“As Lou Grant, Ed Asner gave us comedy, drama, and an indelible portrait of a hard-working journalist”

From a Washington Post column by David Von Drehle headlined “As Lou Grant, Ed Asner gave us comedy, drama, and an indelible portrait of a hard-working journalist”:

The Season 1 opening sequence of the long-ago television series “Lou Grant” was a wry little wonder. It begins with a bird chirping in a forest, followed by the roar of a chain saw and the transformation of a tree into newsprint — all told in a few quick cuts. The newsprint rolls through giant presses. Folded newspapers are tossed to subscribers. One lands in a puddle, another on a rooftop. But one copy is unfolded and read over a breakfast table. In the final shot, it winds up at the bottom of a bird cage, where another bird chirps.

A whole way of life was packed into those few seconds. Today, anyone with a wireless link can get into the journalism game. Before the digital age, though, table stakes were enormous: enough capital to build a content company attached to a manufacturing operation attached to a last-mile distribution business attached to an advertising shop.

The barriers to entry, as economists say, were high. The need for deep pockets and risk tolerance had the odd effect of making newspaper proprietors simultaneously more powerful and more accountable than today’s online publishers. They were powerful enough to get away with tossing the paper in a puddle now and then. But accountable in a way that only people with sunk costs and fixed addresses are accountable.

“Lou Grant” was something rare in TV history: a weekly drama spun off from a weekly comedy. Lou was born as a middle-aged television news director in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a brilliant sitcom that ran from 1970 to 1977. Fired from that job when new owners bought the Minneapolis station, the itinerate newsman landed as city editor of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune in the hour-long series that bore his name.

Ed Asner played Lou in both series, becoming the first actor to win Emmy awards for the same role in both a comedy and a drama. That tells you something about the depth of the character and of Asner’s portrayal — for what is more true of human existence than its inseparable tangle of comedy and drama?

Asner died Aug. 29 at age 91. His acting career included other memorable roles….

But Lou Grant was his defining creation, an epitome of the gruff editor with a heart of gold — though also something more, something deeper. Lou was not clever, but he was wise. He had learned some things, and — though he never quite put these things into words — he was determined to survive long enough to carry what he knew into the uncertain future.

“Lou Grant” was a very good show, if not quite as good as its magical progenitor. Within the straitened limits of network TV formats, the series tried genuinely to plumb the dilemmas of journalism at a time when newspapers still set the nation’s agenda. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was not really about TV news, but “Lou Grant” was entirely about newspapers and what it means to create a version of the world in the space of a few hours, always getting it wrong in some way but trying again tomorrow and every day forever.

The first episode, which aired Sept. 20, 1977, dealt with an issue now known as “media capture”: the very human tendency for deeply experienced reporters to become protective of their sources. The special place of youth in the news business is subtly unpacked — not just the energy of youth, but its monstrous moral clarity. Everything is black and white with the young, which makes for great copy — and sometimes for ruined lives….

Perhaps the show — and Asner’s death — strikes a chord with me because it captures the moment I entered my first newsroom. As at the Trib, we still banged typewriters at old metal desks. (Lou warily eyes a computer, ready for installation, on his first day at work.) Everyone knew big changes were coming, but we couldn’t say exactly how they would play out.

This much is not changed: Tension arises when fallible people set out to deliver something called truth. Stuff always goes wrong. Whether it comes by typewriter or by Twitter, good journalism requires honor, humility and a thick hide — the qualities that defined Ed Asner’s masterpiece.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

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