The Sunday Magazine·Sunday Edition

Michael's essay: Great films about journalism inspire, even as newspapers disappear

"All the tough-talking female reporters, all the hard-drinkers in snap-brimmed fedoras, all the crusty editors yelling 'Boy!' will become as ephemeral as faded ink on a forgotten front page."
From the new film The Post, which opened in theatres across Canada on January 12, 2018. (YouTube/Screenshot)

Back in the early 1990s, the American professor and poet David Rosenberg edited a book called The Movie That Changed My Life.

In a series of personal essays, a diverse selection of writers described a particular film that had a formative influence on their young lives.

For many it was their — our — first introduction to love, sex, death, the myths of history and adulthood.

With the exception of early friendships, few childhood experiences had a more indelible impact on the process of growing up.

For some it was watching the urgent sexuality of a Raquel Welsh or Ann Margret. For others it was the high adventure movies set in exotic locales.

I know one man who wanted to grow up to be a police officer because of a particular cop movie he sat through as a youngster.

For me, it was newspaper movies.

My earliest exposure to a newspaper movie was Deadline - USA, with Humphrey Bogart.
Humphrey Bogart makes a call from the press room in "Deadline USA."

It came out in 1952. It was about how a crusading newspaper editor was fighting a corrupt gangland boss while his beloved paper was being sold out from under him.

Incidentally, it's hard to find a newspaper movie that's any good without the descriptor "crusading editor."

Deadline - USA taught me two things: that a newspaper career could be exciting and mildly dangerous; and two, I could learn to wear a bow tie like Bogart.

Billy Wilder's cynical take on journalism, Ace in the Hole, showed me the darkly cynical side of newspapers.

In the mid-50s the movie -30- came along, starring Jack Webb as the crusading editor of a Los Angeles newspaper. Thirty, in old newspaper parlance, meant the end; you typed it at the bottom of your copy.

Marty Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe, walks the red carpet as he attends the Boston area premiere of the film "Spotlight" in October 2015. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
There have been some excellent newspaper movies over the years: All the President's Men, which  persuaded some students to go into journalism; Spotlight about the Boston Globe investigation which uncovered the sexual abuse of children by hundreds of Catholic priests, and the latest, The Post.

It brilliantly unfolds the gripping account of how The Washington Post and Katharine Graham, its gutsy publisher, went against all commonsensical advice and published the Pentagon Papers.

Aging newspaper people love newspaper movies and The Post transports us back to the era of Linotype machines, hot metal, typewriters and smoking in the newsroom.

I guess it's a kind of journalistic cultural appropriation when one media element, Hollywood, exploits the fateful accomplishments of another media outlet. 

U.S. film director Steven Spielberg, left, U.S. actress Meryl Streep, centre, and U.S. actor Tom Hanks pose on the red carpet on arrival for the European Premiere of The Post in London on Jan. 10, 2018. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
And it comes at a time when the prospects for newspapers have never looked worse.

In the last five years in Canada, 10,000 jobs in journalism have been lost. In 2015, total newspaper revenues fell by 12.6 per cent. Community newspapers are shutting down with alarming regularity.

Journalists and journalism itself are under siege. The president of the United States has called journalists enemies of the people. Public trust in the media has all but disappeared.

In one poll, more than 65 per cent of Americans believe their media publish so-called fake news.

The internet and the rise of social media have further eroded trust trust in newspapers, television and mainstream media.

In the last five years in Canada, 10,000 jobs in journalism have been lost. (Laura Beaulne-Stuebing/CBC)
Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, anybody can write anything about anything or anybody, and a goodly number of people will look at the result as accepted truth, proved reality.

The golden age of newspapers, if there ever was one, is long over.

People get their news now, such as it is, from smartphones and online.

Hollywood will in all likelihood continue to make newspaper movies; they are good box office. 

But all the tough-talking female reporters, all the hard-drinkers in snap-brimmed fedoras, all the crusty editors yelling "Boy!" will become as ephemeral as faded ink on a forgotten front page.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay. 

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