Jour­nal­ists in pop cul­ture

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - Jonathan Richards

INHeroes and Scoundrels: The Im­age of the Jour­nal­ist in Pop Cul­ture, au­thors Matthew C. Ehrlich and Joe Saltz­man have done a painstak­ingly thor­ough job of mar­shal­ing, assem­bling, or­ga­niz­ing, and set­ting down in print the vast amount of ma­te­rial that makes up our pop­u­lar cul­ture’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of jour­nal­ism and the men and women who com­mit it. And there’s no ques­tion about it, the press has been a fa­vorite sub­ject of movies, tele­vi­sion, and lit­er­a­ture for about as long as the first two of those have been around.

The au­thors ap­proach their pop-cul­ture sub­ject in a sober, schol­arly fash­ion. It comes as no sur­prise to dis­cover that they are both univer­sity pro­fes­sors. This trea­tise is stuffed like a Stras­bourg goose with foot­notes, quotes, and ref­er­ences. “Schol­ars have of­ten pointed to the affin­ity be­tween history and pop­u­lar cul­ture,” they write. “In 1966 Rus­sel B. Nye ar­gued that ‘history and lit­er­a­ture are as­suredly branches of the same tree,’ adding that one could not com­pletely grasp what nine­teenth-cen­tury New York City was like with­out the nov­els of Stephen Crane and Edith Whar­ton.”

The sub­ject mat­ter holds plenty of in­ter­est for read­ers drawn to the pop­u­lar me­dia, and that’s a lot of us; that’s why it’s called the pop­u­lar me­dia. But the pre­sen­ta­tion here can get a lit­tle stiff, like be­bop played by a cham­ber group. Still, the re­wards are there to be taken, and you can mine them to fill out your Net­flix queue with jour­nal­ism ti­tles from

Ab­sence of Mal­ice to The Year of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously (there were no Zs).

The au­thors take us back to the beginnings. “The birth of mod­ern jour­nal­ism,” they write, “is vividly evoked by the 1952 film Park Row, writ­ten, di­rected, and pro­duced by Sa­muel Fuller.” (You won’t find that on Net­flix, but Ama­zon’s got it.) And they give a lot of time to the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur clas­sic The

Front Page, a fast-paced satire of the news game that started as a play and has had sev­eral movie in­car­na­tions, in­clud­ing the great Howard Hawks adap­ta­tion,

His Girl Fri­day, with Cary Grant and Ros­alind Rus­sell. The crux of this book is re­vealed in its ti­tle, and the au­thors ex­am­ine the good, the bad, and the ugly de­pic­tions of jour­nal­ists in the pop­u­lar me­dia. Much of that is fic­tion, like Wal­ter Burns in His Girl

Fri­day, who com­bines the good and the bad into one charm­ing, bul­ly­ing rascal. Jour­nal­ists are cat­e­go­rized as “of­fi­cial” and “out­law” types, the for­mer stand­ing for the press es­tab­lish­ment’s view of it­self as hav­ing a “com­mit­ment to­ward ‘sound rea­son­ing and judg­ment’ in serv­ing the greater good,” while the “outlaws” are shown as “liv­ing by their own code of con­duct and thumb­ing their noses at po­lite so­ci­ety and author­ity.”

Jour­nal­ism’s he­roes and vil­lains in the movies are of­ten drawn from life. Water­gate busters Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein are li­on­ized in All the

Pres­i­dent’s Men, and Ed­ward R. Mur­row is re­mem­bered with rev­er­ence in Good Night, and Good Luck; but Stephen Glass, dis­graced and fired for fab­ri­cat­ing sto­ries for The New Repub­lic mag­a­zine, is dis­graced again on film in Shat­tered Glass. On the other hand, Ju­dith Miller, whose New York Times re­port­ing man­aged the dou­ble whammy of out­ing for­mer CIA agent

Va­lerie Plame and pro­mot­ing the Iraq war with sketchily sourced sto­ries of Sad­dam’s weapons of mass de­struc­tion, gets gen­tler treat­ment in the fic­tion­al­ized Noth­ing but the Truth.

The grand­daddy of thinly veiled por­tray­als of real-life jour­nal­ism fig­ures is “the most fa­mous me­dia owner in pop cul­ture history, the Hearst-like pub­lisher Charles Foster Kane in Or­son Welles’s Cit­i­zen Kane.” Kane is hero and scoundrel both. The young Kane “shows the en­er­getic and am­bi­tious side as he vows to use his pa­per to ‘see to it that the de­cent, hard­work­ing peo­ple in this com­mu­nity aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pi­rates.’ The ag­ing Kane shows the cor­rupt side.”

The ideal of jour­nal­is­tic ob­jec­tiv­ity is treated in Gra­ham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet Amer­i­can. “Its pro­tag­o­nist Thomas Fowler is a mid­dle-aged Bri­tish re­porter in Viet­nam in the early 1950s. He har­bors no il­lu­sions,” the au­thors write.“Fowler stead­fastly re­fuses to take sides of any kind.” And when, fi­nally, he does take a stand, it “does not seem to be rooted in any par­tic­u­lar ide­al­ism.” When The Quiet Amer­i­can was Hol­ly­wood­ized in 1958 by Joseph Mankiewicz, un­der a heavy stu­dio hand of Cold War pres­sure, it “com­pletely al­tered the novel’s end­ing,” and Greene an­grily dis­avowed it as a be­trayal of his anti-war mes­sage, say­ing “one could al­most be­lieve that the film was made de­lib­er­ately to at­tack the book and the au­thor.” A 2002 re­make was faith­ful to Greene’s vi­sion.

A sec­tion on fu­tur­ism and sci-fi and the per­spec­tive they give to our view of the role of jour­nal­ism to­day of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ple of the past pre­dict­ing the fu­ture defin­ing the present. In Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Night­fall,” a jour­nal­ist named Ther­e­mon 762 from the planet La­gash “strik­ingly re­sem­bles the cyn­i­cal colum­nists on the planet Earth.” Asimov’s story deals with science de­niers, and a La­gash sci­en­tist lashes out at Ther­e­mon: “You have led a vast news­pa­per cam­paign against the ef­forts of my­self and my col­leagues to or­ga­nize the world against the men­ace which it is now too late to avert.” It’s a chilling forecast of a mod­ern jour­nal­ism that gives equal time to cli­mate change de­niers.

There’s a great deal to glean from this slim vol­ume (it logs in at 256 pages, but ev­ery­thing af­ter page 154 is ap­pen­dix and notes). Its aca­demic style ham­pers the go­ing at first, but once you get deep enough into the riches of the sub­ject mat­ter, it ceases to be as much of a dis­trac­tion. Still, it’s a lit­tle like a schol­arly dis­ser­ta­tion on sex: de­scrip­tive and even valu­able, but it can’t touch the real thing.

As the au­thors say, a lit­tle wist­fully, near the end, “We be­gan this book by ask­ing why schol­ars should study the im­age of the jour­nal­ist in pop­u­lar cul­ture. We ne­glected to pro­vide one im­por­tant an­swer: it’s fun.”

“He­roes and Scoundrels: The Im­age of the Jour­nal­ist in Pop­u­lar Cul­ture,” by Matthew C. Ehrlich and Joe Saltz­man, was pub­lished in April by Univer­sity of Illi­nois Press.

Cary Grant and Ros­alind Rus­sell in His Girl Fri­day; im­age cour­tesy Univer­sity of Illi­nois Press

Haing S. Ngor as pho­to­jour­nal­ist Dith Pran and Sam Water­ston as jour­nal­ist Sydney Schan­berg in The Killing Fields; im­age cour­tesy Univer­sity of Illi­nois Press

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