Mr. Smith was a hero, Se­nate and press vil­lains

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - News - Wil­liam P. War­ford

We watched the great Frank Capra clas­sic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton,” in my Lit­er­a­ture and Film class the other day.

If you haven’t seen it, or if it’s been a while, the film stars Jimmy Ste­wart as an ide­al­is­tic, pa­tri­otic ama­teur who is ap­pointed to a Se­nate seat af­ter the death of one of his state’s Se­na­tors.

What he doesn’t know is that the cor­rupt political ma­chine back home is con­vinced they can ma­nip­u­late him and get him to go along with their shady deal to build a dam.

He idol­izes the state’s other Sen­a­tor, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), not re­al­iz­ing at first that, Paine, too, is cor­rupt and part of the ma­chine.

Young Sen. Smith stands up to the ma­chine, and they move to crush him.

We re­search the films we watch in class, and the stu­dents read about the re­ac­tions to “Mr. Smith” fol­low­ing its 1939 re­lease.

It seems the big­gest crit­ics were mem­bers of Congress. In a piece in the Oct. 17, 1939, Chris­tian Science Mon­i­tor, an angry Sen. Ma­jor­ity Leader (and fu­ture vice pres­i­dent) Al­ben Barkley, D-Ken­tucky, was quoted as say­ing:

“… It was so grotesque it was funny. It showed the Se­nate made up of crooks, led by crooks, lis­ten­ing to a crook . . . It was so vi­cious an idea it was a source of dis­gust and hi­lar­ity to ev­ery mem­ber of Congress who saw it.”

Me­thinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Ma­jor­ity Leader.

Plenty of laws de­signed to pre­vent graft have been passed in the 80 years since the film was made, and the sys­tem is more trans­par­ent now.

But we couldn’t help notic­ing that the same week we watched the film there was a story in the news about how Se­na­tors of both par­ties make money in­vest­ing in firms they reg­u­late.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

The Se­nate, though, was not only the in­sti­tu­tion that comes off look­ing hor­ri­ble in the film.

The press, too, comes in for a cringe-in­duc­ing por­trayal. Re­porters are shown as grossly un­fair, fo­cused on the triv­ial, and out­right cor­rupt — bought off by the ma­chine back in Smith’s home state (which the film never names).

Yet, in our re­search, we found no com­plaints from the Fourth Es­tate about jour­nal­ists be­ing un­fairly por­trayed. That sur­prised me.

“Isn’t that be­cause it’s pretty much ac­cu­rate, though? Then and now?” one stu­dent asked.

It’s a symp­tom of how far we’ve fallen that young peo­ple would think that jour­nal­ists are re­ally that bad.

I ac­knowl­edged that there has been a diminu­tion of jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards in the in­ter­net era, and par­tic­u­larly in the last cou­ple of years of the Trump era, but there is still a lot of good jour­nal­ism be­ing prac­ticed — par­tic­u­larly out­side of Wash­ing­ton and New York City.

I used to de­fend the pro­fes­sion much more vig­or­ously, but it grows more dif­fi­cult when hardly a week goes by that we don’t have some “bomb­shell” na­tional story that then has to be “walked back” be­cause of shoddy jour­nal­is­tic prac­tices and a rush to get the story out.

The stu­dents lis­tened po­litely, but let’s just say their trust in the me­dia is con­sid­er­ably lower than when I was their age and so many thought Woodward and Bern­stein walked on wa­ter.

Wil­liam P. War­ford’s col­umn ap­pears ev­ery Tues­day, Fri­day and Sun­day.

As with all Frank Capra films, there was good and evil in 1939 clas­sic

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