God help you if you’re a reporter in a TV show or movie these days. In previous fictional depictions, you might not have always been an earnest seeker of truth, but you were at least an honest, hardworking schmoe, full of vim and moxie and that sort of thing, pursuing the story doggedly but maintaining a basic decency. Nowadays, you’re Richard Thornburg in the first couple Die Hard movies, blowing Bruce Willis’ cover by broadcasting a tearjerking appeal from his kids — for nothing more noble than ratings. (By the second movie, the audience will cheer when you are tazed in an airplane lavatory.) “I got the story,” the triumphant discovery of a whole truth devolving, has become “Tell me you got that,” the cry of vultures picking off the most vulnerable bits while earnest public servants like cops and doctors try to help. Whether you’re a tabloid reporter interfering with a police investigation, a cable news network knowingly running propaganda, a foreign correspondent sleeping with your source, a paparazzo lurking in the bushes, or — if you’ve really drawn the short straw — a blogger, you’re a vile creature without scruples or restraint, interested in nothing beyond your own immediate self-interest. Unless you’re the main character, of course.
The latest instance is on NBC’s otherwise excellent Hannibal. Lara Jean Chorostecki plays Freddy Lounds, whose official NBC bio describes her as “a trashy tabloid blogger and aspiring journalist” (ouch) “who will stop at nothing to get her story.” Despite this being a show about serial killers, Freddie is by far the most loathsome character. She’s already responsible for the deaths of at least two people and may be working for the titular psychiatrist. Unlike the killers, though, she doesn’t even get to be evil in a stylish way, and while you could see someone wanting to emulate the dude who grows mushrooms on his still-living victims, Freddie’s far too icky for that.
My case against the one-dimensional reporter doesn’t hinge on an appeal to our democratic values so much as my own happiness as an audience member. The evil journalist is a bad character because it’s a flat character. We find redeeming qualities in mob bosses, serial killers, and corrupt politicians, but reporters only seem to crop up as impediments to the heroic journey. A journalist can find redemption, but only by returning to the core values of his profession. Meanwhile, thugs are free to keep killing without risking censure from their creators. I understand that narratives only move forward when characters make mistakes, but why does it always have to be the reporter doing the wrong thing? If your screenplay’s journalist functions little differently from the reporters in King Kong, dooming the public to an avoidable destruction by thoughtlessly antagonizing the beast, then you haven’t created a character, you’ve installed a flashbulb.
This continued depiction has, I think, some real-world consequences. Salon’s Andrew Leonard pointed out that, during the Boston crisis last week, a lot of people on Twitter referred to journalistic snafus by referencing Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom — despite the fact that the show has been panned and mocked to a fare-thee-well. Though we may not like the show, its wide visibility and availability as a shared reference has made it the focal point through which we see of the press’ difficulty in balancing speed and accuracy, even though that subject is hardly new. I think Leonard is right, but I’d make one annotation: the people on Twitter making this comparison were, I think, mostly journalists. Media people are thinking of themselves and their profession through these fictional depictions. And they’re almost entirely negative. (No one referenced Mikael Blomkvist last week much.)
As dangerous as it is for a group of people to think the thing they’re doing is 100% fine, it’s equally dangerous for them to think the thing they’re doing is 100% bad. This is especially dangerous when the people in question think the thing they’re doing used to be 100% good, as journalists do. Journalism today proceeds with constant reference to some lost golden age, one which current work can never live up to. As a result, new places for journalism think they’re operating in a totally new environment. (If no one can be Woodward and Bernstein anymore, we might as well try to be effective Dick Thornburgs.) For instance:
But now we should assume our readers and viewers see virtually everything that we see. We can no longer decide which rumors and scraps of information should be dignified with publication — a sufficiently compelling scrap of information, be it a picture of a man with a black backpack or an anonymous, single-sentence Reddit post from the scene of the crime, will become news on that merit alone.
The news audience, especially online, is thought to be a totally new thing: they know more than reporters do, and they do not respect the prestige of news organizations. If you believed the public sees online journalists as trashy tabloid bloggers, then that’s justified. But everything we know about how information flows online indicates that the presence of information on a trusted site, like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post or even Gawker, will give it far more oomph than a random tweet would have on its own. Maybe the biggest problem with the internet is that it provides the illusion of perfect knowledge: with so much information at our fingertips, it’s easy to think that it’s all the information. But it’s not. The 0.5% of readers who are most visible to journalists — the heavy Twitter users, the commenters, the media critics — are hugely unrepresentative of the news audience at large. The rest of ’em don’t see journalists as evil creeps, or at least not always evil creeps. Most readers are more or less like readers have always been: light and irregular consumers of news, interested in definitive stories, and wary of reporters, sure, but far more interested in getting the information from us than going out and collecting it on their own.