing a satirical version of the script, it would have looked similar. But things get worse.
As the plot unfolds, we learn that Donald Trump is driving Brown restless in retirement. Instead of yelling at the TV, Brown says, she would “rather be on TV yelling out.” She missed her platform most during the three “Muslim ban” implementations, we are told.
So she gets a new show. One where the “novelty,” she insists, is that “it’s going to be totally factual.” And this time it’s on cable.
“Frank Fontana, Corky Sherwood, and I will be dealing in something we’ve seen far too little of lately— the truth,” Brown proclaims, right before getting in an on-air spat with President Trump, who live-tweets his commentary during the first episode. This, despite producer Miles Silverberg’s reminder that she’s supposed to be a “serious journalist.”
From lines like “O.J. is out, Nazis are in,” to a hauntingly robotic cameo by Hillary Clinton that out-weirds her appearance on “Broad City,” Brown is not simply depicted as anti-Trump, she’s openly liberal. And an activist, at that. The premiere’s early moments catch Brown right after she’s just marched in a feminist protest.
It all culminates in one key line towards the end of the episode. “There’s a difference between good television and journalism. This is why people don’t trust the press anymore,” Brown laments obliviously.
It’s a beautiful moment. A “serious journalist,” (Silverberg’s words, not mine) leaning eagerly and unashamedly into liberal activism, identifying something else as the source of declining trust in media. To be sure, one can be both a “serious journalist” and a liberal ideologue. But Brown doesn’t work for ThinkProgress, and isn’t hosting her own version of “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Amusingly, the first episode of Brown’s new cable program includes a debate on climate change wherein all three hosts gang up on a clueless Trump Environmental Protection Agency official— each, of course, pouncing from the left.
Besides the incoherence of Brown wanting to yell on TV and simultaneously host her own version of “The McLaughlin Group,” the fictional anchor’s attitude embodies the attitude that drives so much distrust in media. The very people who claim vigorously to be dealing in facts and truth (also known as “apples”), are really dealing in opinions (also known as “bananas”). And they refuse to see the problem.
That’s what “Murphy Brown” depicts, brought to you unwittingly by the fine folks at CBS. (I should take this opportunity to mention the premiere’s ratings were not great.)
Corporate media elites and Hollywood artists see journalists as the protagonists in today’s political drama, while much of the rest of us see them as just the opposite. If “Murphy Brown” can build a resistance audience like Stephen Colbert has managed to do, the ratings could be solid for CBS.
“When the show left airwaves back in 1998, public trust in media was much higher. Two decades ago, more than half of adults said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in mass media, according to Gallup. That number plummeted into the low 30s after the 2016 election and sits in the low 40s now. It hasn’t jumped back to 50 percent since last hitting that mark in 2005,” I wrote earlier this year. “But there’s one caveat. Democratic trust in mass media spiked last year, and that could be the audience CBS is gunning for.”
If that’s enough to satisfy the network, then “Murphy Brown’s” flavor of lukewarm resistance humor might do the trick. But for the rest of us, the reboot will serve a better purpose— illustrating exactly why there’s little appetite for programming that glorifies journalists who smugly claim the mantle of objectivity while trafficking in liberal activism.