In anticipation of an upcoming series of films about the newspaper biz at New York’s Film Forum, Stephen Whitty at the Star Ledger takes a look at the history of the genre — and yes, the newsroom is one of the few movie workplaces that could seriously qualify as a “genre.” It has its own stock characters (feisty reporter, cranky-but-secretly-idealistic editor, cub scout-age messenger-boys and indelibly sassy women). As Whitty points out, the newspaper picture more or less took the ’60s off and returned a shadow of its former self — when a movie like “Marley and Me” is where your contemporary cinematic journalist resides, you’re in trouble.
But where does that leave the TV journalist? Nowhere in particular, it seems. Hollywood’s relationship with its competition has often been contentious — two of the earliest titles IMDb has listed under the keyword “Television” include 1933’s “The Whispering Shadow” (man commits crimes with mind-controlling TV rays) and 1935’s self-explanatory “Murder by Television.” In the midst of all this hostility to the medium, the TV journalist was always bound to be a marginalized figure.
Part of that has to do with the shift (or perceived shift anyway) from newspapermen as mavericks doing their best to dig up the real truth regardless of the consequences — or, at best, to cheerfully dig up lurid yellow journalism to increase their numbers — to the more complicated role of TV news reporter, who answers to multiple interests, many of them increasingly corporate and ready to interfere. Think of Al Pacino in “The Insider,” doing battle with CBS: even when the producer/reporter is willing, the corporation may not be. There’s also the gap between reporter, anchor and producer; there’s no clear protagonist.
Certainly the person who most collapsed that gap was poor Howard Beale in “Network,” whose crazed pursuit of truth made him the ultimate martyr of a cynical system. A more reasonable, non-vapidly self-serving figure might be Jane Fonda in “The China Syndrome,” a local news reporter ticked off at how she’s always doing soft-focus stories about pets (which is what local news is like when they’re not trying to convince you that the supermarket is trying to kill you) who stumbles onto real news more or less inadvertently.
More common is someone like Katherine Heigl in “Knocked Up,” who — for reasons she never articulates and that remain unclear — can imagine nothing better to do with her life than stupid E! celebrity journalism; she’s a logical descendant from Robert Forster in “Medium Cool,” who’s fired from his job once he actually starts caring. The bridge-point might be someone well-meaning but cheerfully intellectually inept like William Hurt in “Broadcast News,” who actively pursues whatever’s wanted of him rather than any inherent interests he has. Whoever the reporter is, their interests are almost never their own; whether or not they embrace that is up to them.
There are, of course, heroic exceptions — “Frost/Nixon” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” come to mind — but they are exceptions. Maybe that’s because there’s nothing to celebrate in the TV newsroom: the print newsroom is all snap and energy, while the TV one is some guy in shorts sitting behind a desk getting make-up put on him. It’s harder to make that heroic, and that’s what it’s all about ultimately: news journalists are heroes screenwriters could relate to, teasing out the story the writers want to see. TV journalists are just there to package it up: they’re the directorial nemesis, taking the edge off.
Here’s Tony Randall mocking TV. If you haven’t seen this movie before, it’s the best thing you’ll see today:
[Photos: “The China Syndrome,” Columbia, 1979; “The Front Page,” United Artists, 1931.]