Michael Cooke, a former editor in chief of the New York Daily News, possesses a British accent and no discernible self-knowledge. These qualities may tempt some viewers of Tabloid Wars (Bravo, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET)—a documentary show about the newspaper Cooke at least nominally ran in 2005—to compare him to David Brent, the boss played by Ricky Gervais on the U.K. edition of The Office. It’s just not a fair comparison: Cooke is a much better dresser—he seems to change his peacockish neckties every half-hour or so—and his gift for blending the idiotic with the grandiose is his alone.
Consider, if you dare, his opening statement in this six-episode series, a commentary on his paper’s rivalry with the New York Post: “We put our foot on their throat every day and press down till their eyes bulge and leak blood but still they won’t die. We just have to keep at it until they do die. And die they will.” Cooke also does a masterly job of pompously touching together his fingertips while telling the camera his thoughts on how to play the news of a possible white-on-black hate crime in Queens: “You use the words race attack, and then you put the history of Howard Beach into the words race attack, and you know you’ve got something hot on your hands.” Here, his prattle somehow brought to mind Ian Faith, the manager of Spinal Tap.
Among the many commendable things about Tabloid Wars is its innate sense of decency. Fortunately, Cooke is just one voice in an ensemble that includes reporters who seem born to schlep, lean and hungry editors, and an array of gossip columnists ranging from the unfathomably clueless (Lloyd Grove does not seem to know who Sheryl Crow is) to the stylishly world-weary (everybody else). It’s a good crew—earnest and cynical, crafty and guileless, jonesing for scoops but happy just to be part of the action. Sizing up the New York City newspaper game, Pete Hamill once likened the Times to the Philharmonic, the News to the Basie Band, and the Post to the Sex Pistols. Because the DailyNews is best-known for being twice as dull as it should be, this statement was a grave insult to the Count. Still, Hamill captured the paper’s anti-elitist outlook, and one reason that most of the journalists here are so likable is their evident commitment to telling blue-collar stories.
Tabloid Wars’ built-in meta-narratives—every little vignette is about the search for a news story—are as addicting as detective novels. And the show is scored and sound-edited with superlative razzle-dazzle: When you’re not getting worked over by sultry bass lines and slinking turntables, you’re getting worked up via helicopter noises and orgies of ambient newsroomchatter. By employing crafty editing and including a running countdown to deadline, the producers have even found ways to communicate the tedium of reporting—waiting for your interview, waiting on hold, waiting for your editors to mess with your copy—in a way that’s not tedious in the least. But every good reality show requires a pack of self-obsessed showoffs, and that’s what puts Tabloid Wars over the top. You might suppose that the bench-pressers and gym bunnies on Work Out,Bravo’s other new professional reality show, would have an edge here, and feel free to go right ahead supposing. Journalists, with their instinctive story sense, appetite for self-dramatization, and ostrich-egg-sized egos, are naturals for reality TV. You take a narcissist, and then you put him to work, and you know you’ve got something hot on your hands.