Portrayal of the Journalist
in Film, Fiction and Popular Culture

This is an archival copy of materials from my fall 2012 special topics class at Radford University, which I may teach again at some time in the future -- either at Radford or elsewhere... Dr. Bob Stepno

2012 Syllabus | LibGuide | Reserves | Weekly Notes | Book Groups | Films online | Final Projects

many movies The Front Page movie on DVD Scoop book cover Pratchet book cover

This course explores the myths, stereotypes, adventures, romances and realities of journalism as reflected in the mirror of American popular culture.

What do this page's DVD and book titles have in common? Spanning 80 years, the stories all feature newspaper reporters, researchers, editors or television journalists as central characters – from Lois Lane to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, from a money-mad editor in 1930 to his female counterpart in 1990. They are heroes or villains, responsible or irresponsible, serious or hilarious, right and left, right and wrong.

I think that's all worth thinking about.

What is "Popular Culture"? In this course, it's a journey through films, novels, short stories, television, old radio shows -- maybe your stack of comics, or even a song or two. 

More questions: What is a "Journalist"?  How has the popular culture image of "the reporter," "the foreign correspondent," "the gossip columnist," "the sob sister," "the editor," or "the publisher" evolved from the early days of "talking pictures" to the days of HBO, DVDs and streaming Internet video? 

Who made the better reporter, Clark or Lois? Did the Green Hornet beat them both?  Which reporters were portrayed as less admirable -- the hacks at tabloids of the roaring twenties or the pack-reporters and blow-dried celebrity anchors of the 1980s? Have these stereotypes affected public perceptions of real-life journalists? What is the role of "the journalist" in a democratic society? Do fictional portrayals lead people to expect too much, or too little, of our "Fourth Estate"?

Do fictional reporters (or dramatized versions of real journalists' lives) offer valuable lessons for journalism students? Can studying them help anyone think critically about their ethics or their sources of information? (I think the answer to those two is "yes." For example, see these recent articles on GWTDT and Financial Journalism and GWTDT as a Gift to Journalism.)

Those are just a few of the questions we'll be asking. Help answer them!

  AllthePresidentsMen.jpg 5starfinal.jpg AbsenceofMaliceLt.jpg Network.jpg CitizenKane.jpg

The teacher for this course, Bob Stepno, an assistant professor in the School of Communication, began as a newspaper reporter back when Lou Grant was on television, and worked for newspapers and magazines for 20 years. He holds an M.A. in anthropology, an M.A.L.S. in interdisciplinary studies, and a Ph.D. in mass communication research. His shelves, iPod and disk drives hold a personal collection of more than 1,000 radio and TV episodes, movies and novels about journalists... including the ones on this page... (More than 1,000? OK, that number is inflated a bit by the "radio" category, where Clark Kent and the Green Hornet's newspaper colleagues each had more than 1,000 15-minute radio adventures. See Newspaper Heroes on the Air.)

SupermanSerial.jpg TheFrontPageMenjou.jpg HisGirlFriday.jpg AceintheHole.jpg scandalsheetposter.jpg blessevent.jpg MeetJohnDoe.jpg TorchyBlane.jpg ShippingNews.jpg Capote.jpg Winchell.jpg ShatteredGlass2.jpg nightstalker.jpg TheWireHBO.png YearofLivingDangerously.jpg Reds.jpg ShockCorridor.jpg. . . and many more.

Main text: Journalism in the Movies by Matthew C. Ehrlich

Research help: A Short Guide to Writing About Film by Timothy Corrigan

Suggested novels: The Truth by Terry Pratchett, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Dawn O'Hara, the girl who laughed by Edna Ferber, The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, mystery novels by Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiaasen etc. I'm adding more reading suggestions to "Books: The Truth with a Dragon Tattoo," a discussion page at my blog.

Resources: jHeroes.com: Newspaper Heroes on the Air -- my blog & podcast about radio portrayals of fictional and historical journalists during the golden age of broadcasting, with some discussion of book-and-movie crossovers.

Other sites that should prove useful in this class:

Weekly Notes

I'll add notes here after class whenever possible:

12/5 -- Dramatizing niche-market journalism career building, with messages about being "honest and unmerciful," if uncool, but still having a good time: Almost Famous

12/3 -- More reality: The Wire's Baltimore Sun, a newspaper fabulist, a police fabulist, and confrontations between ethics and economics in newspapers today.

11/29 -- After Wednesday's class: Network notes, trailer and clips.

11/27 -- After Monday's class: "Nothing But the Truth" as a model for "portrayal of journalist" research projects. See my full page of notes, links, the trailer for the film, and even the full-length film at YouTube.

11/12-14 -- Monday: "Journalism is so much more than blood and sex." Teacher's Pet (see related radio drama blog posts). Wednesday in-class discussion "Teacher's Pet" and "Between the Lines" (See clips here if you missed it) as a research example to discuss possible source to use in writing your final projects. If the film is relevant to your actual project, see me me about borrowing my personal copy. Reminder: Final project proposal & preliminary bibliography due before you leave for Thanksgiving.

Research sources: Proquest Historical Newspapers and Communication & Mass Communication are my two favorite databases available through the university library. Elsewhere, Worldcat.org is a handy way to search the Radford and Virginia Tech libraries at the same time. The Historical Newspapers database is the best source for contemporary film reviews going back to the 1920s; Communication & Mass Comm's more academic journals are great for more general discussions if issues and theories. But some of the newspaper film critics give their criticism serious thought. Recent finds, for example, from PHN

"All the President's Men" viewing survey. Everyone in this class should see this essential "portrayal of the journalist" film, but at 148 minutes it is longer than even our extended class period. Choices:

11/1-11/7 -- As promised, the more detailed assignment sheet for the final projects is now online at Desire2Learn, including a "Plan B" version of the assignment for students new to "academic research paper" approaches to writing. Here's a back-up copy of the final project assignment sheet. Proposal & preliminary bibliography due before you leave for Thanksgiving

10/22-29 -- Newspaper novels will be the theme for a week and a day. The "book group" discussions won't leave time to watch a full film in class, but there's a great one waiting for you online as a substitute. Find time to watch Meet John Doe at home or at the library, and check Ehrlich's index to find his discussion of it.

The Internet Archive has the full Frank Capra film available for streaming or downloading, including a very high-resolution MPEG version suitable for burning to a DVD to start your own "classic newspaper movies" collection. Meet John Doe also is one of the 1940s films available at YouTube -- and it's interesting to look at the other newspaper movies that came out around the same time.

The film script is also available through the library's e-book collection to logged-in Radford students: Meet John Doe script, including a character index.

Because the movie starts with a newspaper coming under new management, newspaper competition, reporters losing their jobs, and a columnist fabricating a story, there are plenty of points for comparison with "Deadline USA," "Park Row," "Citizen Kane" and "Shattered Glass," among other films. A written-discussion assignment will be posted on D2L as the book-report smoke clears.

10/19 -- Based on Wednesday's discussion, I've added group presentation dates to the Book Group: Novel Reports assignment-sheet page, which now has a group schedule section. If I've skipped a group or person, or if you can't make your date, let me know! Also see the original book-selection page at jheroes.com for more "context" on journalists in fiction. Reminder: Attendance will be required at all these classes; support each other, take notes, ask questions, be inspired!

10/10 -- Novels, short stories and other "not in a film" portrayal of journalists. Journalists do portray themselves -- in first-person stories, in autobiographies, journalism textbooks and websites, but for years part of the stereotype of many journalists might be described as "an apprentice writer, getting his or her first work into print as a news writer, but reserving a drawer of the desk for 'my novel' or 'my screenplay.'"

Many well-known novelists, short-story writers or Hollywood screenwriters built their careers that way, including Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, Samuel Fuller and Edna Ferber. We'll talk about them and others in class, in preparation for your "book club" meetings and presentations.

A few relevant links:

10/7 -- If you missed "Shattered Glass" in class on Monday, you will have to get it from Netflix or some other source, or see the professor about borrowing his personal copy. A discussion question will be posted on D2L. BUT first, everyone should complete the previous discussion assignment about "Deadline USA," "Park Row" and radio's historical profiles. See notes at D2L. Also read the reply-comments on everyone's posts about films you have see, and add your own if someone's note reminds you of a film, book or issue you think we should discuss in class or online.

9/26 -- Class notes, films and radio -- and check-in with your book group (scroll down for book titles and individuals reading each book)

9/17-19 -- Discuss "The Paper" on Desire2Learn. Listen to an episode of "The Big Story," radio's attempt to dramatize true-reporting adventures (usually crime stories, like this one: "Murder and a Frustrated Father."

9/10 -- Monday: Books, films, genres, archetypes, myths, themes and memes... Create categories for the books you plan to read, and form teams around individual books or categories. Read the relevant chapters of the textbook and watch His Girl Friday or/and The Front Page for Wednesday and Monday discussions.
Wednesday: We'll discuss Kane's principles (and what happens to them), compare that to Hildy, Walter and some other fictional journalists, and discuss deadlines for the novel project: Book club titles and teams, details & deadlines. (Let me know if you want to switch books or groups.)

9/7 -- If you missed Citizen Kane, copies of it and the documentary about it are both part of the Class Reserves List at the library's front desk. All films and books on the list are available for 24 hour loan, but if you can, view them at the library so that someone else can use them the same day.

9/5 -- Brainstorming about research sources: Library resource guide for this course by librarian Alyssa Archer, our guest speaker tonight.

Before next Monday, you should have read Ehrlich's book up through the Citizen Kane chapter, and stop by YouTube or the Internet Archive to watch either His Girl Friday (1940) or The Front Page (1931). My page of YouTube links is organized into subpages by date. You can download higher-resolution versions of either film by going to archive.org and searching for the titles. We will watch part of a remake of The Front Page and other short clips next Monday.

9/3 -- If you missed all or part of Citizen Kane on Monday, here are some Citizen Kane clips and related pages at YouTube.

9/2 -- I'm gradually shifting my "Other Journalism" blog to topics related to this course, as well as using it to host an aggregation of journalism films available on YouTube. My jheroes.com: Newspaper heroes on the air blog will remain mostly about radio portrayals of newspaper journalists.

8/31 -- We'll use Monday's Citizen Kane viewing to launch a Wednesday discussion of brainstorming using "research literatures" and citations to fuel your own ideas. The short Citizen Kane chapter in Matthew Ehrlich's Journalism in the Movies book is a good starting point. It sandwiches the film chronologically between a discussion of "screwball comedies" of the 1930s and "film noir" darker dramas of the 1940s and 1950s.

Ehrlich summarizes the plot and themes of the film, and cites works of criticism, biography and history to support his arguments. In just seven pages of text, note the specific sources and the types of sources he lists among his 22 notes.

Due to the popularity of the film, several versions of the screenplay, scripts and transcripts are available at libraries and online. Here's an early Citizen Kane screenplay at DailyScript.com and a just-dialogue transcript of dialogue from the final film.

For a collection of critical writings, see Orson Welles's Citizen Kane: A Casebook, edited by James Naremore (Oxford University Press, 2004), available as an e-book through Radford's library.

8/29 -- The biggest surprise from Monday's in-class survey: Only three students said they had seen All the President's Men, although five said they had heard of it and want to see it. Seven said they had seen Citizen Kane and 11 said they've heard of it and want to see it. So we will.

At least one typo on the list: I meant "Nancy Drew, Reporter," a 1939 film you can watch for free, in which high-schooler Nancy goes to work for a newspaper as a class project... but I typed "Nancy Drew, Detective," which could have meant any of several other Nancy Drew films or TV shows (Bonita Granville 1938, Emma Roberts 2007 or Maggie Lawson 2002?)... But that will let me use Mildred Wirt Benson as a transition to talking about journalism in novels.

I'm collecting links to free journalism films on YouTube, or online trailers for newer films. Let me know if you find any to add to Bob's YouTube Newspaper Movies Pages.

Contact: Dr. Stepno's home page.

Original version of this page: http://www.radford.edu/~rstepno/460/jpop/