Finding Facts, Making Stories
In one of the most anticipated plays of the season, Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy, Tom Hanks stars as Mike McAlary, a writer who worked his way to stardom at three New York tabloids from 1985 through his death on Christmas Day 1998 at the age of forty-one.
I worked with McAlary at New York Newsday, the setting for early scenes of Lucky Guy. Reviewers, publicists, and Ephron herself, before her death last June, portrayed the play as a love letter to the journalism of a bygone era. But beneath its nostalgic surface—the foul-mouthed newsroom repartee, wafting cigarette smoke, and late nights at the bar—the play poses serious moral questions about journalism and its place in the quest for celebrity.
McAlary was self-effacing, quietly funny, and ever helpful when we worked together in the paper’s Queens and City Hall bureaus. He was also ambitious—as we all were. Most of the reporters New York Newsday hired after it opened in the early 1980s were in their late twenties, so the staff was naturally imbued with youthful energy. McAlary had two assets that set him apart. He knew how to get cops to talk, a crucial skill that eluded nearly all of us but which our tabloid competitors excelled at. And he was an especially good writer.
McAlary was not alone in wanting to be the next Jimmy Breslin, who regularly exposed our youthful inexperience in his Daily News columns. Newsday solved that problem by hiring him. By that time, McAlary had secured police sources up to the Police Department’s highest ranks, and had won a good deal of notice—especially for his 1986 coverage of a corruption scandal in a Brooklyn precinct. So the News hired him to replace Breslin.
I lost touch with McAlary in the years that followed. He bounced between the News and the New York Post, and he dominated page one like no one else. But I didn’t recognize him in the tone of his more strident columns. The man I knew was pointed and keen in his observations, but with a sense of humor and a gentle irony. This is where Ephron fills in the story.
As she tells it, attorney and man-about-town Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald) lures McAlary into buying a luxurious home he can’t afford on Long Island, pointing out the nearby residences of New York Times and Vogue editors. No reporter could cover that kind of mortgage, but Hayes is there to help. He becomes McAlary’s agent, and induces a bidding war between the News and the Post for his services.
Hayes, who served as inspiration for a character in Bonfire of the Vanities, is the Mephistopheles who puts the finishing touches on a series of temptations presented to McAlary. The first comes from John Cotter, freewheeling metro editor of Newsday (Peter Gerety). Cotter, a hard-drinking man who died of a heart attack at age forty-eight, was fun to work with. He was generous with the paper’s money—insisting I buy a new overcoat before embarking on wintry trip to Poland to cover a visit by Mayor Ed Koch. Cotter also insisted I fly home first-class (Koch was in coach).
Cotter makes short work of McAlary’s stated desire to do “God’s work” as a reporter—and get the facts. “I may throw up,” he says, explaining that journalism is about finding a story, not facts. McAlary disagrees, but bonds with Cotter.
Cotter headed a group of reporters the rest of us dubbed “The A-Team.” Cotter adopted the term, too. His A-Team, which stormed the news of the day—usually a crime story—differed in some respects from the rest of the staff: it was mostly male, and white. It doesn’t come through in the play, but Newsday had one of the most diverse staffs in journalism. There were many talented women, who often covered the beats that made the paper distinctive: poverty, homelessness, education, transportation. But no one would pick up the paper if the front page didn’t shout loudly enough to be heard in New York. That was the A-Team’s specialty.
Journalists can cause considerable collateral damage, as Lucky Guy highlights in the case of Brian O’Regan, a cop who admitted to McAlary that he was part of a ring that stole drugs and money from dealers. O’Regan checked into a motel and shot himself to death; a copy of McAlary’s Newsday article was nearby.
McAlary was devastated. We all were. Journalists sometimes fantasize about righting wrongs, as McAlary says later in the play. But this was no fantasy—a man had died. The play quotes O’Regan’s suicide note: “McAlary wrote too much.” McAlary is stunned, but still gives TV interviews, and signs a book deal.
Lucky Guy explores a classic literary theme: the personal cost of pursuing the American Dream. If he’s to cover his mortgage, McAlary has to leap some moral hurdles to make himself invaluable to his editors. As Ephron presents it, he writes a fawning story about Donald Trump based on an exclusive interview—the kind of story editors love but serious reporters loathe. And he starts taking risks.
Carousing with sources, he drinks to excess, which leads to a car accident he barely survives. McAlary’s risky behavior comes to a head when he writes a column accusing a Brooklyn woman of lying to police about being raped. While detectives were still sorting out the facts, McAlary asserted that she fabricated the report to draw attention to an n upcoming rally against rape. He relied on his high-ranking police sources, who were misinformed about the investigation. And he continued to insist he was right even after the commissioner confirmed there was a rape.
McAlary’s quest for the American Dream led to a nightmare—for the woman he falsely accused, and for himself. He suffered public ridicule and was sued for libel. (The suit was dismissed because McAlary quoted his errant source accurately.)
His grasp of the American Dream weakens further when he receives a colon-cancer diagnosis, and the script has McAlary wondering whether he’s being punished. Ephron exaggerates the Irishness of the newsroom—but it allows her to add a dash of Catholic guilt to the story.
Yet there was also redemption. McAlary, weak from chemotherapy, went to a Brooklyn hospital to interview Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, breaking the story of how a police officer had sodomized him with a stick. Here McAlary took a risk in service of the truth—according to the play, his editors were initially reluctant to run the piece. But McAlary won the Pulitzer for that coverage. Months later, he succumbed to cancer.
More than anything, Lucky Guy is a morality tale. In the play, McAlary adopts the values of his celebrity lawyer, casting aside the tradition that reporters avoid getting too comfortable with the people they cover. And he loses himself in the process. Perhaps Ephron is reflecting on her own story: Like her second and third husbands, Carl Bernstein and Nick Pileggi, she emerged from the scrum of daily journalism to achieve celebrity.*
She presents McAlary as a throwback, but in some ways his story looks ahead to a day when journalists are expected to promote themselves in social media and broadcast interviews. With bosses watching the web traffic of every story, writers feel pressured to “brand” themselves and develop a following. That makes it hard to remember the journalistic value of humility. As deadline approaches, good reporters are aware that they may not have all the facts. But uncertainty doesn’t play well.
Those disturbing trends are implicit in Lucky Guy. The play concludes with a humbled, weakened McAlary acknowledging his Pulitzer in a touching scene in the Daily News newsroom. At curtain, his buddies somberly sing a verse from “Wild Rover,” their drinking song: “I’ll go home to my parents, confess what I’ve done, and ask them to pardon their prodigal son.”
* This sentence has been corrected. Bernstein and Pileggi were Ephron's second and third hudbands, respectively, not first and second.
About the Author
Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).