Whether it's the rule-defying lifer, the sharp-witted female newshound, or the irascible editor in chief, journalists in popular culture have shaped our views of the press and its role in a free society since mass culture arose over a century ago.
Drawing on portrayals of journalists in television, film, radio, novels, comics, plays, and other media, Matthew C. Ehrlich and Joe Saltzman survey how popular media has depicted the profession across time. Their creative use of media artifacts provides thought-provoking forays into such fundamental issues as how pop culture mythologizes and demythologizes key events in journalism history and how it confronts issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation on the job.
From Network to The Wire, from Lois Lane to Mikael Blomkvist, Heroes and Scoundrels reveals how portrayals of journalism's relationship to history, professionalism, power, image, and war influence our thinking and the very practice of democracy.
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Heroes and Scoundrels
The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture
By Matthew C. Ehrlich, Joe Saltzman
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
A growing scholarly literature has highlighted the important role that popular culture plays in shaping the public's thinking about history. Jerome de Groot observes that history "permeates popular culture" and that novels, movies, television shows, and other popular artifacts offer "powerful models and paradigms" for understanding our shared past. "All history lies to us, but at least historical fiction admits it," de Groot asserts, adding that even though readers understand that fiction takes dramatic license, "they also know that all historical representation is subjective.... Historical novels are as legitimate a way of thinking about the past as any kind of 'real' history." Other scholars take strong exception to such arguments. They favor a "disciplined method of gathering historical facts and then testing and crosschecking them for validity and reliability," and they reject what they regard as "the obvious mythmaking of popular history" and its distortions of the historical record.
In this chapter we look at the image of journalism's past that is presented by popular culture. After reviewing how pop culture treats history generally, we will focus on two eras of American press history: the early decades of modern journalism from roughly 1890 to 1940 and the so-called age of high modernism from roughly 1945 to 1980.4 Popular culture employs scrupulous attention to historical detail alongside wholesale invention in shamelessly exalting figures and events that many conventional journalism histories also have celebrated. As such, it reproduces heroic myths about the press's past. Yet pop culture also has presented a less heroic picture at times by casting a skeptical and even mocking eye toward journalism history and by highlighting more sordid aspects that the conventional histories have sometimes downplayed or overlooked.
History and Popular Culture
Scholars have often pointed to the affinity between history and popular culture. In 1966 Russel B. Nye argued that "history and literature are assuredly branches of the same tree" adding that one could not completely grasp what nineteenth-century New York City was like without the novels of Stephen Crane and Edith Wharton, or what twentieth-century Chicago was like without the works of Theodore Dreiser and Nelson Algren. The following decade Hayden White asserted that historiography at heart represented "a form of fiction-making"—a product of the literary imagination, albeit one based on recorded fact. From that perspective, history cannot be isolated from a culture's master stories or myths. Historians, including Warren Susman and Richard Slotkin, have examined how popular culture exposes the "tension between the mythic beliefs of a people—their visions, their hopes, their dreams—and the ongoing, dynamic demands of their social life," as Susman put it.
Others have focused on how history has been depicted by a particular medium, such as radio, novels, and television shows. Movies have been an especially popular subject. A common argument in such studies is that it is unfair to judge popular culture by the standards to which professional historians are held. Gary Edgerton writes that rather than viewing the professional and popular versions of history as "diametrically opposed traditions (i.e., one more reliable and true, the other unsophisticated and false)," it is better to see them as "two ends of the same continuum." If professional history is "resolutely scientific and empirical," popular history is "artistic and ceremonial." It brings the past to life and sustains collective memory while providing insight into the politics and values of the eras in which it is created.
However, even those who are sympathetic toward popular culture's renderings of the past concede that depictions necessarily simplify and often over-dramatize historical events, focusing on the actions of a few key individuals at the expense of broader and more complex trends. "Motion pictures cannot present comprehensive, definitive studies, and filmmakers understand the foolishness of even trying to cover a topic's length and breadth," writes Robert Brent Toplin in Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood. Filmmakers and others working in popular media also understand the commercial imperative of telling a good story that people will pay to see or read, typically one centered on heroes and villains and often featuring a romantic subplot. They thus do two things that many professional historians seek to avoid: they take partisan stances regarding the past, and they engage in "presentism," using the past as a pretext to comment on current issues.
Other historians argue that anyone who writes about history is necessarily speaking to present-day concerns and that taking a clear stance toward them is far preferable to pretending to be neutral and value-free. That is particularly the case with critical or cultural histories of journalism. They reject the premises of "Whig" or "Progressive" press history, which views "the development of the nation and its press in terms of the triumph of the forces of good—freedom, democracy, equality, libertarianism—over the forces of evil—repression, aristocracy, inequality, authoritarianism" One historian has branded it "the story of how white male reporters and editors on metropolitan dailies have championed truth and justice for the people" a story that has lent itself well to inspirational journalism history textbooks even as it has been widely discredited in recent press historiography. In contrast, critical and cultural approaches view history in terms of "challenge and struggle" and "the contradictory character of progress" particularly relating to race, class, and gender. Such approaches also mine history for artifacts that help show how people lived in a specific era and place, including the artifacts produced by popular culture.
Bonnie Brennen has drawn upon the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams in analyzing early twentieth-century novels with newsroom settings, taking care to "address the specific cultural, economic, and political conditions of [each novel's] production, along with author's intent, and the response to the work" She argues that the novels provide unique insight into the working conditions of actual rank-and-file journalists of that era. Nonetheless, some remain concerned that pop culture obfuscates historical understanding at least as much as it enlightens it. W. Joseph Campbell argues that movies are "powerful agents of media mythmaking" and perpetuate some of the most cherished—if factually false—fables concerning the press's past.
These competing perspectives on popular culture and history can be related to works depicting journalism. According to Campbell, media-fueled myths are "dubious, fanciful, and apocryphal stories about or by the news media that are often retold and widely believed" and that responsible historians should debunk. However, myth can also be viewed as a sacred story that serves to "represent shared values, confirm core beliefs, [and] deny other beliefs" Both understandings of myth apply to popular culture's stories about journalism's past. "Dubious" stories are perpetuated, and yet they "confirm core beliefs" and "offer exemplary models" regarding the press in a manner that is consistent with Whig or Progressive models of journalism history. Simultaneously, popular culture sometimes portrays those myths in an ambivalent and at times pejorative light, in line with a more critical perspective on history.
Early Modern Journalism and Popular Culture
Popular culture has frequently focused on the first decades of modern journalism, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the years between the two world wars. Modern journalism emerged with a national system of communication and the establishment of the reporter as a distinct occupational type who roamed the city streets looking for news to peddle to the growing working-class and immigrant populations. The era was marked in part by a model of journalism as entertainment, as exemplified first by the yellow journalism of the turn of the century and later by the tabloid "jazz journalism" of the 1920s and 1930s. There were growing concerns about the pernicious influence of entertainment-driven news on a susceptible, gullible public, even as many journalists and press associations promoted more scientific and "objective" models of reporting and sought to establish respectability for journalism as a profession.
The birth of modern journalism is vividly evoked by the 1952 film Park Row, written, directed, and produced by Samuel Fuller. It stars a character named Phineas Mitchell, who founds a paper called the Globe. "News makes readers, readers make circulation, and circulation makes advertising," he says. "Advertising means Id print my newspaper without the support of any political machine!" The Globe leads a fund drive for the Statue of Liberty's pedestal, prints the story of Steve Brodie's death-defying jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, and introduces the Linotype typesetting machine via inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler. Phineas accomplishes it all despite fierce opposition from Charity Hackett, the female publisher of the rival Star, where Phineas used to work. Even though the two share a mutual lust, Phineas calls Charity a "frustrated journalistic fraud," and her paper (without her knowledge) goes after the Globe with goons, one of whom Phineas chases down the street and pummels against a statue of Benjamin Franklin. An older member of Phineas's staff dies amid the mayhem, but not before writing his own obituary addressed to Phineas:
Don't let anyone ever tell you what to print. Don't take advantage of your free press. Use it judiciously for your profession and your country. The press is good or evil according to the character of those who direct it. And the Globe is a good newspaper. I have put off dying waiting for a new voice that needs to be heard. You are that new voice, Mr. Mitchell.
Somehow it all ends happily: Charity kills the Star and joins forces with Phineas at the Globe, and the film concludes with the image of the Statue of Liberty (which, the concluding narration asserts, exists thanks to the help of a newspaper).
Park Row displays the common characteristics of popular history, including a simple, linear story and a romantic subplot, while also embodying the Whig or Progressive vision of journalism history. It is "a heroic narrative of newsmongers and muckrakers, of Davids slaying Goliaths," of a newly responsible press (supported not by the state or political parties but by free enterprise) promoting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with contemporary papers implicitly carrying on the noble legacy of Phineas Mitchell. Of course, Phineas never actually existed. Still, Samuel Fuller drew on real-life models in creating a character designed "to combine all the great newspaper editors of the period" (that is, the "white male" editors of "metropolitan dailies" who "championed truth and justice for the people"). Likewise, Steve Brodie and Ottmar Mergenthaler were real people, and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World actually did help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty. Fuller also insisted on being true to historical detail to the point of building a vintage four-story replica of New York's Park Row street. At heart, though, Park Row transforms the origins of modern news into celebratory myth.
Fuller said the film represented his "personal gift to American journalism," fueled by nostalgia for his days as a young tabloid reporter. Other celebratory films were driven by institutional rather than personal interests. A Dispatch from Reuters (1940) depicts the nineteenth-century development of the Reuters international wire service with a resounding credo: "A censored press is the tool of a corrupt minority. A free press is the symbol of a free people. For truth is freedom. And without truth, there can be only slavery and degradation!" Paul Julius Reuter passionately believes that access to information should be a universal right, and he seeks to better the world through the quick transmission of news. When he is the first to report in Europe that Abraham Lincoln has been assassinated, no one believes the horrific news. Reuter is labeled a "contemptible liar" who has ruined lives by creating panic in the financial markets. Freedom of the press and Reuter's alleged mistake are furiously debated in the House of Commons until a message from the U.S. Embassy confirms that he has been right all the while. "Mr. Reuter, I offer you the apologies of Her Majesty's government," says the prime minister. "By your reliability and your veracity, you have saved the press from another of those countless attempts to take away its freedom!" Reuter's vindication is matched by an exhilarating musical score to present the ultimate image of the journalist as hero.
A Dispatch from Reuters represented one of Hollywood's responses to lobbying efforts from press associations for depictions of journalism as a champion of democracy rather than a servant to money and sleaze. The press associations had reason to worry—the image of journalism that had been presented in the media up until 1940 often had been less than benevolent.
Many poems and novels had addressed the rise of the new entertainment-driven journalism. Media scholar Howard Good argues that the poems can be read "as a shadow history of the press, written not in the dry, factual style of the monographist, but in dread and despair." Such poets as Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, and T. S. Eliot saw "snappy stories and big, black headlines" as being "distracting and deadening" and as "turning human suffering into hot copy." Novels that appeared between 1890 and 1930—many of which were written by current or former journalists and marketed to mass audiences—also presented a decidedly ambivalent portrayal of the press. According to Good, the novels are notable for their pessimism about the journalist who lingers too long in the trade: "If he fails to get out, he ages prematurely. His spirit slackens and sickens until he becomes a sad and frightening caricature of his younger self. And when his usefulness is gone, he is tossed onto the scrap heap."
For Bonnie Brennen, the newsroom novels that appeared between the two world wars encapsulated the "intellectual ferment and social turmoil" of that era, including "resistance against the exploitative social relationships found in industrialized capitalist society." The novels revealed a seamy underside of journalism not typically dwelled upon by Progressive histories: the "dirty, crowded, noisy, and confused" working conditions that poorly paid journalists of the day endured. The Depression's first years were especially difficult, as related by onetime tabloid reporter Mildred Gilman in her 1931 novel, Sob Sister:
The jails were filled with men who had stolen to keep themselves and their families from starvation.... [But] these stories were played down. The editorial slogan was to keep people encouraged. Boost business, never believe in hard times.... Newspapers grew thin and anemic from lack of advertising. City staffs were cut ruthlessly. On the Courier one afternoon [editor] Joe Baker fired twenty men, one after another and the latest [female reporter] sob sister. One of the men had worked for the Courier twenty-eight years.
Popular culture also targeted the sensationalism of the tabloid journalism that appeared after World War I. Tabloid editor Emile Gauvreau published a confessional of sorts in his novels Hot News and Scandal Monger, calling himself the "slave" of an age saturated by "bootleg whisky, insane journalism and jazz" Hot News was turned into the film Scandal for Sale (1932), which appeared alongside others with titles like Scandal Sheet (1931). In the movie short Hot News Margie (1931), a female journalist goes undercover to try to expose a scandal involving a star quarterback and dies from an inadvertent injury on the football field. She arrives at heaven's gate, only to be sent to hell by the gatekeeper when he learns she is a tabloid reporter.
Excerpted from Heroes and Scoundrels by Matthew C. Ehrlich, Joe Saltzman. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Authors' Note, ix,
Introduction: Studying the Journalist's Image, 1,
1 History, 19,
2 Professionalism, 39,
3 Difference, 59,
4 Power, 81,
5 Image, 101,
6 War, 121,
Conclusion: Imagining the Future, 141,