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Frank Capra and the image of journalists in American film. (Entertainment).

PETER WARNE is a son of a bitch. There is absolutely no reason anyone should like him. He is a cynic with no regard for the truth; a brash opportunist who will stop at nothing to get what he wants; an amoral, alcoholic rogue who will lie, cheat, do anything to get a scoop for his newspaper; a big-city, wisecracking shyster who talks fast, thinks fast, works fast, often lives by his wits, and won't take any crap from anyone. Yet, as played by actor Clark Gable, written by Robert Riskin, and directed by Frank Capra in "It Happened One Night" (1934), he is irresistible.

Warne may be cocky, but you sense he is a good guy, maybe even an idealist who has a love-hate relationship with the newspaper world of scoundrels. He may secretly even want to do what he considered to be the noble thing, and quit the newspaper racket. He is, as pop culture social commentators Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy have put it, the roguish shyster trying to become a knight in shining armor, a part of the corruption of the city, yet somehow above it, a combination of the illicit appeal of sin with the moral righteousness of being superior to those around him.

Warne is a prototype of the male newspaper reporter in motion pictures, an image of the newshawk, part of a gallery of journalists created out of past stereotypes and presented as fresh and seemingly spontaneously by Capra, one of the most popular American directors in cinema history, and his writers, who were responsible for much of what Americans thought they knew about journalists in the 20th century. Those familiar images still focus our thinking today, whether they be the energetic, opportunistic reporter who would do anything for a scoop; the cynical big-city newspaper editor committed to getting the story first, even if it means strangling his reporters to do it; the tough, sarcastic sob sister trying desperately to outdo her male competition; or the morally bankrupt, ruthless publisher who uses the power of the press for his or her own ends.

Americans' perceptions of journalism and journalists were indelibly imprinted on the national psyche through the popular Capra films, which brought reporters, columnists, editors, and media tycoons to flesh-and-blood life from the late 1920s through the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s. These images of the journalist, complete with every cliche of the newspaper world, originated in hundreds of novels and silent movies in the early years of the 20th century. They were polished up, honed, and presented to the public in unforgettable ways by Capra and his writers, who were either former journalists or playwrights who spent a good deal of time with newspaper friends and were no strangers to the language and mores of the city room.

Although there were many other movies involving journalists, including "The Front Page" and "Five Star Final," two popular Broadway plays turned into seminal talking pictures in 1931, few had the popularity or influence of Capra's. With the exception of the multiple images in film of gossip columnists based on Walter Winchell, the images of the journalist the public remembered came primarily from Capra movies.

In nine major films--starting with "The Power of the Press" in 1928, continuing through the much-copied "It Happened One Night" in 1934, and ending with the lackluster "Here Comes the Groom" in 1951--Capra and his writers created big-city, smart -alecky journalists and their greedy bosses. Many of the archetypes created in these pictures were reinvented in later decades and, with little variation, turned into radio and television newspeople who were just as circulation-hungry and cynical as their prototypes. Capra made more than 50 movies, 36 of them feature films, between 1926 and 1961, and social critic-historian Ray Carney believes he "had a profound emotional and psychological effect on more than three generations of American audiences."

From the beginning, Capra had an intimate relationship with newspapers. As a youngster, he peddled the Los Angeles Times for 10 years, stuffing the papers--inserting one section of the Sunday edition into the other--each Saturday night from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. The smell of newsprint was all over him. One of his biographers, Joseph McBride, said Capra even had a fleeting youthful ambition of becoming a reporter for a daily newspaper.

Capra's best friend was Myles Connolly, a Boston Irishman and hard-boiled newspaper reporter for the Boston Post. Like so many other newspapermen and playwrights in the early 1930s, Connolly had come to Hollywood to make his fortune. Capra used him as a sounding board. According to Capra, it was Connolly's idea to turn Warne, a self-employed chemist in the original short story on which the film "It Happened One Night" is based, into "a guy we all know and like. Maybe a tough, crusading reporter--at outs with his pig-headed editor."

Riskin, his primary collaborator, a self-made man, streetwise poet, playwright, and producer, became the social conscience of the Capra films. He knew the newspaper world so well that many historians still refer to him as a former newspaperman. Jo Swerling, a bespectacled, rumpled, cigar chain-smoking newspaper veteran, worked for newspapers in Chicago, Boston, and New York for a dozen years and, like Capra, had sold newspapers as a kid. Sidney Buchman, a college-educated playwright and film writer, came with a great ear for fast-talking, urban-slang dialogue.

Other collaborators included Sonya Levien, a magazine writer and editor, who became one of the top female writers in Hollywood. She adapted Capra's first major newspaper picture, "The Power of the Press." The seven-reel silent film made in 1928 featured Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as cub reporter Clem Rogers, who wants a "big scoop" more than anything else in life.

"The Power of the Press" isn't even mentioned in Capra's autobiography. Thought to be lost for years, it turns out to be a compendium of newspaper movies all rolled up into one of the last silent films of the 1920s. It offers a realistic newsroom populated with seasoned reporters, a hardworking play-by-the-roles city editor, a cub reporter who grows up during the movie to become a bylined writer, and a miniature documentary within the film on the printing of a big-city newspaper in 1928.

The surprising and accurate documentary sequence starts with the city editor shouting to the cub reporter, by way of title cards and pantomime, "Hammer out that story--quick!" Rogers puts paper in the typewriter and starts typing while two veteran journalists look over his shoulder: "By Clem Rogers ... Because of the ingenuity of a Times reporter...." Cut to the press room, where a pressman hits the stop button, halting the large newspaper presses. Back to Rogers pounding out his story. A copy editor comes by and pulls the first page out of Rogers' typewriter and rushes it to the linotype operator, who keyboards the story into type. We see the type matrices cast into a solid slug and then slugs put into a printer's chase and tightened. A curved stereotype plate with the type impressions is put on the printing press cylinder as we see the headline: "Candidate's Daughter Involved in Murder of District Attorney--Jane Atwill Found Hiding in Dead Man's Home." The pressman hits the start button, and the presses begin rolling again. We see the finished papers coming off the press, sold on the street by newsboys, delivered to homes, and, finally, read by the public. We even get a graphic look at the power of the press when one reader tells his wife he was going to vote for Atwill, but not now. The newspaper story made up his mind.

This one sequence sums up every visual cliche of newspaper motion pictures then and now. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly realistic for a melodramatic newspaper film, showing moviegoers exactly how papers were written, printed, and delivered daily to them. It was unusual enough for Variety's reviewer to write, "While theatricalizing to an extent, the newspaper atmosphere is exceptionally restrained and reasonable for Hollywood.... It is a moving picture newspaper refreshingly plausible if not 100 percent authentic." This was no easy accomplishment. Most newspaper movies were ridiculed by critics. For example, in one 1923 review, a Variety critic wrote, "A Front Page Story" is "merely another film in that long succession of films which have tried to give newspaper work some degree of truthful representation before the people--but like most of its predecessors--has failed miserably."

The editorial staff

The male journalists. Capra's depiction of the newspaperman, like most

other filmmakers' portrayals of journalists, relied heavily on former newsmen's remembrances and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's famous play and subsequent movie, "The Front Page." From 1928 to 1951, Capra's reporters were standard movie urban newshawks.

The early newspaper films, says historian Deac Rossell, established the male journalist's persona so irrevocably that even illiterate and uneducated moviegoers knew that a reporter would do anything for a story---denigrate the institution of marriage, break the law, or wink at a double suicide that builds circulation. They also knew that any newspaper movie would be filled with an unredeemed cynicism, staccato, flippant dialogue, breezy informality, brutal insensitivity to love and law alike, and the punchy wisecrack.

The sob sisters. Capra and his writers understood what silent film scenario writers discovered at the turn of the century: Female reporters were perfect for the movies. Films offered the meatiest roles for female actors and, with male reporters, they created the perfect battleground of the sexes--the underrated girl reporter challenged to prove she's as capable as the male, and the boy reporter confident that no girl could possibly keep pace with him. The sob sister became a popular newspaper heroine.

From the beginning, women reporters were hard-boiled dames ready and willing to do anything their male counterparts would do to get that story. The sob sister always has to prove herself. She has to persuade the males around her that she is worthy of their respect. The sob sister often screws up before winning her stripes, but, by and large, she is an independent, hardworking reporter who never lets her newspaper down.

Male screenwriters, perhaps worded that these sob sisters were too independent and too feisty for the times, would make sure that, by the final reel, these self-sufficient females would succumb to love, longing for what 1930s audiences were sure every woman really wanted--a man, marriage, and children. Capra's sob sisters were no different. In turn, she pined for the ace reporter whom she finally won in the end, or killed the city editor to protect the man she loved, or fell in love with (and presumably married) a man she ridiculed in print or controlled for most of the film.

The editors. Capra's editors are basically good guys in the tradition of movie newspaper editors, always trying to do the best job they can under very trying conditions. The editors have to put out a newspaper that kills the competition using lazy, often drunken, reporters, and they have to answer to amoral, circulation-hungry publishers who only want to see results, not excuses. No wonder they drink too much, yell too much, and always seem disappointed in their best friends, the reporters who fill their city room. Yet, they are loyal to their reporters and often the reporters' last best friend. Behind all the yelling and name-calling, when they see their reporters in serious trouble, they are always there to lend a helping hand.

Newspaper editors seldom have first names, or, if they do, no one much remembers them. They are married to their jobs, and nothing else matters. Editors are shown to be thorough professionals, contemptuous of reporters who can't make deadlines or miss stories because of booze or incompetence. The story is always more important than the people involved. The success of the newspaper, its triumph over all competition, is more important than anything else. With few exceptions, when the paper is threatened or when it's just a slow news day, morality, ethics, and everything else be damned. Just get the front-page story that will humble the competition. These editors live for their jobs and will do anything to make sure their daily paper is a success, no matter what the personal cost, no matter how many lies or distortions or fakery or elaborate schemes it takes. The end always justifies the means. Nothing is more important than getting the public to buy and read their newspapers.

The publishers and media tycoons. In Capra's world, the hardworking male or female journalist might do anything for a story, but by the end of the film, he or she usually does the right thing, even if it means giving up his or her job. By contrast, Capra saved his venom for the owner of the newspaper, the publisher, and the media tycoon. They are among the most vicious media villains in all of cinematic history. They are the ones who create the moral chaos in which reporters and editors struggle to survive.

Most of the big-city publishers in movies are greedy, hypocritical, amoral businessmen and -women who, in the words of journalist-historian Howard Good, spouted "smarmy journalistic platitudes to dignify circulation stunts or camouflage unholy political ambitions." The unrepentant scoundrel ends up being the media tycoon, the publisher, the man or woman with all the power to manipulate public opinion for his or her personal benefit. Evil publishers destroy the public trust and put their own political or financial gain above all else.

There were hundreds of journalists and newsrooms on the screen and in novels before Capra and his writers took over the genre, and there were hundreds of journalists and newsrooms on the screen long after Capra stopped making movies, but few films have had the impact, or the staying power, of a Capra production. Of the thousands of newspaper movies made in the 20th century, few have been seen by more people, especially on television and home video, than Capra's. Many of the images of the journalist we see today are descendants from Capra films, reinvented through the years in movies and television. They were repeatedly copied when the pictures were popular, and they are now part of our culture, ripe for reincarnation in the 21st century.

The basic image of the journalist from the silent days of the movies to the media-drenched days of the early 21st century is that of the flawed hero fighting everyone and anything to get the facts out to the public. The reporter or editor could get away with anything as long as the end result was in the public interest. The journalist could lie, cheat, distort, bribe, betray, or violate any ethical code as long as he or she exposed corruption, solved a murder, caught a thief, or saved an innocent. Most films about journalism end with the reporter or editor winning the battle, if not the war. Some journalists--war correspondents and investigative reporters--may have acted more like soldiers or detectives, but they usually lived up to good journalism standards, only to be killed at the end of the movie.

At the same time, the most indelible image may be that of the journalist as scoundrel, as evil, as the worst of villains because such journalists use the precious commodity of public confidence in the press for their own selfish ends. If the journalist uses the power of the media for his or her personal, political, or financial gain--if the end result is not in the public interest--then no matter what the journalist does, no matter how much he or she struggles with his or her conscience or tries to do the right thing, evil has won out. The only possible salvation is resigning and leaving the profession--or death by suicide or murder.

Betraying the public trust is one of the great sins of democracy, and whether it is a journalist or a politician who does the dirty deed, it is so despicable that it lingers and festers in the memory, gradually overwhelming any heroic deed. That is why the cartoonish Jim Taylor (in 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"), the frightening D.B. Norton (in 1941's "Meet John Doe"), and the Machiavellian Kay Thorndyke (in 1948's "State of the Union") seem as real today as they did when they were created. Their goals and tactics are familiar to everyone, and real-life parallels in modern media abound. That may be the reason so many people are skeptical of the motives of such media billionaires as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner

Reporters' changing images

Capra's anonymous reporters, taken out of "The Front Page" and refined in a dozen films, are still chasing after stories in countless movies and television programs. They still travel in packs, only today, TV cameras dominate the scene. Yet, these anonymous reporters chasing the heroes and villains are even more aggressive, impolite, and ill-mannered than they were when they worked exclusively for newspapers.

The death-watch reporters trading one-liners have become, in recent decades, mostly anonymous reporters covering fast-breaking news by crowding, yelling, shouting, bullying, and forcing their way into breaking news events. There were always such packs of print journalists chasing after heroes in movies, and they made a negative impact through the years, but their zeal was usually taken in good spirits. Nowadays, these packs of journalists appear far more menacing and out of control because their lights, cameras, microphones, and tape recorders are jabbed into faces of real people on television news and favorite actors in movies and entertainment television programs.

No matter how much they ridiculed the anonymous reporters who appeared in their movies, Capra and his writers had an affection for journalists. Even the most bitter portrait of a reporter was tempered by a sincere liking for the breed. No matter how critical Capra and his writers were of their anonymous reporters, the public perception was that these guys and gals were just doing their job--not a nice one, perhaps, but an important job nevertheless.

In today's films and television movies, the image of the reporter is being created, for the most part, by directors, producers, and actors who don't care much for the intrusive journalist. They have been chased by enough reporters, for valid and for silly reasons, to find it acceptable, even desirable, to include a scene showing an irresponsible pack of shouting reporters chasing or abusing the principal characters. These often-gratuitous scenes are the end result of a growing Hollywood phobia over the press' disregard for privacy.

Anonymous reporters chase popular actors. The audience, as always, identifies with the latter. For the most part, they now are rooting against reporters who are chasing familiar and friendly faces. It isn't Clark Gable or Barbara Stanwyck chasing after a story. It is now overzealous media newshounds chasing Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts.

This image of a harassing press with no valid reason for its insistence is a dangerous one. It undermines the public's trust in the media, and it directly conflicts with the movie and television image of the reporter as hero. One result is that the public has turned against reporters, concluding that journalists are obnoxious, interested only in their own egos, not the public interest, and that laws should be passed to stop reporters from harassing innocent people--often translated in the public mind to be a favorite movie or television star.

These conflicting images of the journalist contribute to the love-hate relationship between the American people and their media that is at the center of the public's confusion about the media in society today. Surveys continue to show that most Americans want a free press that is always there to protect them from authority and give them a free flow of diverse information. Those same surveys also show that most Americans harbor a deep suspicion about the media, worrying about their perceived power, their meanness and negativism, their attacks on institutions and people, their intrusiveness and callousness, and their arrogance and bias.

Anyone watching a Capra film involving journalists would understand the dichotomy. It's in every image of the journalist he helped put on the screen, in the countless images that came before him, and in the countless images that came after him. Whether on the movie or television screen, and augmented by real-life experiences and examples, they have been absorbed by generations through the 20th and early 21st centuries. They have more power in the American consciousness than the real thing.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether these images are true or not. They make up the image of the journalist in which we believe and upon which we act. And that's even scarier than media mogul D.B. Norton's sinister smile into the camera as he lights up a cigar and contemplates his next move in "Meet John Doe."

Joe Saltzman, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today: associate dean and professor of journalism, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, Los Angeles; and director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (, a project of the Norman Lear Center, is the author of Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film, from which this article is adapted.
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Author:Saltzman, Joe
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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