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American Journalism Review
Hacks on Film  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1992

Hacks on Film   

They're evil but never geniuses.

By Chip Rowe
Chip Rowe, a former AJR associate editor, is an editor at Playboy.     

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What's the source of those loathsome misconceptions that journalists are hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, dim-witted social misfits concerned only with twisting the truth into scandal and otherwise devoid of conscience, respect for basic human dignity or a healthy fear of God?

Hollywood.

Why not blame Hollywood? Tinseltown has tightened the screws on reporters for more than 50 years with hundreds of negative film portrayals. Small wonder that opinion polls consistently rate journalists less respected than bankers, lawyers or even members of Congress. Or that one books on press movies has a chapter entitled, "The Reporter as a Human Being." Or that after viewing press movies from three decades for the New York Times, critic Nora Sayre scoffed in 1975 that according to Hollywood, "the newsroom is a giant nursery seething with infantile beings."

The typecasting continues to this day. When director Danny DeVito filmed a scene at the Detroit News for an upcoming film about Jimmy Hoffa, for example, he instructed Executive Sports Editor Phil Laciura to "act like you'd been out all night drinking and screwing around."

Well, Danny-boy, enough is enough.

Sure, journalists have enjoyed a few shining moments, notably in "All the President's Men," but for the most part Hollywood paints the profession with a wide, dirty brush. Bill Mahon, a former reporter who for his master's thesis at Penn State examined more than 1,000 films about the press, says few portray journalists as being even remotely competent. "Usually," he says, "they're shown asking stupid questions, not getting things right or being insensitive or vicious."

In some films, "for no reason there'll be 10 minutes of journalists just acting like assholes," adds Joe Saltzman, a professor at the University of Southern California who has identified more than 2,500 movies featuring news characters. "Producers and directors don't know anything about the media except that it hurts them."

The irony, of course, is that moviegoers have always had a fascination with the hardened city reporter, the crusty editor, the visionary newspaper boss, the debonair foreign correspondent. No matter how sorrowful their ethics--or how closely they resemble Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the consequences--reporters and editors always know what's going down. Done well, a movie reporter becomes a surrogate parent to the audience, a regular Joe or Jane who jumps in with explanatory aides when the plot gets too thick, who unearths clues to solve whatever mysteries present themselves, who shows up the moment anything exciting happens.

So why do journalists appear again and again as something less than role models? For starters, Mahon charges, Hollywood types repeatedly shove complex news characters into four pigeonholes:

Newsroom Monster. "There are five or six movies alone called 'Scandal Sheet,'for example, where the reporters are out-and-out vicious human beings," Mahon says. "They set people up, hide behind bushes and so forth. Truth means nothing."

Cardboard Cutout. "There are hundreds of movies in which reporters have minor roles, such as when the mayor appears on the courthouse steps, or when the main character uses a reporter friend to get information. They help the plot along, but they're not well-defined."

Saint With a Crooked Halo. "This is usually a reporter with some ethics. But they run up against a wall, and there's just no other way to find out if that businessman is corrupt, short of breaking into his office and going through his files."

Newsroom Saint, the rarest of all forms. "All the President's Men' is the best example, Mahon says. "Woodward and Bernstein are fighting to preserve democracy."

The crusading Woodstein aside, less glorified images of journalists have a long tradition in Hollywood. Although many silent films featured journalism themes (one of the earliest was "Delivering the Newspapers" in 1903), most critics consider the 1931 talkie, "The Front Page," as the blueprint for press films. To set the stage for decades to follow, glib protagonist Hildy Johnson defines his colleagues as "a lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys."

In the 1940s and 1950s, an era ripe with romantic comedies and post-war film noir, journalists were invariably presented as one-dimensional: either comics, crusaders, or villains. In the early '40s especially, "a hat--invariably a snap-brimmed fedora--was mandatory" for reporters and editors, says author Brook Robards. "Snapped down, it meant serious business; left up, it signaled comedy." In either case, the character often was revealed to be ethically or financially corrupt or fled the newsroom railing about its immoral influences. Even "Citizen Kane" (1941), which some critics consider the greatest movie ever made, has a scene where Charles Foster Kane advises his reporters to "get out" before the profession "poisons you." Kane sticks around and gets a fatal dose.

During the 1960s, movie journalists were portrayed much as they were seen outside the theater by the hipper generation: male WASPs, cogs in the establishment wheel. "The film journalist became an unfeeling corporate lackey who betrayed the ideals of the nation," explains Robards. As punishment, Hollywood only made a handful of forgettable movies that involved the press.

The 1976 release of "All the President's Men" restored America's faith, but only briefly. By the early 1980s, journalists were scoundrels again--unethical bumblers such as the reporter portrayed by Sally Field in "Absence of Malice" (1981). By 1986, some members of the press had become so concerned about the profession's public image that the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists founded Operation Watchdog, aimed at "leading creative people in the right direction" when portraying journalists.

The effort was short-lived, but crusading film journalists did make a comeback in 1980s films such as "Under Fire," "Salvador" and "The Killing Fields." Unfortunately, notes Howard Good, author of a book about reporters on film, "even the crusading [film] journalist is streaked with darkness and moral decay. His reporting may benefit the public, but his first loyalty is to scoops and circulation."

Saltzman finds that ironic. "Here you have Arnold Schwarzenegger killing everyone in sight, which is much worse than a concern for business or circulation, yet he's a great character!" The USC professor cites the 1988 film "Die Hard" as having the "most vicious" portrayal in recent memory. Although a minor character, one television reporter is so despicable that at each of 10 screenings Saltzman attended for research, "the audience cheered like they'd just killed Saddam Hussein" when he's punched in the face during the finale.

Yet there's hope. While recent films such as "Bob Roberts" portray reporters as simpletons (after seeing the film, former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy observed, "And they are, by and large"), a script has been sold to Robert Redford, who starred in "All the President's Men," that would have the golden-haired actor play former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Bill Kovach, who left the paper after he and its publishers disagreed over the definition of news, as a champion for truth who was driven out by the evils of marketing.

That's a positive step, but many journalists feel it won't be enough to restore their tarnished image. Whether out of simple guilt or a consideration of who critiques its products, Hollywood should realize that portraying newspeople as they see themselves--as overworked, underpaid, clean-cut defenders of democracy--has its own rewards. "The few reporter movies that have won Academy Awards tend to show reporters triumphing over evil," Mahon points out, noting that "All the President"s Men" batted .625 on eight nominations. "People like happy endings."

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