Why 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' mattered

March 7, 2017 01:30

By Paul Paolicelli
I watched, like most of America, the coverage of Mary Tyler Moore’s passing late last month and was filled with a sense of nostalgia that I found both unexpected and profound. Memories were stirred. Most of them pleasant. I looked back a long way, not only on my enjoyment of her very funny and entertaining programs, but on my own career and experiences from those youthful times. I sought out the reruns of the show on the “Sundance” channel and watched the entire last season which I’d recorded and viewed in lieu of the morning news. (It’s helped me stay sane in this particular period of national realignment).

Much of the coverage of Ms. Moore’s life focused on her “pioneering” role as a woman in a man’s profession. I never saw her as a pioneer so much as a reflection of what was going on in the TV news business at that time. I’d graduated from college in 1971 (a year after the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” had premiered) and found myself one month later working at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. I was fortunate, I’d been a Public Information Specialist in the army and had reported for Armed Forces Radio in Germany. That was enough broadcasting experience to get my foot in the door at what was then a top-10 market.

It was an exciting and defining time for television news. We had enormous ratings and a genuine effect on our community. There were three of us hired at the same time as writers; a young woman, a young African-American man and myself. We thought of ourselves as representatives of our generation. A sort of newsroom “Mod-Squad.”

Women weren’t new to the newsroom, the “Marie Torre Show” was a Pittsburgh institution at the time and there were prominent women on the other TV stations as well, but women and youngsters in the ranks were the coming trend. TV news was expanding and that meant an expanding work force and that meant that our generation was given its first voice in the process. We were the Vietnam generation. We were the “women’s lib” generation. We were the civil rights generation. And we were determined that our voices be heard.

In episode after episode the MTM show had Mary in situations that, while comedic in nature, also dealt with the changing times. She demanded (and ultimately received) equal pay for equal work, respect for her position and the right to be treated as a professional equal. This was what was actually happening. And the important thing to remember is that while there might have been initial opposition to her stands, they were ultimately respected and granted. This, too, was actually happening at the time.

Another theme that was repeated in the program was Lou Grant’s charming male chauvinism that was always overwhelmed by Mary’s sympathetic logic. While the Lou Grant character was a pure comedic foil for the female leading actress, there was a great deal of depth and truth to his role. Most important to that character was his back story; a World War Two veteran who had fought in Europe and whose army experiences helped define his character, outlook and actions. While he might have had an old-fashioned attitude toward women and a reluctance to accept the changing times, he was essentially open minded and came to a sometimes begrudging acceptance of the those changes. Virtually all of the men (and, yes, they were all men) who taught me the business were members of “the greatest generation.” They’d seen the world at its worst. They had a deep and powerful understanding of the role of a free and independent press. They’d seen what happens when the media was reduced to government propaganda and had fought to restore the democratic process for others denied that voice.

Our anchor man at KDKA, Bill Burns, was the mirror opposite of Ted Baxter; he’d fought his way onto the beach at Normandy on D-Day, nearly lost his life and lost most of a leg in a German shelling a few days later and was one of the most intelligent and effective news men I’ve ever known. In a sense, he was our Lou Grant. He was reluctant to grant our generation equal status, made us prove our worth, but ultimately accepted the enormous changes and times. The Baxter role was unfortunate. Funny, yes. Accurate, no. While there were some in the business at the time who were mostly, as one of my favorite bosses used to say, “an 8 by 10 glossy with deep pipes,” the reality for me is that virtually every anchor man and woman I ever worked with was serious and dedicated;  people who considered themselves journalists with performance skills. I came to respect those skills. I hated the performance aspects of broadcasting and was completely comfortable behind the camera. On those occasions when I had to go in front of the camera I never felt at home. I admired those who did.

What Mary Tyler Moore represented to me, and for me, is what I did for a living. We were the “behind the scenes” people who made it all happen. We were the youth who brought in the new ideas, the new way of looking at the world. And we had a profound respect, even in the most powerful of our disagreements, for those who ran the joint. In Mary’s case it was with a definitive female perspective, but she also stood for what I stood for, did what I did, and loved her work as I loved mine. I was indebted to her. Later in my career when people outside of media circles asked me what I did, I told them I was the Lou Grant of the news room. They understood immediately. thanks to Mary Tyler Moore. And they understood for years after the program disappeared into the mist of television history.

The notion of that program and the memory of that news room is particularly important in these times of political change. Mary Tyler Moore showed the country, in a humorous way, who we were; reasonable and conscientious people sometimes thoughtful sometimes thoughtless, but always respectful and open, capable of mistakes but also capable of correction. Mary Tyler Moore never had a political or social agenda. Neither did the rest of us. And while those of us who did it for real didn’t share her comedy objective, we did share her sense of optimism and public spirit. She represented the best of us then and in reruns she still does.

Paul Paolicelli is a writer, journalist, former television news director and former member of the RTDNA board of directors.