NEWS FLASH: High-school journalists are just like real ones!
Most of the time, when the folks at MTV claim to portray “real” teenagers in their “natural” environs, they’re simultaneously pulling their puppetmaster strings behind the scenes, negotiating overblown opportunities for their subjects that are anything but realistic. This allows the network to have it all: “reality,” in all its faux authentic trappings, plus, for MTV’s own sake, an affected, larger-than-life payoff that seems even more urgent scored to a grandiose emo soundtrack. But with its latest docudrama series, The Paper (MTV, Mondays at 10:30 pm), the cable behemoth has taken something of a risk. The show allows the young Florida journalists on Cypress Bay High’s the Circuit to expose to the world the business of running a student newspaper, thereby chronicling a year’s worth of literary achievements and disappointments. And that’s it. Nobody gets voted off Editorial Island (“Please pack your tape recorder and your red pen and leave immediately!”), or has his or her pitches trashed by an scary-serious panel of media experts (“Your ideas reek of banality”). None of the movers-and-shakers on the Circuit’s masthead wins a cushy fellowship for correctly quoting Marshall McLuhan. No one even gets a free New Yorker subscription.
The staff doesn’t require a fancy reward system in order to behave in a cutthroat, competitive, borderline-unhinged manner — because, as it turns out, high-school journalists are just like real ones! The first two episodes of The Paper focus on the ladder climbing and the insider gossip that swirls around an all-important question: who will be the next editor-in-chief? A bunch of people want it, but few of them reveal the desire — no, the need — for the position that current copy editor Amanda does. While the rest of the editors are partying and procrastinating, Amanda is hard at work on her application till 2 am, brainstorming ideas and doling out pithy soundbites about the state of contemporary journalism to her dog. Her meticulousness goes beyond punctuation and grammar: she pre-selects her outfits a week in advance and analyzes the meaning behind each one. (“This says I’m approachable, because I wear T-shirts, just like everyone else.”) The New York Observer’s Matt Haber likened her personality to that of Election’s Tracy Flick, and the comparison couldn’t be more apt.
Amanda has a flair for Broadway sass, though she tries hard to play down her naked ambition and project herself as an egalitarian leader. But her colleagues have agendas of their own. Their unbelievably nasty treatment of her, though likely prompted by the MTV’s producers/overlords, is painful to watch. The night before the newspaper-class adviser, Mrs. Weiss, announces the decision that makes Amanda into the Circuit’s newest chief, one editor darkly threatens to try to “impeach her” if she gets the job. Even her new managing editor, Alex, who seemed like a lovable dork at first, morphs into a backstabbing liar dying to undercut her and win over the incoming freshmen! What would Bill Keller say to that?
Still, for all of their deliciously dramatized newsroom politics, the kids on The Paper are no fools — they’re prenaturally pissed-off and cynical about everything from how grayscale looks on a proof to the semi-permanence of their own editorial control. “Basically, the state of the paper is that we’re screwed,” says a wry Alex, sounding for a moment less like an adolescent hack than someone who may well be defining the future of the industry.