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

Science fiction media offers us a chance to envision the future of news. What images have surfaced there most frequently?

Journalists of the future apparently have the same problems as journalists in the past. In a TV Sci-Fi series called Dark Angel, created by Jim Cameron in 2000, a journalist, crippled by the enemy, broadcasts news and revolutionary information by hacking into government television. He is a traditional hero in the future. So are Max Headroom and the TV staff around him. They are working in a corrupt system trying to do the best job they can at informing the public. Almost every journalist in science fiction faces the same problems journalists have faced throughout history. The technology is different. The villains can even be aliens. But the problems are the same and the way the journalist faces the problems hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. Often, these sci-fi journalists will risk their lives and may even get killed to make sure the public is informed.

In the 1950s, journalists were used in countless sci-fi films (many real-life journalists performing in the movies just as they performed in real life on radio or TV) to give the films more credibility. In the early 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy played on the postwar fear of communism to stage a witch hunt in Hollywood that destroyed many careers and left a legacy of fear that would last for more than a decade.

It diminished the motion picture industry’s enthusiasm for making movies about corrupt

politicians and powerful businessmen. And it created an unquestioning, passive reporter who shows up in one science fiction film after another. These reporters always work with the authorities, and worry less about scoops and informing the public. These reporters are more interested in working with the military and the government to extinguish the man-made or outer space threat, than in the people’s right to know. These reporters are good Americans first, journalists second and they never question the government’s ultimate authority to do the right thing.

You recently put together a case study of representations of “gay journalists.” What did you find?

It turns out that gay journalists are pretty much the same as other journalists except for their sexual preferences, which take up a good deal of screen time. In analyzing more than 125 films and TV programs, we discovered that the gay journalist is often ridiculed and used as a comic figure whose stereotypical gay characteristics are a source of either derision or buffoonery. The majority of serious gay journalists in most of the 20th century are usually bitchy columnists or bitter critics whose devastating one-liners can reduce anyone to tears or anger. They have great power, but usually by the last reel are defeated or even murdered. The same is true with reporters overly concerned about doing their job well and less about the perception around them that they are gay.

By the late 1980s, being gay was often acknowledged in one way or another. Many plots involved the growing AIDS epidemic or the problem of being outed as a gay or the problems of being gay in any society. Interestingly enough, most of the sensitive portrayals of gays in the cinema involve films made outside the United States. With the exception of India, whose stereotypes of gay characters seem to be a staple of Bollywood, films made in France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, and the United Kingdom are extremely sensitive and moving portrayals of both male and female gay characters.

As the 20th century came to a close and continuing in the 21st century, gay journalists are accepted as being gay and often their gayness figures prominently in the plot. For some reason, 1997 turned out to be a seminal year previewing the next century’s portrayal of gays. Rupert Everett’s gay British editor in My Best Friend’s Wedding and Tom Selleck’s tabloid reporter in In & Out were characters the audiences accepted with affection. But even as film after film featured fully realized gay characters, the ridicule of stereotypical gay characteristics continued in films as recently as He’s Just Not That Into You in 2009.

Surprisingly, television programs featuring gay journalists provided far more sensitive portrayals of gay characters. Individual episodes of Night Court, Murphy Brown, Queer as Folk, Dirt, Veronica Mars and The Nanny, and continuing characters in such shows as Ugly Betty, Frasier, Da Ali G and The L Word showed gay journalists who were not afraid or embarrassed to be gay. And the gay journalist in The L Word even gets her own series in 2010.

The gay journalist turns up in all forms of film genres, including horror films, action films, sci-fi and supernatural films, detective films, cartoons and comedies. There’s a Ph.D. thesis to be written on the image of the journalist in soft and hard-core adult films and the image of the gay journalist is no exception. All of the stereotypes associated with gays and journalists can be found in soft-core or hard-core pornography featuring gay journalists.

It can also be concluded that lesbians are generally treated more favorably in films and TV than gay men. With the exception of the female who displays male characteristics and is constantly ridiculed and assaulted in films, lesbians with feminine characteristics are among the most favorable images of gay journalists in films and TV.

Some of the more serious films dealing with gays show the influence of parental approval or disapproval on the gay journalist. It is easier for the female to win approval of her lifestyle than the male. Often the male gay journalist is an outcast not only to his family, but also to his fellow workers.

Public relations practitioners display all the characteristics of the image of the public relations practitioners as well as the image of the gay journalist in popular culture. They exhibit all of the stereotypical gay characteristics, they can be ruthless in their pursuit of power, and they often are accepted as being gay and frequently their gayness figures in the plot.

The image of the gay journalist in films and TV is a varied collection of males and females whose sexuality is a primary factor in the plot and character development. They often have close friends of the opposite gender, they exhibit bright minds and devastating one-liners, they seem to be always looking for that significant other and seldom finding him or her, and many seem to have an enormous reservoir of understanding for people who don’t get the concept of being gay. More often than not, they appear in comedies. When they appear in dramas, it is usually heavy going involving prejudice, illness and sometimes violence. Gay journalists seem to fare better than other gay characters, possibly because of their sense of humor, their wit and ability to lose themselves in the stories they are working on.

Citizen Kane, the film many consider to be the greatest American movie, deals with a journalist. Is its depiction of the press part of what has made it such an enduring and influential film?

I don’t think the fact that Kane was a publisher and surrounded himself with journalists, especially in the early part of the film (which has delightful newspaper sequences), had much to do with making it an enduring and influential film.

The newspaper part came mostly out of Herman Mankiewicz’s mind. He was a newspaperman who had written other newspaper films, hated William Randolph Hearst, knew much of the gossip around him because of his friendship with Marian Davies and put practically all of it into the film. It was that part of the film that almost destroyed it.

But Citizen Kane is considered one of the greatest American movies primarily because of its brilliant use of sound, deep focus camera work, and brilliant acting and writing. Nothing like it was ever seen before it appeared on the screen. It was original and daring in its use of audio and video. That is the real secret of its greatness, not its rather coarse story of a publisher who in strategic parts of the film resembled Hearst (the inside joke concerning “Rosebud” will live in infamy).

Is the newspaper film a genre or should we be focusing on the diverse roles journalists play across a range of genres?

Journalists show up in every kind of film ever made. But there is a definite news media film genre. Richard Ness’ monumental filmography demonstrates this conclusively. Although the IJPC Database chronicles any journalist in any part of popular culture – even when the journalist shows up for a page or two in a novel, or a scene or two in a movie or TV or radio program – the journalist is a key protagonist enough of the time to warrant its own genre.

The word journalist dates back to 1693 and is defined as someone who makes a living by editing or writing for a public journal or journals. In modern times, the journalist has grown to mean much more than someone simply involved in the production of printed journals. It has become a synonym for reporting in any news media. The IJPC defines journalist as anyone in any century who performs the function of the journalist – to gather and disseminate news and information, to report, to observe, to investigate, to criticize, to inform. The body of film and novels that include this kind of journalist is huge.

Do you see significant differences in the ways journalists are portrayed in films coming from countries which do not have the same tradition of a free press as the United States?

The IJPC Database has more than 2,600 films from other countries that have a journalist in them. Most of the images resemble those of American films. The journalist in any country seems to be depicted in much the same way – either as a hero righting a wrong or the last one standing up for freedom of speech and press, or a villain in cohorts with the government in power.

Many of the problems American journalists face in popular culture are the same as those journalists in foreign films and novels. The concept of a free press and the importance of a free press is a popular theme in most foreign films, even those in which a free press is more of an ideal than a reality. And one Italian film gave us the concept of paparazzi (La Dolce Vita).

About 30 percent of the IJPC Associates are outside the United States. There is great interest in the image of the journalist in American films and TV programs outside of this country. And many of these films and TV programs have had a tremendous influence on the image of the journalist in various non-English speaking films.

In less serious films, the journalist is depicted as an object of humor, and the tabloid press worldwide is the subject of ridicule and sharp satire. Especially in the films labeled Bollywood, many feature a journalist as comic.

Your data base includes many comics. Why do you think the journalist became so centrally linked to the superhero genre?

A reporter is an obvious disguise for a superhero because it puts the superhero right in the thick of the news and gives him or her an opportunity to know what is going on in the city, the country and the world. Also, journalists are always where the news happens so it is also a good cover for a superhero to be where the action is. It is no surprise that the most enduring image of the journalist is the Daily Planet family – Clark Kent (Superman), Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen.

Since they appeared in comic books in 1939-1940, they have not changed at all throughout the last 70 years. They may have been modernized (at one point in the comic books Kent becomes a TV reporter, and in current comic book issues, the Daily Planet is suffering cutbacks and the Internet revolution), but at the heart of it all Kent is still the hard-working reporter who believes in accuracy and fairness, Lois Lane is still the 1940s sob sister more interested in getting the story first than anything else, Perry White is still the gruff editor out of any 1930-1940 film, and Jimmy Olsen, the aspiring cub reporter and later photojournalist is still out to make a name for himself and always following in Kent-Lane’s footsteps.

It doesn’t matter whether it is the original comic books, the radio show, the early cartoons based on the radio show, the movie serials, the four Superman films, the Lois & Clark TV series, the many TV cartoon versions throughout the years or the brilliant reimagining of the Superman-Clark Kent myth on Smallville, the Daily Planet staff always remains the same – probably the most enduring positive images of the journalist in modern history.

It’s no coincidence that the most enduring superheroes – Superman, Spider-man, The Question (TV Reporter Vic Sage), Tabloid Vampire Reporter Becky Burdock, Vulcan (Reporter Johnny Mann), The Megaton Man (Reporter Trent Phloog), The Creeper (Tabloid Columnist-Investigative Reporter Jack Ryder) – are journalists or have journalists around them, superhero partners or rivals – Reporter Lois Lane, Photojournalist Jimmy Olsen, Editor-Reporter Joseph “Robbie” Robertson, Reporter Ben Ulrich, TV Reporter Sweet Polly Purebred, TV Reporter April O’Neil, Magazine Reporter Natsuko Shouno, Reporter Pamela Jointly, Tabloid Reporter Anne-Marie Brogan, Reporter Tully Reed.

The journalist is a good partner, someone who, like a Dr. Watson, is a friend to the superhero and recounts many of the hero’s adventures. Also, the audience easily identifies with a journalist, expects that journalist to ask questions and demand answers and is at ease when the journalist narrates the story. For that reason alone, the journalist is often thrown into films and novels simply to be a natural way to give exposition, continuity and reality to a fictional story.

What does the future hold for IJPC? What are your goals for IJPC?

The future, I think, is very bright. Last year, we published the first edition of our peer-reviewed The IJPC Journal giving the field its own academic publication. We hope to have the second volume out by fall, 2010. Now the IJPC Database is updated daily and is available to scholars, students, researches, professionals and anyone else interested in the subject on a daily basis and this should encourage interest in the field.

Our goals are to increase academic scholarship in the field and to publish in areas never before explored. Most of the publication in this field involves movies and some novels. We hope to expand the scholarship to every facet of popular culture.

The IJPC also produces invaluable video compilations filled with images that have never been seen in one place. We have produced seven volumes to date:

  • Hollywood Looks at the News: 1925-2007, a one-hour-and-49-minute compilation with 165 movie and TV clips
  • Sob Sisters: The Image of the Female Journalist, 1929-2007, a two-hour-and-41 minute video with more than 136 movie and TV clips
  • The Image of the Broadcast Journalist in Movies and Television, 1931-2006, a two-hour-and-48-minute compilation with 200 movies and TV clips
  • Real-Life Journalists in Movies and Television, 1939-2006, a two-hour-and-13 minute compilation with 79 movie and TV clips
  • The Image of the War Correspondent in Movies and Television, 1931 to 2007, a two-disc, 225-minute compilation with 166 movies and TV clips
  • The Image of the Gay Journalist in Movies and Television, 1929 to 2009, a three-disc, four-hour and-42 minute compilation with 123 movie and TV clips
  • Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies, a 110-minute compilation.

Anyone wanting a copy simply has to join the IJPC Associates (information at the IJPC Website).

Today, more than two dozen universities offer courses in the subject and many use IJPC materials and video compilations in those classes or in other classes on journalism and the news media. I think the IJPC Database going online will expand the use of the IJPC in classrooms around the world.

We also hope to do two national surveys – one exploring how the images of the journalist in films, television and fiction influence the public, and another exploring how the images of the journalist in film, television and fiction have affected and influenced those who work in the media. Most of what we know about the influence of the images of the journalist on popular culture is anecdotal. We need a scientific survey to give us solid evidence that what we have surmised is true.

I know I became a journalist because of Clark Kent and Hildy Johnson (of The Front Page). Most every journalist I know was influenced by similar images – Lois Lane and Brenda Starr were inspirations for many female journalists throughout the latter part of the 20th century. And whenever I talk to someone who hates the media, they usually reference a movie or TV program that lives up to their worst expectations. There is no question in my mind that the image of the journalist in popular culture has a tremendous influence on the public’s perception of its news media. And that’s why I have spent so much time documenting the IJPC and try to encourage other academics to write on this extraordinary subject. And there’s another reason to explore the IJPC. As one of my colleagues put it, “It’s just a lot of fun to do.”

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.