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

What do you see as some of the recurring themes in the popular representation of journalism? How much do these myths change over time and how much do they remain constant?

The surprising thing is that the image of the journalist hasn't changed much throughout the centuries. In Antigone, Sophocles summed up the popular opinion more than 400 years before Christ was born: "None love the messenger who brings bad news." About the same time, another popular play told the story of a herald bringing shocking news to the mad hero who is believed to be involved in a murder plot. The hero picks up the herald and dashes his brains upon a stone. No doubt the audience cheered. And so, the image began.

One of the most vicious portrayals of the journalist, for example, is Five Star Final made in 1931. The final shot in the film is the newspaper in the gutter being splattered by mud or something worse.

The basic image of the journalist from the silent days of the movies to the media-drenched days of the early 21st century is that of the flawed hero fighting everyone and anything to get the facts out to the public. The reporter or editor could get away with anything as long as the end result was in the public interest. The journalist could lie, cheat, distort, bribe, betray, or violate any ethical code as long as the journalist exposed corruption, solved a murder, caught a thief or saved an innocent. Most films about journalism end with the reporter or editor winning the battle, if not the war.

At the same time, the most indelible image may be that of the journalist as scoundrel, as evil, as the worst of villains because these journalists use the precious commodity of public confidence in the press for their own selfish ends. If the journalist uses the power of the media for his or her own personal, political, or financial gain, if the end result is not in the public interest, then no matter what the journalist does, no matter how much he or she struggles with his or her conscience or tries to do the right thing, evil has won out.

Betraying the public trust is one of the great sins in a democracy and whether it is a journalist or a politician who does the dirty deed, it is despicable. The corrupt media tycoon's goals and tactics are familiar to everyone, and real-life parallels in modern media abound. That may be the reason so many people are skeptical of the motives of such media billionaires as Rupert Murdoch.

Perhaps the most dominant and damaging image of the journalist in popular culture is that of anonymous reporters chasing after stories. In countless movies, television programs and novels, they travel in packs, usually armed with television cameras and microphones. They cover fast-breaking news by crowding, yelling, shouting, bullying and forcing their way into breaking news events. There were always such packs of aggressive print journalists chasing after heroes in movies, and they made a negative impact through the years, but their zeal was usually taken in good spirits. Nowadays, they appear far more menacing and out of control because their lights, cameras, microphones and tape recorders are jabbed into faces of real people on television news and favorite actors in movies and entertainment television programs.

In the 1930s and 1940s, practically every popular actor eventually portrayed a journalist. By the 1980s, anonymous reporters were chasing popular actors. The audience, as always, identifies with the popular actor. For the most part, audiences now root against reporters who are chasing familiar and friendly faces. It isn't Clark Gable or Barbara Stanwyck chasing after a story. It is now overzealous media newshounds chasing Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts.

This image of a harassing press with no valid reason undermines the public's trust in the news media, conflicting with the movie and television image of the reporter as hero. One result is that the public has turned against reporters, concluding that journalists are obnoxious, interested only in their own egos, not the public interest, and that laws should be passed to stop reporters from harassing innocent people - innocent people often translated in the public mind to be a favorite movie or television star.

These conflicting images of the journalist contribute to the love-hate relationship between the public and its news media that is at the center of the public's confusion about the media today.

The anger and lack of confidence most Americans have in the news media today is partly based on real-life examples they have seen and heard. But much of the image of the journalist as a money-grubbing, selfish, arrogant scoundrel is based on images from movies and television. And it is those images burned in the public memory that have turned the phrases, "the people's right to know" and "First Amendment freedoms" into sick jokes rather than honored phrases. These images directly affect the public's opinion and consequently its support of the freedom of the news media.

What are some of the early texts which helped to define the stories popular cinema tells about journalists and where did they get their ideas about the profession from? How important was the crossover that occurred as trained journalists sought jobs as script writers in Hollywood?

The early cinema stole from everywhere and everyone, from plays, novels, Shakespeare, mythology, the bible, you-name-it. Much of what the popular cinema knew about journalism came from novels and plays written by former journalists about their profession. There were many silent films made about journalism taken from popular 19th-century novels.

Two of the most popular talkies featuring journalists in the early 1930s were The Front Page and Five Star Final, both Broadway plays written by newspapermen. When sound came in, Hollywood raided Broadway to find writers who could write the words their new stars would say. Since newspapermen of the period were glib and hungry, an exodus of newspapermen and women left New York for Hollywood and wrote a good many of the scripts. Because they knew the world of newspaper journalism, many of the scripts featured reporters and editors in starring roles or in secondary roles. These journalists certainly knew what they were writing about and often took real-life anecdotes about editors and reporters and stuffed them into their scripts.

While the kernel of the idea was true, these writers were forced to exaggerate and expand the truth for dramatic effectiveness. For example, they would take 10 years of anecdotes and jam them into one film. Since many of the newspapermen and women were former reporters who hated their editors, they loved getting even with their former editors by revealing every drunken and angry anecdote they could remember.

So while these early newspaper films had a veneer of truth, they were exaggerated to the point where real-life newspaper reviewers condemned their efforts as unrealistic and ridiculous. But what did come through was a kind of affection for these newshawks that only a professional journalist could bring to the craft of screenwriting. That affection - even when the journalist behaved badly, even when the journalist had no ethics at all and would do anything to get a scoop - came through loud and clear and pretty much disappeared in the 1950s when the films about journalists became harder, rougher and less sympathetic. What used to be funny in the 1930s and 1940s - alcoholism among journalists, for example - became serious social problems in the 1950s through the rest of the 20th century. Films about journalists became less fun, and the newspaper world became a more serious place to do business.

You've written a book which specifically examines Capra's Journalists. Why were journalists so central to Capra's work? In what ways does his view of journalists reflect his own contradictory concerns between an embrace of collective action and a fear of mob rule, for example, or between individualism and community?

Capra loved the newspaper world and not only delivered newspapers as a boy but also wanted to be a reporter. He also worked with Robert Riskin, a playwright who while on Broadway spent a lot of time with reporters, especially drunken reporters, who used to spin tales about their lives and hates for hours on end. He soaked in all of this and put much of it into his screenplays for Capra.

The director also never missed a chance to put a journalist into his films - the original story for It Happened One Night didn't have a journalist as its principal character (the Clark Gable role in the short story is a college-educated chemist). It's impossible to imagine that film without a journalist as its major character. He also used reporters as commentators on a society and, while flawed, they usually were guys and gals with good hearts who ended up doing the right thing. Capra and Riskin saved their angry indignation for the publisher.

In Capra's world, the hardworking male or female journalist might do anything for a story, but by the end of the film he or she usually does the right thing even if it means giving up his or her job. By contrast, Capra saved his venom for the owner of the newspaper, the publisher, the media tycoon. They are among the most vicious media villains in all of film history. They are the ones who create the moral chaos in which reporters and editors struggle to survive. Capra was far ahead of his time in seeing that the person who controlled the media was dangerous to any free society. Capra with Riskin's great help was one of the first popular filmmakers to recognize the possibility of great evil on the part of those who own the media. He issued the first popular alarm against the media tycoon who could control the world by controlling information.

In Meet John Doe, for example, a ruthless publisher (whose personal security force resembles the Nazi military) who owns much of the nation's media, plans to use it to create a dictatorship in America. He puts together a cartel of rich businessmen to do just that using the populistic John Doe movement to get elected into office. Only a Capra-contorted conclusion stops the publisher - for now. The ending, one of many filmed, seems to indicate that the media mogul has been stopped for now but will live to fight another day.

The scenes of decent, hard-working Americans turning into a mob when they are told John Doe deceived them is one of the most powerful in American film history showing the fear of mob rule. And while we are watching it, real-life radio commentators pulled off the airwaves and into Capra's film are shown in silhouette, their familiar voices giving the vicious mob scene even more credibility and realism. The scene where John Doe tries to talk to the audience and speaks into a microphone that has been purposely disabled is one of the most terrifying images in the film - the hopelessness of the individual against the ones who control the media and the mob itself.

American journalism has undergone some profound shifts in recent years. How is this reflected in media representations of journalists?

Ironically enough, while the technology changes, the image pretty much stays the same. The reporter is either a hero exposing a crime or catching a crook, revealing some diabolical scheme to wrest power away from the people. Or he/she is a villain going against everything a journalist should be doing - helping people, exposing hypocrisy, fighting for the little guy. Instead, that journalist villain is using the media for his or her own economic or political gain. This is true whether they work for a newspaper, a magazine, a radio station, a television station or, now, the Internet. Bloggers seem to have the same image as their newspaper antecedents. It seems the Internet Journalist Hero is still working in the grand tradition of journalist heroes by exposing a conspiracy or solving a crime. The Internet Journalist Villain uses the new technology to gain economic or political power.

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.