No. 32: “The Daily Times,” a satirical screen treatment
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you June 12 for No. 33, last in the #33Stories retrospective!
Writers Guild of American registration no. 1946961
|Meme created by Mark Wuerker, Politico.|
Without further ado, the opening pages of “The Daily Times” screen treatment:
Welcome to 2018. The Age of Anything has arrived.
In this age, the line between fact and fiction is irretrievably blurred. Your reality is what you believe, however elitist, uninformed or self-serving -- and by now, that pretty much covers everyone. The door has shut on listening and learning and, God forbid, informed debate that might move the species toward its once-imagined noble destiny… or at least save the planet before it extinguishes its highest life form, leaving the spoils to the cockroaches.
Now, no one can control or direct what human existence has become.
Now, no one seems able to sort it out except, perhaps, demagogues with their falsehoods.
Founded on noble principle, America (and the interconnected world) has become a churning swamp of trivia, nonsense, insult, arrogance, ignorance, obsession, emptiness, bombast, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, lies, memes, conspiracies, fakery and paranoia.
It all flashes by, leaving barely a trace, through minds whose attention spans have been compressed to those of a gnat. Tweet, Tweet; Like/Share; Instagram that. Next?
Anything. Everything. Nothing.
Reality has become an Unreality Show, to quote The New York Times.
Amazingly, a few big papers like the NYT keep trying to make sense of it all – keep aspiring to tell truths -- even as they see their power and print revenues slip away, and the citizens who once relied on the press despise them and the “Establishment tools” they employ: the professional journalists who once were revered as stewards of the First Amendment. Now, the citizenry believes, the only “trusted” sources are sites that narcissistically reinforce and amplify you own beliefs, whether you are a dumb-fuck, conservative, progressive or anyone else.
I’m right, you’re wrong, I can prove it, I hate you, take this: unfriended!
Numbers and algorithms are the foundation of life today, and like humanity, it seems, newspapers (indeed, all media outlets) today live or die by digitalia. Die the death of a thousand cuts, mostly. Classifieds once generated cash, but Craig’s List and Monster and Zillow killed that. Now, page views = advertising rates, the bread and butter.
Today, your daily rag (which you don’t read if you’re under, say, 80) is just more noise in the cultural cacophony, the soundtrack to a civilization in death spiral.
So today, many desperate publishers crave click bait.
Today, many editors’ grand ambition is to go viral.
Today, you pray for Facebook Live fatal car crashes. Or a Kardashian jewelry heist. Or a flamboyant nut running for office. Or a No Pants or Go Topless Day. Admit it: you read those.
Today, with their moral compasses having been ground away or abandoned, some journalists take chances with dubious experts, anonymous characters, and unnamed sources they never would have before.
Today, journalists in general can get away with a whole lot more. So long as the metrics soar and the suits don’t lay your sorry ass off, what else really matters?
Today, journalists are not someone anointed by the Founders, but just another bunch of schmucks, "enemies of the people."
Wal-Mart, Family Dollar, McDonald’s, reporter? Whatever. Fries with that?
And yet, still fighting the good fight against crushing odds is a mighty metropolitan newspaper that strives to intelligently inform -- and, when democracy demands, give voice to the voiceless, embodying the old commitment to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
It is called The Daily Times, and not too many years ago, it was a highly profitable Pulitzer Prize-winning institution with an enormous staff that overshadowed TV and radio and a sterling reputation. It ranked with The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and a handful of papers abroad as one of the planet’s towering media outlets.
Published in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the new republic with its press freedoms was born, it was long a shining beacon -- dedicated to exposing corruption, righting wrongs and debunking falsehoods since its founding in 1858, when it became one of the first general-readership newspapers to take an abolitionist stand. Its integrity and independence were unquestioned. The public, not just in Philly and Pennsylvania but all America, held it in the highest regard. A must-read, 365 days a year.
The Times is still owned by the Sanders family, which founded it almost 160 years ago. George Sanders III is the current publisher, but he’s 77 years old and has just named his only child, Stephanie G. Sanders, deputy publisher. But he has no intention of retiring, even though he is exhibiting early signs of dementia; after all, his father ran the ship until he was 87.
That, of course, was in a different time, when newspaper families could build their fortunes just by keeping the presses running.
Enter the internet, which wrecked the ad base and brought software by which the “value” of a story was measured by page views and engaged minutes. First Amendment, meet Nielsens.
The veteran journalists who weren’t laid off dissolved into fading irrelevance that left them the butt of jokes, if not outright scorn. What should have been the next generation went into advertising or public-relations... or lived in Mommy’s basement with crushing debts from college. To the masses, journalism seemed less vital to the republic than Starbucks. And only Congress rated lower than journalists in the respect polls. Now, even lawyers ranked better.
And in the real world this is the story of many once-mighty metropolitan newspapers across the U.S. -- those that survive or haven’t been gutted by profit-hungry big chains, that is.
Sad. Tragic, too, if you care about the democracy, which citizens now at each other’s throats no longer do.
Not exactly what The Founders had in mind when they penned the First Amendment.
Or was it?
Wonder what Benjamin Franklin would have to say about that.
The longtime Publisher of The Daily Times, George Sanders III, 77, is the scion of the Philadelphia Main Line family that’s owned the paper and held a majority of its stock since its 1858 founding. He has just named his only child, Stephanie G. Sanders, 36, to be Deputy Publisher – not out of goodwill for his daughter, who was born contrarian and free-spirited, but because without a son, she is the only way to keep the paper (hurting as it is) in the family.
Someday, she may run it… but not, he thinks, for a long time, if ever, even though he himself senses the progressive cognitive decline accompanying the onset of his dementia. To counter it, he has turned to cocaine, after reading a (real, credible University of California San Francisco) study that the drug can increase learning function. And for him it does, albeit in fits and starts. Important to note: the President of the United States is a friend.
Stephanie came into the world with a super-brain – and athletic abilities. And perhaps she needed both to survive in a world of stodgy male ancestors and living uncles and cousins and a father who will never let her forget that he wanted a son (which explains his three marriages, only one of which resulted in a child, Stephanie).
At her prep school, Stephanie lettered in soccer, ice hockey and rugby and would have been a high honors student if not for her weakness in math; at Harvard, where she majored in anthropology, she captained the NCAA-championship women’s hockey team and took up amateur women’s boxing on the side. Wanted nothing to do with The Times during her childhood or after graduation, when, in her own version of Eat, Love, Pray, she spent years travelling the world, blogging and Facebooking her way along as she cycled through adventures and short-lived romances... with men and women.
Eventually she wearied of the nomadic life, and in her early 30s, she returned to Philadelphia and decided stable employment was better than wandering, at least for now. When her dinosaur father gave her what he considered the trivial job of Social Media Manager, she saw it as an opportunity to finally prove him wrong… on many levels.
She soon turned grandiose, believing she could not only save The Daily Times but restore it to greatness. Using her restless energy to curate the paper’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other accounts, ad revenues bump up, albeit not to levels that (yet) will rescue the bottom line.
Stephanie has found true power, superior to winning any hockey title, and it feeds her neurons, intoxicating her.
Meet Matt Rivera, who has a magic digital touch Stephanie could only dream of. Not to mention a dark side that unchecked could threaten her soul, the paper and, perhaps, America.
Twenty-six years old, Matt has a genius-level IQ and lives with his mother, who is dying of cancer. He experiences what appears to be Asperger’s syndrome and when he is not caring for Mom, he is in the basement, where he spends all his time online: a true digital native, his passion since childhood has been computers and software. Here, he is safe, and Master of his Universe.
Matt has developed a sophistication in hacking that would be the envy of the NSA’s finest cyber-spy -- and in bitcoin extortion, income extracted from hapless CEOs that helps with the crushing debt of his mother’s medical bills, which mounted into the hundreds of thousands of dollars when her heartless insurer dropped her. Lately, he has also developed an interest in creating and disseminating fake news -- for the fun of it. Matt loves yanking chains. The lad has a bit of existentialist humor in him.
Matt of course is into Reddit, Anonymous, 4chan and other dark web, where he is well known by his nom de plume: “God of #s.” Self-taught, Matt is fluent in Russian and is learning Mandarin Chinese. He also is deeply gifted mathematically. Being a genius comes in handy.
His best “friend” is the fellow dark-webber “Duchess de Jour,” a young Russian woman who, among other things, works for Vladimir Putin, even though (initially) she denies it (The Duchess is based on the real-life Alisa Shevchenko, @badd1e, who describes herself this way: “My name is Alisa. I am a human being. Part misfit, part mishacker. A business woman in the past as well as in a possible future. Currently I am mostly working on vulnerabilities and exploits, while striving to minimize entropy in the process [no luck so far].”)
Alisa’s favorite band? Pussy Riot. Favorite historical figure? Benjamin Franklin: Admiring the many things he was (scientist, inventor, diplomat, author, rebel, journalist, postmaster, Founder and more), she has this crush on him. Kinda weird. Cute, though.
Why Matt for a best friend? Because they both like to think -- and they may be right -- that they are the world’s greatest cyber-masters.
They also share something they consider noble: the conviction that the bloated, greedy, scumbag One-Percenters of the world must finally be brought down, so that the rest of humanity can live in peace and comfort. Old-fashioned war used to be the way to reset civilization, but Matt and Alisa know what the new way is -- and they are getting down to it, starting in their own countries, which happen to be the two most powerful on earth. What fun subterfuge can be.
-- Stephanie G. Sanders, 36, George’s free-spirited only child, gifted with a magnificent mind. Recently promoted by her father from Social Media Manager to Deputy Publisher, she is excited by power and knows that inevitably, she must push doddering dad out. And won’t that be sweet. Deeply conflicted: torn between her belief in her paper’s time-honored commitment to righting wrongs, which sucks precious resources with minimal page-view payback, and click-bait Go Topless Days, which rock it with minimal investment. Bisexual. Lives alone, save for Fuzzy, her adorable rabbit.
-- Matt Rivera, 26, driven by a unique blend of intellect, curiosity, occasional wry humor, Asperger’s and a burning desire to avenge those who have harmed his beloved mother. Lately, he also increasingly believes he also has been called to avenge the One Percent, those who have enslaved and punished the Ninety-nine and are killing the planet; maybe he’ll play Robin Hood, too. His father was an award-winning police reporter for The Times (first Latino ever hired) who mysteriously died (or did he?) when he was a baby, leaving him and his mother alone.
-- Jim Barry, 60s, veteran reporter rooted in the Woodward/Bernstein era, son of Mary Barry, the first woman reporter at The Times (hired in 1969, think: Good Girls Revolt). Two years after she was hired, she committed suicide, the stress of the job and the bullying of the misogynists triggering a violent episode of her underlying schizophrenia, which had been controlled until then. Mary was a single mom, and the teenage Jim was left to his own (he never met his father, though his elderly father IS still alive, somewhere).
Young Jim was a founding member of The Daily Times’ current investigative team, Target Times, and he shared the paper’s first Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and the three more since. He has headed the team for 20 years. Ben Franklin, the greatest journalist of the early era, not to mention esteemed Founder, has been Jim’s idol since childhood.
And while he has never revealed this to ANYONE or sought to confirm the diagnosis, he, like his mother, may be mildly schizophrenic. Since his early 20s, he has experienced recurring audio (never visual) hallucinations – what he describes to himself as THE RADIO, a sound track (sometimes uplifting, sometimes scary) running in his mind. THE GOOD RADIO brings nice music, which soothes; THE BAD RADIO can be chased away only with Vicodin or booze.
-- Andrea Cooper, 33, second Target Times team member, based in the paper’s (downsized) Washington bureau but frequently in Philadelphia. An African-American lesbian, she compliments her journalistic brilliance with charm and beauty to carefully cultivate deep sources of both sexes. Two-time Pulitzer winner, with Jim. Granddaughter of a Civil Rights leader who was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Andrea traces her passion for righting wrongs to her Baltimore childhood, when she and her family experienced racism first-hand. Childhood is also when she experienced her first migraine headache. They still plague her.
-- Raven King, 29, third Target Times team member, already a Pulitzer winner. Since her college internship, Jim has mentored Raven, and she would do anything for him, seeing in him the father she wants, not the alcoholic she has (Jim sees in her the daughter he could have had, not the one from whom he is estranged). Physically and mentally tough, a three-letter athlete in college like Stephanie, Raven also has taken up boxing. A Lakota, she grew up on Standing Rock Reservation, so she knows about social injustice and resilience. Against Jim’s advice and unknown to Stephanie, she carries a Glock 19 as needed. Don’t fuck with Raven.
-- George Sanders III, 77, President and Publisher of The Daily Times, CEO and Chairman of The Daily Times Corp., the publicly traded company that owns the paper and other properties (he and family are majority stockholders). Like Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, Sanders is out of touch with today’s environment and thinks he may be experiencing dementia, albeit not (yet) as profound as Redstone. He believes cocaine can stop, even reverse it, so he draws his lines. Friend of rich and powerful, his support for investigative journalism is dwindling in his dotage. As stubborn as ever, and now a dinosaur: a wounded Tyrannosaurus Rex.
-- Benjamin Franklin, yup, him (maybe): the foremost editor, publisher and journalist of the early era, not to mention Founder and one of the most highly revered Americans in history, in the rarefied class of Washington, Lincoln and King. Ben has come back, with an interest in contemporary journalism. Why not? Philadelphia is where he published his famous Pennsylvania Gazette, and Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted. Also, where he flew kites. But his real motive? Settling an old score with his arch-nemesis John Adams. In real 18th-century America, the two hated and blasphemed each other.
[As the series opens, the Target Times team is conducting a blockbuster investigation of the federal Food and Drug Administration, arguably the last institution in which Americans, battered by religious and government scandal, still have a measure of faith. After almost a year’s work, Jim, Andre and Raven have conclusive proof that high-level DFA officials accepted large bribes in return for approving Big Pharma drugs declared “safe” after deliberately falsified clinical trials – and worse, have not taken other hugely-profitable drugs off the market despite mounting deaths and injuries. The corporation in the team’s cross-hairs is Miller & Merkel, the world’s second-largest drug company, headquartered in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to the team, George Sanders is a major stockholder through a blind trust.
[NOTE: Despite the decline of newspapers, no other type of media outlet can still touch the best papers for landmark exposés. Think: The Boston Globe’s Spotlight and Remember: Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigation, which remains the gold standard.]
-- Duchess de Jour, 28, a true shadow figure, she exists only as a brilliant and beautiful Princess of the Dark Web -- except in Moscow, where by day she unobtrusively hangs out in Starbucks Red Square, her iPad always in motion. At night, you can sometimes find her at Roof of the World, one of the Russian capital city’s trendy night clubs. Lives alone in a small apartment with her growing menagerie of pet rabbits. Has no visible means of support and no close friends, except online.
-- The President of the United States, 68, paranoid (with reason). Friend of Wall Street. Took office with multiple corporate conflicts of interest (notably with Big Pharma) that he disregarded, but which are now starting to bite him on the ass as Congress has opened hearings. Up for re-election with major competition just as his favorability numbers are falling. Hair-trigger temper. HATES the press (with reason) except for his old friend George Sanders whose paper has never gunned for him... until now.
-- Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 66, president of the Russian Federation. Former counter-intelligence operative with the First Chief Directorate of the Soviet KGB.
EXT. PHILADELPHIA SKYLINE – SUNRISE
A SERIES OF SHOTS establishing the location. NOTE Independence Hall, trendy Old City on the Delaware River, 30th Street Station, The Franklin Hotel at Independence Park, etc.
CLOSE ON: TODAY’S DAILY TIMES FRONT PAGE
The CEO of A GIANT INSURANCE COMPANY based in Manhattan has been arrested in a texting scandal involving a prostitute who may also be underage (think: Anthony Weiner). After receiving a “highly credible” tip, the authorities have seized his cell phone and found naked photos of him and her sent back and forth. The CEO denies involvement with any prostitute and insists the photos were planted. Sounds like bullshit, but his board is meeting today and his career and marriage are over.
EXT. DAILY TIMES MAIN BUILDING – MORNING
About 9 a.m., and employees are arriving for work. JIM walks with RAVEN and ANDREA, who’s taken the Acela in from Washington for a meeting of the Target Times team. We SEE the executive garage opening: GEORGE arrives, in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and STEPHANIE follows, driving her Prius. Her father hates that “hippie” car. She knew he would.
INT. NEWSROOM – MORNING
Jim, Raven and Andrea huddle at Jim’s desk in their private corner of a once-proud space, now a partly deserted dump, a visual metaphor for the industry. Center in the mess that is Jim’s desk is a FRAMED PRINT of Benjamin Franklin, with the First Amendment across the bottom. It is a sort of shrine to Franklin, who has been a favorite of Jim’s since childhood and Santa brought him a “Ben Franklin kite” and Van de Graaff electricity generator. Franklin subsequently inspired Jim in his journalism career and remains a hero.
The three reporters are discussing their latest blockbuster investigation: the FDA/Big Pharma exposé. Still a few critical pieces missing, including some damning internal FDA documents that sources claim exist but so far haven’t been able to deliver. In the middle of the meeting, Jim’s eyes grow wide and he drifts off, as if his mind has left the room. Raven and Andrea are used to this, and believe it to be his amazing powers of concentration – but in fact, THE SCARY RADIO has come on in his head. Jim excuses himself.
INT. NEWSROOM BATHROOM – MORNING
Jim pops a Vicodin, which throttles back the SCARY RADIO.
INT. NEWSROOM – MORNING
Jim, Raven and Andrea resume discussion of the investigation as if nothing happened.
|An actual old newsroom today. What a dump.|
EXT. AN APARTMENT BUILDING IN FAIRHILL, PHILADEPHIA – MORNING
A paper carrier tosses today’s Daily Times from his car onto the front stairs of a run-down apartment building in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fairhill, an Hispanic enclave.
INT. AN APARTMENT BUILDING IN FAIRHILL, PHILADEPHIA – MORNING
MATT brings a cup of tea and the paper to mother ISABELLA RIVERA, a Mexican native who is bedbound in the first-floor apartment’s small living room, which has been transformed into a hospital suite, with IV pole, oxygen, meds, etc. Despite her terminal cancer, she is always happy to start the day with her son – and her beloved newspaper, for which her late husband worked after coming to America from El Universal, Mexico’s largest newspaper. Following his death in a mysterious car crash following his exposé of a Mexico-to-New York drug ring, his widow survived for many years on the newspaper’s generosity, for which she is forever grateful. But eventually, that ran out and Isabella struggled to support herself and her son, who with his Asperger’s has his own struggles at school and elsewhere.
Isabella starts reading today’s lead story, about the CEO of American National Health. After finishing, she calls Matt in, asking him: Isn’t this the company that dropped me when the bills mounted? Matt confirms that it is, and notes the huge debt that left them. He clearly loathes insurance companies.
Must be karma, Matt says. Payback can be a bitch.
Don’t talk like that, son, Isabella says. It poisons the soul. She is spiritual, unlike him.
Maybe, maybe not, Matt says. Sometimes, payback is all the 99 percent have. Besides, the guy was a CREEP. Got what he deserved.
INT. GEORGE’S CORNER OFFICE – DAY
George is complaining to Stephanie about the plummeting print circulation numbers for the millionth time. Stephanie explains – without patience – that this is an irreversible trend industry-wide, and the future is digital. Digital, schmidital, he protests. At times during this heated argument, it seems George is losing the thread… perhaps even momentarily forgetting who he is talking with. Jittery, as if… high? Argument ends when he gets a call from an old Goldman Sachs buddy, in from Manhattan for lunch at The Club. George shoos his daughter out.