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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Gentlemen of the Press (originally published 12/99)

By all accounts, Mike Wallace is not a happy camper these days. It seems that he is not pleased with the way he is portrayed in the recently released picture, "The Insider," which presents a fictionalized account of how the "60 Minutes" program handled their story about tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. Wallace reportedly feels that the film is slanted in such a way as to cast him in an unfairly negative light.

Perhaps he can take some comfort in knowing that the negative portrayal of journalists is an old and venerable tradition in the movies. For a sampling of the many films in which the ink-stained wretches of the press (and their blow-dried cousins of the airwaves) are represented by less than sterling fictional counterparts, look for these titles on home video.

"Nothing Sacred" (1937). Even in films written by practicing journalists, reporters sometimes can't get a break. This classic "screwball comedy" was scripted by Ben Hecht, who had cut his journalistic teeth as a Chicago newshound, and had gone on to co-author "The Front Page," the definitive newsroom comedy. "Nothing Sacred" stars Fredric March as Wally Cook, an ambitious reporter who never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. The plot concerns a small town woman named Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), who has just learned that she is dying of radium poisoning, and so will never realize her dream of seeing New York City. Hearing of Hazel's unfortunate predicament, Wally smells a story that can be milked for days. He arranges to bring Hazel to New York, all expenses paid, in exchange for making her a sensational object of pity in his paper. When Hazel subsequently learns that her diagnosis was a mistake, Wally is utterly unfazed. He simply sets about the task of covering up the deception in order to go on selling papers.

"Meet John Doe" (1941). Director Frank Capra's satirical edge was seldom sharper than in this cautionary tale of the power of the press run amuck. Gary Cooper plays a down and out former baseball player who is recruited by a newspaper to be the personification of "John Doe", a fictional character concocted by one of the paper's reporters (Barbara Stanwyck). When the altruistic ideals espoused by "John Doe" catch on with the public, the paper's power-hungry publisher (Edward Arnold) seeks to use this influential mouthpiece to further his own political agenda.

"Absence of Malice" (1981). When a federal investigator becomes frustrated with the lack of leads in a missing persons case, he decides to pressure businessman Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) for no other reason than that Gallagher's late father had ties to organized crime. Since this can't be done directly without evidence, the investigator manipulates a reporter (Sally Field) into publishing a story inaccurately tying Gallagher to the investigation. The result is a disturbing commentary on how careless reporting can destroy innocent lives.

"Reckless Disregard" (1985). Not only is "The Insider" not the first film to portray journalists in a bad light, it isn't even the first film based on a controversy involving "60 Minutes." Although the names are changed, this made for television movie is clearly based on the 1983 libel suit brought against the news magazine by Dr. Carl Galloway. In a report on false insurance claims, producer Steve Glauber and correspondent Dan Rather linked Galloway to an alleged insurance fraud case. Galloway's attorney claimed that Glauber and Rather acted with "reckless disregard" for the truth of their damaging allegations by failing to check their facts carefully enough. (CBS ultimately won the case.) In this fictionalized version, the news anchor is played in a rather unflattering manner by Leslie Nielsen, while the plaintiff's attorney is played by Tess Harper.

The single most famous unflattering portrayal of a journalist in the movies, however, must surely be Orson Welles's legendary movie debut in "Citizen Kane" (1941). Elements of the fictional Charles Foster Kane's life were rather transparently based on unsavory aspects of the life of millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst, a fact which was emphatically not lost on Hearst. The enraged tycoon labored mightily to destroy the film, but ultimately it went on to become the jewel in Hollywood's crown. The lesson, I suppose, is that Mike Wallace may as well resign himself to living with his fictionalized screen counterpart. If it could happen to Hearst, it can happen to anyone.

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