In the newspaper world, there are opposite extremes.
There’s the quick whirl of breaking news. Deadlines loom, editors wait, expectations build.
And there’s the way the New York Times and some others approach a detailed piece. Viewers will see that when “The Weekly” debuts June 2 on FX.
“To spend six, nine, 12 months on (a story) is something that The Times has always done,” said Caitlin Dickerson, whose immigration report is scheduled for June 16.
A vivid example was the story about New York’s hard-pressed taxi drivers (illustrated here with the Times photo by Kholood Eid). “I’ve been working on it for eight months,” Brian Rosenthal told the Television Critics Association.
He was talking in February … and was understating. It would be 13-plus months before the story debuted May 19 in the Times; three weeks after that, on June 9, it will be the second “Weekly” episode.
Ken Druckerman, the show’s producer, recalled hearing that Rosenthal had talked to hundreds of people. “I thought …, ‘That can’t be right.’ And I checked with Brian and he said, ‘Oh no, it’s 400.’”
It turned out to be 450. That had all started April 8, 2018, with the raid on Michael Cohen’s apartment. Rosenthal was one of five reporters doing a Cohen profile, then branched out.
Cohen held 13 “medallions,” each giving the right to operate one taxi in New York City. They had been selling to individual drivers for as much as $1 million apiece; how could they be worth that much?
He found what one person called a “Ponzi scheme”: Drivers – many of whom spoke little English – were given complicated loans and told they could always sell a medallion for more. After Uber and Lyft emerged, the value fell. Many cabbies went bankrupt; some committed suicide.
Rosenthal talked to 200 cabbies – often with a translator, as they waited at the airport. He talked to loan officials. The Times hires a tech company to go through 10,888 transactions spanning 13 years, with two news assistants then verifying the results.
And at times, a “Weekly” camera came along. “I am not somebody who is really comfortable being on camera, you know,” Rosenthal said. “It feels weird. (But) you always want to see as may people as possible see the product of your hard work and your passion.”
There are problems with bringing a camera, Dickerson said. “It slows you down. It, in some ways, makes it harder to get access to certain people.”
But the show is also part of a bigger picture. Sabrina Tavernise, now a national reporter for the Times, recalled being in Russia in the 1990s, when the government tightened its grip on the news. She saw people “just kind of turning off a little bit, retreating from the public sphere.”
And in the U.S.? “Journalism is under assault, in a way that it has never been before,” said Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor for the Times. Online “there’s all kinds of fake news being thrown about every which way,” making “a nine-month investigation by the New York Times look just like a random piece of information.”
One solution, he said, is “to be transparent,” with cameras following portions of a perpetual project.
— “The Weekly,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX; each episode is also on Hulu the next day
— Opener, June 2, reruns at 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m.; it’s also on FXX at 11:30 p.m. Sunday and then Wednesday night at midnight (technically, 12 a.m. Thursday).
— First episode probes a private school in Louisiana, accused of making big promises, then doctoring transcripts and more for college admission. Second, June 9, views the devastation of New York taxi drivers. Third, June 16, views immigration and a baby who spent most of her first 10 months away from her family. Fourth, June 23, has the tragic intersection of an idealistic American couple, biking around the world, and young men radicalized by Islam.