I’ve always considered journalism to be a noble profession. A career spent digging through false leads and trivia in order to get to the truth of a story must be pretty harrowing at times. In some countries, this actually puts journalists in mortal danger. But, in the end, it’s worth it, because they’re helping to get the word out about important stories. Indeed, it is a noble and vital profession.
This is not to suggest, however, that those who would go into this profession are inherently noble. Like anybody else, journalists often fall prey to the temptations of laziness, bias, and sometimes outright lies. These particular journalists are the reason that the mainstream media has become less and less trustworthy through the decades, as old-fashioned reporting has taken a backseat to political activism and narrative-pushing in the guise of journalistic respectability.
With Clint Eastwood’s new film Richard Jewell, the iconic director dramatizes an historical instance in which the media — for reasons of convenience and sensationalism — got the story horrendously wrong. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a security guard named Richard Jewell found a bomb planted at Centennial Park and quickly alerted the authorities and helped save hundreds of lives. He was hailed as a hero, but was quickly targeted — first by the FBI and subsequently by the media itself — as the prime suspect. The single, overweight Jewell lived with his mother and was quickly labeled a loser; a wannabe cop who was looking for an opportunity to be a hero. Jewell fit a specific type, and the media ran with the story. The problem, of course, was the that story wasn’t true, and Jewell actually was the hero he was initially made out to be.
Eastwood’s decision to put out a movie about this egregious example of an overeager media has been met with resistance from people who see the film as a piece of propaganda for the Trump administration, which regularly calls out the media as “fake news.” And while the timing of the release may well be politically motivated (what movie isn’t these days?), the film is simply the latest in a long line of movies that are willing to grapple with the potential dishonesty and sensationalism of the media.
For those who might be ideologically sympathetic to Eastwood’s goals with the film, here is a list of previously released films that took the press to task.
Shattered Glass (2003) — Written and directed by Billy Ray, the screenwriter of Richard Jewell, this film tells the story of Stephen Glass, the entertaining wunderkind of The New Republic whose popular human interest stories were soon revealed to be completely fabricated. As the newly minted editor at The New Republic conducts an internal investigation, the film explores not only why Glass would so brazenly lie to his bosses, co-workers, and the public at large, but also the environment in which he could get away with it for so long. Featuring solid performances from Hayden Christiansen and Peter Sarsgard, this film tells another true story of media sensationalism winning out over journalistic integrity.
Network (1976) — Conceived by the endearingly acidic Paddy Chayefsky, this over-the-top satire tells the story of an anchorman slowly losing his mind and the executives and producers who see ratings potential in his meltdown. As the executives justify their actions by claiming to be “tapping into the popular rage” of a post-Watergate culture, Network predicted much of the modern hysteria that we find whenever we turn on the news, from the cynical executives to the self-righteous talent to the viewers that allow themselves to be so thoroughly manipulated. A cautionary tale that proved to be unnervingly prescient.
Absence of Malice (1981) — Directed with the straightforward tone that would become his hallmark, Sydney Pollack tells the story of a legitimate businessman whose life is put through the ringer when an overeager Miami reporter writes a story implicating the businessman in the murder of a union official. The investigation that follows is a labyrinthine exercise in corruption, extortion, and politics, all couched in a surprisingly poignant debate about the First Amendment. The film suggests that the media — sometimes knowing, sometimes not — can be used as an effective weapon by those in power, requiring caution by those journalists and editors whose pursuit of a good story can blind them to their own exploitation.
Ace in the Hole (1951) — Having made one of the quintessential Hollywood takedowns the year before, director Billy Wilder decided to turn his sights on the world of journalism, represented here by a smug, smirking Kirk Douglas. A down-on-his-luck reporter sees the opportunity to get back on top when a small town resident is trapped in a nearby cave. The reporter manipulates the local authorities into drawing out the rescue operation while simultaneously getting close to the trapped man, effectively giving himself exclusive access to the unfolding story. Like Network, Ace in the Hole foretold later developments in the media, whose 24-hour news cycle operates best when propped up by an ongoing story, and suggested that some journalists are more comfortable making the news than simply reporting it.
Inherit the Wind (1960) — It may seem counterintuitive — especially to more religious readers — to recommend Stanley Kramer’s fictionalized retelling of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, but it is a well-written, brilliantly acted film, starring Spencer Tracy and the always-reliable Fredric March. Despite those heavy-hitters, it is the Gene Kelly role of haughty reporter E.K. Hornbeck that really stands out to me. While the film is none too kind to the creationism-supporting Matthew Harrison Brady (March), its real scorn is reserved for Hornbeck, who demonstrates a flagrant bias in reporting the story. The readiness with which Hornbeck editorializes and shows real contempt for more traditional-minded Americans slowly alienates everybody in the film, including those that would seemingly be on his side. The image of “journalist as self-important, narcissistic, would-be kingmaker” is one of the more damning portraits of the media in film.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of films that would seek to canonize journalists — rightly in films like All the President’s Men and wrongly in the Dan Rather apologia Truth — but there is something extremely satisfying about a movie that is willing to take a hard look at the potential pitfalls of journalism. And in the current climate — with a media that is so averse to introspection — it can also be pretty refreshing.
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