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TELEVISION REVIEW

`Tabloid Wars' is a realistic peakinside newsroom

When dramatized for purposes of film and TV, most newspaper reporters morph quickly into minor action heroes; before long, they're solving murders or uncovering vast government conspiracies, and they're usually involved in one car chase per day.

This is probably due to the fact that actual journalism isn't that exciting; it's a lot of phone calls, hang-ups, typing, re-typing, and quiet, aching stress. So it is to Bravo's great credit that ``Tabloid Wars," the six-part documentary series that premieres tonight at 9, manages to wring drama and pathos from the honest particulars of life at the New York Daily News.

Granted, the ``wars" part is a bit of a misnomer. The cutthroat competition between the Daily News and its arch rival New York Post clearly undergirds the drama, but we seldom see Post reporters unless they're lingering at a crime scene. Instead, we're introduced to the sausage-making process through a string of reporters and editors who look and sound exceedingly real, and are usually too busy to do much mugging for the camera. Except for the flashing reminders of the number of hours to deadline, the tension here derives from actual events, which usually play out in unglamorous slow motion.

Granted, I'm not the most objective observer, having been a metro reporter for many years -- never at a tabloid, but here at the Globe, where the deadline is tough and the competition is formidable. Having seen it myself, I can say that ``Tabloid Wars" gets the details right: the maddening convergence of reporters on a crime scene; the number of fruitless door-knocks it takes to get the right quote; the way eyewitnesses tend to have seen absolutely nothing; the pasty skin tone of the metro desk editors, who never seem to get enough sun.

The one thing the series doesn't explain -- perhaps because it's unexplainable -- is why some journalists have a mystical knack for nabbing the story, regardless of the trials. In the case of ``Tabloid Wars," the effective hero is Kerry Burke, a gumshoe crime reporter with a thick Boston accent (he once was a paperboy for the Globe) who drives uncomplainingly to distant neighborhoods in pursuit of the story of the day, banging on doors until he stumbles on just the right guy.

Burke is guilty, too, of some of the series' most maudlin moments; he gives more than one speech along the lines of ``We're here to tell the people's story," which, while often true, is the journalist equivalent of a doctor on ``ER" saying, ``Just saved another life today." There is a fair amount of soap-boxing here, much of it coming from Michael Cooke, the News' swashbuckling British editor-in-chief.

And there were clearly temptations, as ``Tabloid Wars" was filmed, to wring life lessons out of the daily routine. When Hud Morgan, a conceited junior gossip columnist, prints a faulty tip about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's wedding (``Tabloid Wars" was filmed last summer), his penance is to cover a Daily News-sponsored prostate cancer screening. After hearing some real-life cancer stories, he gives an inevitable speech about `` What's Really Important. " (It can't have been too life-changing, since Morgan now works for Men's Vogue.)

But for every false sentiment, there is ample footage of real reporting and genuine news decisions. Even the gossip columnists -- and the News, being the News, has four of them -- make a convincing case that they work hard for their adrenaline rush.

Not all of this is pretty, especially at a tabloid, where the lines between responsibility and absurdity are thin. In the premiere episode, editors fret about launching a race war with a story about a white-on-black beating at Howard Beach. But the story competes for page-one space with the tale of a lesbian model/ bounty hunter.

Still, all of it is genuine, which comes as both surprise and a relief. If ``Tabloid Wars" convinces some armchair editors about the true demands of newspaper life, it may have done a service to the journalists among us.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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