Rory Gilmore and Why We Need Better Fictional Journalism

By
Rory Gilmore at Sandee Says. Photo: Netflix

Rory Gilmore has been aching to be a journalist since she was in high school. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life offers proof that she has fulfilled that dream, as she now works as a freelance writer scoring bylines at major outlets like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and GQ.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life also offers proof of something else: Rory Gilmore is still terrible at journalism.

If you know anyone who works in the news business or follow some reporter-types on social media, you’ve probably already gotten an ear/feed full of gripes about the way Rory conducts herself — and how journalism is portrayed — in A Year in the Life. If I were to base my perception of the industry on what occurs in the four episodes of this revival, here’s what I would conclude:

1. Freelance journalism is a super-flexible job that doesn’t require you to constantly be filing and also pays well enough to fund constant trips to London.

2. If you write one piece for The New Yorker — and it is astonishing that Rory Gilmore did this, but I digress — everyone in the publishing world will read it and want to offer you work.

3. Based largely on that one piece, a journalist can get an interview with top editors at GQ who will offer the following options: write a piece about sports even though you know nothing about sports, or do a longread on waiting in lines. Because David Foster Wallace would have written something amazing on line-waiting, but since he’s no longer with us, ask Rory Gilmore!

4. When conducting interviews, sometimes reporters fall asleep. Sources can be hella boring, right, fellow reporters?

5. It’s also totally fine to sleep with your sources, especially when they’re cosplaying, because then it’s less like you slept with a source and more like you just slept with a random wookiee. The Wookiee Free Pass Clause is totally covered in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, by the way. Look it up.

6. At digital journalism outlets people say things like, “We work best in a hive, buzzing around each other, making word honey.”

7. Any journalist who is looking for a job in 2016 should definitely look down their noses at digital journalism and prepare for interviews at new-media organizations by having no story pitches in their back pocket, then get pissed off when the higher-ups at said organizations don’t want to hire them. That’s just how the system works.

8. Community journalism at old-school newspapers like the Stars Hollow Gazette principally involves using outmoded computers, listening to veteran employees complain while standing near filing cabinets, and drinking Scotch from bottles tucked into one’s desk drawer. But you knew this already. You saw Spotlight.

I could go on, but I won’t, because my point has been made and I also really need to start working on my hot take about the deeper meaning of standing in line to see Santa in the Snapchat era.

As irksome as this fantasyland version of journalism might be to actual journalists, it’s fair to say that no one is turning to Gilmore Girls to get an accurate, realistic portrait of media life. Most of us learned the foolishness of attempting such a thing back when Rory first joined The Franklin staff at Chilton.

But in light of all the justifiable questions that have arisen recently about journalism — about the ease with which the fake gets confused with the real and the fairness of mainstream media coverage — I think it’s worthwhile to note that it would benefit everyone who deals with journalism, directly or tangentially, to more carefully consider how it is explained and portrayed to the public. That includes writers and directors who attempt, even in a lighthearted, pretend context, to depict the work that reporters and editors do and the responsibilities that go along with it.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life offers a simplistic, largely glamorized version of what journalism entails, and, up to a point, tips the balance of success in favor of its protagonist (Rory) even when we haven’t seen her do the work necessary to warrant such success. (Sandee of Sandee Says, at least, calls Rory out on this.)

Other shows — Sex and the City immediately comes to mind — have often done the same thing, focusing on the excitement that comes with getting published in glossy outlets and making the job look relatively easy. (Fellow columnists and freelance writers: How many times have people at parties learned what you do for a living and then talked about how nice it must be to write from home all day as if it’s just a goddamned breeze? How often have you listened to people say this and realized that they were largely basing their perceptions on the life’s work of Carrie Bradshaw?)

When a female reporter on a TV show or in a movie works on a story, how often does she wind up having sex with the source she’s interviewed? All the time, so much so that Marin Cogan wrote last year about how frustrating this phenomenon is in a Daily Intel piece that ended with the question, “Would it kill Hollywood to give us one grown-up Rory Gilmore?” Well, Hollywood just did. And she slept with a wookiee while on assignment.

Even in shows that get at least some of the nitty-gritty newsroom details right — The Wire, parts of House of Cards, The Newsroom — there is a sometimes implied, sometimes outright blatant dismissal of new media, frequently accompanied by a persistent refusal to accept that people who perform acts of internet journalism may actually be doing legitimate, ethically sound work. Some of this is rooted in real, internal media politics. Anyone who has worked at a legacy organization will tell you that, historically, people on the “old” side of the business, whether it’s radio, print, or television, often have been skeptical of the accelerated, page-view-accruing work done by those on the “new,” internet-focused side. It’s understandable for that skepticism to exist given the massive, anxiety-inducing shift in media culture that has occurred in a relatively short, fraught period of time. But it’s frustrating to see digital journalism so often reflected in pop culture solely through the prism of that divide and not depicted for what it actually involves at its best: thinking deeply about subjects, doing diligent research, talking to sources (without falling asleep), and attempting to accurately inform and engage, all while under more time pressure than journalists have experienced at any previous point in history.

This is why that Sandee Says scene in A Year in the Life is so frustrating: Because it highlights certain stereotypes about the modern media environment — the open work spaces, the relative youth of the employees, the fact that putting in two months makes you a “veteran” — in a way that feels condescending and overly simplistic. Even though Rory is thoroughly unprepared for the interview, the show suggests that she should be above it all anyway. The truth, as anyone who’s ever been unexpectedly laid off or watched an outlet fold can tell you, she’d probably be lucky to have a staff job there.

Like some of the other flaws in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, maybe these things would have been easier to overlook if the cultural climate were currently resting at another temperature. But in the past two weeks, it’s become clearer and clearer that everyone in this country, both working journalists and consumers, could benefit from a semester-long course in media literacy. We need good, careful reporting and commentary, and we need people who know it when they see it and will share it instead of fake nonsense or propaganda that isn’t rooted in fact. Obviously a show about Stars Hollow shouldn’t have to take responsibility for educating us all on this subject. But some of the more frustrating aspects of the way that Rory Gilmore, Female Journalist™  is presented should remind us that this stuff matters, in actual journalism and in widely watched fictional stories that suggest, even in minor ways, how journalism works.

While working on this piece, I remembered an elementary schooler I met while speaking at a Career Day last year. “I want to be a journalist,” she told me, “because I watch a show about a girl who is a journalist.” “What show?” I asked, racking my brain to remember which Disney Channel program features a character who covers the news. “Gilmore Girls,” she told me.

I loved that this little girl seemed so genuinely excited about pursuing journalism. But thinking about it again now, I’d love it even more if she could get a truer picture of what it means to be a journalist in 2016, both from Rory Gilmore and other fictional aspiring truth tellers like her.