HENRY BROMELL, 1947-2013

Homeland-Producer-DiesThree of the most interesting hours of my life were spent in the company of Henry Bromell, who died the other day at the age of 65. Henry was a writer–of short stories and television scripts mostly, but also of an also of a novel and of screenplays. Ann Kolson had assigned me to write a piece on him for The New York Times; the occasion was his debut as a film director for a film called Panic, about a hitman, for which he had also written the screenplay. We met him at the Algonquin Hotel–the only interview I’ve ever conducted there–and I liked him immediately. Easy-going, friendly, funny, interested, smart–he was anything other than self-absorbed. We talked for literally three hours, which was about three times the amount of time usually required to complete the assignment. Although I was careful to cover the usual bases that needed for my assignment, the encounter wasn’t like an interview at all, but more just a delightful conversation. We talked about film, books, writing, his interesting upbringing, about Homicide: Life on the Streets (where had had performed distinguished work and which was one of my favorite series.) It was just an enormously enjoyable experience, with no sense of the professional wall that typically exists between subject and interviewer. I was thrilled to see that he had achieved recent success with Homeland; that was arena he knew well from his upbringing in the Middle East as the son of a CIA operative. I’m glad that he capped his career with success.

Here are a couple of Henry’s quotes from the piece:

”My editor says I’m the only person she knows who’s written for television that television has made a better writer,” said Mr. Bromell, pointing out that writing for David Chase, who was the executive producer of ”I’ll Fly Away” and is the executive producer of ”The Sopranos,” was the most rigorous experience of his career. ”He thinks in terms of a page and a half or two pages, and within that time, there should be two turns, two times where the scene goes someplace that you didn’t see coming, that’s real and is believable. And he’s a Chekovian, so for him the whole scene has to have a subtext. Even if it’s not mentioned, you’ve got to feel it and understand it. Really tough stuff. But you get excited by what he says, because you see that he’s made it better.”

Reaction to ”Panic” has been positive; Mr. Bromell seems particularly pleased by friends who’ve told him that he has made a European movie. ”Most of the filmmakers I love are Europeans,” he says, enumerating a catalog of favorites that quickly begins to include directors from Japan, India and America but that leaves out most of today’s Hollywood filmmakers.

”Working on the series, we would get as production assistant these very bright kids from U.S.C. film school and N.Y.U. film school who begin each day asking what would be entertaining for the greatest number of people. Not, ‘What if I take that character and put him in a room with that character?’ Now they think like agents and producers. They’re very comfortable servicing corporate culture. They don’t see as their fundamental role being critical or making people laugh in a way they’re not used to laughing.
They think, ‘All right, we got to bring in 30 million people, how are we going to do this?’ I think, ‘If all we’re going to do is serve corporate culture, where are our ideas going to come from?’ ”

EZRA KLEIN DOESN’T UNDERSTAND HIS OWN PROFESSION

Ezra Klein is a bright young journalist for The Washington Post who is, I suspect, destined for a long and distinguished career. I do not think he will have to approach the end of it to realize that one of the posts he wrote last week for his wonkblog that appears on the paper’s website will rank as one of dimmest things he will ever have written.

Klein stepped into the hubbub that Nate Thayer caused when he reported that an editor at theatlantic.com had asked him to create a 1200 word version of a piece he had written to be published on the site, for which he would be paid. . . nothing. His reward would be exposure. Thayer was naturally upset about it, as I have been when offered similarly impecunious deals. But these are the astonishing times we live in.

Klein decided use this incident to make an observation about journalism: “[B]ehind this debate lurks an uncomfortable fact: The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free. Call it the revenge of our sources. For a very long time, we got them to work for nothing more than exposure — and sometimes, we didn’t even give them that. Now they’re getting more and more of us to do it.”

Klein differentiates between reporters, writers and journalists, with journalists atop the pyramid. “The difference between “writer” and “reporter” or “journalist” isn’t that the journalist reports — she develops sources, calls people, takes them out to lunch, and generally acts as an intermediary between her audience and the world of experts. The journalist also writes, of course, but anybody can write. Or, if not anybody, then certainly too many people for comfort. But few can get their calls returned by key congressmen, top academics, important CEOs or even, absent the legitimacy of a media organization people have heard of, a factory worker sitting at home on a Tuesday night. . . ”

This seems to me to a pathetically narrow view of journalism, a case of reductio ad absurdum, perhaps too much influenced by the daily enterprise Klein has spent his brief professional career within. Sources, broadly defined, are quite important at every level of journalism, and a journalist’s ability to cultivate them is a tremendous asset. But in most cases, it is not “Ezra Klein” who gets his call returned; it is The Washington Post‘s reporter who ges called back. It is the paper, or the magazine, and all that it stands for in terms of quality, reliability, seriousness and power, that gets the time and attention of the congressman and the CEO. On the face of it, Bob Woodward may have the best set of sources of any journalist in America, but if he took his act to even a serious smaller paper like The Chicago Tribune, his calls would start to go unanswered.

What the journalist brings, beyond sources, is his or her time-tested and experience-tested ability to reflect the values of the news organization–intelligence, intellectual integrity, an ability to put things in context and to understand wider implications, fearlessness, an ability to identify and tell a story and to spot an angle, a sensitive and accurate bullshit detector, and yes, an ability to write (Of all the things Klein is wrong about, his view that there is a superabundance of people who can write is the most ludicrous. Blogging and tweeting aren’t writing; Steve Brill publishing 20,000 words in Time is writing. Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, Norman Mailer in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Richard Ben Cramer in What It Takes–that’s writing. Let’s not spend our time devaluing the art of our greatest practitioners.)

Certainly, there are many times when an editor values one of his journalists for the access he or she has to a particular source; getting a quote from the candidate or confirmation from the chief detective is what this business is often about. But what is more usually the case is that the editor values the journalist’s ability to understand the source’s agenda and preconceptions before presenting the source’s information. Some journalists are parrots, but not the best ones.

All of us who have written for any length of time have written for exposure; there is no offense in that. But what is upsetting is that in this time of turmoil in our profession, so many of the best publications, the ones we have long depended on to help define what is valuable in action and thought and policy, want good work, but aren’t willing to pay for it. It’s Gresham’s Law: the cheap writing is driving out the good.