Hollywood and Journalism: A Retrospective
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Hollywood’s Love Affair With The American Journalist
Dec. 1, 2010
William K. Sites
University of Nevada, Reno
From the time that the 1931 classic The Front Page portrayed journalists as fighters for the Common Man to last year’s depiction of a sleazy, hard-drinking workaholic newspaper reporter in State of Play, Hollywood has significantly shaped the public’s perception of American journalism. In the early days of cinema, popular actors of the day played fast-talking news hacks that saved the little guy from corruption and harm, even if through and by unscrupulous means. Movies such as the 1940 hit His Girl Friday starred the ever-popular Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who joined forces to save the town from corruption and an innocent man from the gallows – all in one day. The cinematic depiction of journalist as savior would continue until the epitome of the do-good journalist reached its pinnacle with the 1976 government-busting All The President’s Men. From there, societal unrest and Hollywood teamed up and turned against journalism, opting instead to paint the professional journalist as arrogant, reckless, and somewhat untrustworthy. Films such as 1981’s Absence of Malice reminded viewers that even Sally Field’s prissy reporter character is capable of destroying lives by printing lies and dirty little secrets. To this day, American cinema seldom reverts to the early silver screen, when the likes of Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart sold their journalistic soul for the sake of man and democracy.
Perhaps journalist Chip Rowe said it best when he wrote that Hollywood is to blame for those loathsome misconceptions that journalists are hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, dimwitted social misfits concerned only with twisting the truth into scandal and otherwise devoid of conscience, respect for human dignity or a healthy fear of God (Rowe, 1992). He’s absolutely correct.
Journalism films enjoy a distinct place on the shelf of American cinema. Unlike westerns or gangster films, movies about news journalists possess a unique and defined timeline that clearly depicts a shift in Hollywood’s opinion of the value and sanctity of the profession – especially newspapers. In the early days, journalists were often portrayed as fast-talking hustlers who seldom saw sleep, an empty glass of liquor, an unlit cigarette or a corrupt government official that didn’t get busted. For the Cary Grant’s of the early silver screen, any means justified the ends. Even smart, good-looking women got in on the action.
But since the mid-1970s, Hollywood has decidedly cast a negative light on the professional journalist. Since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were portrayed as two super-smart, ultra-cool professional journalists in charge of taking down a president, Hollywood productions have focused on the reporter as a failure/liar/cheat (think Shattered Glass or Absence of Malice). The scholarly focus on journalism in film continues to ask the question: Is Hollywood shaping public perception, or is it reflecting it? I argue that perhaps the profession is partly to blame because of highly publicized scandals involving disgraced journalists (Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, et al.).
Journalism films can be considered a distinct genre in that they show familiar characters performing familiar actions celebrating familiar values. In journalism movies, reporter and editor characters regularly interact in a newsroom setting and pursue news stories typically embodied by one or more other characters. What truth is being sought or suppressed in the film and how and by whom is it controlled? (Ehrlich, 2004). The reporter is often portrayed as obsessive and more recently as pushed to paranoia (All The President’s Men, 1976, and State of Play, 2009).
The cinematic portrayal of journalism (specifically newspapers) can be divided into two categories – positive and negative. The first category, positive, is concerned with the movies spanning 1930-1980. These movies generally view the professional journalist as important to democracy, freeing people from societal ills and making sure the lower end of society gets justice. Although the first round of journalism-oriented films did not begin with such amiable treatment, the newspaper companies successfully lobbied for a better spin.
During the late 1930s newspaper editors became so upset with Hollywood’s unflattering portrayal of journalism that they lobbied Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, to change the way the movies treated the news profession. Understanding how much Hollywood relied on the press for favorable treatment, he complied and enlisted the aid of Joseph Breen in the Production Code Administration (Vaughn, 2005). As far back as 1931, journalism educator John Drewry was lambasting Hollywood for making the reporter “more nearly resemble a gangster than even a moderately well-off business or professional man.” (Ehrlich, 2006). Until the power of those men and their organizations faded, the newspapers generally enjoyed the halo Hollywood had bestowed upon the profession.
The epitome of journalist-as-savior came with All The President’s Men, which falsely credited two reporters and their newspaper with ending the presidency of Richard M. Nixon (Ehrlich, 2006). According to writer Matthew Ehrlich, the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman flick elevated their characters – Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – to God-like status. It was, says Ehrlich, Hollywood’s vision of what the press could and should be, including that of “journalists as defenders of society’s right to know.” (Ehrlich, 2006). The movie has been labeled as a milestone in the process of exalting the press and a significant moment in the elevation of the American journalist to mythical status (Ehrlich, 2006). From there, says Ehrlich, there was nowhere to go but down.
And down goes in the negative folder, where just about every journalism movie made between 1980 and today can be filed. These films paint a dark picture of the profession, specifically on single characters. Unlike the wisecracking, hard-boiled reporter of yesteryear – almost always portrayed by a loveable and popular Hollywood actor – recent journalism films star secondary actors with little love built up in the minds of viewers. Movies such as Where The Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas portray an all-too-real Hunter S. Thompson – the epitome of a gonzo, whacko journalist. The war correspondent fact-based 1997 movie Welcome To Sarajevo enlightened the viewer to the existential side of “vulture journalism,” where even the most hardened journalists forego ethics and journalistic principles.
Absence of Malice gave us reason to hate journalists because we already suspect that even Sally Field can play a perky little liar of a journalist, who destroys businesses and drives people to suicide by printing gossip – she even admitted it at the end! Hmmm…Hunter S. Thompson really does kill himself and Sally Field’s character leads a woman to kill herself after her abortion was made public in the newspaper. Other recent films support the notion that journalists are bad people, liars and downright dangerous (1994’s The Paper and 2003’s Shattered Glass are good examples). Many experts have witnessed the shift from good to bad in Hollywood’s view on journalism.
New York Times reporter Glenn Garelik says that movies and TV have been killing journalism since All The President’s Men gave the media a post-Vietnam boost. The old-time press, says Garelik, stood up for the little guy; today’s media are likely to exploit him (Garelik, 1993). Garelik notes that in the old days, only newspapers existed. In more recent times, TV (and now the Web) increased the negative exposure (think The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ed Asner’s drinking). Newspaper reporters in the 1930s were often blue-collar working guys that came from the community and pursued their work with heart (Garelik, 1993). The important thing about them – fast-talking, wisecracking, chain-smoking and hard-drinking journos though they may have been – is that they shared the values of the people they were writing for. Garelik believes that Hollywood treated journalists as heroes and proponents of democracy until the Vietnam War – and then journalists became seditious, intrusive, and arrogant (Garelik, 1993).
While it is arguable whether or not Hollywood is manufacturing a negative view of journalists or just following societal leanings, the interesting point is that journalism has enjoyed some unusual attention to its stereotypes. While I agree that some journalists are hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, arrogant insomniacs – as they are often depicted in movies – the labels seem rather broad and casually placed. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood continued unabated in its character assassination of journalists.
New York Times critic Nora Sayre screened 10 newspaper films made between 1931 and 1974. She wrote: “Small wonder that many moviegoers don’t love or trust newspaper people; from the first film production of The Front Page to the latest, over 30 years of movies have stated that reporters blithely invent the news while ignoring what really happened, and that the newsroom is a giant nursery seething with infantile beings.” (Good, 1989).
Howard Good, writing in Outcasts: The Image of Journalists In Contemporary Film, says that the Hollywood reporter of the 1930s and 40s cursed his calling, yet clung to it. He wore a hat indoors, had a bottle of booze stashed in his bottom desk drawer, and insulted everyone he met. He was ruthless. The Front Page created suspicions about journalism and its servants in the minds of millions of people who otherwise have no real knowledge of either (Good, 1989).
I agree with Sayre and Good. But in my reality as an experienced newspaper journalist and editor, some of Hollywood’s portrayals are accurate. While not all stereotypes can be one-size-fits-all, I can attest that many films contain accurate accounts of the newspaper journalist lifestyle. Many journalists – at least in the legacy dailies of yesteryear – were hard drinking, foul-mouthed know-it-alls. The lifestyle of the newspaper journalist lends itself to relentless dedication to the craft because news never stops. Alcohol issues have historically been common throughout the industry, mainly as a means of self-medication for overworked and underpaid street reporters that see more bad things in a year than most people experience in a lifetime.
Other than the ubiquitous glass of booze, other geographical links can be found in nearly every movie I screened. A good and proper counterpart to drinking is, of course, smoking. In the 1940 classic His Girl Friday, smoking seemed to be almost as necessary as breathing. Rosalind Russell, playing a tough-as-nails ex-wife and journalism addict trying to shake off the addiction, uses smoking as (what appears to be) a sexual tease. She’s hot – and smoking makes her even hotter. Cigarettes play an interesting role in a war zone, being not only a good bribe commodity for journalists in war-torn Sarajevo (Welcome To Sarajevo, 1997), but also as a pacifier in times of high stress.
Perhaps the ultimate journalist-as-smoker movie, All The President’s Men, has Dustin Hoffman as the chain-smoking Carl Bernstein. An hour and one minute into the movie, Robert Redford (playing reporter Bob Woodward) turns to Dustin Hoffman and says, “Is there any place you don’t smoke?” In Welcome To Sarajevo, Woody Harrelson’s arrogant character wonders how one of the reporters can refrain from smoking and drinking: “If you’re not smoking and you’re not drinking, then what are you doing?” he asks. “Staying alive,” is the sober answer. Beyond smokers and drinkers, the most common theme is tireless ambition and dedication to the profession.
If Hollywood has pegged any journalism stereotype correctly, it’s the notion that journalists are workaholics. In 15 years as a journalist, I have never seen a good reporter that didn’t spend nearly every waking moment working or thinking about work. News never stops and neither does the addiction to reporting it. In His Girl Friday, the topic of nonstop working is a common theme. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell joke about missing their honeymoon because they spent the entire time covering a mining accident. And Grant is mad because his best writer is off work because of an impending baby delivery. “Is there no honor?” cracks Grant, wondering how a baby could be more important than covering a story. Grant also says to Russell that “quitting the newspaper business would kill you – you’re a journalist!” In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane literally moves into the newspaper office and works tirelessly building the paper’s circulation. In The Paper, Randy Quaid’s character apparently gathers his daily sleep on a couch in Michael Keaton’s office. And in State of Play and All The President’s Men it seems that nobody is allowed to sleep. Even being killed because of journalism is laughed at in Welcome To Sarajevo. It’s all part of the journalism landscape.
The newsroom as a workplace is unique to the geography of professions. Throughout the years, Hollywood set designers have perfected a stage which has changed very little despite time and technology. While the ubiquitous ringing cell phone has replaced the ubiquitous ringing desk phone, and the clickity-clack of manual typewriters has given way to computer keyboards, the architecture and sounds remain stable. From 1940’s His Girl Friday to 2009’s State of Place, newsrooms are portrayed as bustling beehives of energy, where reporters and editors scramble and interact in what appears to be random patterns of busybodies. Citizen Kane portrays the newsroom as a somewhat dark and dreary place to work, which was likely for effect because of Kane’s emotional darkness. In Absence of Malice and All The President’s Men, the newsroom is somewhat bright and sterile, somewhat like the arrogant characters. Even the makeshift newsrooms in Welcome To Sarajevo’s bombed-out building are organized centers where multiple international news agencies manage to assemble and disseminate the news.
It’s the constant attention to news dissemination that leads to the geography of failed relationships. Again, Hollywood is portraying a sad fact about the profession – being a reporter will likely lead to divorce and break-ups. Nowhere are failed relationships more evident than in His Girl Friday, where Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s characters openly discuss the demise of their marriage due to the newspaper. Charles Foster Kane is perhaps the poster boy for spouse alienation via the newspaper business. While having breakfast with his first wife, Emily, a classic exchange occurs. Emily: “I wish you didn’t have to go to the newspaper.” Kane: “You shouldn’t have married a newspaper man – they’re worse than sailors.” In The Paper, Michael Keaton’s character constantly ditches his very pregnant wife because of work and his boss (Robert Duvall) is estranged from his daughter and is divorced multiple times because of the newspaper. The lead character in Zodiac is divorced and then destroys his new family because of the obsession to solve the crime. In State of Play, the wife says: “The only people I hated more was journalists.” And being a bad journalist doomed Sally Field’s short-lived romance with Paul Newman in Absence of Malice. Relationships fail because of many reasons, but chief among them is the journalists’ obsession with conspiracy.
In nearly every movie I screened, there is a seemingly constant chatter concerning conspiracies. There is some truth to this brainstorming activity because journalists must always find a motive to understand how to construct a story. The geography of conspiracy is easy to understand in All The President’s Men, where Deep Throat utters the classic “follow the money” to Bob Woodward. In Welcome To Sarajevo, the journalists toss conspiracies around like footballs, hoping to score the next big headline. Even race and politics become entwined in a government conspiracy in His Girl Friday. Conspiracy bases the entire movie in State of Play, where sex and politics make great bedfellows. The obsession with conspiracy theories sometimes leads to paranoia and mental breakdown. In All The President’s Men, Robert Redford becomes panic-stricken at the thought of missing his meeting with Deep Throat and once runs from the parking garage believing he’s about to be killed. Randy Quaid’s character in The Paper begins to carry a gun, even firing it off in the office to quell an argument. Maybe the conspiracy-toting male journalists just need a strong woman to keep them sane.
If anything is unusual about journalism films from Hollywood – especially pre-1970 – it’s the portrayal of powerful female journalists. Whether it’s Hildy as a confident female journalist in His Girl Friday or Glenn Close’s rough-edged editor character in The Paper, many movies show women holding their own in newsrooms. Has it had an impact?
Jeanine Basinger, chair of the film studies program at Wesleyan University thinks it has. “Anything the audience sees in a movie has impact,” said Basinger in a New York Times article. “Movies reflect society and shape it. If you see a woman being a glamorous journalist and having all that fun and getting Cary Grant in the end – it has an impact.” (Weinraub, 1997). But Hollywood hasn’t exactly been fair with women journalists. In Frank Capra’s journalism flicks – and Capra reportedly loved journalists – female reporters were independent, hardworking types that were prone to mistakes and who had to prove themselves to their male counterparts before being accepted (Vaughn, 2005). Even in the 2009’s State of Play, the lead character scoffs at the new female blogger that his paper hired, but later accepts her as a “real” reporter after she proves her journalism abilities. To make a small point, it’s hard to determine if the female blogger is being scrutinized because she’s a blogger (which is threatening to newspaper purists) or because she’s a female. I think maybe it’s both.
Whether it’s about smoking, drinking, failed relationships or a tough girl with a reporter’s notebook, Hollywood has accurately portrayed the life and times of journalism. While the classic Citizen Kane may or may not be about the wealth and power of William Randolph Hearst, the movie (and many others) provides moviegoers with a peep inside the factual and chaotic world of newsgathering. As the profession of journalism moves away from centralized offices and into the invisible world of mobile reporting, we must wonder if the future of journalism in movies is in jeopardy. Even if it is, Hollywood has provided us with enough classics that will endure forever.
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