Movies March 2004

When the Front Page Meets the Big Screen

Hollywood is not a reliable moral arbiter of anything, so it's not surprising that when it holds a mirror up to journalism, Shattered Glass is the result

Given how poorly journalists usually fare in opinion polls (ranking somewhere near tax collectors), and how plainly their excesses figure in history and in daily life, it is remarkable what a staunch ally the profession seems to have in Hollywood. The reporter may be even more of a celluloid staple than the private detective. In many films a character is only incidentally a journalist: for example, Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News, and Naomi Watts in The Ring. In these films the scribbling profession simply provides a way into the middle of a romance, a mystery, or whatever else the movie may be about. Other movies —The China Syndrome, Meet John Doe—deal with the role of journalism in creating celebrity or public events. A few years ago there was a fascination with the blurring of journalism and entertainment, satirized in the manipulative producers played by Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog and Ed Harris in The Truman Show. Often the reporter is just an irreverent narrator, affording a convenient voice to explain difficult patches of plot, as in Inherit the Wind, In Cold Blood, and L.A. Confidential (although in the last Danny DeVito's character gets a little too involved). Countless more movies depict journalists as pests, swarming like insects, and an entire subgenre deals exclusively with the quasi-journalistic phenomenon of Hunter S. Thompson.

A surprising number of movies are actually about the profession. In recent years alone movies featuring strong journalistic themes have included Almost Famous, Veronica Guerin (and When the Sky Falls, an earlier film about Guerin), Live From Baghdad, True Crime, Deadline, Conspiracy of Silence, Country of My Skull, Adaptation, and, most recently, Shattered Glass. Among their forebears are, most notably, Citizen Kane, The Front Page, Woman of the Year, All the President's Men, and Absence of Malice. Superman, of course, doubles as a newspaper reporter, and just about every leading man in Hollywood has played a reporter at one time or another. The celluloid journalist owns a piece of our national soul.

America has always had a soft spot for the clever, no-nonsense common man or woman making a buck by his or her wits, which is how reporters have most often been portrayed. In most older films even duplicitous reporters turn out to be decent and kindhearted, like Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe and Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (or, more recently, Winona Ryder in the remake Mr. Deeds). In the 1920s and 1930s reporters on film were often crusaders, waging war on gangland empires or exposing corruption in city hall. Now and then a dedicated reporter would rescue a condemned man from execution (a story line resurrected by Clint Eastwood in True Crime), or go undercover to expose social injustice, as Gregory Peck did in Gentleman's Agreement. The film Almost Famous, celebrated primarily for revealing the star quality of the young actress Kate Hudson, was largely about the ethical issues faced by a young reporter for Rolling Stone who is drawn into the world of pop music he so admires, and is very nearly swallowed by it.

Movies reflect changing social attitudes toward journalism, and have from time to time critically examined and influenced the profession. The 1976 classic All the President's Men was the high-water mark for reportorial heroism on film, showing the Fourth Estate vigilantly protecting the public from the corrupt and the powerful. In portraying Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman nailed the white-collar hustle of the modern reporter right down to the basic repertoire of newsroom white lies—pretending to know more than one knows, insinuating sources that one doesn't have, and so on. The movie captured perfectly the look and feel of the Washington Post newsroom, and Jason Robards basically became Benjamin Bradlee, alternately grilling and backing his reporters. The movie makes reporting seem a whole lot more pulse-pounding than it is (in thirty years, alas, I have never met an anonymous source in the shadows of an empty parking garage), and exaggerates the Post's role in bringing down the Nixon White House, but it captures a genuinely remarkable episode in the history of journalism. Indeed, reporters and editors have never looked so good, or so important, as they do in that film. So it's little wonder that the achievement of Woodward and Bernstein, amplified by their best-selling book and by this movie, loosed a flood of young investigative reporters on newsrooms in the mid-1970s.

I preceded this deluge; otherwise I might be doing something else for a living. When I was hired by The Baltimore News-American, in 1973, the day after graduating from college, it was still fairly easy to land a job on a big-city newspaper. I just walked in with an introduction from a college professor and was put to work. Many of the older reporters I worked with in the early years didn't have college degrees, and they chuckled at the very idea of newspapering as a "profession." To them, a "journalist" was a dead reporter. There was a lot of hustle and con in their definition of the job, and more than one of them had better-paying work on the side, sometimes related to their newspaper beat; our real-estate editor dabbled in real estate, for instance, and some of our police reporters also worked for local defense attorneys. Six years later I was at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and standards and criteria had changed dramatically. A strict code of conduct governed reporters. Employment at a big-city daily required not just a college degree but five or six years of experience at a smaller newspaper, and demanded a facility for investigation and analysis that would have driven my older Baltimore colleagues straight to the bourbon in their bottom drawers.

Many in this new wave of distinctly white-collar reporters saw the primary goal of journalism as exposing corruption. They were after bad guys, particularly bad guys in government. They saw themselves as freelance local prosecutors—without the power to subpoena or indict, perhaps, but with the massive weight of industrial presses behind them. A newspaper could force government probes and explode the minor fiefs of a local bureaucracy. It could reveal the improper connections between politicians and businessmen, and give voice to the concerns of the poor and the powerless. In an earlier era the most glamorous job on the paper might have been covering crime. Now the glamour was in uncovering crime, and the most coveted role became that of the investigative reporter. Big newspapers formed investigative teams, freeing reporters to dig for malfeasance for months or even years. Most of the major awards in journalism went to reporters doing this kind of work.

My ambitions, and those of many other reporters, were different. I had been drawn to reporting by the New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s, writers such as Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and Jimmy Breslin. These reporters were less interested in exposing corruption than in crafting nonfiction to read like the best novels and short stories. They wrote the kind of stories that were turned into movies (In Cold Blood, The Right Stuff, Honor Thy Father, The Executioner's Song, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight), but unlike Woodward and Bernstein, they weren't the heroes of those movies. They were every bit as investigative as any other reporter, often more so, but they asked more questions, usually broader and deeper questions, and they could really write. Motivation interested them more than guilt. A local officeholder who trades influence and reputation for a $5,000 bribe makes for a boffo scoop, but the better story is why he would do that. The goal of these journalists wasn't to send someone to jail but to tell great stories, to capture the moving pageant of their times. I would have traded a dozen jailed local pols for one memorably written and reported story.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In