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Everyone hates the media.

WHAT DO Dan Quayle, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and most of the film and television community have in common? They all hate the news media. If the conservatives would pause for a moment in their obsession with the so-called liberal cultural elite in Hollywood, they would see that their conceptions about the news media as biased and out of control are shared by the very people they criticize the most. For most of those labeled the religious right and/or the liberal elite, the complicated and diverse news media are thrown together into a single cesspool they all call "tabloid journalism."

The creative community does more than just complain about its contempt for the news media. In recent films and television movies, writers, directors, and producers have portrayed reporters as uncaring, biased, arrogant, out-to-get-you-at-all-costs gutter-rakers who care about no one and will do anything to cover a story, no matter how damaging it may be to the principals involved.

Many earlier films, often written by journalists, may have taken a dim view of the profession, but the characters usually were created with some affection and a true understanding of the journalist's role in a democratic society. The reporter more often than not was portrayed by a leading actor, so no matter how devious or obsessive the character may have been, the audience was sympathetic to him or her. After all, Clark Gable, Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, and other matinee idols wouldn't do any real harm. They were all heroes.

In the last few decades, however, Hollywood has fallen out of love with the reporter-hero as they often were exposed to the worst aspects of entertainment journalism. Stories about them may have been partially true, exaggerated, or embroidered enough to cause pain and suffering. Most of what they have hated has been borderline journalism--supermarket tabloids eager to exploit any human weakness, inexperienced television reporters who badgered them either out of incompetence or a misguided conception of what a story was all about. As hatred of reporters has grown, even legitimate ones have found most of the Hollywood creative community hostile, suspicious of any kind of story that could embarrass or hurt them, no matter how valid it might be.

The result is an unending stream of motion pictures and television movies where the hero is hounded by a pack of shouting men and women armed with cameras and notebooks. No longer is Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart the diligent reporter after the story; more often than not, it is anonymous extras posing as ill-mannered reporters who are attacking a beleaguered Bruce Willis or Diane Keaton. It doesn't matter what the movie or television program is about. More often than not, a gratuitous scene is thrown in showing reporters in the worst possible light.

"Running Mates," a recent HBO original movie, turns the media into the real villains. Reporters legitimately want to know more about the bachelor presidential candidates fiancee (Diane Keaton). The US. senator who is running for President (Ed Harris) stands up at the end of the film, defending the tearful Keaton by haranguing a pack of reporters for asking personal questions. "Doesn't your right to know have any bounds of decency or compassion?" he asks, mimicking Joseph Welch's appropriate answer to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Any audience--especially one buoyed by the clever dialogue given Keaton and Harris, the same kind of witty dialogue given in the past to hero reporters--has little sympathy with the gossip-mongering pack of anonymous reporters leading the attack on these two nice, decent people.

It isn't just groups of anonymous reporters depicted on the big and small screen. If a reporter is given a secondary role in a film, he or she usually is played by a secondary actor and portrayed as a callous, uncaring, rotten individual who will do despicable things to get a story. He or she has none of the hero's redeeming features or personality. Good examples can be found in the two "Die Hard" films featuring Bruce Willis. In the original, Willis is combating impossible odds to save his wife from terrorists while an obnoxious TV reporter puts him in continuous jeopardy. When, at the end of the film, the reporter greets Willis and his wife (Bonnie Bedelia), who survived the ordeal, she throws a haymaker punch, knocking the smarmy reporter (William Atherton) to the ground. Audiences from every economic and social strata burst into immediate applause.

This constant barrage of reporters as uncaring vultures doing anything for ratings or profit has had an enormous effect on Americans' perception of the media. Journalists now rank far lower in the publics estimation than they did a decade ago. With the exception of politicians, lawyers, and psychologists, no other group is treated with such disdain. Conservatives and liberals alike do not seem to understand that, by pounding home the raw side of the media in films and TV programs, the public has been led to believe that journalists are not to be trusted, that all of them pursue trivial stories in haphazard and rude ways, that everything read or seen in the media is biased, inaccurate information. Even the time-honored phrase, "the people's right to know," has been distorted by recent films and TV programs and reduced to a frightening cliche, something reporters use to embarrass, provoke, and destroy innocent victims.

What few grasp is that these countless distorted images have created a dangerous situation. When citizens do not understand the function of a free and unfettered media and when they stop believing in the information it delivers to them day in and day out, the time becomes ripe for disinformation and demagoguery.
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Title Annotation:journalists portrayed negatively
Author:Saltzman, Joe
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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