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«Journalism Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol. 7(4): 501–519 DOI: 10.1177/1464884906068364 ARTICLE ...»

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Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications

(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

Vol. 7(4): 501–519 DOI: 10.1177/1464884906068364


Facts, truth, and bad journalists in

the movies

Matthew C. Ehrlich

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA


Scholars have called for cultural analyses of the press that are more attuned to

journalists’ self-image as disciples of facts and truth while also critically examining the

contradictions within that self-image. Popular representations of journalism such as motion pictures are one fruitful site of inquiry. This article studies American movies’ depictions of ‘bad journalists’, characters who in many ways contradict the image of upstanding professionalism that the press tries to promote. Although real-life journalists over the years have often objected to such portrayals, ‘bad journalist’ characters still have helped shore up the press’s preferred self-image, either by seeing through lies and pretense to the truth or by paying the price for not telling the truth.

cultural analyses of journalism film genre myth popular KEY WORDS culture representations of journalism Scholars have long extolled the virtues of nuanced cultural analyses of journalism. Carey (1988: 15) has written that to view the press through the lens of myth and ritual ‘is to see in a miraculously discontinuous world persistent practices by which that world is sedimented and held together’. It also provides insight into how journalists ‘maintain and repair... their cultural image as journalists in the eyes of a wider world’ (Schudson, 1991: 155). Zelizer (2004: 187, 190) argues that cultural studies should be more attuned to how that image is distinguished by ‘journalism’s reverence for facts, truth, and reality’. At the same time, she says scholars must critically examine the contradictions within journalism’s self-image, including those between its ‘informative, civic, and rational sides’ and its ‘pleasure-inducing, entertaining, or simply affective ones’.

Popular representations of journalism such as novels, plays, and movies have been fruitful sites for such inquiry. Many have been written by onetime journalists and hence afford an opportunity to view ‘journalism through 502 Journalism 7(4) journalism’s own eyes’ while also questioning ‘the self-presentations that journalists provide’ (Zelizer, 2004: 176, 198–9). Such popular representations have helped perpetuate ‘the heroic image of the journalist defendingthe truth

against the many dragons of darkness in the modern world’ (Dahlgren, 1992:

1). That is, they have reconciled journalism’s civically minded and pleasureinducing sides by telling romantic, entertaining tales of journalists who uphold their idealized roles as public servants. In so doing, popular culture has provided models for real-life journalistic conduct, with the film of All the President’s Men (1976) a prime example. Schudson (1992: 126) says it has promoted journalism’s ‘central myth’, that two young reporters and their newspaper brought down a corrupt president. Brennen (2003: 115) similarly describes All the President’s Men as ‘a seminal text that illustrates a specific structure of feeling regarding appropriate press behavior in contemporary society’.

In contrast, this article examines texts that have graphically depicted what most real-life journalists would characterize as inappropriate press behavior.

From at least the 1928 stage debut of The Front Page, popular culture has presented portrayals of ‘bad journalists’ who, in many ways, contradict the image of upstanding, ethical professionalism that the press tries to promote (Black et al., 1999; Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001). Such portrayals have regularly appeared in Hollywood movies, and journalists and press organizations over the years have often objected to them. However, ‘bad journalist’ characters actually have helped shore up the press’s preferred self-image, either by seeing through lies and pretense to the truth or by paying the price for not telling the truth.

Genre movies, myth, and journalism

Movies and other popular texts ‘can be read as a culture thinking out loud about itself’ (Mukerji and Schudson, 1991: 23). Genre movies are an example.

They are typically structured around conflicts between characters who represent competing cultural values. The films’ resolutions (the Western hero vanquishes the villain; the protagonists of a romantic comedy or musical overcome their differences and unite) buttress cultural norms (Altman, 1987; Ray, 1985; Schatz, 1981; Wright, 1975). As such, the movies are powerful purveyors of myth, a key role of which is ‘to resolve basic oppositions at the heart of human life’ in a way that typically ‘affirms the status quo,

confirms the way things are, and sustains the current social order’ (Lule, 2001:

144, 191).

That is not to say the myths are completely static or the movies are completely uncritical. ‘If genres develop and survive because they repeatedly Ehrlich Facts, truth and bad journalists 503 flesh out and reexamine cultural conflicts’, writes Schatz (1981: 35), ‘then we must consider the possibilities that genres function as much to challenge and criticize as to reinforce the values that inform them.’ Movies call attention to a culture’s intractable rifts and contradictions even as they ultimately tend to smooth over those rifts and contradictions.

Ray (1985: 58–62) argues that Hollywood movies of all genres have historically addressed the tensions between a ‘pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero and the official hero’. ‘Official’ characters, who frequently are professionals such as teachers or lawyers, represent ‘the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that supersede[s] private notions of right and wrong’. In contrast, ‘outlaw’ characters represent ‘that part of the American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements’. ‘Outlaws’ refer not only to those who explicitly break the law, as seen in Westerns, gangster films, and ‘hardboiled-detective’ films (Schatz, 1981: 45–149; Slotkin, 1998). Ray (1985: 59–61) also cites as outlaw types such figures from American literature and myth as Davy Crockett, Huckleberry Finn, and Holden Caulfield, whose shared ‘distrust of civilization’ and ‘distrust of politics’ contrasts with ‘official’ characters’ respect for social order and adult obligations (see also Kaufman et al., 2005).

The outlaw and official visions reflect ‘American culture’s traditional dichotomy of individual and community’ (Ray, 1985: 58) and never can be fully reconciled. Still, that has not stopped the movies from trying to do just that. (A prominent example is Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart’s ‘outlaw’ hero sticks his neck out for nobody before finally demonstrating the ‘official’ virtues of taking up a cause greater than himself and working for the common good.) In so doing, Ray (1985: 63) argues that the movies have perpetuated ‘an ideology of improvisation, individualism, and ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crises’. That in turn has helped maintain the status quo by masking social divisions and discouraging a systemic, collective response to society’s ills.

Similar themes appear in movies about journalism, which have long constituted their own distinct genre with stock characters and relationships (Barris, 1976; Brennen, 2004; Ghiglione, 1990; Ghiglione and Saltzman, 2002;

Good, 1989, 1998, 2000; Langman, 1998; Ness, 1997; Saltzman, 2002). Like other genre movies, they reproduce myths: ‘sacred, societal stor[ies]’ that offer ‘exemplary models for human life’ (Lule, 2001: 15). In analyzing the mythic status that Watergate and All the President’s Men hold for journalists, Schudson (1992: 124) argues that myth’s role is ‘not to tell us in empirical detail who we are but what we may have been once, what we might again become, what we would be like “if”’.

In those ways, Hollywood presents visions of what the press could and should be, including that of ‘journalists as defenders of society’s right to know, 504 Journalism 7(4) civic virtue and the underdog’ (Vaughn and Evensen, 1991: 829). That in turn helps journalists ‘maintain their cultural authority as spokespeople for events in the public domain’ (Zelizer, 2004: 176). One historian has labeled All the President’s Men ‘a milestone in the process of exalting the press’ and ‘a significant moment in the elevation of the American journalist to mythical status’ (Leuchtenburg, 1995: 291).

Such celebrations of the press have appeared throughout the history of the journalism movie genre while responding to changes in social and historical context. During the Second World War, reporters were portrayed as dedicated patriots as the Hollywood studios worked closely with the government to boost the war effort (Vaughn and Evensen, 1991). In the immediate postwar era, pictures such as Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and Deadline, USA (1952) reflected a growing emphasis on conscientious professionalism within journalism in depicting the press uncovering antiSemitism and municipal corruption. Recent years have seen movies such as The Insider (1999), in which a television news producer fights to air an expos´ e of the tobacco industry in the face of pressures brought on by corporate conglomeration.

However, journalists themselves assert that those sorts of heroic portrayals are comparatively rare. Far more common, they say, are depictions implying that ‘journalists are hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, dim-witted social misfits concerned only with twisting the truth into scandal and otherwise devoid of conscience’ (Rowe, 1992: 27). Nor is this a new assertion. Although some (Fallows, 1997; Hanson, 1996) have argued that contemporary movies treat the press more harshly than the films of Hollywood’s golden era, as early as 1931 journalism educator John Drewry (1931: 14) was lambasting Hollywood for making ‘the reporter more nearly resemble a gangster than even a moderately well-off business or professional man’.

That points toward a long-standing dichotomy in journalism’s self-image roughly corresponding to the competing official and outlaw visions of which Ray (1985) writes. On the one hand, journalists who sought to distinguish the respectable press from the tabloid newspapers and the growing public relations field were by the 1920s promoting journalism as a distinct profession, guided by its own codes of ethics and the overriding principle of objectivity (Evensen, 1989; Schudson, 1978). Journalists today are far more likely to acknowledge that complete objectivity is impossible, but they still stress the press’s obligation to verify what it reports and to provide citizens with the truthful information needed for self-governance (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001). This professional ideology, with its ‘reverence for facts, truth, and reality’ (Zelizer, 2004: 187), has much in common with ‘official’ ideology’s commitment toward ‘sound reasoning and judgment’ on behalf of the public interest (Ray, 1985: 60).

Ehrlich Facts, truth and bad journalists 505 On the other hand, even as the press sought to boost its occupational standing in the early 20th century, many journalists still were ‘reveling in their intimacy with the urban underworld’ (Schudson and Tifft, 2005: 24) – that is, identifying themselves as much if not more with the ‘gangster’ than with the ‘moderately well-off business or professional man’ (Drewry, 1931: 14) and the middle-class comforts and responsibilities he embodied. Alongside journalism’s reverence for heroes such as Woodward and Bernstein has been a persistent fascination with ‘bad’ journalists who have challenged or ignored professional, ‘official’ ideals. They can be said to have represented an ‘outlaw’ sensibility, not so much in being actual lawbreakers (though on occasion that has been the case) as in living by their own rules and thumbing their noses at polite society and authority.

A publication of the Newseum, a professionally sponsored museum devoted to the news industry, gives such characters the label of ‘Newsmonger’, which it defines as ‘the peddler of tales, the one who doesn’t let the facts ruin a good story’ (Newton, 1999: 2). It cites as one example Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for making up stories altogether (Newton, 1999: 18). It also cites the champion of ‘gonzo journalism’, Hunter S. Thompson. He embodied ‘an American icon, like the gunslinger or the big-city gangster-the bald, paranoid, drug-frenzied journalist, a cigarette holder dangling from the side of his mouth, doing battle with the straight world’ (Cohen, 2005: 7). That included the ‘straight’ press. Thompson declared that ‘[a]bsolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism’ and that ‘Objective Journalism’ was ‘a pompous contradiction in terms’ (Newton, 1999: 5, 17).

’Newsmongers’, however, do not completely reject or contradict journalism’s expressed commitment to facts and truth. For all his ‘unprofessional’ behavior and drunken high jinks, Thompson upon his death was praised for his ‘passion for the reporting of the truth [and for] the instructive, persuasive nature of telling a story in the right way’ that made him ‘a hero to so many’ (Keil, 2005: 60, 63). Indeed, his gonzo cynicism helped make him heroic. In the New York Times, Frank Rich (2005: 1) argued that Thompson today would have ‘a savage take on our news-free world’ dominated by ‘counterfeit newsmen’, where ‘you can’t tell the phonies without a scorecard’. The ability to expose phoniness and officially sanctioned falsehoods is central to such characters’ appeal. As one observer has written, ‘In a society deeply suspicious of the discrepancies between public pronouncement and the hidden workings of power, there is something genuinely attractive about the way a cynic expresses a truth’ (Chaloupka, 1999: xv).

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