Blah blah. I hear these apocalypsisms weekly. Journalism is doomed! I got news for you: It's been doomed for a while. Scandal Sheet said as much 55 years ago, but not in the way you think.
I stumbled upon this 1952 journa-thriller on TCM earlier today, stuck with it and really enjoyed it. Scandal Sheet stars Broderick Crawford as an editor with a shady past, John Derek as an interpid muckraker and Donna Reed as a principled feature writer. All of them work at The New York Express, which Crawford has guided away from text-heavy stories to bold-headlined exposés about murders, cuckolding and other titillating fare. Consequently, circulation for the Express is going up, up, up. Crawford has even installed a giant wheel in the newsroom, with an arrow pointing to the latest numbers; if he brings circulation to 750,000, he gets a big fat bonus.
Scandal Sheet's central conflict is a terrific example of situational irony, and it makes the movie a swift-moving confection. Eugene Ling's screenplay (based on the Samuel Fuller novel "The Dark Page") has a nice ear for dialogue and newsroom dynamics. Being a crime or investigative reporter is just like being a detective. It's sleuth work. It's putting pieces together and gathering evidence and conducting interviews. Reporters routinely win Pulitzer Prizes for "solving" cases the police couldn't/wouldn't touch.
Crawford, Derek (below, center) and Reed are perfectly matched as co-workers with varying degrees of integrity who represent the dueling sides of journalism: tabloid sensationalism vs. prudent reportage. Derek (in his youth, a striking and handsome film presence) plays a guy who gets a "schoolboy bang" from seeing his name over a sensational yarn. Reed, on the other hand, says at one point, "I like my feature writing. Smart people like it too, even though many of them aren't buying the Express anymore." They eventually have to team up to work on a murder story that may or may not have to do with their editor...talk about conflict of interest.
The preeminent films about journalism are His Girl Friday (1940) and All the President's Men (1976), which occupy the opposite ends of the spectrum, tone- and content-wise. The first is a screwball comedy, the second is a serious illumination of the HOWs of reporting. In different degrees, both movies get at the WHY of journalism. The WHY speech in Friday is delivered by Rosalind Russell:
A journalist? Hell, what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines? Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler's gonna start another war? Stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen's wives'll know what's going on.
And the WHY bit in the otherwise sweepingly subtle ATPM is delivered by Jason Robards as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee:
You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight.
The WHY moment in Scandal Sheet, which falls somewhere in between HGF and ATPM on the journalism movie spectrum, comes at the very end, when the newspaper cracks 750,000 circulation by running a story that is both sensational and purposeful. Scandal Sheet is a zippy drama above all else, but it has some meaningful things to say about the business, especially the "business" side of the business. Journalists are beholden to the truth, but the bottom line often rears its ugly head. It's a fine line to walk, and Scandal Sheet illustrates that walk in an entertaining fashion.
Alas, Scandal Sheet does not appear to be available on DVD or VHS. Does anyone know differently? On Netflix, you can find a 1985 TV movie called Scandal Sheet starring Burt Lancaster and Lauren Hutton, but it's not the same thing. So keep an eye out for the 1952 movie on TCM, or on PBS. What's your favorite journalism movie?
Postscript: A retired journalist named Paul E. Schindler Jr. has a neat page dedicated to journalism movies. He hits on a point that's been on my mind lately: the extinct archetype of the hard-drinking journalist. In his essay on Scandal Sheet, Schindler writes:
It's true and lamentable. Donna Reed lights up in every scene of Scandal Sheet; supporting player Henry O'Neill plays a Pulitzer-winner who can still get a big scoop while in the haze of alcoholism. Russell, Cary Grant, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman do their share of smoking in His Girl Friday and ATPM. A newsroom these days is a sterile place: devoid of smoke, the clacking of typewriters and the mavericks who stumbled in with a buzz and left after filing a snappy, weighty story. In short, the "cinema-ness" of real-life newsrooms has faded (and with it much of the adventure and bravery).
One of the biggest changes in journalism over the years has been in drinking and smoking. When I started my first newspaper job in 1973, there were alcohol-fueled lunches, cigarettes galore and a bottle of liquor in every third desk—just as there were in the 1920s. By the time I left journalism in 2001, there wasn’t a major newsroom in America that wasn’t non-smoking, and liquor in your desk was a firing offense at many newspapers.
Maybe I'll bring in a bottle of bourbon on Monday.