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Journalism And The Movies

A Deep Dive Into What the History of Film Can Tell Us About the World of Journalism

The “Spotlight” team from the film ‘Spotlight’ (From http://www.marshillonline.com/)

To partially borrow a quote from Mark Twain, “Journalism’s death is greatly exaggerated.”

Throughout my four years in journalism school, the belief that journalism was dead always hung in the back of my mind. Countless anecdotes from professors and guest speakers spoke about this being a “dark age” for journalists. Major cutbacks and foldings of beloved and trusted publications only darkened the situation. The major question swirling around in the minds of my peers: will there be work for all of us?

Following my graduation, the question remains, but the anxiety around the field dimmed. Thanks to the current presidential administration, journalists are needed more than ever. What is even more promising: readers agree. Current hiring frenzies at The Washington Post and the Twitter campaign “#PressOn” — where users Tweet about which publications they subscribe to — show a desire for quality journalism. Throughout social media, many emphasize for the journalists to question everything and report the facts.

This sway of public opinion toward journalism got me thinking: how do the movies see journalists? Does our opinion of journalism and journalists, partly, come from film?

“Welcome to Sarajevo” depicts journalists covering the Bosnian War (from assets.mubi.com)

Luckily, this is an easy answer to figure out. Many journalism films depict actual journalists and the stories they investigated. These films successfully link the real world and “film world”, solidifying opinions on the journalism field. The lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Anytime a film is based on a true story, audiences tend to want to believe what transpires in that film — in some way — actually happened. Usually, aspects from real life are changed/dropped to tell a compelling story in the film. Nonetheless, the characters and people feel incredibly real, and, because these films have a huge persuasive quality, many the actions in these films are taken as absolute truth. This allows for audiences’ opinions on journalists to be deeply swayed by these films.

Trying to find every truth and fabrication in the many journalism films that exist is not productive. Diving deep into the world of journalism cinema, one begins to see patterns. Some films focus on the fame-hungry people that use journalism to achieve personal glory. Others focus on the hard-working storytellers that want to undercover the harsh truths of the world. All of the films deal with moral dilemmas that fill entire newsrooms on a day-to-day basis. From all these films dealing with the world of journalism, audiences get to see a collection of diverse thinkers that carry an incredible responsibility and moral obligation to do their job. Some succeed; some fail.

“The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character,” Lyndon B. Johnson

In the sweltering heat of the New Mexico desert, a rescue effort is underway to save a man trapped inside a cave. Journalist Chuck Tatum, who happened to be at the right place at the right time, takes charges in the efforts to rescue the man. Tatum was located on the scene before the story became big. By taking charge, Tatum gets the inside scoop. During the rescue efforts, Tatum meets with the town’s sheriff, who was elsewhere campaigning for re-election. Annoyed, the sheriff starts informing Tatum that he was away giving speeches, adding he was right in the middle of a poker game when Tatum called.

“What did you have? A pair of duces? This is better. Here we got an ace in the hole,” Tatum cooly tells the sheriff.

Ace in the Hole, written and directed by Billy Wilder, is a prime example of greedy journalism. Kirk Douglas brilliantly stars as Chuck Tatum, a down-and-out journalist looking for quick fame. He stumbles to a New Mexico paper, after being chased out of town in New York City and Chicago. Bored by the local New Mexican news, Tatum wants a big story to reclaim his spot in one of the country’s biggest papers. His luck changes when he comes across a man stuck in a cave. From the start, Tatum senses this is a story that will take him out of New Mexico and back into the limelight.

Instead of reporting on the story, Tatum creates one. He takes charge in rescue efforts, controlling how and when rescuers are allowed inside the cave. He discredits opinions from others, who voice opposition to his plans. Tatum rules the small town of New Mexico, becoming the charismatic leader of the rescue efforts. When other news agencies come to cover the story, Tatum dictates what info the fresh reporters receive. No one is allowed a scoop unless their name is Chuck Tatum. All of these actions display an ugly side to journalism. Tatum, until it is too late, does not care about actually rescuing the man. The longer the man is trapped, the longer Tatum gets his story. As the days roll by, Tatum’s ballooned fame grows bigger and bigger.

Not only does the audience witness a nasty side of journalism, Ace in the Hole depicts the addictiveness of being in the news. Hundreds of people flock to the little cave, hoping to capture a glimpse of this media sensation. Some even contribute to the news, voicing their opinion on radio stations. The dialogue written by Billy Wilder is sharp; the acting is telling. Many are excited when featured on live reports, only to feel disappointed when their time is up. Fame, even a few minutes of it, is enticing. For Chuck Tatum, he knows the journalism world well and will do anything to keep the power and fame for as long it lasts.

Though Chuck Tatum was not an actual journalist, films depicting real figures who strive for fame — whether for riches or just inside their newsroom — are just as prominent. In Shattered Glass, Stephen Glass is a reporter for The New Republic, an American magazine. Because of his incredibly detailed way of reporting and telling a story, Glass is popular with colleagues. In pitch meetings, Glass’ stories are the highlight of the meeting. His stories are juicy, funny and informative. They are also not true.

Fact checking Glass’ story

The film details the unraveling of Stephen Glass, impeccably portrayed by Hayden Christensen. For a lot of the film, the audience believes Glass and sympathizes with his character. He means well, just wanting the admiration of his colleagues. When one of his stories is questioned, he constantly apologizes and works with editors to prove its truthfulness. It seems as if he cares and wants to help fix any wrongdoing. Chuck Tatum’s journalism sin is bad, but Glass’ sin is worse. Glass creates fake websites, fake personas and fake events to cover his tracks. Competitors call out Glass’ reporting, and the evidence of his reporting is flimsy. Glass’ stubbornness leads to his downfall. He yearns for a fame within the realm of the great journalists around him and he fails to see his screw up.

These two films are the go-to examples of journalism gone awry, but others exist. Although a satire, Network depicts heads of a television station — which airs the news — put aside their morals in hopes for higher ratings. Though not zeroing in on a specific journalist, the message is crystal clear: those on the top will mess with programming and the news to achieve a higher viewership. The film sees network executives exploit a television journalist — who is going crazy — to get viewers. It is an ugly side to how networks are run. In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom is Chuck Tatum reincarnated. Bloom works as a stringer — a freelance journalist. He is determined to find accidents or graphic stories and sell his footage to local news stations. Bloom becomes obsessive by staging accidents and making them seem more grim for the bigger check and fame.

These films deal with many involved with journalism that create the news and hope to bask in the story. They are classic examples of journalists cheating the system, failing their duty to their employer, peers and readers.

“In America, the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever,” Oscar Wilde

Spotlight, last year’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, sits atop the world of journalism films. More often than not, journalists in film are portrayed as hardworking, determined individuals — looking to go above and beyond the job requirements. These journalists are not just reporting the news, but deep diving into finding out all they can about an issue or two. Journalists question everything, but also possess the ability to stay grounded and provide reasonable analysis to all their stories.

Spotlight, written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (who also directed the film), details the journey of a team at the Boston Globe who uncover a massive scandal inside the Catholic Church. The team — known as the “Spotlight” team — work for months trying to piece together the story of this scandal. Knowing the huge implications that come from reporting the story, the team carefully weighs their options of how to report such a story. The story is not rushed. The team take their time in editing, researching, interviewing and writing about the potential scandal. This is where the admiration for these journalists becomes extraordinary.

At the time, the “Spotlight” team consisted of six journalists: Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). The investigative team focuses on stories that take months to research and write. Their stories are in-depth and incredibly informative. In the film, when the team learns of a possible scandal inside the Catholic Church — where church leaders knew about child molestation chargers some priests had and did nothing— their best journalistic instincts switch on.

Spotlight features the best journalism films have to offer

Spotlight depicts some of the hardest working journalists in film. Night and day, the team pours over documents, interviews (or tries to) those believed to be involved with the cover-up and question every detail. Anything a member may learn about the cover-up is run by the team and magnified. No detail goes unchecked. These journalists know the power this story beholds, especially in a predominantly Catholic city like Boston. Rightly so, the team does not treat the story lightly. Nor do they use it for personal or professional glory. They work on the story knowing it is their duty to bring these horrible truths to the surface. On top of knowing their duty, they are careful in doing so, knowing any flub will discredit the story. Watching the “Spotlight” team work to unfold this horrible story is an impactful experience.

Watching journalists at the top of their game only begins with Spotlight. Classics like All the President’s Men and Good Night, and Good Luck depict journalists looking to tell a story either no one wants to tell or is not being told. In both cases, their reporting deeply influenced readers about their government in the best way possible: by telling the truth.

In All the President’s Men, two Washington Post reporters — Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) — pursue information detailing President Nixon’s involvement in the “Watergate scandal”. Though the film depicts both journalists as determined reporters, Woodward’s tenacity is remarkable. Their reporting is aided by “Deep Throat” and Woodard desperately wants any and all information to get a clearer sense of what may be going on. Famously, Woodward meets the informant in a parking lot. Bernstein travels even further to interview possible connections to the story.

Good Night, and Good Luck dramatizes the “battle” between Senator Joesph McCarthy and CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. At the height of “McCarthyism”, where the Senator and others in Congress wanted to rid the United States of communism, Murrow questioned McCarthy’s tactics. The journalist provided a different take on the “McCarthyism”, ultimately helping to dismantle McCarthy ruthless tactics. All of these journalists’ hard-work is inspiring and provides great role models for up-and-coming journalists.

Films such as Broadcast News, State of Play, Frost/Nixon, Welcome to Sarajevo and The Insider all depict journalists hell-bent on discovering and reporting the truth. Despite a few bad eggs, films continue to support the notion that journalists are important members of our society. No matter the medium in which the news is coming from — radio, TV, print — the hardworking journalists in these films all feature the same mindset said by Marty Baron in Spotlight, “For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”

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Alex Bauer

Alex Bauer

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Just a guy who likes telling great stories, however and whenever I can. Click the Twitter icon to follow or e-mail me at ambauer93@gmail.com