If you’re too young to remember who Lou Grant was, you might want to skip the rest of this post. It’s a story about one of my mentors at CBC and you’d have to know the significance of who “Lou” was (in the journalism culture of the late 1970s) for the story to have meaning. If you’ve temporarily forgotten, allow me to refresh your nostalgia.
Lou Grant (played by actor Ed Asner) was the curmudgeonly boss of a fictional television newsroom at the heart of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a long-running hit comedy in the 1970s. When the series ended all the staff (except for Ted Baxter, the infamously air-headed anchorman) were fired. The next season, the Asner character resurfaced in a new series called Lou Grant – the significant difference being that LG was not a comedy but instead dared to tackle serious social and political issues in the post-Watergate era of American turmoil. In the aftermath of All the President’s Men (1976), Lou Grant won awards and was at the time (1977-1982) considered a rarity in episodic television—part of the shift to more serious, issue-oriented dramas.
Broke and disgusted Lou returns to his print roots as city editor of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. School violence, immigration, gay rights, nuclear terrorism, chemical pollution, and the post-traumatic stress of returning Vietnam vets are among the issues that keep his two youngest reporters (Rossi and Billie, the Trib’s answer to Woodward and Bernstein) busy, energized and often conflicted. As their boss and mentor, Lou guides them through the learning curves and deep canyons between idealism, reality, and cynicism that all young journalists must navigate.
At times both irascible and avuncular, Lou is the heart and soul of the newsroom, the editorial conscience, the experienced elder hand with ink in his veins, a warm heart, and an active mind. He’s seen a lot and knows from long experience that nothing is ever as simple or obvious as it seems. Back in the day nearly all major newspapers (and even a precious few television news organizations) had at least one Lou Grant on staff.
More than a few working journalists secretly loved the show and some who arrived later would admit that Lou was the one who inspired them to join both the profession and the crusade. These are the ones who understood that journalism is not just a business, it’s a calling. Thousands of young idealists imagined that working for a real Lou Grant would be something akin to nirvana. And they weren’t wrong.
My own Lou Grant was a fellow by the name of Ron Haggart. Ron was senior editor of a CBC program called ‘the fifth estate,’ Canada’s equivalent to 60 Minutes in the U.S. From the start it was a tough-minded and very demanding workplace, primarily because of the high standards of accuracy, clarity, fairness and proof that Ron Haggart enforced.
It was my first network job and I was a keener to say the least. In my four previous newsroom gigs I’d never had the opportunity to dig so deeply, to research and debate the merits of a story before we tackled it. The sad truth is that most daily news operations are a chaotic and frequently desperate dash to meet a deadline. Reporters and editors scramble madly through the day hoping they’ll get something on the air or in the paper before their time runs out. But a documentary proposal at ‘the fifth estate’ was like the first draft of a book. And Ron Haggart would debate you point-by-point until he satisfied himself that you knew enough to be trusted with the story.
Here is one of my favourite examples:
In 1979, shortly after I’d been hired, Ron called me into his office to lay down the ground rules about my proposal to capture a “midnight dumper” in action — one of those black-hearted villains who pours toxic chemicals down sewer grates and storm drains. Ron wanted me to know the conditions under which he might approve the story.
First, he wanted me to find answers to a series of questions, the most obvious of which was: did we in Canada have legal toxic waste disposal facilities to which these midnight dumpers could and should be delivering their dirty goods? If not, then what were “good” corporate citizens doing to cope with this dilemma? Tell me, he urged, about people who make things we all need and use and who thereby create toxic waste products — on our behalf. What are they doing in our name?
What a bizarre approach, I thought. I just wanted to nail the “bad guys” and expose them on national televison.
Off I went to make my inquiries only to learn next morning that Ron already knew the answers. He was testing me, putting me through hoops to make sure I’d considered all the possibilities. Turns out that we did not, at that time, have any legal toxic waste dumps in Canada. Furthermore, the United States (which did have several such facilities) had just cut off Canada’s access to the largest of these sites and was telling us to solve our toxic waste problem at home, not in someone else’s backyard.
But before allowing me to start filming, Ron had one more important thing to tell me. “Okay, Jerry, you can do this piece. But here’s what you’re not going to say: you are not going to film a story that tells me, ‘Pollution is bad.’ That’s too simplistic, it’s too obvious, and it would insult the intelligence of our viewers.”
As his many protégés soon learned, the journalistic gospel according to Ron was this: the truth is never simple; nobody has a monopoly on virtue; and “context is everything.”
“Instead of saying pollution is bad, you are going to do a story that says: ‘Pity the poor polluter — what’s a fella to do?’” If we as a nation have provided no toxic waste dumps of our own, then where are we going to put this crap? We’ve all had a hand in generating it, so it’s our problem to solve. Not just the guy who drives the tank truck.
So off we went. A cameraman and I slithered on our bellies through a cattail marsh and captured a toxic dumper on film. He was pouring untreatable chemical sludge into a sandy ditch beside the Fraser River because there was no legal place to get rid of it. He and others like him were doing this on a routine basis every day, out of public view and unknown to the citizens of Vancouver — until we caught him in the act.
But the best chapter of the story — a result of Ron’s contrarian approach — was about a guy on the east side who ran a makeshift refinery to recycle used motor oil. A good guy at heart, he’s doing society a favour, until he learns that the leftover sludge from his recycling process is still considered toxic — unacceptable at any landfill in Canada.
Well, this guy buys an old dough mixer from a defunct bakery to blend baking soda with oil sludge in an effort to render the stuff chemically inert and thereby legally allowable at the Burns Bog landfill. It was an unorthodox approach to a serious and growing problem, the very oddness of it serving to highlight the difficulty of disposing with the detritus of modern life.
Ron’s lesson for me was as obvious as it was overlooked in my youthful zeal: there is no sense preaching to the converted. Sure, midnight dumping is bad and the people doing it should be exposed and held accountable along with the gutless politicians whose procrastination and avoidance of the issue of proper toxic waste facilities created the bottleneck that was secretly broken that afternoon beside the Fraser River.
“Go ahead, Jerry. Catch the dumpers and prove the point. But don’t tell me pollution is bad.” And don’t blame it all on the guy in the truck.
For me, a young journalist still learning the trade, Ron Haggart really was Lou Grant. Sadly, there are damned few like him left and our society is the worse for it. Every young writer, reporter and television producer should have a mentor of the calibre of Ron Haggart. We all should have the opportunity to work at the feet of the masters before being turned loose on the public.
I did have that opportunity and it altered my approach to storytelling. I am eternally grateful for the education and guidance I got from my Lou Grant.