Hollywood and the hack

We
all know that movies and TV only ever portray journalists as scumbags
who’ll do anything for a story. According to ‘hackademic’ Rob
Brown, we’re wrong

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S instantly forgettable remake of HG Well’s War of the Worlds only sticks in my mind because of one small scene.

A CBS news truck scrambles to the scene of a jumbo jet mercilessly
plucked out of mid-air by the giant alien invaders. Crawling through
the crumpled metal wreckage, still wielding her microphone, an
insensitive young female newshound is excited to encounter what she
assumes to be the sole survivor.

“Did you just survive that plane
crash?”, she coolly enquires of the hero, who replies that, actually,
he’d been hiding in the basement of the house it had just destroyed.

“Dammit,” she exclaims. “That would have been one helluva story.”

This
little clip probably won’t be at hand when a group of American
hackademics gather in Texas next week for the annual convention of the
AEJMC (Association for Education for Journalism and Mass
Communication). They will consider how Hollywood has depicted the news
business down through the decades – and won’t be stuck for examples.
Well over a thousand movies portraying the press have been written and
produced. More than 500 of these were produced in the Thirties alone,
when talking pictures were still a novelty.

Contrary to what is
probably a common perception, Hollywood’s prodigious take on the press
has not always meant films which show us as drunken, foul-mouthed
deadbeats who would do absolutely anything for a story.

Purveyors of myth

Of course, there have been plenty of silver screen snoopers who were just downright shits.

Back in 1951 The Big Carnival (originally titled Ace in the Hole)
featured Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, who conspired to keep a miner
trapped in a cave because it’s providing good copy and he’s screwing
the poor man’s wife.

In general, Hollywood has been more inclined
to project journalists as idealistic crusaders than hardboiled cynics,
as Matthew Ehrlich can readily attest.

A journalism professor at
the University of Illonois, he found many positive portrayals when he
researched his book Journalism in the Movies, now the seminal text in
this field of study.

“I started off thinking that movies
primarily are very critical of the press and derogatory and tell
stories that kind of undermine the press’s place in American life,” he
said. “But I’ve come around to the notion that, on the whole, they do
the opposite.”

Ehrlich speaks with authority on this subject,
having spent about 15 years researching and writing his book. The list
of titles he spooled through included such all-time classics as The
Front Page, His Girl Friday, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and more
contemporary box office hits like All the President’s Men, Network,
Broadcast News and The Insider.

A unifying theme of all these
films, he found, is that “journalism is important, journalism has a
central place in American life and in democracy, that journalism can
and should be performed well. If journalism somehow has lost its way –
because of money pressures, sensationalism, television, sleaze – then
one way or another it can find its way again, and journalists can do
the right thing and make a difference.”

Ehrlich is convinced
these celluloid tales do influence how people view our profession. They
serve as “purveyors of myth” and thus perform a vital purpose in these
dangerous times when, in the socalled Land of the Free, journalists are
being jailed for protecting their sources.

“We abandon myths of a
free press and a free citizenry at our peril,” he argues. “Movies offer
visions in which the two cannot be separated.”

Ehrlich will be on
the panel in Texas alongside Joe Saltzman, who is now director of a
project at the Annenberg School of Communication in southern California
which is devoted entirely to studying ‘The Image of the Journalist in
Popular Culture’. As its title suggests, the project analyses
representations of journalists in many media.

Inspired by their
example, we have decided to introduce this subject to the curriculum at
Scotland’s largest and longest established journalism school, Napier
University in Edinburgh. We’ll look beyond Hollywood to see how
reporters, editors and publishers have been represented by popular
culture in other parts of the world.

We’ll be especially
interested in the British examples. They don’t, of course, comprise
anywhere near as hefty a catalogue as Hollywood provides.

Indeed,
you have to chew on your popcorn for quite a while to think of British
films which have portrayed the news business in any sort of light. But
they exist and are well worth examining. The best of them – for
educational if not always entertainment purposes – are spotlighted in
the accompanying sidebar, ‘Desert Island DVDs’.

Some have slipped
into the recesses of memory, such as The Ploughman’s Lunch which was
made in 1984 and features Jonathan Pryce as a deceitful political
journalist who personifies the Thatcher decade before coming a cropper
at the Conservatives’ annual conference.

Old stereotypes

Less easy to categorise, but well worth a rent, is Divorcing Jack,
David Caffrey’s adaptation of Colin Bateman’s novel. It follows a
caustically irreverent Belfast columnist who meanders recklessly
through the minefields of Northern Ireland politics at the height of
the Troubles.

Mind you, if you’re serious about assessing images of British
journalists in popular culture, as we are at Napier, you soon have to
shift your gaze from the big to the small screen.

Probably the
most influential portrayal of British journalists in recent years was
Paul Abbot’s acclaimed television series State of Play, a political
thriller which certainly broke the mould in depicting journalists in a
generally likeable and progressive light.

Sadly, the editor of
The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, chose to perpetuate the old stereotypes
when he teamed up with Ronan Bennett (partner of The Guardian’s deputy
editor, Georgina Henry) to pen the screenplay for Fields of Gold, a
somewhat less acclaimed drama series about a newspaper investigation
into a GM crop scandal.

The main character was a world-weary,
wineswilling womanizer (Phil Davis) who amused himself by berating the
young female photographer (Anna Friel) for having done a degree in
media studies.

Actually, these scenes are very useful for giving
today’s journalism students a glimpse of the sort of misogynistic
dinosaurs they mercifully might only encounter one day in the Museum of
Media History.That’s what is great about using movies as a teaching
tool. They not only sprinkle a little stardust on the syllabus, but are
a surefire way of engaging the attention of undergrads as they nurse
their hangovers or (which is more usually the case today) recover from
a shift in the local call centre.

Of course, the average newsroom
is nothing like the melodramatic story factories you see on the silver
screen. And you’ll rarely work alongside anyone who looks like Robert
Redford or Cate Blanchett.

Journalism is generally unglamorous and anything but action-packed.

But
screening movie clips is a marvellous way to get seminar discussions
rolling about everything from media ethics to safety in war zones.

That
is why media-related movies are currently being screened at campuses
across the UK. But we have to study representations of journalism on
film in a sustained and structured way, as they’re doing in the US.

It
would also be beneficial if Britain’s burgeoning band of journalism
scholars would start taking this aspect of journalism studies seriously
as a field of research. And when we do so, we shouldn’t just restrict
our inquiries to serious film and TV dramas but extend it to sitcoms
such as Drop the Dead Donkey and even the way local rags have been
portrayed in soap operas.

There’s an MA dissertation, if not a
full-blown PhD, to be done about the Weatherfield Gazette’s recurring
role in Coronation Street. The same goes for The Archers and
EastEnders. What do they read in Walford?

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Napier University, Edinburgh. ro.brown@napier.ac.uk

Rob Brown’s picks

DESERT ISLAND DVDS

All the President’s Men (1976)
has to top the list. Still worth showing to today’s journalist
students, if only to inform them that Woodward and Bernstein is not a
music hall act. They’re the Washington Post sleuths who drummed Richard
Nixon out of the White House and inspired a whole generation of wannabe
Robert Redfords and Dustin Hoffmans. The Watergate drama has gained
renewed topicality in recent months since the identity of secret source
Deep Throat was revealed.

The Front Page (1931) also
vies for front position. Set in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties, this
is about a jaded newshound desperate to get out of “the racket” until
he notches up another nice scoop. It inspired no less than three
remakes, the best of which is a gender-switched version, His Girl
Friday (1951), in which editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is scolded by
his ex-wife, who is giving up the reporting game to get remarried and
lead a normal life. “A journalist? Now what does that mean?
Peeking through keyholes, chasing after fire engines, waking people up
in the middle of the night… stealing pictures of old ladies?”

Deadline USA (1952)
must also be high on the list, if only for having Humphrey Bogart
yelling lines like “Break open that front page”. Bogart plays Ed
Hutcheson, the managing editor of a newspaper about to be sold, who is
struggling to keep his marriage alive as he endeavours to nail a nasty
crime boss. “What’s that racket?” the mobster screams down the phone.
“It’s the press, baby, the press,” the hero responds. “And there’s
nothing you can do about it. Nothing.”

The Paper (1994)
This is the only contemporary movie which comes close to replicating
such newsroom melodrama as Deadline USA. It plots a day in the life of
a big city newspaper. Michael Keaton plays a principled newshound who
literally comes to blows with his cold female editor (Glenn Close),
while his wife, also a reporter, is home alone coping with the final
stages of pregnancy and newsroom withdrawal symptoms.

Live From Baghdad (2002)
Keaton crossed over from print to broadcast when he teamed up with
Helena Bonham- Carter to make this celluloid celebration of CNN’s role
in the first Gulf War. It deservedly bombed at the box office but is
worth a rent for the fantastic special effects at the end when the
bombs start to rain down on Iraqi capital. Peter Arnett leaps around
his hotel room as he describes the pyrotechnics to a global audience,
reminding us that when the shit hits the fan, nothing beats the thrill
of reporting live on TV.

Salvador (1986)
This movie was made in Mexico on a shoestring budget by Oliver Stone,
but it wowed the Academy with its slick portrayal of a gonzo-style
warzone junkie (James Woods) who brushes up against the death squads in
El Salvador. He ends up realising that the real victims of such
CIA-sponsored thuggery are the locals who can’t fly in and out in a
flak jacket.

Under Fire (1983)
This also concerns the dangers of reporting from Central America in the
Reagan era – this time from Nicaragua. Nick Nolte is just too
clean-shaven and he takes the journalism of attachment a lot further
than even Martin Bell would advocate. But the unwelcome consequences of
his commitment provide a stark lesson worth relating to wannabe
white-suited war corrs.

Defence of the Realm (1985) This is probably the best of the British films.

Gabriel
Byrne plays a London newspaper reporter who starts out covering what
appears a routine political scandal and ends up on a dangerous path of
discovery. He discards sage advice from an older colleague
(Denholm Elliot) and ends up on a lethal collision with the most
sinister elements of our secret state.

Veronica Guerin (2003)
This is even more chilling – because it’s a true story, tragically.
Cate Blanchett is convincing as the Dublin crime reporter who was shot
dead by Dublin drug barons. It should also be acknowledged that Joan
Allen turned in an equally credible performance in a earlier
made-for-TV movie about the same grim subject entitled When the Sky
Falls.

Complicity (2002)
We must squeeze in a mention for this adaptation of Iain Banks’ novel
about a young, cocaine-snorting Scottish newspaper reporter who becomes
a prime suspect after a series of gruesome executions. Not a great
film and certainly not for the squeamish, but nostalgic for those of us
who worked at The Scotsman’s old, oak-panelled offices at North Bridge
in Edinburgh, which served as the location. It’s now an upmarket hotel
and restaurant.

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