She’s done it before.
But what happens next is a blur. The crowd surges and her cameraman is knocked to the ground. Bradley goes to checks on him and, as she puts a hand on a counter-protester, asking “What are you doing?” he screams in her face:
“LET GO OF ME, FAKE NEWS BITCH!”
And just like that, Bradley Jackson, unappreciated and overworked, lands her big break. Languishing in the trenches far from six-figure newsroom salaries, she seizes her magic carpet — even if she doesn’t quite recognize it yet. She seizes the protester and, for one bracing moment, she lives out a journalism fantasy. She snaps, unloads, goes full Sorkin, spewing hyper-articulate self-righteousness at the know-nothing media basher who cowers before her. She grabs the guy by his collar: Name five facts about this coal you obviously love — now! (He can’t.) Does he know how many mining jobs have been lost in the past decade alone? (He doesn’t.) “THOUSANDS! Thousands of fucking families knocked on their asses, and it’s just a big wheel that goes round. Liberals add sanctions, conservatives remove those sanctions, and they keep fighting because all they wanna do is hear themselves talk! … That’s all they fucking care about! … And it’s EXHAUSTING!”
That last part, it comes out like more of a shriek than a sentence.
By the time she returns to her station, the inevitable video clip of the incident is going viral, her boss is apoplectic, but Bradley Jackson doubles down: “I was talking to him about the truth! You remember the truth? Journalism?!? We’re newspeople!!”
How journalists are portrayed and perceived
It’s kind of riveting, and kind of silly, but Bradley is useful — particularly for understanding why these seemingly ephemeral pop depictions of reporting matter. You might read her character as passionate, informed, and fearless. Yet many Americans, according to poll after poll, don’t have a good impression of journalism. They might read her as arrogant, opportunistic.
And she doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
We’ve spent a lifetime, unwittingly, gathering a composite image of journalism from depictions of the job in movies and TV. And like Homer speaking to the Muses, we’ve heard “only rumor, and know nothing.”
In the past year alone: We’ve heard from “Irresistible,” Jon Stewart’s small-town election satire, that journalists, beyond a few talking points, are too dim to understand even the subjects they cover. We learned from “The Last Thing He Wanted,” the Joan Didion adaptation on Netflix starring Anne Hathaway, that a Washington-based investigative reporter covering U.S. involvement in Central America is just one cash-strapped parent away from becoming an arms trafficker herself. We know from “Bombshell,” the Oscar-winning story of sexual misconduct at Fox News, that journalists spend more time maneuvering their careers than they do working on stories. We saw in “Richard Jewell” that, among many indiscretions, a serious reporter would not hesitate to break into a car to get an interview with the lawyer who was avoiding her.
Mix together and stir well and you now have a portrait of journalism — dishonest, lazy, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical — that conforms to the Trump White House rhetoric.
And it matters. It matters when the pop zeitgeist gets journalism wrong — which it does consistently — because it’s from pop culture that a lot of us form impressions of what we don’t know. As a way of understanding how people view journalism, it may be the most overlooked factor, precisely because fictional journalists in pop culture are so seamlessly woven into storylines, so ubiquitous and predictably malevolent. The more that bad journalism is presented casually as an example of the way the world works, as the lamentable, pungent cost of free speech, the more insidious and inextricable from our reality that cynicism becomes.
According to Joe Saltzman, director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project at the University of Southern California, which has been studying this subject for 20 years, there is no formal data on how these portrayals influence the public. What we’re left with are truisms: For instance, if a journalist is the primary character, that depiction will be often accurate and positive. But if journalists are just passing through a narrative as secondary characters (and many are), portrayals will be negative, primarily there to derail the hero.
When pop culture mirrors reality
If that last part sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the cultural calculus of President Donald Trump, for whom the press serves as the bête noire of his narrative, existing to deliver cheap shots and erect speed bumps on the road to inevitable triumph. The standard movie or TV depiction of journalism as corrupt and unprofessional plays perfectly to his narrative, and to a nation divided into ideological teams: It’s a short walk from the hissing anonymous reporters who skulk around the hero of a thriller, to hating the real-world journalists who ask fair questions of politicians — particularly when audiences see themselves as fans of politicians, not constituents. Trump’s image of White House reporters as discourteous mobs, eager to trip up a hero just trying to do right, hews close to this thinnest of archetypes. As Saltzman said, “(Trump) may not consciously be exploiting those caricatures — but he certainly is.”
As New York Times critic James Poniewozik argues in “Audience of One,” his illuminating 2019 biography of Trump as a creature of pop culture, the president never seems “to evolve much beyond a worldview circumscribed by the TV of his childhood.” Meaning, the myth-making is predictable. It’s the kind that rarely strays from how a Saturday morning matinee should play. Tough guys and bad hombres — let’s make cinema great again! Dustups with correspondents at press briefings look lifted from legal dramas. The familiar mantra that there is vital information “the media doesn’t want you to know” sounds perfectly of a piece with conspiracy pulp. Even “The Morning Show” tagline promises “The news is only half the story.”
Not that journalists always clarify this murkiness: At a time when the profession is being questioned daily for its legitimacy, TV anchors still routinely play themselves delivering actual fake news: Christiane Amanpour in “Iron Man 2”; Wolf Blitzer in “Mission: Impossible—Fallout”; both Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow on “House of Cards.”
It gets hard to know which end is up. Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which had a blockbuster second life in 2020, nine years after its release, finally caught up to reality. Or vice versa? It featured an online conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) eager to report what the government doesn’t want you to know, a character who may remind viewers today of Trump. Against a backdrop so jaundiced, exceptions startle.
The mission of journalism
“Bad Education,” an adaptation of Robert Kolker’s 2004 New York magazine piece about embezzlement scams inside a Long Island school district, debuted on HBO during the early days of the pandemic, starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney as beloved administrators hiding a dark secret. That is, until a junior reporter (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) for a high-school newspaper is sent to interview Jackman about the proposed skywalk in her school.
It’s just an assignment, she mumbles, but Jackman — unknowingly signing his own death warrant — encourages her to get ambitious, to recognize great stories can exist in the most mundane spaces. She takes it to heart: She grows impatient with canned responses; she asks the same questions again and again; she pores over spreadsheets, then identifies inconsistencies. As her story comes together, she even plays up her inexperience. She is underestimated, and like a good reporter, she uses this. Her reporting gathers steam. She’s a threat to powerful people, yet remains unintimidated.
She grows into a model journalist, and more remarkably for a film, we see her doing actual journalism. “Bad Education” begins as a study of institutional self-delusion, only to downshift into a reminder of the simple need to hold power accountable.
It’s not the only film to feature a reporter as the hero. Think “Spotlight,” or “The Post,” or “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Think high-toned and liberal, the sort of movie that wins awards from cultural leaders who believe in the mission of journalism — which reads to those who don’t as elitism.
In the Canadian journalism thriller “Run This Town,” which premiered in early 2019, a young press flack for the soon-to-be-disgraced Toronto Mayor Rob Ford explains a set of political contortions not so unlike the way the White House plays journalists: Ford simply depicts himself as the champion of the everyday schlub, so whenever the local media challenge him, “you blacklist the paper, and that becomes their story — ‘Assault on us! Free speech!’ But their free speech comes across as speechifying about their own personal losses, not the people’s. So people don’t care.” And in the film, what does journalism have to wield against such systemic cynicism? A rookie (Ben Platt) so meek he quickly agrees not to use a subject’s name “if you don’t want” and paces around City Hall nervously fishing for sources.
It’s a curious choice of a leading man. Particularly when many of the details in the film mirror the investigation of Robyn Dolittle, the experienced Toronto Star reporter who, with Kevin Donovan, reported that Rob Ford was captured on video smoking crack. To repeat: An aggressive female reporter was replaced with a shy male one.
A love-hate relationship with the press
Of course, there’s a paradox here: At a time when the public is telling pollsters they believe journalists are untrustworthy, when many don’t subscribe to a newspaper to understand the world, the number of major TV shows and movies that feature reporters seems to grow. In fact, what the public understands and thinks about journalism sounds a lot like the contradictory ways that journalism comes across in movies and TV. A 2018 poll from the American Press Institute found 50 percent of people think fabricated stories are a daily occurrence in newsrooms. Yet, that same study said 76 percent of Americans believe journalists sincerely want to solve problems.
A survey conducted by Pew in the early days of the pandemic found a generally positive view of how the press operates — yet 56 percent in the same survey said the press has low or very low ethical standards. You could write several journalism movies just from the inconsistent consistency. That echoes the way Trump requires journalists to play hopelessly corrupted adversaries to his everyday truth-teller.
More typically, reporters on screen have the same problem that cops on screen have. They confuse means with ends. It’s so much more watchable to steamroll your way to a solution when it’s in the public service. Earlier this year, a study of scripted crime shows conducted by the Norman Lear Center at USC found most TV cops violated laws and people’s rights without consequence. Not exactly shocking. And yet more tellingly, those actions were rarely shown as wrong, but rather, the cost of doing right. Which is almost exactly how many journalists on screen have operated since the creation of cinema. At best, that depiction meant “a flawed hero fighting everyone and anything to get the facts out to the public,” Saltzman said.
Bradley Jackson, on “The Morning Show,” the day after assaulting a protester, the day after shouting the truth into his face and becoming a viral hero, hops on a plane and heads to New York to talk with producers. By the middle of the first season, she’s a cohost of the titular network morning show. She didn’t scream at that guy out of anything but anger and experience. She needed to clarify the record and she was tired of journalists being scapegoats, and it read a lot like “journalistic integrity” to the people who want to make her a star. Which is really what she wants anyway, right? To be the star of her story. Of course, the means justify the ends.
Christopher Borelli is a features writer and arts critic for the Chicago Tribune.