W. Joseph Campbell

15 movies about journalists: At least 3 boosted myths

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm

It was the day of the journalist (“Dia do Jornalista”) in Brazil yesterday and to help mark the occasion, the RevistaMonet blog posted a lineup, with brief descriptions, of 15 movies about the work of journalists.

They included classics such as The Front Page and His Girl Friday, as well as surprises such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Superman Returns.

All 15 were English-language films. At least three of them have contributed to, or helped solidify, media-driven myths.

The three myth-builders: All the President’s Men; Good Night, and Good Luck, and my favorite, Citizen Kane.

Cinema’s role in solidifying media-driven myths is discussed in Getting It Wrong, my next book, which will be out in the summer.

“Cinematic treatments,” I write, “influence how historical events are collectively remembered and can harden media-driven myths against debunking.”

That certainly was so with All the President’s Men, the 1976 screen adaptation of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book by the same title.

The film characterized Bernstein and Woodward, both of the Washington Post, as central and essential to unraveling the Watergate scandal that toppled President Richard Nixon.

The upshot, I write in  Getting It Wrong, has been “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate and sustain it in the collective memory.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of Watergate without thinking of All the President’s Men.

Similarly, the 2005 motion picture Good Night, and Good Luck served to popularize and extend the media myth that broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow exposed and abruptly ended the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

Good Night, and Good Luck was a dramatic retelling of Murrow’s See It Now program on McCarthy, which aired on CBS on March 9, 1954, and often is credited with exposing McCarthy’s crude investigative tactics and bullying ways.

McCarthy in 1954

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Murrow’s program on McCarthy came very late–years after other journalists had confronted and challenged the red-baiting senator. By 1954, it wasn’t as if American audiences were waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them of the toxic threat McCarthy posed.

They already knew. And in the months immediately before Murrow’s program, the senator’s favorability ratings had begun to fall.

While it never explicitly said as much, Good Night, and Good Luck left the inescapable but erroneous impression that Murrow had courageously and single-handedly challenged and stopped McCarthy.

Citizen Kane, which was released in 1941, arguably is the finest motion picture ever made about journalism: It may have been the best movie, ever.

It certainly was Orson Welles’ towering and most memorable cinematic achievement. Kane was vaguely based on the life and times of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Kane‘s contribution to media mythmaking came in a scene that paraphrased Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

As I note in Getting It Wrong,  the Hearstian vow lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s message has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever making such a statement.

Like many media-driven myths, the story of Hearst’s purported vow is almost too good not to be true.

And given cinematic treatment, it may be impossible ever to inter.


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