The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture: An Interview with Joe Saltzman (Part One)

If USC’s Nonny de La Pena is exploring new tools and platforms that will shape the future of journalism, another of my new Annenberg colleagues, Joe Saltzman, is using new media tools to make it easier for us to research journalism’s history. Specifically, Saltzman has launched a data base which indexes a vast array of films, television series, comic books, and other media texts which include popular representations of journalists. Saltzman has long been at the center of a growing academic research field focused on the study of the image of the journalist in popular culture.

As Saltzman explains in the interview here, much of our understanding of who journalists are comes from such popular representations. It is there we can see both heroic representations of the power of the press to bring down seemingly insurmountable institutions and more critical representations of how this power gets abused for commercial gains or cynical motives. These media encapsulate our dreams and our fears about the Fourth Estate.

I’ve become good friends with Saltzman since coming to USC — we have great conversations which range from why the Greek historians might have better been understood as prototypical journalists to the pleasures of watching old movies. He brings a veteran journalist’s salty skepticism to a lifetime of serious study of the history of his profession.

This interview will orient you to the new database and how you can use it in your research, but it will also span across some key representations of the press in popular culture, allowing Saltzman to share his unique perspective on some of my favorite movies and movie-makers.

Tell us about your new database. What kinds of information does it contain and what research purposes was it intended to address?

The mission of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is to investigate and analyze the conflicting images of journalists in film, television, radio, fiction, commercials, cartoons, comic books, music, art, video games and other aspects of popular culture. Through research and publication, we are able to examine their impact on the public’s perception of newsgatherers.

When I started researching the image of the journalist in popular culture almost 20 years ago, no one was much interested in the subject. Seven years ago when I started the IJPC, it wasn’t considered an academic discipline and few universities offered courses in the subject. Today, the IJPC Web site (ijpc.org) and the IJPC Database are considered the definitive worldwide sources for this subject and are used on a daily basis by scholars, students and professionals who want to do more research in this area. By having the IJPC Database now online, it means anyone can access it and this means there are no limits to how far the field can grow.

Before the IJPC Database went online only 250 IJPC Associates had access to it. Now anyone can use the database. That means all 75,000 entries on journalists, public relations practitioners and media are now available to everyone, anywhere in the world, to use for research, scholarship, study or just for fun.

The IJPC Database includes:

  • Print journalists (from large urban newspapers to small country weeklies and the Internet, including editors, reporters, photojournalists, correspondents, columnists, publishers, newsboys, bloggers)
  • Broadcast journalists (from networks to local stations including reporters, anchors, correspondents, producers, writers, technical personnel, news directors, station owners, network executives and management).
  • Public relations practitioners (from press agents to publicists)
  • News media (anonymous reporters who show up in countless films and television movies ranging from press conferences to packs of reporters shouting questions or chasing after the main character to individual reporters asking questions).

The IJPC Database can be referenced by year, title, type, occupation, country and author as well as key words in the comments section. It’s been said that there are thousands of scholarly papers to be written out of the database. As one professor put it, “I don’t see how anyone can write anything in this field without referring to the database. There is nothing like it and it is an indispensable reference.”

The entries include:

  • Television (27,000 items)
  • Films (19,500 movies, movies made for TV and miniseries)
  • Fiction (12,300 novels, 1,550 short stories, 500 plays and 200 poems)
  • Cartoons, Comic Books & Comic Strips (5,900 items)
  • Non-Fiction (Documentaries-News-Sports) (3,150 items)
  • Radio (2,900 items)
  • Humor (710 items)
  • Commercials (350 items)
  • Games (140 items)
  • Early References (120 items)
  • Music (Songs-Compositions) (95 items)
  • Internet-Websites (90 items)
  • Art (40 items)

We also redesigned the ijpc.org website making it easier for users to read the thousands of articles and materials we offer on the site. The “Resources” section includes an invaluable collection of hard-to-find articles and books on this subject. The IJPC Student Research Papers include IJPC subjects never before researched. The sections on “The Image of the Gay Journalist in Popular Culture,” and “Sob Sisters: The Image of the Female Journalist in Popular Culture” are unique areas of study. The seven video compilations, available only to IJPC Associates, are used in classrooms all over the world. (You can join the IJPC Associates by going to the ijpc.org website and filling out the online form.)

The concept of the IJPC Database was to collect every image imaginable of the journalist in popular culture so scholars, researchers, students, professional journalists and anyone interested in the subject could take this information and use it as the basis for articles, books, blogs and other multimedia publications.

You can have great fun searching the database. I enjoy looking up real-life local reporters (in the Comments section) and seeing all the movies they made as themselves or as generic types (i.e. Newscaster #1). Other things to do with the database queries:

  • If you want to see the full database, simply click Submit and all 75,000 items come up. You can then order the database by year, title, author, or occupation (in the Comments section).
  • Looking up a favorite actor to see how many times they played a journalist (Clark Gable played more leads as a journalist than any other actor, and an actor named Lester Dorr played more reporters in movies than anyone else I can find).
  • Try typing in “Deadline” in the Title category and see how many entries show up.
  • Type in your favorite author (last name followed by a comma and then first name) and see how many journalists were included in their body of work (Anthony Trollope is a good one to check).
  • Type in “Advice Columnist” in the Comments category.
  • Type in a specific country such as Spain in the Reference/Country category.
  • Highlight a Type such as Cartoons or Comic Books or Commercials to see everything in that category.
  • Check out every episode of Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Smallville, Ugly Betty or How I Met Your Mother, just write in any of those titles in the Title category and all will pop up within seconds.
  • Type in a certain type of journalist – a columnist or investigative reporter or war correspondent – in that occupation in Comments category and see what pops up.

You can literally spend all day looking up things and still not even touch the surface of what’s included in the IJPC Database.

The categories that cause me the most difficulty are soap operas and romance novels because journalists are poorly chronicled in soap operas and it seems as if a romance novel is published every three seconds and then disappears in months. I’m looking for experts in both areas to help me out. I’m also looking for correspondents from every country to send me lists of films, novels, comic books and so on featuring journalists, especially someone in India to send me a complete list of journalists and the news media in Bollywood films.

Can you share some of the process of pulling together this data base?

Like many things, the IJPC started in tragedy. When my youngest son David developed Hodgkin’s disease as a senior at Yale in 1998 and died a year-and-a-half later. 11 days before his 23rd birthday, I needed a research project to get my mind off the tragedy. I started spending hours in the library studying the subject. Five years later, I came out of my depression realizing that I had more than 10,000 pages in my computer on the subject covering the image of the journalist from the 21st century to ancient times. And so the IJPC was born.

There were a few early writings on the subject, but they focused mostly on films featuring journalists and some novels. The many books by Howard Good, a professor of journalism at SUNY and Richard Ness, Associate Professor of Journalism at Western Illinois University’s seminal filmography on the subject (From Headline Hunter to Superman) along with a book by Alex Barris called Stop the Presses! The Newspaperman in American Films in 1976 were the pioneers in the field although often we were writing on the subject simultaneously without any of us knowing about the other. Both Good and Ness are now involved in the IJPC, as is another early writer on the subject, Matthew Ehrlich, Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Journalism in the Movies.)

I obviously went through their books as well as thousands of others on film genres, surveys of novels, short stories, plays and poems in various centuries and any other reference book that simply listed films or novels and characters. But without the Internet, the work would be much harder. I am constantly using the Internet to discover new databases on comic books, cartoons, romance novels, soap operas, commercials, music and every other aspect of popular culture.

I also go through various established Internet databases – the Internet Movie and TV Database, tv.com, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, TV Guide, etc. And every day I do various Google searches (I have a search vocabulary of 57 words that can turn up references to journalists appearing in various aspects of popular culture) looking for entries not in the database. I spend about five hours a day searching for new entries for the database, adding about 5,000 entries per year.

In addition I record more than 80 hours a week on four DVRs chronicling journalists on television, in commercials and in movies made for television.

You’d be surprised at how many journalists are featured in TV programs and are never mentioned in the summary of the show itself. Besides the obvious programs such as Ugly Betty, How I Met Your Mother, The Daily Show, there is, for example, the Law & Order franchise that often features journalists. There are also many TV shows and movies that show anonymous journalists chasing after the major characters and I want to document all of those. I add all of these programs to the database on a daily basis.

I also make DVD copies for IJPC Associates and we now have more than 12,000 DVDs and tapes, more than 5,000 hours of audiotapes and MP3 files, more than 8,500 novels, short stories, plays and poems (the largest collection of novels and short stories featuring journalists ever assembled), scripts, research materials, articles, art works and other artifacts

You’ve been the leader of a new field of research centering on the academic study of popular representations of journalists. What do you see as the value of this approach for the students of journalism? What do you think it contributes to the study of cinema more generally?

The IJPC goes far beyond cinema in evaluating the image of the journalist in popular culture. One of the things that amazed me was that most of the writing about the IJPC involved film and the 20th century. But the images of the journalist were really being solidified in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the images in early cinema, for example, come from 19th century novels on journalism.

The first question I’m asked when I tell people that I’m director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC) is who cares about the image of the journalist and why do you waste your time studying it?. And the simple answer is this: Because the images of the journalist you see in films, watch on television and read in novels influence the public’s opinion about the news media and the effectiveness of that media. And the ramifications of how the public perceives and judges the media can have a profound effect on the success or failure of our American democracy.

Think about that. When your favorite aunt asks you why would anyone go into journalism, a profession filled with arrogant, impolite reporters who invade people’s privacy, make up stories and sensationalize the news, where is she getting her information? She probably doesn’t know any journalists, has never visited a newsroom, and has no idea how reporters work. Yet she has very specific ideas about who journalists are and how they behave. And she learned this by watching journalists in the movies and on television and reading about them in novels.

Surveys continue to show that most Americans want a free press that is always there to protect them from authority, from Big Business and Big Government, and give them a free flow of diverse information. But those same surveys also show that most Americans harbor a deep suspicion about the media, worrying about their perceived power, their meanness and negativism, their attacks on institutions and people, their intrusiveness and callousness, their arrogance and bias. And many of the reasons for this dichotomy can be found by studying the image of the journalist in all aspects of popular culture.

By looking at the image of the journalist in popular culture, we can better understand why the public feels the way it does about journalism and the people who practice it.

Joe Saltzman, the director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC) and the author of Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film, is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.

He received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California and his M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After working for several years as a newspaper reporter and editor, Saltzman joined CBS television in Los Angeles in 1964 and for the next ten years produced documentaries, news magazine shows, and daily news shows, winning more than fifty awards, including the Columbia University-duPont broadcast journalism award (the broadcasting equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize), four Emmys, four Golden Mikes, two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a Silver Gavel, and one of the first NAACP Image Awards.

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