Movies represent journalists as heroes and villains and that is appropriate as journalists are both.

Brain McNair claims “Movies represent journalists as heroes and villains and that is appropriate as journalists are both.” Write a critical examination of how and why films and TV series represent journalists in this way. Your answer should include an in depth examination of a minimum of 2 films and TV series.


Citizen Kane (1941)

Films and TV construct fictional ideologies and incorporate them into reality. Journalists have been represented as a watchdog and as a tabloid nuisance, as moral and unbreakable, and as corrupt hounds.  The image of the journalists swirls between extremes and the public shadow these notions. Films create “a cinematic public sphere that could be used to communicate ideas and shape public opinion” (Ross, 2002, p.3). The image of journalists in film and TV is represented in a diverse number of ways, as hero and as villain.

Initially, journalists were portrayed as heroic in It Happened One Night (1934) and His Girl Friday (1940) and villainous in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and All about Eve (1950). Journalistic protagonists were formulaic (Saltzman, 2010). The psyche behind them remained virtually unexplored. When Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole emerged, cinema explored journalism. Ace in the Hole describes the mania that surrounds newspaper media. Chuck Tatum, an egotistic luckless reporter, fired for libel, adultery, and drinking, among other charges in various newspapers, gets a job at Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin with some fast talking. He states “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog’. The film establishes his decadent nature, as a villain.  After a year of uneventful reporting, Tatum finds out about Leo Minosa, who is trapped in a cave collapse and prolongs his rescue through cruel tactics. Tatum squeezes every bit of life from the story. He claims “Bad news sells best, ‘Cause good news is no news”. Tatum’s story attracts crowds from afar. He even lures the victim’s wife to his advantage. Wilder is unsympathetic in his portrayal of tabloid journalism. He marks the cynicism and competition in the reporting business. Wilder deconstructs the sensationalism and corruption in newspapers that controls the public, a subject further discussed in Network (1976) and Sweet Smell of Success (1956). It is a satire and critique on modern journalism and its ability to alter reality in the face of a story (McNair, 2010).

Annex - Douglas, Kirk (Ace in the Hole)_02.jpg

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Tatum is a journalist represented unforgivingly without any redeeming quality. He continues to manipulate and endanger people, drinking profusely, abusing Leo’s wife, and exploiting the story without any ethical guidelines simply for fame and fortune. All the while he pretends to be an objective participant in the action. (Shafer, 2007) “I don’t make things happen. All I do is write about them,” he says. However, there are also positive figures of journalism in the film. The editor strains to talk some sense into Tatum attempting to be a moral regulator. An ambitious young photographer also attempts to stop Tatum. Wilder emphasises his empathy, Tatum feels no guilt until his delays cause Leo his life. Leo’s wife stabs him out of anger and he collapses before he can make amends. “There’s a deep ambivalence in movies, tilting toward the dark side,” says Tom Goldstein. ”They’re usually not heroes or antiheroes. Hollywood’s harsh view of journalists helps form public perceptions (Weinraub, 1997).

The journalist as a villain is one that betrays the trust of the public, which lingers in the mind of the public for a long time. The media’s tactics are familiar to everyone which can explain why the public finds media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner questionable (Saltzman, 2010). This image is paralleled in TV series, The West Wing (1999) and State of Play (2003). However Wilder doesn’t blame the journalist only, but the public surrounding him, spawning a carnival, using it as entertainment in the midst of a tragedy. As cinematic sociology, Ace in the Hole displays the masses as ill-mannered, without principles, naive, and famished for the media’s fakery (Shafer, 2007).  Wilder is ahead of his time sculpting honest but brutal images of journalism, examining the relationship between the press, the public and the news they receive.


Despite the public and critic’s complaints of the film’s representation of news practices, the film was actually based on two real events. In 1925, when Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave, journalist William Miller turned the tragedy into a national episode and in 1949, when three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into a well creating a rescue operation that had newspapers everywhere covering the incident. Both victims did not survive. Today it is difficult for the press to not recognize the hunger for sensation present in the film (Ebert, 2007). Ace in the Hole excites and shames journalists because it makes them recognize the villain in them. It verifies the drama of human interest that journalists desire (Shaffer, 2007). It continues to parallel real life events such as with the Chilean Miners, showing that a journalist can become a villain unknowingly.

Michael Mann’s The Insider redefined modern journalism. The film portrays journalism heroically. Adapted from real events, it chronicles the struggle of reporter Lowell Bergman as he attempts to bring Jeffrey Wigand, a former employee of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company who refused to co-operate with the company’s plans to increase the effect of nicotine and was fired. Bergman’s program CBS’ “60 minutes” avoids the subject, against involving some of the most powerful companies of the nation. It underlines Bergman’s struggle to preserve the moral integrity of his story whilst attempting to protect Wigand and evade the corporate obstacles in his way.


The Insider (1999)

The Insider documents the ethics of a journalist. Bergman is a determined and honest hero. He is a watchdog such as Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men (1976). Throughout the film, Bergman supports Wigand. He explains to him “When I tell someone I’m gonna do something, I deliver”. He befriends him, supporting his family. Mann also establishes Bergman’s integrity in the opening scene where he is traveling to the Middle East to interview a Muslim cleric with ties to a terrorist organisation. The cleric’s representative demands prior approval to the questions. Bergman replies “you’ve seen 60 minutes, you’ve seen Mike Wallace, (the programme’s presenter) so you know our reputation for objectivity and integrity.” He is straightforward with his journalistic rules. Bergman’s ethical veneer is further established when he bluntly begins the interview with “are you a terrorist?”

However unlike All the President’s Men, The Insider portrays the coarse side of democracy. It recognizes corporate giants compromising the free press (Lally, 2007). The tobacco company represents the power that halts journalistic morality and freedom. Bergman’s attempt to expose the businesses lies is shattered as a chain of events create obstacles for him. Bergman’s story is censored, watered down and dropped while Wigand has shadows following him, death threats, his wife even leaves him, Brown and Williamson campaign to stop them.  It redefines the representation of journalists as heroes. Corporate powers do influence news companies with fear of ligation and financial pressures. The Insider warns viewers about journalism and the information they receive (Lally, 2007). The truth is surrounded by crowds of executives, businesses, industries, multi-billion dollar companies, lawyers, all in it for their own interest as the journalist fights to be the moral force.


All the President’s Men (1976)

Bergman’s moral status is not the only thing he maintains to be a hero. He goes through legalities, research, and people for information. Political and social factors are clear in The Insider separating investigative journalism from sensationalism journalism in Ace in the Hole (Nitsch, 2005). Films portray the press’ power through heroic depictions of corrupt larger-than-life institutions being dethroned and depictions of how this power can also misused for commercial motives (Saltzman, 2010). Almost every character in the story is compromised by business considerations. Moral relativism is a big part of playing the game (Maslin, 1999). The truth creates complex ethical dilemmas for journalists; redefining heroism.

The Insider consecutively portrays journalists negatively when misleading information is created by journalists hired by Brown & Williamson to discredit Wigand. These journalists search his doctoral dissertation and research his past. It leaves the viewer with two sides of the picture. “We see the human cost of applying liberal journalistic practices in situations where powerful interests are under attack” (McNair, 2010, p.72). The real Bergman states that The Insider was the first mass media product to expose journalism’s flaws and portray the human side of newsgathering. As much as The Insider is an inspiring tale of men fighting tobacco giants for the greater good, it is also an intricate story of journalistic decisions. In the end, Bergman and Wigand won, resulting in billions of dollars being lost by the tobacco companies. They were marked as heroes and examples of journalist integrities, but the personal cost for Bergman and Wigand was far too much to be accounted for.

In conclusion, the journalist has been seen as an image of trust and betrayal. Public opinion at particular points in time narrates the representation of journalists in film. Matthew Elrich states journalism films represent “a culture thinking out loud about itself” (Ehrlich, 2004, p.2). The images of the journalist in popular culture embody the basic notations of what heroes and villains are. The hero echoes a society’s hopes and dreams, the villain, its terrors and nightmares. The same applies to the journalist (Saltzman, 2010).  There are good journalists and bad journalists, those ethically bound and others who are interested only in their own gains.


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