For the 103rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Nick Hirshon, author Richard Ness reviews Hollywood’s diverse depictions of journalists over the years, from crusading reporters in All the President’s Men and Spotlight to manipulative media executives in Citizen Kane and Network.
Richard R. Ness is a professor of film studies at Western Illinois University. He is the author of From Headline Hunter to Superman: A Journalism Filmography and Encyclopedia of Journalists on Film.
Richard Ness: If you have a cowboy in a movie, chances are pretty good it’s a Western. If you have a gangster in a movie, it’s a gangster movie. But if you have a journalist in a movie, it could be a Western, it could be a war film, it could be a horror film.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Journalism offers plenty of fodder for filmmakers.
The reporter’s lifestyle can be unpredictable and exciting and daring, watching history unfold from a front-row seat, investigating gangsters and crooked politicians, competing against the clock and each other to break the big news stories, the deadline fast approaches. Journalists are the good guys in many acclaimed films. Woodward and Bernstein reveal White House corruption in All the President’s Men. Crusading reporters exposed sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Spotlight. Even superheroes get ink on their hands from Clark Kent filing reports on Superman for the Daily Planet, to Peter Parker selling photographs of Spiderman to the Daily Bugle.
But there is another batch of films that explores the seedier side of journalism. Citizen Kane stars Orson Welles as a publisher, taking advantage of his influence for personal and political gain. Ace in the Hole presents Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous reporter willing to command’s life to milk a story. And Network follows Peter Finch
as a television anchor who turns his slumping program into a popular variety show, more entertainment than honest news.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we review this broad sweep of journalism movies with Richard Ness, a professor of film studies at Western Illinois University and the author of the Encyclopedia of Journalists on Film. Rich, thanks for joining me today on the Journalism History podcast.
You published the Encyclopedia of Journalists on Film in 2020, and you write in the preface that your book is designed to identify the significant movies involving members of the press. You viewed more than 4,400 of them, but you point out that the journalism film is still not widely recognized as a genre. For example, Netflix has what you described as an often bewildering and sometimes quite significant range of subjects, and yet none for movies specifically about the press.
I found this myself on a lot of streaming services where it’s kind of weird the categories that they’ll put you in, but still none about the press, even with all this attention. So why do you think that is?
Richard Ness: When I started doing my research, I actually started this as my master’s thesis. And I had talked to my thesis adviser about doing something on journalism films, and we decided we should try to define a genre of journalism films. And we assumed it had been done. And doing our research, we found that there had been one kind of coffee table type book written by Alex Barris and a handful of articles, but nobody had tried to put it in the context of a genre. I think one of the reasons that I discovered pretty early on was that journalists show up in a lot of films that have already been classified in other genres. The journalist is often
a supporting character or even if it’s a major character, the films tend to have already been classified in other ways. His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, or screwball comedies, Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the editor’s a major part of that, but everybody talks about it as a Western. Story of G.I. Joe, the Ernie Pyle movie, is thought of as a war film.
So the genre territory had already been sort of divided up. Citizen Kane, people talk about sort of transcending genre. Well, it’s really a newspaper movie in a lot of ways. So I think part of it was that, if you have a cowboy in a movie, chances are pretty good it’s a Western. If you have a gangster in a movie, it’s a gangster movie, but if you have a journalist in a movie, it could be a Western, it could be a war film. It could be a horror film, like the Kolchak Night Stalker TV movie or even The Ring more recently. So they sort of have already fallen into all of these different genres.
And nobody kind of looked at the movies that were really about journalism as a self-contained entity.
Nick Hirshon: Let’s start then with some of the classic journalism films, the ones that our listeners might be most familiar with, or for people who are new to journalism films, where they should be starting. Probably have to begin with The Front Page, which you’ve mentioned before. One of the variations of the prototype for journalists and film, and there have been three versions of the story told over the years, I guess more depending on how you count them, but all are inspired by a stage play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur about a bantering newspaper reporter and boss.
The original Front Page premiered in 1931. You praise it in your book for overcoming the stage-bound and stilted quality imposed by cumbersome early sound equipment. But then the most famous version came out a decade later in 1940 and probably eclipsed in a lot of people’s minds the original Front Page. That was His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
And that added some sexual attention to the confrontation between the reporter and the editor. Now you have them of opposite genders. There was also a 1974 remake of The Front Page with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett, Susan Sarandon. So star studied, although maybe less well remembered than some of the others. So what is the significance of The Front Page franchise, if we could kind of call them that. I know that they’re very different ways of viewing the same storyline. And how did these films change how journalists were depicted in film?
Richard Ness: We probably also should throw in there Switching Channels in the 1980s, which was essentially a remake of a remake of a remake because it owes more to His Girl Friday than to either of the two male-dominated versions of Front Page. There’s also an India remake, the title of which I can’t pronounce, which actually seems to be a remake of Switching Channels more than any of the other versions. So yeah, it’s been through several incarnations. So I think the original stage play already established the idea that newspaper stories
were contemporary and they were fresh and they were fast-moving. The dialogue in His Girl Friday is just nonstop and layered on top of people talking over each other. And it just has an energy that’s not like in a lot of other films I can think of.
And I think it also set a sort of prototype for the character. The hero is usually the reporter rather than the editor. So there’s always a little mistrust of the hierarchy. The reporter has to be glib and fast talking and the kind of guy who walks in and puts his feet up on the editor’s desk and starts wise cracking. The reporters that we see in the press room waiting for the hanging of Earl Williams obviously are very cynical. There’s a lot of dark humor. There’s a lot of jokes about what’s gonna happen to Earl. And so it’s set a sort of standard for what people thought the journalist was like.
I think most of us who went into the profession at one time or another discovered that there’s a certain amount of truth in that, but there’s also a great deal of exaggeration.
I had many nights sitting around in the office waiting for the paper to come out and bantering with the other members of the staff. And so I think there’s a certain – They tapped into a certain truth. Of course, Hecht and MacArthur both had come out of that background. Hecht, especially in Chicago, having come out of that background and drawing on old stories they’d heard from all of their colleagues. His Girl Friday, as you said, brings in the male-female dynamic. And it puts The Front Page in the context of screwball comedy, which the stage play didn’t have that element and even the first film version. So it turns it into a battle of the sexes as much as a battle over journalistic integrity.
And by the time we get to the Billy Wilder version in 1974, that comes out during a period when there’s all of these nostalgia-based movies. The Sting had been a big hit the year before for the same studio.
So it seemed like a natural to them to get Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and redo The Front Page. But it has a kind of nostalgic tinge to it. Switching Channels puts it back in the contemporary dimension and by making it a TV station rather than a newspaper. So it’s the sort of story that basic conflict, the reporter and the editor and the romance and all of these elements in it can be reworked in just about every – Every generation has had a version of Front Page. If we count the TV movie or the TV series and television adaptation in the ’60s for – I think it was the Hallmark Hall of Fame,
just about every generation has had a variation on The Front Page in some way. And I don’t see it ending anytime soon as long as we’re still debating these issues of journalism.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and as you say, we see in The Front Page, His Girl Friday, this idea that the fast-paced environment of the newsroom makes for such great drama. It’s such an excuse to have so many things happen in a short period of time. And all of that witty banter as you said, some of the cynicism, but a lot of all the characters that we associate with the newsroom.
Richard Ness: You mentioned the bantering dialogue. And one of the things I find so entertaining about these movies is even in the most basic kind of B-movie, where the production values on every other level are about as cheap as you can get, the scripts were still solid. They always had these great lines, quotable lines, particularly in the fights between the editor and the reporter. There was always that iconic moment where either the editor wanted the reporter to do a story that the reporter didn’t wanna do, or the reporter had a story that he absolutely was determined to get the editor to support, and the editor would say, “Well, kid, you got 48 hours to get the story in. They even parody that in, there’s a movie called Capricorn One with Elliott Gould.
And he’s got an argument with his editor where they even mentioned the fact that in the old movies you’re supposed to give me 24 hours. So that idea of the constant pressure, the constant sense of energy, the great dialogue, all of these things that would characterize these movies.
Nick Hirshon: And so we could see certainly the impact of The Front Page for many decades after. And moving on to another kind of genre within the journalism and film genre, I guess you say, the two most influential works for contemporary journalism films were both released in the year 1976. That brought us All the President’s Men and Network. So All the President’s Men, the story of Woodward and Bernstein, the two reporters at the Washington Post investigating Watergate, and Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman just considered, I believe a Hollywood classic beyond just being a great journalism film as some call it. I always view it as the best journalism film ever made. And then we have Network starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch as Howard Beale,
very memorable character and anchor for a low-rated commercial network who announces during a newscast that he’s going to commit suicide on the air.
And this film explores the diminishing line between news and entertainment. Something that’s been talked about a lot in more recent decades. Are these reporters that we’re seeing on TV really giving us straight up news, are they trying to jazz it up a little bit, give their opinion of course, and get an audience that way? And this trend of the media feeding on itself, Howard Beale announces that he is going to commit suicide and then this all of a sudden generates a lot of ratings. So they wanna keep him on the air and he’s taking advantage of all of this. And of course, we’re talking about great lines and one of the most famous lines in all of cinema from Network where Howard gets viewers to go to their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
Richard Ness: Yeah. And I understand Paddy Chayefsky was a little annoyed that he added the extra as, because it wasn’t in the script as Chayefsky wrote it.
Nick Hirshon: Oh, that’s a funny note. I have to say,
whenever I see that line, I think about, I’m a New York sports fan and I was just at a hockey game last week, and when they want to get the crowd really revved up, they start playing Howard Beale. They’re on the jumbotron and they’ll have him say, they’ll start his line. “I want you to go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell.” And then they’ll stop and they’ll put up, let’s go Islanders or let’s go Mets or whatever the team is. And I’m sure that’s used in stadiums and ballparks around the country.
So you see, I think there is a whole generation of people who don’t even know where that clip comes from, but they just were like… I was at the game the other day and there was someone in front of me who was like, “Oh yeah, they used to play that at all the Mets games, too.” He doesn’t say it’s from Network. Oh yeah. They must have gotten that from the Mets. “Hey, they got it from Peter Finch.” But these two landmark films now, All the Presidents Men and Network both in the same year, how do they impact the genre then of journalism and film?
Richard Ness: One of the things that was fascinating to me as I started doing the history was discovering this kind of yin and yang attitude toward the press, positive and negative. And it goes hand in hand all through the history of journalism films, because you start out with The Front Page, and even though they’re cynical and they’re kind of making jokes about serious issues and things like that, the film does sort of reaffirm the power of the press at the end in a positive way. But the same year, you get Five Star Final, which has like this sleazy tabloid editor who is exploiting this old story and digging up all of the skeletons in this family’s closet and showing this really negative view of the press.
In the ’50s, right around the same time you get Deadline — USA with Humphrey Bogart as the crusading reporter who’s gonna fight against crime, juxtaposed against Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas as probably the sleeziest reporter in film history.
And those two films are back to back.
And then in 1976, you get All the President’s Men, where you get the reaffirmation of the glorious tradition of journalism and a couple of crusading reporters who went against the system and actually brought down a president. And Network, which is this sort of cynical view of the news media, where you can’t find the line anymore between entertainment and news. That film is so far ahead of its time in so many ways. Ned Beatty playing Arthur Jensen, the corporate owner, when he gives his speech about how there are no countries, there are no nations, there are no ideologies anymore, it’s all corporations. That was in 1976. And we’re living with it now. So it was way ahead of its time in a lot of ways,
Nick Hirshon: It’s amazing how educational some of these films can be in capturing or being prescient about things that were going to happen, as you say, in the industry. Network is a great example of that. I also went to the Broadway adaptation that came out a few years ago with Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. And the same idea of like, you’re watching it thinking this is what’s playing out in society
all these years later.
Richard Ness: And mentioning Network, my students can’t believe that’s 45 years old. A lot of the movies they can tell instantly, oh, this was old film, but Network just seems fresh today. And they love All the President’s Men. I did a course on journalist in films a few years ago, and that was their favorite film of the entire semester. So I thought it might seem a little slow to them because it’s mostly the process of gathering information, but it’s done so well that it’s as compelling as any drama you could imagine.
Nick Hirshon: I’m always marveling at the fact that when I was going to journalism school, All the President’s Men was already something from years ago. And it seemed like such an outdated ideas, like more of my parents’ generation. But now, even today, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein appear on TV a lot. They’re writing books about Donald Trump, they’re very relevant. And so it’s not like, oh, these are just guys who did something like 50 years ago and you put on your bookcase and you forget about it. I think that the fact that
they’ve had such long careers and then that we’ve seen the impeachments of Donald Trump and some of the need for investigative reporting in so many issues recently, and we’re gonna get into that again in Spotlight.
Richard Ness: The other aspect of All the President’s Men that I think is important to anybody going into journalism or wanting to learn about journalism is that it shows you the process that it’s a very slow methodical, you’re reading through a lot of – And at one point they’re reading through library cards, trying to find out what I think it was Howard Hunt checked out. And it shows you that it’s not like so many journalism movies where there’s a breaking story every five minutes and it’s always a murder or something like that.
It’s a lot of just talking to people and going through paperwork and trying to find – Trying to put the pieces together and follow the trail. And that’s one of the few films that I think really captures that, but does it in such a way that you still wanna go out and do it. You don’t think, oh, journalism looks boring. You watch that movie and you think, wow, if I could do this, this would be a great career.
Nick Hirshon: Just as you’re talking about that reporting process that is so present in All the President’s Men, let’s jump ahead a few decades now to what some people also say is maybe one of the best or some people think this eclipsed All the President’s Men as the best journalism film to Spotlight from 2015, which won the academy award for best picture.
Spotlight stars, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber. And similar to All the President’s Men, it’s showing these day-to-day process like you’ve just said, they might not be very glamorous sometimes when you’re doing interviews and looking up old dusty records,
and yet you end up breaking a major story in this case, the Boston Globe Investigative Team, which is known as the Spotlight team, looking into cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and similar to All the President’s Men where they’re facing issues of distrust and maybe some anger from the White House. In this case, they’re reporting in Boston where the Catholic church is such an institution and some of them themselves have a relationship with the Catholic church. They grew up Catholic, and they’re grappling with that and becoming almost like villains to certain people as they’re reporting. So what do you think is the significance of Spotlight?
Richard Ness: I think it came out at a time when we needed to be reminded of how important that is. So many newspapers were cutting back. Small papers were dying out. It was very corporate-oriented, and so you were getting a kind of packaged story that could be played in local stations or in large stations or in local newspapers.
That notion of an investigative team, which is expensive for a newspaper and takes time, sometimes it’s six months before you get the payoff, and you have to be willing and patient to do that. And corporations just weren’t supporting that kind of thing. And so I think Spotlight was really important, not just to the public and the story they were exposing, but to the journalism profession in reminding us of the value of this kind of thing. And I don’t know if it’s done any good. I’m not sure you can change corporate mentality with one film, but I think it did kind of, to use the film’s title, shine a spotlight on the importance of investigative reporting and the time it takes sometimes to follow a story, but the value of it when you do expose it.
Nick Hirshon: And this is where I wanna kind of – Now that we’ve covered some of the classics, talk about some of these trends over time with these journalism films and what you expect to come because Spotlight came out in 2015 as Donald Trump is running for president
on this idea that the journalists are the enemy of the people and fake news and all of that really entering the American consciousness in a way that it maybe hadn’t been highlighted that much. And we definitely had some of that in Watergate and you see it in All the President’s Men. Nixon definitely tries to throw a lot of distrust onto the media, but nothing to the level that maybe we were seeing at the time that Spotlight premiered and then it wins the Academy Award in 2016, the year that Donald Trump is surprisingly elected as president.
So I wonder if that kind of captures a zeitgeist in a way, or becomes like a period piece, too of, while we are seeing journalists framed in the press every day by a politician, a lot of political figures as, “Don’t trust them, they’re bad, they’re gonna mislead you.” And then we see this notion of courageous journalists fighting for truth and ultimately, even though they’re facing a lot of backlash and it takes them a while, but they do ultimately win in the end.
They are the heroes. Their work is recognized with a Pulitzer and so forth.
Richard Ness: Isn’t it interesting that people who talk about the press as the enemy are only people who for whom the press should be the enemy. But I think, yeah, it’s interesting because when Spotlight comes out, it kind of reaffirms the importance of journalists, but then Trump kind of just sort of shifts the national conversation away from that.
Year after that or a couple years after that, you have The Post, Steven Spielberg’s movie. And he’s much more dogmatic in that film about going up against people like Trump who view the press as enemy. A couple of messages come through in that film. One is the importance of what journalists do and why we should support it, but the other is also the idea of –
It played into the #MeToo Movement by making Katherine Graham kind of the focal point of that film and her decision that she finally has to make to print the Pentagon papers.
So those two films together are kind of fighting against that current that Trump was able to ride into office and for four years and hopefully never again. I think that’s important in terms of showing that the film industry, at least in terms of the journalism movies that are coming out, are trying so hard to reaffirm that value that is being undermined. And audiences don’t go to movies for messages. And they probably went to Spotlight because it won the Oscar and it’s entertaining and maybe they like some of the actors and things like that. Same thing with The Post. It’s Spielberg, it’s Meryl Streep, it’s got a lot of draws for an audience,
but they’re not there to be told about the importance of the press. But if that message gets through, there’s value in these movies.
Nick Hirshon: A wave of surveys have shown in recent years that people just don’t trust the press like they used to. And I’m wondering how you’re seeing that playing out in film. In 2021, for example, the Edelman annual Trust Barometer, this is put out by a global research consultancy, showed that a majority of people around the world believe that journalists are purposely trying to mislead people by spreading misinformation. And that survey also found that 59% of Americans agreed with the following statement, “Most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.” So how have you seen this declining trust in journalism playing out on screen over the years, and how do you expect that could continue to affect the genre moving forward?
Richard Ness: I think these things are cyclical. It’s easy to look at our time and say, “Oh, everybody mistrust the press.” And they’ve given us reasons to.
Let’s not kind of glorify the press and put it on a pedestal. There are lots of good hardworking reporters whether it’s on the local level or whether it’s at a national organization. And there are people you watch and trust to get your news. I mean, the fact is people may say in a survey, “Oh, I don’t trust the news.” But they’ll turn it on every night. If you go back and you look at the days of Pulitzer and the newspaper barons at the turn of the century, there’s always been that mistrust. It’s always been there. It’s just we tend to talk about it more right now.
And the media talks about itself a lot more than it did in the past. And it’s constantly analyzing itself. Of course, they’re never the one who’s the problem. It’s their competitor that they’re talking about, but that has brought it more into the forefront. But one of the films that hasn’t come up yet but would be
on most people’s list of journalism movies to discuss if you were gonna talk about it as a genre would be Citizen Kane. And Citizen Kane is very much about that kind of conflict within journalism where Kane starts out as an idealist who’s gonna use the paper to support the working man and becomes corrupted sort of by success and money in the business. And that film back in 1941 was telling us that there’s that tension within journalism, that idea that you can be a crusader for the common people, but if that becomes a political ambition and you lose sight of what your original goal was, there’s a danger there. So I’m not sure that what we’re seeing right now as clear as it is to many of us in the profession and even outside the profession that there’s a mistrust of journalism,
I’m not sure it’s any different than it has been in certain periods throughout our history.
Nick Hirshon: A few kind of final questions here about these films as we go through them. So, first off, your book was published in January of 2020. And a lot of journalism films have come out since then. Some of them may be more incidentally involving journalism. Have you seen any movies since the book was published, since January of 2020, that you find significant in the history of journalism and film, or just something that you would recommend as a fun watch?
Richard Ness: Good question, it’s hard to – I watch so many of these films and a lot of them are older films that I just happen to come across and wasn’t available earlier. So they all sort of blend together and it’s hard to remember what’s come out within the last year or so. I think it’s actually in the book. I think it came out in time to get into the book. But one that I would recommend that got overlooked, I think, and has been dismissed maybe as a little too flippant in terms of its approach. But there’s a film called The Front Runner, which deals with covering politics, covering political issues.
And it’s done in kind of a flippant way. So I think some critics dismissed it, but I think there’s a lot of important messages in that film.
One of the things it deals with that I found in a lot of these newspaper films is that there’s a certain rivalry within the newspaper industry that can have an effect on a story if an editor – This comes up in Shock and Awe also, which came out within the last few years. An editor sometimes is reluctant to run a story because they can’t understand why none of the other papers are covering it or none of the other news organizations are covering it. So it must not be true. And of course, we can even trace this back to All the President’s Men again using that as our sort of prototype. Certainly, the editors at the Washington Post were pretty reluctant at first to
pursue the story or not wanna run anything until they had more solid confirmation.
And one of the reasons was, how could two kind of relatively unknown at the time reporters have uncovered this and seasoned reporters didn’t? And Front Runner deals with some of those issues with the big new news organizations sort of setting the agenda for what stories get covered. And if it’s a small story that comes out of a small paper or an unknown reporter, there’s a sort of suspicion about it. But I think some of the best stories that have broken in the last few years have come from local reporting. A lot of the things about some of the – I live in the Midwest and a lot of the stories about the meatpacking plants that were forcing people to work during COVID and things like that. That’s local coverage. That’s not something the national news is gonna pick up on until it’s been covered locally.
Nick Hirshon: And I wonder with everything that’s happening in the world these days
from the political situation, the Trump presidency going into Biden and the coronavirus and all of the terribleness of the last few years, what kind of movies that will spark in the years to come?
Richard Ness: Yeah, well, it’s gonna be interesting. I think the industry itself is still going to try to create a positive image of journalism because they see its value. The public is probably going to resist that and there’s still gonna be this mistrust of the press. But I think the more there’s a kind of backlash against the press in real life, there seems to be a response from the movie industry to create a more positive image. But I think we’re always gonna have – As I said, Deadline USA and Ace in the Hole came out within a year of each other and they show the positive and the negative aspect of the profession. And I think that’s never gonna go away.
I think what we’re gonna see in the next few years is a lot of questioning of so-called fake news, a lot of films dealing with that issue, and with the new technology and what it’s doing to journalism.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and you’ve now told us about so many great journalism films, the classics like The Front Page, All the President’s Men, Network, Spotlight, Citizen Kane, you’ve also gone into some of the lesser known ones like Deadline USA, Ace in the Hole. There’s some that we haven’t talked about that are usually included on these lists. Absence of Malice is one that I know comes up often, Broadcast News, if you like some of the issues of the physical beauty and how that plays into presentation and looks versus brains and newscasts. But I wanna kind of frame this in a different way. You’ve seen so many of these films. You say in the book 4,400 of them, and I’m sure you’ve seen more since. What do you think is the best journalism film that often flies under the radar? One of these like richest picks.
If someone is to go to like Blockbuster, they saw your shelf. There’s folks out there who’ve maybe seen a lot of these already, maybe they’re journalism professors, journalists themselves. What would be your handful of picks of like, you know what? Cozy up to Netflix tonight and watch these.
Richard Ness: Well, first of all, if you can find a Blockbuster, I wanna know where it is.
Nick Hirshon: Dating myself a little bit there. Just like the newspapers.
Richard Ness: We’re showing both of our ages here, hopefully. I would say there are two that come to mind immediately that I think have been overlooked. One is a film called The Great Man that was made in 1956, and it deals with radio. It deals with a sort of Arthur Godfrey type beloved character host.
And he dies and they start to research his background to put together a tribute at the radio station. And they start finding out the great man wasn’t such a great guy. And there’s one wonderful scene where they’re interviewing people at the funeral, and then they’re cutting that into a report that they’re gonna air on the radio. And they cut it in such a way that it sounds like everybody’s just saying glowing things about him. But most people were kind of indifferent. And they show how it’s been edited, how the guy back at the radio station edits that piece into a package that sounds really positive.
So it’s very much about the image that people created on radio and television and what the reality was. And the main character, José Ferrer, is a crusading reporter who’s kind of fallen on rough times and he gets a chance to redeem himself by doing this tribute. And then he has to decide, do I wanna really tell the public what this guy was like or not? So The Great Man,
it was a film that was hard to see for a long time. It was never, I think, released commercially on VHS or DVD. And then it did show up on Turner a few years ago and kind of got more interest generated about it. I had a 16-millimeter print for years that I would show in my classes and people were like, “Why don’t we know this film better? It’s got a great supporting cast. You get both Ed and Keenan Wynn in the film. Jim Backus, I think is in it. So it’s got a great supporting cast, but it just was one of those films that sort of fell through the cracks. And another one I would mention that people wouldn’t think of as a journalism movie, but has maybe one of the best depictions of the day-to-day process of working for a paper is what’s normally thought of as a science fiction film called The Day the Earth Caught Fire from 1962. And essentially what happens is because of nuclear testing, the earth has been thrown off its axis and is moving closer to the sun and the world is heating up. So we got climate change, and we got journalistic debates of how to cover the issue.
But it’s all shown through a London newspaper. The perspective is all the paper trying to follow the story and finding out the truth of what’s going on, and then deciding whether they should tell the public and cause a panic. And so it’s all done through the vision of the newspaper. And I’ve used it in courses on journalism films and students are sort of surprised they’re expecting it to be a science fiction film and it’s got a lot of journalistic issues in it. So those are two, The Great Man and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, two that come to mind. Shock Corridor from 1963, where the journalist deliberately gets committed to an insane asylum. It’s a Samuel Fuller film that deals with a lot of issues that were going on in America at the time because the mental institution becomes a sort of microcosm of America at the time.
And one character, there’s a Black character who thinks he’s a member of the KKK. There’s another nuclear scientist who’s in the sanitarium because he’s had a meltdown about the nuclear proliferation. So it touches on all of these, just hot button issues in America in the early ‘60s. So Shock Corridor’s another one I would mention.
Nick Hirshon: Again, thank you for offering these. And certainly those are all films that I’ve not yet seen even though I have a collection of journalism films in my queue. And then just one last one that I wanna throw out there because I’ve shown it to students over the years. A lesser known one called -30- from 1959. And it’s -30- because that used to be the copy editing symbol you’d put at the end of a story, or now you sometimes see it at the end of a press release. It has a hyphen and then 30 and then the other hyphen meaning that the story has ended. There’s no other page to go on to view. And so it’s a movie. It doesn’t get a lot of attention. It stars Jack Webb from Dragnet. It’s about a managing editor of a Los Angeles newspaper putting together headlines of the next day.
In a lot of ways, it has that same frantic rush nature of The Front Page, The Paper, there’s a lot going on at once. It has this great soliloquy at one point where one of the editors is talking about the importance of journalism and what –
Richard Ness: Yeah, it’s William Conrad who talks about, “Even if you only wrap fish in it, it’s still your best 10 cents you’ll ever spend or something.” I can’t remember exactly how the speech goes. But yeah, you also get the copy boy blues. You get to sing the copy boy blues with, it’s either Rick or David Nelson. I think it’s David Nelson. But yeah, that film actually has a precedent. There was a film made in 1954 in England called Front Page Story where Jack Hawkins is the editor. And it follows four or five different stories that they’re working on that day. And the two films together are very similar in terms of just the way the plot plays out and the types of stories they’re covering. So Front Page Story from 1954 and then
-30- from 1959 have a very similar structure to them.
Nick Hirshon: So now we have given our listener hours and hours on how they’re gonna catch up on all –
Richard Ness: There’s a lot worse ways you could spend your time. The great thing about journalism movies is you know at least the dialogue’s gonna be entertaining.
Nick Hirshon: There’s a lot of wit and humor in these movies. The Paper is hilarious.
Richard Ness: Well, most of ’em were written by guys who had started out in the journalism profession and then tried to make it as screen writers in Hollywood, and some did. Hecht was the most successful, of course, Ben Hecht. But a lot of them had a shot at least at writing their great journalism movie. Great script.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah. And so now that we’ve given folks all of these different ideas of what to watch next, we’ve filled up their cues, I’d like to just close our episode by asking you a question that we always end the Journalism History podcast with, why does journalism history matter?
Richard Ness: Oh, there’s so many reasons why it matters. I think one is that it’s the history of our times. So even if you don’t think of it as journalism, what we know of history is often a result of what journalists have written about it. I think it’s also important because it’s fundamental to, at least, in this country are notions of what – Our ideological notions of what we should be founded on. Freedom of the press. It’s no accident that that was given pride of place in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech.
So I think that the notions that journalism represents are very much at the core of who we are and what we care about. And sometimes we get a little frustrated with the press, but I think it would make a lot of people nervous if the idea of a free press disappeared because we’ve seen throughout history in places and times when it did, what the effect of that it was. People can complain about it all they want, but it’s a value that deep down we still feel is necessary.
Nick Hirshon: And as you say, I take so much faith, and even as times may be tough and we see these surveys about diminishing trust in journalism and all the attacks that are coming from politicians and such, social media, I think that knowing that these films are still out there, even the ones from years ago, and they’re still all making a point in some way that journalism is important and critical and it exposes wrongs, and it’s something that is just a foundational part of who we are, that is an important message that’s getting out there.
Even if the film is not especially preachy, it’s still kind of the undercurrent. Even if it’s showing journalists do things bad, it’s saying, they get away with this because so many people usually trust them. And so many journalists are usually good apples. So we can take out Stephen Glass and Shattered Glass and Jayson Blair, and some of the others who are in these different films. And so there’s something that’s really nice to know those films are still out there.
Richard Ness: As someone who is old enough to have grown up in the Watergate era, the same arguments that are being made now about the mistrust of the press were being made in the Nixon years. But once the story broke and once the truth came out, it became obvious how important it was to have pursued it. I think we’re – I hate to crystal ball and I hate to predict, but I think we’re poised for another moment in history where truth about something is going to come out. And when it does, I think there will be an understanding that the diligence of the press was an important part of that. So that’s my hope at least. We’ll see what happens in the next few years. But things are moving toward a point where certain things that have been tried to be covered up or concealed are gonna come out.
Nick Hirshon: Well, it’s always nice to end on a hopeful note. So much of what we cover on these podcasts can sometimes be about some difficult
moments in journalism history and some things that we journalists were covering that wasn’t always the best. But we thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Again, the book is Encyclopedia of Journalists on Film released in 2020. The author is Richard Ness. Rich, thanks again for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Richard Ness: Thank you.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistory Journal. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon. Signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, good night and good luck.