Journalism in the Movies


"Matthew C. Ehrlich's Journalism in the Movies is the story of Hollywood's depiction of American journalism from the start of the sound era to the present." "The movies have portrayed journalists both as upstanding citizen-heroes and as scruffy outsider-villains. In either case, Hollywood has reproduced myths in which the press is always at the heart of things and always makes a difference. Ehrlich argues that films have relentlessly portrayed the journalist as someone who sees through lies and hypocrisy, sticks up for the little guy, and serves
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Journalism in the Movies

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"Matthew C. Ehrlich's Journalism in the Movies is the story of Hollywood's depiction of American journalism from the start of the sound era to the present." "The movies have portrayed journalists both as upstanding citizen-heroes and as scruffy outsider-villains. In either case, Hollywood has reproduced myths in which the press is always at the heart of things and always makes a difference. Ehrlich argues that films have relentlessly portrayed the journalist as someone who sees through lies and hypocrisy, sticks up for the little guy, and serves democracy. Even when this image is reversed, the suggestion is that it's only because the journalist and the press have lost their way; they were true once upon a time and could someday be true again." Focusing on films about journalism, including The Front Page, His Girl Friday, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the President's Men, and The Insider, Journalism in the Movies draws upon scholarship on the relationships between movies, myths, and culture, and presents a unique opportunity to reflect on how movies relate not only to journalism but also American life and democracy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252074325
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2006
  • Series: The History of Communication Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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By Matthew C. Ehrlich

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Studying Journalism through Movies

This is a story of how movies have depicted American journalism from the start of the sound era to the present. It examines such films as The Front Page, His Girl Friday, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Citizen Kane, Ace in the Hole, Deadline, USA, All the President's Men, Network, Absence of Malice, The Killing Fields, Broadcast News, and The Insider. The movies have portrayed journalists both as upstanding citizens and heroes and as scruffy outsiders and villains. Either way, Hollywood has reproduced myths in which the press is always at the heart of things and always makes a difference. The films regularly have suggested that the journalist can see through lies and hypocrisy, stick up for the little guy, uncover the truth, and serve democracy-or that if those things are no longer true because the journalist and the press have lost their way, they were true once upon a time and someday could be true again.

Such an argument is both consistent and at odds with the perceptions of many journalists and media critics. They wholeheartedly agree that the press is important. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel declare that its duty is to provide "independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free." That makes journalism every bit as vital as law and medicine, if not more so. In theory, if law is the pursuit of justice and medicine is the pursuit of healing, journalism is the pursuit of truth; seeking and reporting it is the press's most important obligation.

However, just as many believe that the current practices of law and medicine fall well short of meeting their social responsibilities, so is contemporary journalism found lacking. It is said to be more concerned with profit than with truth, too timid and beholden to the powers that be. It is thought to be corrosively cynical to the point of undermining participation in the democratic process. It is seen as running roughshod over the individuals who are fodder for its headlines and as pandering to the basest instincts in a desperate quest for ratings and circulation. It is declared to be facing an identity crisis or even extinction. "Modern journalism began around 1890 with the advent of a national system of communication and has had a pretty long run," James Carey has written. "Its time now seems to be about up." Others put it more bluntly: "Organized journalism is dead." Or if it is not actually in the grave, it is "pooped, confused, and broke," irrelevant in the face of "a hybrid New News-dazzling, adolescent, irresponsible, fearless, frightening, and powerful," encompassing infotainment in its many forms and the interactivity of the Internet.

Symptomatic of the press's travails is its lowly status in the public eye, with polls showing journalists deemed little more trustworthy than used car salesmen or lawyers. Some in the news media suggest that the press itself is not the primary culprit. Instead, as one trade magazine has written only half in jest, Hollywood is to blame for "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." The same has been said of movies about lawyers, doctors, scientists, and others: With too few exceptions, they present distorted portrayals and negative stereotypes that are at best an irritant and at worst dangerous in how they undermine professional authority and institutions.

Yet that is precisely why such movies deserve serious scholarly attention. They "can be read as a culture thinking out loud about itself." That includes the roles that professionals play in that culture and the precise meaning of such lofty concepts as truth and justice. Inevitably, movies "think" about those things differently from the way professional groups do; they speak a different language. And yes, sometimes they present unflattering depictions that contradict the way professionals see themselves, even if the depictions sometimes have validity. The Columbia Journalism Review has written that "much of the most enduring contemporary criticism of the press comes from those outside journalism," with movies being a key example.

However, the movies do not simply sneer at the press in response to contemporary crises. They have addressed tensions and conflicts that long have been part of journalism's cultural and institutional fabric. And more often than not, they have resolved those conflicts in a manner stressing that journalism can and should be performed well and that the press is essential to American life and democracy.


This book analyzes journalism movies in just that way: as a distinct genre that embodies myths colored by nostalgia and that addresses contradictions at the heart of both journalism and American culture. Thus, the book goes beyond the criticisms many journalists have offered regarding cinematic depictions of the news media, and it also differs from previous scholarly studies of such films.

From the silent era onward, journalists have taken note of movies about the press. Their notion that popular culture is to blame for the public's dim view of their occupation is nothing new. As far back as 1928, a New York Times editorial writer charged that the original stage production of The Front Page presented a grossly distorted view of newspapers. After the 1931 film version was released along with other early journalism talkies, American Press editorialized that they could encourage press censorship. Not long after, newspaper editor Stanley Walker warned prospective young journalists to disregard the movies' depiction of the reporter who "writes best on twelve Scotch highballs" and "insults everybody in earshot." So it has continued over the decades, with organizations including the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists lobbying Hollywood for more positive portrayals.

Some journalists have taken a slightly different tack: The movies used to treat us well, they say, but that is no longer the case. "In movies of the 1930s, reporters were gritty characters, instinctively siding with the Common Man," writes James Fallows. He notes that in the 1970s, Woodward and Bernstein took on Nixon in All the President's Men. But starting in "the early 1980s, the journalists who have shown up in movies have been portrayed, on average, as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians, or business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world." To Fallows, that is symptomatic of how journalism's current failings have diminished its public credibility. Another critic has said there "is a lag between when an institution develops the symptoms of an illness and when the movies respond, by which point the disease is often far advanced." In journalism's case, "sensationalism and a profits-above-all philosophy metastasized through our news organs, weakening their standards and enfeebling their public spirit." The movies' increasingly negative portrayal of the press merely reflected the cancer's spread.

Such arguments echo those who say journalism is, if not dead, at least in serious trouble. Still, no one can suggest that The Front Page is a completely upbeat portrayal of the press as champion of the people, much less 1931's Five Star Final, in which a tabloid drives a wife and husband to suicide. The journalists and press organizations that were criticizing the movies in the 1930s had a point: Hollywood was hardly painting an idealized portrait of their profession.

It is equally misleading to suggest that more recent movies about journalism have been completely negative. In The Paper (1994), a tabloid editor successfully fights to publish a story that can free two African American youths wrongly accused of murder. Up Close and Personal (1996), ostensibly based on the life of television anchor Jessica Savitch, could have been a savage and largely fact-based exposé of broadcast news; instead it presented a glossy romance between two noble television reporters. Thus a fundamental ambivalence has always been at work in the movies' portrayals.

When scholars have examined those portrayals, some have focused on the more negative depictions of the journalist as "a cynical observer of the human scene who seeks to fill his column at some victim's expense." Howard Good has penned studies of reporters as alcoholics and social outcasts as well as both propagators and victims of sexism.

Others have asserted that, if anything, the movies have been too accommodating toward the media. One says although films occasionally have depicted broadcast news critically, they have assumed a largely "subservient position" to television. Norman Denzin argues that movies such as All the President's Men glorify journalism's self-serving claims to be able to discover objective truth and its position as an institution dedicated to surveillance. At the same time, though, he says movies such as Citizen Kane help deconstruct those claims to truth, serving as "a counter-body of subversive texts which suggests that things aren't the way they appear to be."

That points to what Joe Saltzman calls a "dichotomy" in the movies' depictions both reflecting and contributing to "the public's confusion about the media in American society." Loren Ghiglione notes that although fictional portrayals of the press can foster "dangerous illusions that distort Americans' understanding not only of the journalist but also of themselves," they also can "entertainingly capture an element of the journalist's character." Many such elements have appeared on screen, as the chapter titles of Alex Barris's 1976 book on journalism movies indicated: "The Reporter as Scandalmonger," "The Reporter as Villain," "The Reporter as Crime Buster," and "The Reporter as Crusader."

Even with the occasional negative portrayal, some have argued that the relationship between journalism and films has been symbiotic. Newspapers have promoted the movies while movies have given newspapers advertising revenue and many favorable depictions. Thomas Zynda has gone so far as to say the two media perform similar watchdog functions: "As the press serves as a watchdog on government, so Hollywood, likewise on behalf of the public and with a like commercial basis, keeps an eye on the press."

The present study builds on such work while staking out new territory. It does not try to provide a comprehensive list of journalism movies, a task others have ably undertaken. Nor does it concentrate on a single filmmaker, work, or era, or on specific subgenres, archetypes, or ethical concerns as they have appeared on screen. Instead it analyzes key texts from the 1920s to the present while drawing on scholarship on the relationships between movies, myths, and culture.


It is important to stress that myth in this context does not imply falsehood. In Jack Lule's words, a myth is "a sacred, societal story that draws from archetypical figures and forms to offer exemplary models for human life." Myth presents a commonsensical, taken-for-granted view of the world serving to "represent shared values, confirm core beliefs, deny other beliefs, and help people engage with, appreciate, and understand the complex joys and sorrows" of our existence.

In confirming core beliefs, mass-mediated myth plays a important ritualistic role. One example is movie genres such as Westerns or musicals that show "familiar characters performing familiar actions which celebrate familiar values." They ritualistically reaffirm what a culture holds most dear, as when the romantic couple unites in a musical and preserves the sanctity of love and marriage or when the hero vanquishes the villain in a Western and upholds law and order. Scholars such as Richard Slotkin have argued that Americans need myths "capable of organizing the thought and feeling of a genuine and usable national consensus" and allowing them to "recover a true (or truer) understanding of our history."

However, Slotkin also notes that "powerful corporate and political institutions" can exploit myth in "manipulating and directing public opinion." He asserts that movie Westerns have perpetuated a frontier myth that regularly has been used to justify violence in the national interest and "reify our nostalgia for a falsely idealized past." That is to say, myth also plays an ideological role: It maintains the existing distribution of power while distorting historical understanding of power's uses and abuses. "If a society is founded upon inequality, that society's dominant myths 'explain' and support such inequality," writes Jack Lule.

Besides Westerns, other movie genres have tended to reflect and reinforce such inequities. Film scholar Robert Ray argues that Hollywood has consistently fostered the myth that Americans can avoid making difficult choices except when absolutely necessary. (Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart's character refuses to stick his neck out until the very end, is just one example.) That in turn has "fostered an ideology of improvisation, individualism, and ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crises." Such an ideology masks or ignores social divisions and discourages a collective, systemic response to society's ills.

Still, myth is not invariably a means of keeping things the way they are; it also can critique or even change the status quo. Once more, genre films are an example. Thomas Schatz declares that "what is so fascinating and confounding" about them is "their capacity to 'play it both ways,' to both criticize and reinforce the values, beliefs, and ideals of our culture within the same narrative context."

That is reflected in Hollywood's treatment of the professions. Movies about lawyers, for example, "raise questions about the proper and possible role of law in society." On one hand, they show attorneys acting spectacularly badly; on the other, they bolster "ideas that courts work as institutions and that law in general can be trusted both in its articulation and application." Popular films and TV shows can make doctors seem arrogant and incompetent while also lionizing them at the expense of a more searching examination of institutionalized medicine. And movies about journalism present myths that journalists themselves may find offensive but also ennobling or seductive. The films underscore journalism's preeminence in American life even as they highlight tensions at the profession's core.


To begin with, some question whether journalism is a profession at all.


Excerpted from JOURNALISM IN THE MOVIES by Matthew C. Ehrlich Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Studying journalism through movies 1
2 The front page 20
3 Screwball comedy and Frank Capra 45
4 Citizen Kane 69
5 News in a noir world 79
6 News and conspiracy 106
7 Myth and antimyth in contemporary film 132
8 An unseen power 166
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