Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)
INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY
SORAYA sits down at her laptop with a cookie
or some cake or that weirdly oversize banana bread. As she starts
working on a column like this one, the woman next to her, working
on a spreadsheet, glances at Soraya’s desktop and turns to her.
WOMAN: What do you do?
SORAYA: I’m a columnist.
WOMAN: Holy shit, that’s cool.
I starred in this scene two weeks ago, and again just this past week at a party. The women don’t have to tell me why they think it’s cool, I know why: Carrie Bradshaw. An apartment in New York, a photo on the side of a bus, Louboutins, tutus, and a column at the top of each week. Which is why I qualify it every time: “I don’t make as much as Carrie Bradshaw.” Yes, the job is cool, and it is holy-shit-worthy because so few journalists are able to actually work as journalists. But I’m freelance: I can cover my rent but can’t buy a house, I don’t get benefits, and I might be out of a job next week. Not to mention that I might not be so lucky next time. The women usually turn back to their admin after that — admin looks a lot cooler than journalism these days. But only if you’re not going by Sex and the City or basically every other journalism movie or series that has come after, all of which romanticize an industry which has a knack for playing into that.
“This is the end of an era, everything’s changing,” Gina Rodriguez tells her friends in the trailer for Someone Great, a new Netflix rom-com in which she, a music journalist, gets a job. At a magazine. In San Francisco. This is not a sci-fi movie in which the character has time traveled back to, I don’t know, 1975. It is only one recent example of the obfuscation of what journalism actually means now. There’s also the Hulu series Shrill, which presents itself as if it were current-day but is based on the life of Lindy West, who had a staff job at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger when you could still have a staff job and make a name for yourself with first-person essays, i.e., 2009. Special (another Netflix show) also harkens back to that time, and though it’s more overt about how exploitative online media can be — the hero is an intern with cerebral palsy who writes about his disability (which he claims is from a car accident) for clicks — the star is still hired straight out of an internship. (What’s an internship?)
Hollywood romanticizes everything, you say? Perhaps, but this is a case where the media itself seems to be actively engaging in a certain kind of deception about how bad its own situation actually is. In February, The Washington Post, which is no doubt still benefiting from the press off the still-gold-standard journalism movie — 1976’s All the President’s Men — ran a Super Bowl ad narrated by Tom Hanks, which applauds late journalists Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi, who, in their words, brought the story, “no matter the cost.” The spot highlighted what we already know, which is that we need journalism to be a functioning democracy and that many journalists risk their lives to guarantee it. What it kept in darkness (ha), however, was that to do their job properly, those journalists need protection and they need resources — provided by their editors and by their publishers. Hanks, of course, starred in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film based on the journalists who reported on the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The ad was using the past to promote the future, rather than dealing with a present, in which more than 2,400 people lost media jobs in the first three months of the year and journalists are trying to unionize en masse. But that’s not particularly telegenic, is it?
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The romanticized idea of the journalist — dogged, trenchcoated — really took off at the movies. In 1928, ex-reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a play which was adapted into The Front Page, a 1931 screwball that became the journalism movie prototype, with fast dialogue and faster morals. My favorite part is that not only is the star reporter trying to quit the paper (in this economy?), but his editor will do anything — including harboring an accused murderer — to keep him on staff. Matt Ehrlich, coauthor of Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, once told me for Maclean’s that The Front Page came out of the “love-hate relationship” the writers had with the industry even back then. “The reporters are absolute sleazebags, they do horrible things,” he said. “At the same time The Front Page makes journalism seem very exciting, and they do get the big scoop.” Ehrlich also told me that some initially thought All the President’s Men, which eventually became the prototype of the journalism movie, was reminiscent of the earlier era of the genre. In case you are not a journalist and so haven’t seen it, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters whose stories on the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up helped lead to President Nixon’s resignation. While the film also played fast and loose with the truth, it had a veneer of rumpled repetitious reality — not to mention a strong moral core that made taking down the president with a typewriter seem, if implausible, at least not impossible.
In February, Education Week reported that a survey of 500 high school journalism teachers across 45 states found that, in the past two years, 44 percent of U.S. school teachers saw a rise in journalism enrollment and a 30 percent increase in interest in journalism higher education. “This is this generation’s Watergate,” the executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association said. “With President Trump, everyone is really in tune to the importance of a free press.” Sure. But this isn’t 1976. No doubt there are scores of WoodSteins out there, but not only do a number of journalists no longer have the resources or the time to follow stories of any kind, they rarely have the salaried staff positions to finance them, nor the editors and publishers to support them doing the job they were hired to do. In All the President’s Men, executive editor Ben Bradlee asks WoodStein if they trust their source, before muttering “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody.” Then he tells them to “Run that baby.” These days there is little trust in anything beyond the bottom line.
The myth is that All the President’s Men led to a surge of interest in journalism as a career. But in reality it was women, increasingly educated post-liberation, whose interest explained the surge. (My editor is asking: “Is it an accident that shitting on journalism as a worthy profession coincided with women moving into journalism?” My reply is: “I think not.”) Still, women remain underrepresented in the field to this day, a fact reflected by the paucity of movies about the work of female journalists. While there were scores of ’70s and ’80s thrillers built around male reporters with too much hair taking down the man, for the women … there was The China Syndrome, with Jane Fonda as a television reporter named Kimberly covering a nuclear power plant conspiracy. And, um, Absence of Malice? Sally Field is a newspaper reporter who sleeps with her subject (I mean, it is Paul Newman). I guess I could include Broadcast News, which stars Holly Hunter as a neurotic-but-formidable producer and personified the pull between delivering the news and delivering ratings (the analog version of clicks). But Network did that first and more memorably, with its suicidal anchorman lamenting the demise of media that matters. “I’m a human being, GODDAMN IT!!!” he shouts into the void. “My life has value!!!” You don’t hear female journalists saying that on-screen, though you do hear them saying “I do” a whole lot.
The quintessential journalism film and the quintessential rom-com are in fact connected. Nora Ephron, who was briefly married to Carl Bernstein, actually cowrote an early script for All the President’s Men. While it was chucked in favor of William Goldman’s, she went on to write When Harry Met Sally, and I’ll forgive you for not remembering that Sally was a journalist. She probably only mentions it twice because this was 1989, an era in which you decided to be a journalist and then you became one — the end. The movie treats reporting like it’s so stable it’s not even worth mentioning, like being a bureaucrat. Sally could afford a nice apartment, she had plenty of time to hang out with Harry, so what was there to gripe about (Good Girls Revolt would suggest Ephron’s trajectory was less smooth, but that’s another story)? Four years later, in Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan is another journalist in another Ephron movie, equally comfortable, so comfortable in fact that her editor pays her to fly across the country to stalk Tom Hanks. This newspaper editor literally assigns a reporter to take a plane to Seattle from Chicago to “look into” a possible lifestyle story about a single white guy. (Am I doing something wrong?!?!)
Journalism and rom-coms were fused from almost the start, around the ’30s and ’40s. The Front Page went from being a journalism movie to being a rom-com when it turned its hero into a heroine for His Girl Friday. The reporter repartee and the secretive nature of the job appeared to lend themselves well to Hays-era screwballs, though they also indelibly imprinted a lack of seriousness onto their on-screen female journalists. After a brief moment in the 1970s when The Mary Tyler Moore Show embodied the viability of a woman journalist who puts work first, the post-Ephron rom-coms of the 2000s were basically glossy romances in “offices” that were really showrooms for a pink-frosted fantasy girl-reporter gig no doubt thought up by male executives who almost certainly saw All the President’s Men and almost certainly decided a woman couldn’t do that and who cares anyway because the real story is how you’re going to get Matthew McConaughey to pop the question. I can’t with the number of women who recently announced that 13 Going on 30 — the movie in which Jennifer Garner plays a literal child successfully running a fashion magazine — made them want to be journalists. But the real death knell of the aughts journo-rom-com, according to rom-com columnist Caroline Siede, was in 2003 with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days in 2003. In that caper, Kate Hudson has a job as a columnist despite thinking it is completely rational to write a piece called “How to Bring Peace to Tajikistan” for her Cosmo-type fashion magazine.
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In 2016, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Spotlight, which follows The Boston Globe’s titular investigative team — three men, one woman — as it uncovers the Catholic Church abuse scandal. The film earned comparisons to All the President’s Men for its focus on journalistic drudgery, but it also illustrated the growing precariousness of the newsroom with the arrival of the web. In one scene, executive editor Marty Baron expresses shock when he is told it takes a couple of months for the team to settle on a story and then a year or more to investigate it. At the same time, Baron and two other editors are heavily involved and supportive of the three reporters, who went on to win the Pulitzer in 2003 and remained on the team for years after. Released only 12 years after the fact, the film suggested that journalists who win Pulitzers have some kind of security, which, you know, makes sense, and is maybe true at The Boston Globe. But two years after Spotlight came out, David Wood, who had won HuffPost its only Pulitzer, was laid off. As one of BuzzFeed’s reporters told The Columbia Journalism Review after BuzzFeed shed 15 percent of its staff, “It’s this sense that your job security isn’t tied to the quality of your work.”
“We have so much to learn from these early media companies and in many ways it feels like we’re at the start of another formative era of media history where iconic companies will emerge and thrive for many decades,” BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti blew hard in a memo in 2014, referring to traditional outfits like Time and The New York Times. But both those publications have unions, which Peretti has been clear he doesn’t think “is right” for his company. “A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s an alliance between managers and employees,” he said in 2015. “People have shared goals.” In this case the shared goals seem to be that Peretti profits (his company was valued at more than $1 billion in 2016) while his staff is disposable.
Which brings us back to the Globe in 2019. That is to say the real one, not the romanticized one. This version of the Globe hires a Gonzo-esque leftist political writer named Luke O’Neil as a freelancer and publishes his “controversial” op-ed about the Secretary of Homeland Security’s resignation titled “Keep Kirstjen Nielsen unemployed and eating Grubhub over her kitchen sink.” “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon,” it opened, and it concluded with, “As for the waiters out there, I’m not saying you should tamper with anyone’s food, as that could get you into trouble. You might lose your serving job. But you’d be serving America. And you won’t have any regrets years later.” The article was gone by Friday, pulled upon the request of the paper’s owners (O’Neil sent me the original). According to WGBH, a now-deleted note on the opinion page stated that the article “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards. The Globe regrets its lack of vigilance on the matter. O’Neil is not on staff.” And, oh, man, that last line. It says everything there is to say about modern journalism that is unspoken not only on-screen but by the culture at large and the media in it. It says you serve us but we provide no security, no benefits, no loyalty. It says, unlike Spotlight or All the President’s Men or even The Front Page, we do not have your back. Because if they did, you better believe it would have a good chance of ending up on-screen.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.