The news game

ehrlich and saltzmanIn a century-plus of popular culture, journalists have appeared as cynical scandalmongers, noble crusaders, nicotine-soaked cynics, and the mild-mannered alter egos of super-powered Kryptonians.

The latest UIP debut Heroes and Scoundrels covers the whole waterfront of newspersons depicted in our pop entertainment. Matthew C. Ehrlich (Journalism in the Movies) and Joe Saltzman (proprietor of the web site The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture) creatively wield media artifacts to lead thought-provoking forays into fundamental issues like how pop culture mythologizes and demythologizes key events in journalism history, how portrayals of journalists influence our thinking on what they do, and how the entertainment industry’s treatment of the Fourth Estate deals with issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation on the job. It’s multidisciplinary. It’s insightful. It’s excellent inspiration for your Netflix queue:

On Mikael Blomkvist:[A]lthough Blomkvist is scrupulous in documenting his reporting, he makes no effort to be neutral, much as his creator Stieg Larsson eschewed neutrality in his own journalism aimed at exposing right-wing extremism in Sweden. “For Blomkvist, the golden rule of journalism was that there were always people who were responsible,” wrote Larsson. “The bad guys.” Investigative journalism commonly tells tales of guilty villains wronging innocent victims, and it has been criticized for focusing too much on individual malfeasance as opposed to systemic failings and for fostering corrosive cynicism. Blomkvist does not escape such criticisms entirely; his own cynicism is such that he refuses to vote and believes that every corporate executive is a “cretin.” But his dedication to justice is genuine: “A managing director who plays shell company games should do time. A slum landlord who forces young people to pay through the nose and under the table for a one-room apartment with shared toilet should be hung out to dry.”

On Jane Craig and Broadcast News: The romantic triangle in Broadcast News points to a clash in values. Aaron appeals to Jane’s professional sensibilities by comparing Tom to the devil and telling her that Satan will look very much like a news anchor or presenter: “He will be attractive. He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great, God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll just bit by little bit lower our standards where they’re important—just a tiny bit, just coast along—flash over substance!” Yet Jane has a unique professional rapport with Tom, as is shown when he anchors live news coverage of a Libyan attack on an American military base. As producer, Jane tells Tom exactly what to do and say through a microphone connected to his earpiece. “It was like a rhythm we got into,” he exultantly tells her afterward. “It was like—great sex!” For the film’s writer-director James L. Brooks, the point was that the only real connection the two characters could make was “far apart and electronically,” suggestive again of television’s dehumanizing powers.

On Clark Kent: One might ask why Kent even wants or needs to be a journalist. As of 1938, being close to a news ticker to find out immediately what crises needed remedying made some sense. Seventy years later in the Smallville TV series, Kent still was in the Daily Planet newsroom hunched over a police scanner and a computer set to the Metropolis police website. By then, though, he could have just as easily done that from home with no need for a reporting job. He also could have pursued another line of work close to where the action was, perhaps in law enforcement or as a paramedic. Still, to do so would be to sacrifice a unique advantage—a journalist is the perfect disguise precisely because being one seems so inconspicuous and uninvolved. The big-city reporter exemplifies what has been called the “professional communicator” who represents “a relatively passive link in a communication chain [recording] the passing scene for audiences.”

On Zoe Barnes: Similarly, in the American TV version of House of Cards (2013), Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) blogs for the Washington Herald newspaper, where she is openly disdainful of journalism ethics. Her editor wants to fire her. “Zoe Barnes, Twitter, blogs, enriched media—they’re all surface,” he tells the paper’s publisher. “They’re fads. They aren’t the foundation this paper was built on, and they aren’t what will keep it alive. We have a core readership that thirsts for hard news. Those are the people I work eighty hours a week for. And I won’t be distracted by what’s fashionable.” The publisher, who sees Barnes as a cutting-edge means toward generating buzz for the paper, is unmoved. “That’s your resignation letter,” she tells the editor.