When Did Film Get So Cynical About Journalism?

The theatrical release of Rupert Goold’s True Story this Friday was set quite some time ago, announced even before the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, so its timeliness is coincidental, but still remarkable. Based on the memoir of the same name, it tells the story of how New York Times reporter Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) lost his job and credibility with a poorly reported cover story on child slavery on the Ivory Coast, and made an unlikely comeback by stumbling into the story of murderer Christian Longo (James Franco), who used Finkel’s name as an alias while on the run. It hits theaters in the midst of discussion and dissemination of the Columbia School of Journalism’s blistering review of Rolling Stone’s story “A Rape on Campus,” aptly described therein as “another shock to journalism’s credibility.” And True Story fits well within the current pattern of how movies portray that once lionized, now battered profession.

To be clear, there’s always been an air of cynicism in the way popular cinema portrays the profession of journalism, clear back to the glory days of the newsroom comedy — in and around the screwball era, in pictures like It Happened One Night, Libeled Lady, Bombshell, Platinum Blonde, The Front Page, its gender-swapped remake His Girl Friday, and the most acclaimed newsroom comedy of them all, Citizen Kane. It was in writing about that movie that Pauline Kael pinpointed the source of this craze. “In the talkies, the heroes were to be the men who weren’t fooled, who were smart and learned their way around,” she wrote in her essay “Raising Kane.” “The new heroes of the screen were created in the image of their authors: they were fast-talking newspaper reporters.”

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in "All the President's Men"

But for more recent generations of moviegoers and journalists, the role models weren’t the lovable rogues of reporters-turned-screenwriters like Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur. They were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the crusading muckrakers who broke open the Watergate cast — and then, significantly, wrote a book about it, which went on to become one of the great movies of the 1970s, with the roles of its shoe-leather reporters taken up by movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

That was 1976, and Woodward and Bernstein are not the kind of journalists that populate movie screens these days. Sure, there are occasional portraits of cheerfully hard-working newsrooms (like Ron Howard’s The Paper) or journalists crusading for the truth, against all odds (last year’s Kill the Messenger), but they’re the exception to the rule. Onscreen, the tide has turned swiftly: We’ve seen William Hurt in Broadcast News, faking his teary cutaways during a date-rape interview. We’ve seen Jude Law, cold making shit up (and taking a hefty payday) in Contagion. Just last year, we saw Jake Gyllenhaal, invading crime scenes, withholding evidence, and engineering shoot-outs in Nightcrawler. Oh, and then there are all the female reporters who sleep with their subjects (too many to name).

On top of that, there’s Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass, manufacturing stories, events, and people out of whole cloth. Of course, the key difference between Shattered Glass and the rest is that Glass is based on a real story, and Christensen was playing a real, disgraced journalist: Stephen Glass, late of the New Republic, who fabricated elements of at least 27 stories there. His is just one of the many scandals that have given the profession a public black eye: there’s also Jayson Blair at the Times, Jonah Lehrer at The New Yorker, Lara Logan at 60 Minutes, Mike Daisey at This American Life, Michael Gallagher at the Cincinnati Enquirer, and Dan Rather at CBS. The list kinda goes on and on, up to and including Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely — and Brian Williams at NBC, which saw its own tick-tock of a fabrication scandal drop the same week as Rolling Stone’s (albeit with far less participation by the news organization in question). And then there’s Finkel, who managed to resuscitate his journalism career thanks to True Story, which bore the print subtitle of Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.

Hayden Christensen in "Shattered Glass"

One could argue that the noticeable shift in how movies portray journalists has lined up almost precisely with the rise of tabloid journalists, who target and smear such figures as, say, True Story producer Brad Pitt and star James Franco. But that’s ignoring the obvious influencer: movies are more cynical about journalists because people are more cynical about journalists, and people are more cynical about journalists because of journalists doing cynicism-worthy shit.

Maybe there’s no more of it now than there’s ever been. After all, a variety of factors — from the rise of “citizen journalists” to something as simple but essential as Google — have made questioning and fact-checking works of journalism into a spectator sport. But it also seems possible that, in an indirect way, the movies have helped contribute to an atmosphere where sloppy journalism can exist. All reporters, from the cub small-town scribe to the Finkels and Glasses, imagine themselves starring in their own All The President’s Men — not necessarily writing the story that topples a government, but penning a giant, shocking exposé that they find, break, and own.

But those stories are few and far between, so some cut the corners, whether it’s a Blair or Glass manufacturing stories and quotes, a Finkel creating unacknowledged composite characters, or an Erdely placing too much faith in a single source. And the result, as the Columbia report notes, are “failures of reporting” which “involve basic, even routine journalistic practice.” But such practices tend to get glossed over when a hungry reporter wants to make a splash. Or, as Hill’s Finkel puts it in True Story, “I got so caught up in trying to tell a great story that I lost track of the truth.”

True Story is out Friday in limited release.