Column: Journalism movies make for great drama

Educators In the News
Jack Kapfer

I’m a movie buff. Have been all my life. So, when I saw the Society of Professional Journalists’ publication, Quill, was celebrating its 110th birthday by rating the top 110 movies about or related to journalism, I was intrigued.

Journalism, or the press generally, is commonly found in the cinema not only as a theme but also as a device to impart information or keep the story moving. Think of how many films you’ve seen in which a screaming newspaper headline twirls onto the screen or the voice of a radio newscaster or a clip from a video news story appears filling in plot gaps and moving the audience from one scene to the next.

As one who is not only a movie freak but an instructor and former practitioner of journalism, I have some thoughts on the selections of the Quill editors and their panel of experts. I feel qualified to offer these judgments because I have seen 74 of the 110 films they list, including 23 of their top 25. That said, here goes.

First, three of the top 15 are paragons of the importance of journalism to our society and country. Spotlight tops the list and is a tale of dedicated news people reporting on and challenging a powerful and societally integrated institution and its massive, pernicious abuse of the innocent and its refusal to admit to, much less correct, its evil ways. Good Night and Good Luck (14) and All the President’s Men (2) are examples of the real-life struggles and endurance journalists face daily. The “watchdog” role of keeping the powers that be in-check is constant and never more important then during the trying times within which we now live. All three deserve to be high on the Quill list.

But a film I was happy to see come in at No. 11 is a lesser known but excellently made work from 1952 called Deadline, USA. Humphrey Bogart is an editor who is trying to persuade the children of the publisher from closing and selling the unprofitable newspaper (an issue that resonates today) by taking on the city’s mob boss and connecting him with the murder of a young woman. What first caught my attention in the film years ago was a very small scene that captured the immortal ethical question facing even the smallest newsrooms. What happens when an important and valuable advertiser asks that an embarrassing story about him be killed? The newspaper’s characters offer their regrets but go with the story.

Coming in at No. 38 is a film for which I have considerable affection, Broadcast News. As a former “broadcast news” person, I lived many of the scenes depicted. In particular, I can recall more than one time running through rooms and down hallways to get the just edited videotape news package to the engineers so they can push the “play” button just as the anchor is finishing the lead-in. It’s a wonder more people weren’t hospitalized in the production of those newscasts.

My final observation, however, relates to a film much more highly regarded at No. 29, The China Syndrome starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon, and Michael Douglas. This 1979 movie was controversial because it questioned the promotion of nuclear power as a safe alternative energy source, again a contemporary issue. The journalism teaching moment comes in the denouement when nuclear plant worker Jack Lemon takes over the plant at gunpoint because he believes it’s unsafe and calls for TV reporter Jane Fonda to interview him live from the control room. What follows is a demonstration of how a reporter SHOULD NOT conduct an interview. She simply asks him to tell his story. As he rambles on, other plant employees find a way to breach the bolted control room door and stop the Lemon character from revealing the truth about the plant. The problem is it was the reporter’s responsibility to ask questions that help the source tell the story and inform the public. Unfortunately, I see this problem with many journalists today. Just give them the mic and let them talk. That’s not journalism. That’s the internet.

So, those are some “for what it’s worth” thoughts. I offer a boisterous thank you to the SPJ Quill (Summer 2019) editors and their panel of experts for giving me the fodder for these movie musings. I encourage anyone who has the endurance to read this to check out the list and see the films. For the most part, they’re worth it.

Jack A. Kapfer, Associate Professor
Communication and Journalism Department
University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire