What I’m interested in, too, is how some of those storytelling fields draw from journalism, a thought I find quite validating. We might be viewed as society’s contrarians — outsiders who observe and record rather than join, skeptics who challenge and question rather than accept and follow. But the purpose of our work echoes everyone of those goals I listed above. And our methods — how and why we employ the tools of our craft — are those that make any form of story creation better. People in other fields would do well to borrow from us as we borrow from them.
A recent example that made me happy came came courtesy of Alan Alda via The New York Times. Alda was interviewed by Saul Austerlitz about M*A*S*H* on the 50th anniversary of the debut of the beloved television series. I was in the air, headed to a narrative journalism conference in Bergen, Norway, so missed the story when it first published. As serendipity would have it, I probably appreciated it more when I came across it from the other side of the Atlantic.
It’s not long, and I urge you to read the whole thing. I’m going to trust that most of you are familiar with the TV series, which no doubt will go down in history as one of most popular and important American shows of the 20th century. (Popular and important. There’s something to strive for in journalism.) It lured viewers into a mobile surgical unit, ostensibly set in the early 1950s at the front lines in Korea, but really about Vietnam and probably any other war ever fought on this bloodied Earth. It used quirky characters, outrageous humor and moments of high tension to hold viewers, offering ever-deepening lessons of empathy, morality and humanity. (If you are haven’t seen it, it’s still available on HULU.)
I’ve probably seen every episode of the 11-year run multiple times and still quote moments at random times. But a few things from the Alda interview jumped out at me that I didn’t know about the creation and nurturing of the show. What I wasn’t as aware of were the behind-the-scenes echoes of journalism.
- At the end of the second season, when the show was still mostly comic insanity, show creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds went to South Korea to interview both medical professionals and military pilots. If they were going to portray a medical unit at war’s frontlines, they wanted to hear from those who served.
- The notes from those interviews were passed around by the directors, writers and actors, who circled sentences and words that sparked ideas that became episodes. Many of the episodes already aired were surprisingly true to events, Alda said, something that came from “paying attention.”
- Early in the show, CBS censors banned the word “virgin,” even though it had been used without any sexual context. The next week, Gelbart tucked in a scene with a soldier from the Virgin Islands. It made me think about the constant push by reporters against rigid rules of propriety and style so they can write what’s real.
- Alda described the ethos that came to define M*A*S*H* as the opposite of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. “I want to hear a human story,” he said.
Much of the interview focuses on a refusal to deny or diminish the reality of war. While humor was present in all but one or two episodes I remember, war was the throughline. As Alda said: “… as frivolous as some of the stories are, underneath it is an awareness that real people lived through these experiences, and that we tried to respect what they went through.”
Respect for what real people went through. Isn’t that what we strive for in our journalism? And isn’t that why we must continue to tell stories about the harsh realities of life, including or maybe especially war? As Alda said, “You can’t get as harsh as it really was.”