CALIFORNIA LITERARY REVIEW, Internet- Print journalism is dying. Well, it’s been dying for years if we’re going to be completely honest. Television news and 24-hour cable stations both contributed their portion of the 23 wounds, but it’s the Internet that might finally put an end to this branch of the Fourth Estate.
The newspaperman has had a long tradition in American culture. Whether considering Ida Tarbell’s investigations into Standard Oil in the late 1890s/early 1900s, Clark Kent joining The Daily Star in 1938 (look it up), or Hunter S. Thompson visiting the Kentucky Derby, for decades, the print journalist was held in high regard. There was a nobility and even a coolness to the role that stopped existing once reporters became glorified press agents and never really followed into the broadcast or cyber realms.
This week, Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times opens in limited release. The documentary, which follows a year inside the New York Times, goes into the American institution’s past and present while examining what innovations like Twitter and YouTube mean to the state of journalism today.
In honor of the profession’s last gasps, this week’s Listicle will take a look at some of fictional print journalism’s greatest figures.
Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
You can’t discuss journalists in cinema without discussing one of the greatest movies of all time: Citizen Kane.
Orson Welles’ loose “biopic” of legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst features the writer/director as Charles Foster Kane, a once idealistic newspaperman who falls into personal disgrace and ruin. In fact, the film actually centers around another journalist, William Alland’s Jerry Thompson who works for a The March of Time-style newsreel and is investigating Kane’s life after his death (or, more specifically, the story behind his now infamous last word(s): Rosebud). By interviewing some of Kane’s (formerly) closest companions, the legend begins to become a human.
As a wealthy, although somewhat eccentric, young man, Kane quickly recognizes the excitement of the news industry. Kicked out of “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Switzerland,” Kane decides to put his efforts and finances into journalism because, as he puts it, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” As the new owner of the fledgling New York Inquirer, Kane even develops a declaration of principles- “to provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings”- that he prints in his first edition.
Despite initial hardships (though “at the rate of [losing] a million dollars a year, [he’ll] have to close this place in 60 years”), Kane eventually turns his periodical into a dominant news power by scooping up the best journalists and subscribing to yellow journalism after realizing the benefits of sex and violence in selling newspapers. As Kane grows his empire, he sells out his ethics and his friends, becoming increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal before dying alone and isolated.
What makes Kane so memorable is he boasts a complexity rare for films of that era; he is distinctively modern. His fall does not come because crime doesn’t pay or from an assassin’s bullet or due to some sort of femme fatale, but because of his own psychological makeup. He’s simultaneously the hero and the villain of the piece (and not in the siding with the gangster in a gangster flick way), and his death feels tragic.
As a newspaper movie, Kane shows the excitement of clicking typewriters and the fast-paced office as well as the dangerous politicking that goes on behind the scenes.
The Hudsucker Proxy (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1994)
Throughout their career, Joel and Ethan Coen (the Coen Brothers) have taken looks back at nearly every decade of the past century, and one of their most unique films was 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy. Probably their lightest and most mass-friendly film, The Hudsucker Proxy serves as a notably well-done throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s (also the period some might consider the heyday of the journalist), despite being set in the 1950s. Recent attempts at capitalizing at this long- gone formula (including George Clooney’s 2008 Leatherheads and even the Coen Brothers’ 2003 Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney) failed at capturing the proper pacing and sheer joy of the genre. But The Hudsucker Proxy hits all the right notes. Additionally, the film features aesthetics different from the Coen Brother’s usual works that excellently combine back lot-style sets with the occasional feel of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Tim Robbins stars as naïve, mid-Western mailroom attendant Norville Barnes who becomes the President of a major corporation after its former head, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), jumps out a top floor window to his death. Director (as in Board of…) Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), realizing that Hudsucker’s shares will soon be available for public consumption, selects Barnes as President to inspire mass panic that will depress the stock price and thus enable him to buy all of Mussburger’s shares at a drastically reduced cost. Unfortunately, Barnes’ successful ideas, which include the development of the hula hoop, throw a wrench into Mussburger’s plans.
The journalism angle comes from Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fast-talking, hard -drinking newspaper reporter from the Manhattan Argus who wants to get to the bottom of the mysterious Barnes. The Pulitzer Prize-winner applies to become his assistant and feigns being from his hometown of Muncie, Indiana; he immediately hires her. Barnes takes a quick liking to her, and she feels torn between her blossoming feelings for the sap and her job. It’s a character clearly modeled after the likes of Jean Arthur’s Louise “Babe” Bennett/Mary Dawson in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (Winona Ryder’s role in Mr. Deeds, if you’d prefer) and Leigh continues the tradition superbly (and better than Ryder).
The Wire – Season 5 (David Simon, 2008)
During its five seasons, The Wire (2002-2008) was never a “commercial” hit for HBO. Although not a cultural juggernaut like The Sopranos when it aired time, David Simon’s Baltimore-set crime drama might actually be HBO’s most important and memorable show to date. Referenced by politicians and the public to this day, the relevance and impact of The Wire seems to steadily increase, even more than three years after its final episode.
One of television’s truest ensemble pieces, The Wire used different seasons to focus on the different causes behind the city’s problems and their interrelationship to show how there is no pat answer for curing society’s ills. The cops, the criminals, the attorneys, the politicians, the schools, and the unions all received significant time and attention and each group consisted of rich and flawed characters representing the best and worst the city had to offer.
When The Wire entered its final season, the former print journalist Simon included newspapers, and the hardships facing print journalism today. The central character in this storyline was Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, late of Simon’s first groundbreaking series Homicide: Life on the Streets), the city desk editor for the Baltimore Sun. As the season begins, he’s forced to deal with major cutbacks, the closing of foreign desks, and the loss of veteran writers for financial and other reasons. Defending the writers worth defending, Haynes begins to realize his impotence as important stories get buried and fluff gets significant space. A classic newspaper man who appreciates the impact that only The Paper can provide, and one who would find a lot of value in Kane’s declaration of principles, Haynes finds himself getting pushed out in favor of profits, more politically viable stories, and a lack of belief in (or an apathy towards) the newspaper from his bosses. When Haynes calls a reporter who fabricated an extremely popular and award-winning story to task for lying, the executive editor demotes him.
The Wire was not a show to inspire hope. The series took a brutally honest look at the self-perpetuating cycle involving every aspect of life that has brought to society to the nigh-unfixable place it is today. With its last season, it brought the media into the fold. By showing the warts and overall sorry condition of the formerly pedestal-ed newspaper, David Simon brought us inside the newsroom and allowed us to mourn the loss of an institution but recognize its complicity in modern American life.
Newsies (dir. Kenny Ortega, 1992)
Here’s what you need to know about Newsies: it’s a musical that follows the newsboys strike in 1899 New York City, starring a brilliant cast, with a fantastic choreographer and great music. Also, Newsies incepted my crush on Christian Bale, which has waned over the years even as his acting ability has grown exponentially. My sister and I wore out our VHS of the movie, and I’m (not really) ashamed to say I still know the lyrics to every song almost 20 years later.
In Newsies, the newspaper giants of the era (and forever), William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (the great Robert Duvall) battle it out for top sales at the expense of the poor boys marching through the streets crying “Extra, extra!” The boys (and most of them were boys, young, broke, often homeless) bought the papers at cost, then sold them on the streets in their respective boroughs. When Pulitzer, an egotistic magnate, raises the price of papers for the newsies, the boys in tweed caps go on strike at the urging of Jack “Cowboy” Kelly (Bale). The newsboys went up against the richest and most powerful men in New York City, whose names are still buzzwords in journalism more than 100 years later, and they succeeded.
According to Wikipedia, the strike was really led by Kid Blink, who hardly exists in the film but is played by none other than South Park creator Trey Parker (the things you learn when you have an encyclopedic brain and a love of Disney movies). All historic accuracies and inaccuracies aside, the movie is a raucous, heartfelt musical choreographed by Kenny Ortega, who also did Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (let us not speak of Xanadu or the High School Musical trilogy). The newsboys sing and dance about seizing the day, taking down the wealthy and powerful, and moving out to Santa Fe. Warning, though: Christian Bale is no singer, nor a good dancer. Also, while he’s a vocal chameleon these days, at the tender age of sixteen his New Yorker accent was painful to behold. Witness, though, Ann-Margret as a burlesque singer, Max Casella (“Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Boardwalk Empire”) as a wisecracking newsie, Bill Pullman as an honest reporter, and “The Walking Dead” star Jeffrey DeMunn, nearly unrecognizable as a young father.
It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934)
It Happened One Night was the first movie I watched in a class for my film studies major. Suffice to say it stuck. I’m not always a sucker for comedies, but give me Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in front of the camera and Frank Capra behind and I’m so there. In It Happened One Night, a spoiled heiress (Colbert) escapes her father’s watchful eye and goes on the lam. On a bus, she runs across wisecracking, roguish unemployed reporter Peter. He needs a story and she needs an escort; all is hunky dory, right? The arrangement goes according to plan until, of course, the two fall deeply in love with each other. If the plot seems cliche, that’s because every other romantic comedy in the history of film bases itself on It Happened One Night.
The movie, which is beautifully filmed, witty, ridiculously charming, and sweet, won all five major Oscars in its year (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Writing). Gable’s slightly unethical reporter and Colbert’s stuck up heiress with a heart of gold make a wonderful pairing, and the film features some of the most famous scenes in cinema history. When Colbert hiked up her skirt to show one shapely gam, the world was titillated. When the curtain rigged between their twin hotel beds (even though they’re posing as man and wife – even marrieds didn’t share beds during the Hays Code) dropped and the lights extinguished, you can’t help grinning. Colbert and Gable have brilliant comic timing and a fantastic rapport. It goes to show that even handsome, wolfish reporters and rich as sin heiresses have feelings too.
It Happened One Night is available, in its entirety, on Google Video – we live in the future!
Shattered Glass (dir. Billy Ray, 2003)
When Stephen Glass, a reporter not long out of college, wrote for “The New Republic” between 1995 and 1998, he became one of journalism’s most wanted, in more ways than one. His witty and intelligent articles made him the golden boy of political journalism (“The New Republic” was the in-flight magazine of Air Force One). He was well-liked by colleagues and competitors alike….until his world started to unravel (or to shatter, to borrow the title). Glass was, in fact, a liar liar pants on fire. All 41 of his articles were either totally or partially fabricated. I guess he skipped one too many Ethics of Journalism classes in college, eh?
“It’s true, journalism is hard work,” Glass says in the film’s opening monologue. “Some reporters think it’s political content that makes a story memorable. I think it’s the people you find, their quirks, their flaws, what makes them funny, what makes them human. Journalism is just the art of capturing behavior.” Billy Ray captured the art of Glass’s deplorable, unethical behavior in a 2003 retelling of Glass’s fall from grace. The movie stars Hayden Christensen as Glass, a self-effacing, obnoxiously apologetic, ingratiating young man. Christensen, who bore the wrath of Star Wars fanatics everywhere with his painful performance as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, contributes a genuinely good performance. As in the underrated family melodrama Life as a House, he plays an unhappy, precocious kid like a pro. Hank Azaria and Peter Saarsgard play “The New Republic” editors, while Melanie Lynskey and Chloe Sevigny play editors. Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson have small roles as reporters for a rival magazine who discover Glass’s fabrications. For a movie so chock full of famous(ish) people, the egos are remarkably small. It’s a ninety minute vignette told succinctly and intelligently. Who’d have thought journalism would make such a constant and such a consistently fascinating topic in cinema?
His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940)
Let’s start with some fun. This quip-filled romp by Howard Hawks is a gem of American comedy. Cary Grant plays a newspaper editor hoping to break a huge story, and his top reporter (also ex-wife) is on her way out the door. Convincing her to stick around for the thrill of the chase once more, he sets about throwing a wrench into her upcoming marriage to Ralph Bellamy. Unfortunately for him, the lady journalist is just as sharp as he is (or sharper), and, though she cannot resist the lure of such a juicy lead, she goes into the endeavor with every intention of making it her last.
From beginning to end, our lovable characters spout barb after barb, building to a furious pace as more and more wrinkles develop in the plot. These newspaper folk seem to talk exclusively in clever bylines. A host of secondary characters wander in and out rapidly, giving rise to a delightful series of vignettes, even as the big plot rolls steadily onward. Sustained chaos keeps this pot boiling along at a merry pace.
At times, the rapid-fire dialogue piles up on itself in a hopeless jumble, paving the way for the chaotic naturalism that Robert Altman would later make so famous in films like MAS*H. Add to this the nonstop ringing of phones and clattering of typewriters. A great screwball comedy (of the kind that Hollywood was making so wonderfully around this time) never lets up. Often, the scenarios unfolded in fairly down-to-earth environments (on the job, in the home, and so on), which meant that the characters had to drive the lunacy. Hawks understood this, as did Ernst Lubitsch – the feeling that even in the most commonplace of settings, anything might happen. Movies like Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, and perhaps most notably Frank Capra’s Arsenic And Old Lace prove that His Girl Friday is no fluke.
While The City Sleeps (dir. Fritz Lang, 1956)
Now for something a bit more grim. Fritz Lang, the Austrian movie master behind such classics as M., Metropolis, and Dr. Mabuse did the smart thing in the 1930s and moved to Hollywood (I mean, how bad could working for Joseph Goebbels really have been? har har). Once there, he threw his expressionistic eye into a particularly brutal strain of film noir.
While The City Sleeps is a wonderful example. A newspaper staff, thrown into disarray by a recent change of management, is hot on the trail of the newest crime sensation, the “Lipstick Killer.” This story will not only mean great things for the paper, but also determine the new executive editor. The new boss, you see, is the typical shiftless heir of a media mogul (played by a young and smooth-faced Vincent Price!) who has no intention of running his own enterprise. Instead, he allows the top ranking members of the staff to dog it out for the position on their own. Could their cutthroat competition possibly be a hindrance to actually catching the killer? Well, we will have to see.
What it is, is good solid noir with a twist. These are not private detectives, scraping out a living on the fringes of society. They are the go-getters of radio, television, and newspaper. Their own private wars are as thrilling and sordid as any story they might wish to cover. Numerous storylines and characters intersect in surprising ways, even as the danger of a roving killer begins to affect them personally. Before long, any one of them stands a chance of making headlines, though not necessarily the way they might have hoped.
All The President’s Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
This classic of the conspiracy thriller type features a host of great actors circling one another with mutual suspicion as they try to crack the convoluted web spun around the Watergate scandal. Even with that incident and Richard Nixon’s presidency dwelling in the halls of history like so many distant memories, the movie remains taut and engaging even today. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are in top form, playing never-say-die Washington Post men Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Jason Robards is a smoldering, Oscar-winning foil to their reckless enthusiasm in the role of editor Benjamin Bradlee.
This is the kind of story which might inspire the adventurous to become reporters, much to their probable disappointment. The good guys climb perilously to the top of the stack by uncovering one big name after another, perpetually skirting the threat of serious trouble and gambling their careers and future lives on the instinct that they must be in the right.
All The President’s Men presages Oliver Stone’s JFK on a very limited scale, indulging in none of the grandiose, fantastic, or gleefully sordid things which lend the latter film its baffling charm. The biggest battles are fought out in the newsroom of the Post, as Bradlee savages each successive lead in order to tease out a solid, well-founded story that still has the proper impact.
Things get mighty dark indeed when Woodward engages the help of a top-secret government snitch, famously codenamed “Deep Throat” and played with supreme eeriness by master character man Hal Holbrook. Among the many works this film influenced, one of the major entries is the X-Files, which went so far as to reproduce the character for Agent Mulder’s benefit.
The shadowy side of the investigation lends a thrilling depth to the big bad truth the journalists hope to uncover, but makes it mighty rough when they want to expose what they’ve learned in the hard light of day. All in all, the movie is a bit on the dry side, but has become the iconic representation of that time period and those events for generations that follow.
Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1974 (dir. Julian Jarrold, 2009)
“This is the North. We do what we want.” So one character phrases things at a key moment in Red Riding: 1974. The first in a three-part television film trilogy based on David Peace’s lurid and gripping series of novels, this film raises the curtain on a frightening portrait of corruption and despair in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Woven loosely around the real-life “Yorskshire Ripper” murders, the saga unravels the disappearance of a single child into a grim and seemingly bottomless conspiracy.
Who better than a young reporter with something to prove to become entangled? Andrew Garfield, much lauded for his supporting turn in The Social Network, deserves further kudos for his portrayal of Eddie Dunford, a melancholy lad hoping to make a splash as the new crime correspondent for The Yorkshire Post. As in any good journalistic drama, he stumbles upon the one story which could make his career overnight, only to discover that some very powerful people do not care to have him sniffing around. In this case it concerns the abduction of a local girl, which he begins tying to other sinister doings in the neighborhood. Believing he has found connections to previous crimes of a similar kind, he gets dangerously involved with the mother of another missing child, and with some very creepy pillars of the community.
Red Riding plays most effectively as a trilogy, but each installment stands quite solidly on its own. As the story expands, we learn that the solution of most major crimes in the area, eventually spanning decades, would only uncover more scandals, which would, in turn, tarnish the standing of otherwise respected citizens. The most grievous crimes are so tangled up in police corruption and political intrigue that certain elements of law enforcement are the last people who want them solved. Though wonderfully engaging and suspenseful, Red Riding paints as bleak a portrait of humanity as I can call to mind.
The atmosphere is A-plus in this series. Beginning as a gritty procedural, it spirals into the ultimate nightmare of investigative journalism, where every layer peeled away leaves a painful wound. Drifting hopelessly from police press conference to newsroom to the local reporters’ pub is a cycle which Dunford yearns to break. He gets his wish, more decidedly and violently than he ever could have wanted. Though all the sacrificed innocents eventually lead to a hopeful conclusion at the trilogy’s end, the moral of 1974 is ambiguous at best. The futility of pursuing the truth is palpable, but the good at heart will do it anyway, to the bitter end.
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