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photo illustration by Rachel Beatty


photo illustration by Rachel Beatty

Television

A slanderous charge

The American Library Association’s criticism of Little House entirely misses the mark

When I heard on Monday that the American Library Association had decided after 64 years to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its children’s literature award, I immediately did two things. I pulled our battered copies of the Little House set from our bookshelf and fished some old VHS tapes of the TV show from a box in the attic.

Both have long been favorites in the Basham house. So much so, my 8-year-old daughter actually asked for, and received, a butter churn for her last birthday. (I have to remind myself whenever I’m annoyed by all the strange dishes of yellow gloop with carrot shavings crowding my fridge that I created this problem.) But I hadn’t personally read or watched either in many years. How could I have missed the “Anti-Native and anti-Black” sentiments the ALA described in its announcement? I spent the next two days doing a deep dive into Wilder’s work. 

Reading the supposedly offensive content in context makes the ALA’s charges of racism seem not just historically short-sighted but slanderous.

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T.J. Kirkpatrick/Showtime

New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman talks with filmmaker Liz Garbus as the crew films scenes for the Showtime documentary series ‘The Fourth Estate’ at Times headquarters in New York
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Showtime

Television

Power clash

The Fourth Estate provides an up-close but uncritical look at New York Times reporters covering Donald Trump’s unorthodox presidency

Every journalist’s dream is to be in the room where history takes place. Now viewers can be in the newsroom where newsmaking happens through Showtime’s documentary The Fourth Estate. The four-part series captures the frenetic news cycle at The New York Times during Donald J. Trump’s first year as president.

It begins on “Day One”— the day Trump is sworn into office. A camera zooms in to Times reporters’ faces as they watch Trump’s inaugural speech on TV. One person covers her face with her hands. “Wow,” says Executive Editor Dean Baquet with an incredulous smile. “What a story. What a [obscenity] story.” Then he swings out of his chair: “OK, let’s go!”

That pretty much sums up the Times’ reaction to the Trump administration: Disbelief, alarm, excitement, and determination to pen this extraordinary moment in history. With that sentiment, they report on FBI Director James Comey’s memos, Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, Trump’s decision to end DACA, and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

You’ll hear editors regularly ask their writers, “What’s the nut graf?” In journalism, a “nut graf” is a paragraph that informs readers why they should care about the story. The nut graf for this documentary seems to be: “Here’s an inexperienced, ego-driven, billionaire president who can’t seem to keep his thumbs off Twitter and women, who has trouble telling the truth, and who stokes hostility against mainstream media. Neither the left nor the right trusts each other to tell the truth, which means that now, more than ever, the nation needs good journalism that pursues the truth and exposes lies with honor, integrity, and balance.”

Meanwhile, the Times has its own internal conflicts. Staff members, mostly copy editors, are losing their jobs as the news company moves from a print to a digital model. The Times is attracting a larger-than-ever audience to its website and podcast, yet it has not quite mastered how to turn eyeballs into profit, and the digital age is producing its own headaches: When the National Rifle Association releases an anti-press advertisement directed at the Times, top executives decide not to address it for fear of engaging in a media war—but before they can announce that to their staff, a Times reporter tweets out the ad and unleashes a Twitter storm. Then in December, several women accuse Glenn Thrush, one of the Times most esteemed White House reporters, of sexual harassment. Suddenly, the very newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigations into Harvey Weinstein now has to deal publicly with a harassment case of its own.

What makes The Fourth Estate so engrossing is its access to the most intimate moments of those who wield the power to define news. It shows the editors calling Thrush into the conference room before they suspend him for sexual misconduct. It enters the reporters’ private homes and shows them microwaving oatmeal for breakfast. It shows White House correspondent Maggie Haberman hurrying out of a podcast interview to calm her crying child on FaceTime. It sits with Haberman in a cab as she reads tweets calling her out for being too “soft” on Trump.

My one complaint is that director/producer Liz Garbus seems a little too enamored with her subjects to portray them through a critical lens. She depicts the Times’ journalists as tireless crusaders who sacrifice family time and Valentine’s Day plans to cover the next crisis, the next scandal, the next exposé—and that’s true. But rather than question legitimate concerns about media bias, the series focuses on Trump’s tirades calling the media “fake news,” “the enemy of the people,” and “sick people.” (The documentary also includes occasional swearing throughout.)

At a time when the media are as much under the microscope as the White House, The Fourth Estate is still a worthy, if sometimes incomplete, look into how the nation’s most powerful newspaper covers the world’s most powerful man.

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(Moonshot Entertainment)

Television

Missing the adventure

The Dangerous Book for Boys is an epic disappointment

Get your head out of your phone, and get your hands dirty! The Dangerous Book for Boys, published in 2007, seems like a great starting point for a TV adaptation. Authors Conn and Hal Iggulden taught young men classic skills like building treehouses, skimming stones, and making paper airplanes, and gave brief history lessons on topics like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

Amazon’s TV series of the same name is a squandered opportunity—a mushy mix of modern clichés and New Age spiritualism that pays brief attention to its supposed source material.

Recently widowed Beth McKenna (Erinn Hayes) desperately misses her husband, Patrick (Chris Diamantopoulos), a creative inventor, great dad, and the glue that held their household together. The youngest of their three sons, Wyatt (Gabriel Bateman), immerses himself in the book his dad left behind for the boys, its pages full of adventures, stories, and inventions.

But rather than inspiring real-life outings and explorations, the cherished book prompts Wyatt to have dreamlike conversations with his deceased dad in exotic locations like an African jungle, a submarine, and the surface of the moon. These scenes end up as occasions for Dad to give advice on girls, perseverance, and other life lessons. Where’s the adventure and danger the book’s title promises?

Some characters are one-dimensional or objectionable. “Don’t call me Grandma” Tiffany (Swoosie Kurtz) represents a new stereotype viewers may recognize: the single, aging baby boomer who sleeps around, makes foul jokes, and lives for self. In addition to her bawdy humor, Tiffany dishes out New Age spiritualism, with tarot cards, hexes, and odes to the almighty Universe that she is eager to share with her grandchildren.

My advice? Skip this TV show, but grab a copy of the book for your kids or grandkids. Make a few paper airplanes together, or take them fishing. There’s a lot of fun and adventure to be had in the great outdoors, and you don’t need this show to help you find it.

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