Books, Arts & Manners

Journalism in the Movies Cheers On Cynicism

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (RKO)
What’s wrong with TCM’s month-long celebration of fake news

Turner Classic Movies just premiered a month-long series, Journalism in the Movies, but its ballyhoo has a truth-in-advertising problem. Promos for the 21 films being shown promise “to defend Democracy” and to “dispatch facts, not fiction. What drives us? The truth!” These Hollywood fantasies made during the 1930s through the 1970s cover the hacking trade, from newspaper to television, from All the President’s Men on up. But TCM’s celebration comes at the wrong time.

Journalism is now at its least trustworthy. It has entered a new phase of Yellow Journalism, which one broadcaster aptly characterized: “All restraints are coming off now; it’s no accident that public opinion of media is at its lowest point.”

Despite such widespread disapproval, TCM positions its regular anchor Ben Mankiewicz as a hardnosed cheerleader. Hailing from a family of Hollywood Democrats and the son of Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, the host boasts about his favorite films in the series: Citizen Kane (co-written by Mankiewicz’s uncle Herman Mankiewicz), All the President’s Men, Sweet Smell of Success, Ace in the Hole, His Girl Friday. TCM’s programming includes interview presentations with famously liberal CNN mouthpieces Anderson Cooper and Carl Bernstein (former Washington Post mascot), who routinely use TV face time to proclaim their partisanship.

By avoiding any alternative or original perspective on journalism or movies (no Mollie Hemingway, Pete Hegseth, or James O’Keefe permitted), TCM reveals its liberal bias. Democratic-party media wonks officiate as if that’s all there is to contemporary journalism. Naïve film lovers might be especially susceptible to this partiality, believing it was normal — or Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang’s 1956 thriller that anticipates Norman Mailer’s New Journalism).

Divided into sections — “Journalism and Politics,” “Newspaper Noir,” “TV News,” “Newspaper Comedies,” “Reporters at War,” “N.Y. vs. L.A.” — Mankiewicz’s beloved journo films promote professional cynicism. There’s gossip (Sweet Smell of Success); skullduggery (Ace in the Hole); unnamed sources (All the President’s Men); inappropriate workplace sexuality (His Girl Friday); and the megalomania (Citizen Kane) that’s applicable to moguls from William Randolph Hearst to Jeff Bezos. But you must figure that out yourself, and given the age of these films, it’s a distant alarm that fails to address the modern habits that force the public to be wary of media agendas: The way opinion is now presented over facts and editorializing replaces reporting indicates institutional self-infatuation. There’s a reason the term “fake news” has taken hold, and Hollywood is partly to blame.

***

In Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic 1920s newspaper comedy The Front Page, the unscrupulous editor Walter Burns declares that “there’s an unseen hand that watches over newspapers.” This kind of self-mythologizing has ruled the newspaper genre and even infected the attitude of hero-worshiping readers who regard papers of record with religious authority. Our vainglorious media’s thin-skinned reactions to the “fake news” charge shows in the abiding affection for the hardboiled yet self-aggrandizing The Front Page and made it adaptable to changing times — it was first filmed in 1931, then 1975, with sex-role-reversal adaptations filmed in 1940 and 1988.

At its beginning, Hollywood’s newspaper genre was personified by the whippersnapper nerve of bantam 1930s reporter icon Lee Tracy, whose only Oscar nomination came decades later, ironically for playing a dying U.S. president in The Best Man. Tracy, the cocky herald of an openly indecent profession now commanded by self-proclaimed sophisticates, is suspiciously absent from this series. TCM shows journalistic wrongdoing only as an aberration rather than the psychotic norm it has become. Its programming concept cannot escape the professional-class narcissism that is always with us.

After Robert Redford (Lee Tracy’s temperamental opposite) enshrined himself as Watergate reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, then informed the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers in Three Days of a Condor, he directed Lions for Lambs, using the Iraq War to expose journalistic duplicity through a reporter played by Meryl Streep (who later showed her true bias by deifying Washington Post owner Katharine Graham in The Post). Redford then revived “Woodstein” egotism by sentimentalizing disgraced newscaster Dan Rather’s shameless narcissistic posturing with Cate Blanchett as his CBS producer in Truth.

Given this evolution, journalism as depicted in Hollywood (much as in real life) no longer simply provides news; it has brazenly shifted its mission from objectivity to advocacy. We no longer have stalwart Humphrey Bogart in Deadline U.S.A. but arrogant Tom Hanks in The Post and sanctimonious Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight — portrayals that promote the #resistance media combine. A character like Sally Field’s egoistic careerist in Absence of Malice would be inconceivable in today’s Hollywood.

TCM’s nostalgia is stealth activism; Hollywood’s liberal drift is emphasized while journalism’s craven ruthlessness — Nathanael West’s shocking point in the newspaper melodrama Miss Lonelyhearts (1958) — is ignored, just like the contemporary outrages of newspapers and media outlets that operate as partisan platforms.

The mainstream media have misled the public by championing political bias, often hiding sources of information for their own benefit. Today’s covey of mainstream journalists don’t follow a code, but they all hold hive-mind political perspectives, and they command the same status, prominence, and wealth that high-profile journalists always have. The history of journalism in film is based in narcissistic opportunism, and the difference between the media and the public comes down to a class war. It goes back to ex-newsman and novice screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s famous 1926 telegram beckoning newsman Ben Hecht to Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots!”

Some of the TCM offerings may be casually enjoyed, but critical thinking exposes fundamental cracks in the genre: TCM promotes only the profession’s trickster moralism and its delusion of modern knight’s gallantry. Since journalists have become incapable of fairness, this series is difficult to watch; its nostalgia is unhelpful, starting with the most disingenuous and lugubrious of all journalism movies, All the President’s Men. (The damnable film, which inspired generations of wannabe investigative reporters and led to the disaster of adversarial journalism, deserves a separate essay.)

Will celebrating journalism in the movies during the era of fake news inspire self-reflection from either Hollywood or the press, or accountability to the public? Or will TCM turn America’s most cynically abused readership into equally cynical sycophants?

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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