Pulitzer Prize-Winning Cinema

Essay: Why Hollywood is the best J-School

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in the motion picture 'The Awful Truth' / AP
July 17, 2016

Growing up I idolized Cary Grant, going so far as to pinch my chin in an attempt to mimic the cleft in his. Every family movie night I would offer a film starring Grant or one of his contemporaries. Who could turn down classics like Roman Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, or obscure but still great films like Thirty-Day Princess and Wedding Present? Reflecting back, I can’t help but think my decision to become a journalist must have been influenced on some subconscious level by those films, many of which were about journalism.

Not only were they about journalism, but their characters provided a model for what real-life journalists should strive to be. All of the journalists are honest—well, except the shady, mob-connected Walter Burns in His Girl Friday—hardworking, and recognize the difference between a story and yellow journalism. This presentation of journalism and its practitioners differs vastly from what some try to pass as "journalism" today—looking at you, Gawker.

Take Roman Holiday. In case you need it for a movie that came out during the first year of the Eisenhower administration: SPOILER ALERT. The film is a romantic comedy following the adventures of Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a struggling American reporter in Rome, as he becomes acquainted with a disillusioned visiting princess in disguise (Audrey Hepburn). Recognizing her, Bradley realizes the incredible scoop on his hands and shows the young princess, Ann, around the city, discreetly taking pictures of her for this huge story.

In the end, Bradley realizes he actually cares for Ann and sees how he had been taking advantage of her for personal gain. He scraps the article, losing his lucrative potential profits, as well as a $500 bet he had made with his skeptical editor. Bradley wanted to protect Ann’s privacy, and even gave her the pictures he had taken to prove he would not release them.

The Philadelphia Story has a similar arc. Jimmy Stewart plays Mike Connor, a journalist working for Spy, the Gawker of its day. Connor is assigned to infiltrate and report on the wedding of socialite Tracy Lord–a snobbish and witty role quite literally written for Katharine Hepburn. Like Bradley with the princess, Connor comes to realize the error of his ways, and decides not to go forward with the article at personal cost.

Now fast forward to 2012. On October 4th, Gawker published a video depicting American "royal" Hulk Hogan engaging in sexual relations. Certainly lewd. Certainly inappropriate journalistic conduct. Certainly an invasion of privacy. Yet Gawker published the video, because they had it, and they could. I’ll bet even Walter Burns would stop short of pulling something like that.

While Gawker & Co. continue to besmirch the good name of journalism, we can still turn to cinema to be reminded of what journalism can, and should, be. Netflix’s Daredevil presents the ideal journalists in Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). While the show mainly follows the escapades of the titular character as he runs around beating up villains in the night, in the end it is the information uncovered by Urich, Ellison, and Page that leads to the arrest of Daredevil’s archenemy in the first season and reveals a governmental conspiracy in the second. They pore over old documents, hunt down sources, and corroborate everything.

On the big screen, Spotlight—last year’s Best Picture winner—offers a real life tale of investigative journalism, detailing the Boston Globe’s investigation of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. This is journalism at its best. We watch as the Spotlight team does a thorough investigation for over two years into an extremely sensitive and important topic, piling up evidence to ensure they cover the scope of the scandal. The team checks every fact before they publish it, doing deep digging in the days when information wasn’t just a Google search away. Contrast this with the stories of journalists who, rather than working to find a real story, simply make it up–people like Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, and Jayson Blair.

The recent film Truth helps us see the opposite of the Spotlight team, when journalists fall short. Truth is based on the 2004 controversy that occurred when Dan Rather (Robert Redford) at CBS reported that George W. Bush’s National Guard service record had been whitewashed, and they had the documents to prove it. The journalists involved failed to verify the documents they received, which were quickly proven to be forgeries. Rather and his team had not done the due diligence required before running the story.

While integrity and authentication are not completely gone from journalism, it is still nice to know we can always turn to the movies for inspiration—other than Katie Couric documentaries.

Published under: Movie Reviews