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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

All that fits

Why aren’t there more movies and TV shows with reporters as the hero?

This is not to say that there haven’t been any. In fact, there have been quite a few. I’m just asking, why aren’t there more? After all, the crusading journalist would seem to be a natural, say, for a television series. After all, a fictional investigative reporter could have endless exploits, uncovering misdeeds and exposing bad guys, helping hapless victims and changing people’s lives. Of all the real-world professions, journalism may lend itself more readily to a series of continuing adventures than any other. But we have never seen as many reporters as TV heroes as, say, private investigators, cops, lawyers, doctors or cowboys.

The first series about journalists that comes to my mind is Lou Grant, which aired from 1977 to 1982. Its fictional newspaper and reporters were clearly inspired by, if not actually modeled on, the real-life ones in the premier movie with journalist heroes, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men. The other series featuring a journalist hero, that readily comes to mind, is Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which ran from 1974 to 1975 and starred Darren McGavin as the sartorially challenged scribe. It is probably no coincidence that two of the most memorable TV shows focusing on journalists aired in the years immediately following the Watergate scandal—more or less in the same era that journalism boomed as a profession, with enrollments at journalism schools ballooning. (Believe me, I know all about it. I myself was in journalism school at the time.) To the list of most memorable TV (and movie) journalist heroes, I suppose we should add Clark Kent and Lois Lane, who have figured in numerous films as well as a 1950s TV series, the 1990s series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and the current series Smallville, in which practically everyone is a journalist except the young Clark Kent.

But we also remember journalist characters who are not the hero or maybe even a nemesis to the hero. The best example of this that I can think of is the tabloid reporter Jack McGee, played by Jack Colvin, who relentlessly pursued the incredible Hulk in the 1978-1982 TV series starring Bill Bixby. Some of the most memorable TV journalists, in fact, were not characters on dramatic shows but on comedies. In different decades, we laughed at the antics of the news crews of the Mary Tyler Moore show (of which the aforementioned Lou Grant was a spinoff), Murphy Brown and, most recently, the lamentably canceled Back to You. Pompous TV news anchors like Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter and Kelsey Grammer’s Chuck Darling are easily recognizable creatures who are easy to satirize. The big screen equivalent would be Will Ferrell’s turn in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Let’s face it, TV journalists do not lend themselves to dramatic exploits as readily as print journalists—mainly because there is something inevitably narcissistic-seeming about having your mug telecast night after night. TV journalists lend themselves more to romantic comedy or soap opera, which is why we get movies like James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News. Real-life TV journalists got a more serious take in Michael Mann’s The Insider, but that was mainly because the hero was not Mike Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer, but off-screen producer Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino. Twenty-three years earlier Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky gave us a much darker view of TV journalism in Network.

For a really good dramatic or adventure yarn about a journalist, your best bet is the foreign correspondent. What better narrative setup than a roving reporter going across the globe to dangerous places to uncover The Truth? Examples of this would include the 1983 flick Under Fire, about Nicaragua, which starred Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy as reporters, and Oliver Stone’s Salvador, in which James Wood played a freelancer who drives down to Central America to make a name for himself. The real-life perils of foreign reporting were chronicled more recently in Michael Winerbottom’s A Mighty Heart.

A couple of weeks ago, the National Public Radio program On the Media provided a pretty good quick summary of how journalists have been portrayed over the years. Joe Saltzman, (deep breath) director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, took listeners from 1948 to 1999. His examples included Call Northside 777, which featured Jimmy Stewart as a film noir-type investigative reporter; Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck uncovered anti-Semitism in America; and Shock Corridor, in which Peter Breck goes undercover as an inmate in an insane asylum and finds himself unable to get out. In the 1970s, explained Saltzman, movies about journalists reflected the paranoid sensibility of the time. Examples included The Parallax View, in which Warren Beatty uncovered an assassination conspiracy; Capricorn One, in which Elliott Gould dug into a faked NASA landing on Mars; and All the President’s Men.

If there is one stereotype of journalists that rings true for a lot of people, it is that of the herd-following, blood-smelling pack looking for the next hot scandal, with no regard for who gets hurt along the way. We have seen this in flicks ranging from several versions of The Front Page to the musical adaptation of Chicago. We have seen a bit of that this week with the flurry of media coverage of John McCain’s pick for his running mate. The increasingly breathless media coverage (at least on 24-hour cable channels) seemed to escalate with each new “revelation” about the record and family of Sarah Palin. It was almost as if she had been selected specifically to spur such a frenzy so that there could be a backlash against the media. Depending on which news outlet you followed, her speech at the Republican convention either “energized” her party or, as NPR had it this morning, Republicans were attacking the media “for doing their job.”

Normally, though the media tend to be held in low esteem by the public (as evidenced in opinion polls anyway), blaming the press for negative ratings is generally not a winning strategy for politicians. But sometimes the press can be co-opted when subjected to enough criticism, especially when there is some merit to it. Both Hillary Clinton and McCain seemed to start getting better coverage after each of them made jokes about the gentle treatment that Barack Obama was seen to be getting.

In the end, this spurt of frantic coverage of Alaska’s governor, with every pundit and operative trying to put his or her mark on the new national figure’s identity, is to be expected. I seem to remember similar bouts of coverage in years past involving governors with small-town roots, who arrived suddenly on the national stage. The sophisticated urban press were slack-jawed as Jimmy Carter spoke unabashedly about the occasional lust he felt in his heart, and Bill Clinton weathered some stereotyping as southern trailer trash after he had to admit to his affair with Gennifer Flowers. In the end, the public may like to read or watch the magazines or TV shows that dish out the gossip, but when they make their choices for president and vice-president, they usually seem to be able to sift out the unimportant stuff.

-S.L., 4 September 2008

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