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
The Atlantic Monthly, March 2004
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.
In the heyday of the prosecutorial journalist, reporters felt mighty important. Hollywood went along. When the spy played by Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor realizes that his own CIA is after him, he trumps the highest levels of government by telling The New York Times. Self-congratulation can become corrosive, and a powerful corrective came in the form of Sydney Pollack’s great 1981 film Absence of Malice, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field. It showed that what passes for a great investigative story is often nothing more than information leaked by public officials who have motives of their own. It was a rare instance in which the silver screen actually had something useful to say to the Fourth Estate.
I found myself thinking about Absence of Malice after seeing last year’s Shattered Glass, which missed an opportunity to expose some recent troubling trends in the business. The film, based on a story written by Buzz Bissinger for Vanity Fair in 1998, is about a scandal at the eminent magazine The New Republic. It is a compelling little movie with terrific performances, but it sidesteps the more important issues involved and becomes, in the end, primarily a fascinating character study. It lets journalism off the hook way too easily.
In the film the magazine’s editors (including my late friend and colleague Mike Kelly, who went on to edit The Atlantic) are hoodwinked and embarrassed by a likeable young reporter who, it turns out, is a compulsive liar. Stephen Glass, the reporter, is finally exposed and expelled. Honest journalism triumphs. If all you know about the scandal is what the movie tells you, then you can leave the theater assured that the traditional values of journalism are safe and sound, and that the case at hand involved nothing more than one very peculiar young man.
Glass was certainly a strenuous liar, and the fact-checking procedures then in place at his magazine (and at others for which he wrote) left much to be desired. But the real story isn’t about—or shouldn’t have been about—the duping of principled journalists by a pathological young reporter. Glass’s run of faked features happened not just because he was clever and determined but because he was giving The New Republic and other magazines exactly what they wanted. His story is about the pitfalls of advocacy journalism and its close relative, journalistic celebrity, two of the profession’s most dangerous modern trends.
Any editor who gets a story that is exactly what he expected ought to be immediately suspicious. Good journalism surprises us, because it tells us things we did not know. Since the world is infinitely complex and ever changing, honest reporting nearly always reveals something new and unexpected. An honest reporter looks for what is new, and honest minds are influenced—sometimes changed—by new information. When a reporter’s starting point is an opinion or even a strongly held political philosophy, which it is in advocacy journalism, reporting can become an exercise in gathering ammunition. Glass diagnosed an appetite at The New Republic for stories that illustrated, preferably outrageously, the naiveté of traditional liberals and the moral corruption of conservatives. His stories fit perfectly the pugnacious neoconservatism The New Republic of that era was attempting to define. There has always been room in American journalism for argument, but any publication that identifies itself with a particular outlook makes its reporting automatically suspect. Since the era of “yellow journalism” the most respected American news organizations have been those without an overt agenda. Of course, even the most “objective” of these are accused of harboring biases, and no reporter is entirely free of those; but the most powerful reporting is in publications that strive to rise above them. Yet today more and more print, TV, and radio journalists do just the opposite: they advertise a bias.
I don’t know enough about Glass to understand his personal motives, but the film suggests that chief among them was a desire for celebrity. In the increasingly painful scenes throughout the movie that show Glass fantasizing about preening alongside his adoring old journalism teacher before a class at his old high school, the emphasis is not on great journalism but on becoming famous. The students are being asked not to admire Glass’s work but to admire him. His goal is to become a star. Traditionally, even the reporters most celebrated within the profession were not widely known outside it. There have always been celebrity columnists and critics, but the general anonymity of the profession had a kind of nobility. The only way to become a star reporter was to play one on TV, by becoming a newscaster—the “on-air talent”—who presented the reporting of others, usually hardworking, lower-paid producers behind the scenes. Today television is increasingly a destination point for everyone in the business, and so many cable channels are hungry for bodies to fill airtime that just about everybody gets a shot. We are approaching the time, if we haven’t already reached it, when a reporter with a hot story can spend more time on TV talking about it than was spent reporting and writing it.
Nothing is wrong with journalists’ promoting or explaining their work, and the republic will survive the current plague of talking heads; but serious journalists need to resist the lure of celebrity for its own sake, and the comfort of a clearly defined political starting point for their work. Once a reporter gets hot, as Glass did, editors who weren’t the least bit interested in his work months or years before are suddenly vying to print anything with his name on it. At that point the process is no longer about the work but about the reporter. It reflects a more general societal narcissism, and the stories produced become less and less real journalism and more and more an effort to reaffirm existing biases and beliefs.
Which brings me back to Absence of Malice. Pollack’s film opens with a now archaic sequence showing a big-city newspaper being pasted up on boards, set in metal plates, and printed on giant printing presses at a dizzying rate, thousands of copies per minute. It is an image of power, of the industrial muscle behind journalism, and it is also a classic screen image in the history of Hollywood. The power of the press is generally portrayed in movies as one of the great benefits of freedom, but in Absence of Malice it has darker implications. Later in the film, when the fragile, good-hearted Teresa Perrone’s shattering personal secret has been splashed on page one, she trots barefoot through her neighborhood from lawn to lawn, early in the morning, picking up unopened newspapers. We are reminded of the great power of those presses, and feel the heartbreaking futility of Perrone’s effort to somehow lift all those papers from a whole city of front lawns.
This film is rare in the canon of celluloid journalism. It shows how easily an overzealous prosecutor can use an ambitious reporter, and how much harm a well-meaning newspaper can do in its lofty pursuit of truth. Eager to reveal the latest wrinkle in a federal murder probe, the reporter Meg, played by Sally Field, prints information from a privileged government file—artfully leaked by Elliott Rosen, an obnoxious strike-force chief played by Bob Balaban. Rosen wants to pressure an innocent businessman (Newman) into cooperating with his investigation. I love the portrayal of the newsroom in that film, which was made when computers had been introduced but reporters still had typewriters on their desks, and the clatter of teletype machines never stopped. I recognized the way Meg’s honest but cynical editor nudges her to gently juice her story, changing “suspect” to “key suspect.” Being one step removed from the real people she is writing about, he soothes her occasional misgivings by invoking the toughness their profession demands: “I know how to print what’s true, and I know how not to hurt people,” he says. “I don’t know how to do both at the same time.” When Meg agonizes over the impact of revealing the very Catholic Teresa Perrone’s deep secret, an abortion, her editor gives her a little homily about the man who saved President Gerald Ford from an assassination attempt. The man was gay, he tells her—a secret that found its way into news stories. “Now the whole country knows that too,” the editor says. In other words, the great and noble spotlight of the news had been shined on him, and he had been hurt by it. So be it: the public’s right to know, and all that; people get hurt. As long as it gets the story, and gets it right, the news serves a higher purpose. A good editor might just as easily have taken the opposite tack with a callous or arrogant reporter, but the exchanges between Meg and her editor in Absence of Malice have the ring of truth. This kind of thing can and does happen.
Shattered Glass might have been about the confusion between success and accomplishment. It might have been a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of advocacy journalism—about the confusion between searching for truth and merely marshaling facts for argument. Both journalists and filmmakers are in the business of telling stories, and reporters, perhaps for that reason, tend to love movies. So Hollywood has journalism’s ear. It may be the one institution in our society powerful enough to influence the press. Absence of Malice got under journalism’s skin, because it forced reporters to see themselves as something other than heroic—as potentially arrogant and dangerous. Shattered Glass had the same opportunity but missed. It might have delivered a blow to the barking narcissism of our age. Instead it delivers a big wet kiss at a time when the profession might profit from a kick in the ass.
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