Position on Poynter list: #4
Watched it with: Dr. Kevin Grieves, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth University
Broadcast News premiered in 1987, telling the story of network news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), network news reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) and newly hired anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt). The central plot focuses on the love triangle among them – Aaron quietly loves Jane, whose eye has been caught by Tom, the new anchor at their network’s Washington bureau. It’s a familiar love story that resolves in a satisfying rather than storybook way (no spoilers here).
While hearts are waking and breaking, the network news must be gathered, written, reported and produced. Tom represents a new direction for broadcast news – the anchor who, as he explains, isn’t reading the news, but narrating it. The film begins with Jane warning her peers at a conference talk that television news is drifting too closely to entertainment, and Tom neatly represents that fear in a very sharp three-piece suit.
I watched this movie with my friend and Whitworth colleague, Dr. Kevin Grieves. Kevin came to academia after a career in broadcast news, including several years at CNN. After we laughed a bit about how very 1980s this movie was – the hair! the clothes! the shoulder pads! – we jumped in.
E: Not too long into the movie, you chuckled and said, “This takes me back.” Tell me more about that.
K: This was the era in which I was in college studying broadcast journalism and embarking on my career in TV news. The equipment of the time, the frenetic atmosphere in the control room and the last-minute scramble to finish editing the news package… those all brought back memories. I love the scene in which the character played by an extremely young Joan Cusack runs through the bureau with the completed tape and gets it to playback just before it goes on air.
There’s a classic saying comparing TV news to sausage: the final product is good, but you never want to see how it’s made. On screen, it should look polished, and that leads to the style over substance tension that’s a key theme in the movie, especially embodied by Tom. He’s portrayed as being very focused on his appearance and lacking in journalistic chops. In the past I’ve thought the character was a bit one-dimensional, but watching it this time, I think I’ve revised my view a bit. For example, at one point, Tom gives Aaron advice on a good on-camera presence, and he says something along the lines of “you’ve got to sell what you’re saying to the audience.” Maybe he has a point there… Your thoughts on that?
E: Part of me wants to be mad about Tom’s idea of “selling” the news and part of me has to agree. If you can’t make people care about what you’re saying, then no one will pay attention no matter how important it is. Tom starts the movie by telling Jane he doesn’t “like the feeling that I’m pretending to be a reporter,” but it seems like he has more understanding of what it means to deliver the news than he lets on.
But Tom has another key line – one that you and I both zeroed in on. Jane calls him out on a significant breach of ethics, telling him he crossed the line. Tom responds, “It’s hard not to cross it. They just keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?” Is he justifying his actions or lamenting the lack of ethical consistency in the field? Or those real or crocodile tears?
K: That was a really interesting line to me. Jane is presented as the ethical “traditionalist.” There’s a scene where she and Aaron are reporting from Central America where she insists that nothing should ever be staged for the camera, and that matches the guidelines in the professional codes of ethics for broadcast journalism and for photojournalism. Tom seems to reflect a journalism that’s more corporate and more focused on providing the audience what it wants. The 1980s were a time of a lot of change for broadcast journalism, with new technology and corporate consolidation. And of course it faces even greater changes today. That raises a larger question: should ethical values and practices be rethought as the media environment develops?
E: That’s a great question – and one that raises a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario in my head (side note: Wag the Dog is another amazing media movie). Do we change the rules because we see media changing and need to get ethics ahead of it, or because the field has changed and we can’t/won’t/don’t want to adhere to the previous standards? Would we feel better about what Tom did if he and Jane had their argument about “the line” first?
One last thing I want to pick your brain on – Tom openly admits he didn’t go to college and that he doesn’t have the same knowledge or professional background as either Jane or Aaron. Yet, he succeeds – even when the network itself is struggling. What’s the takeaway for the aspiring journalist in the late 80s when he or she sees this movie?
K: I think that depends a bit on what your definition of success in journalism is. Tom expresses at several points in the movie that he can’t believe how well his career is going, suggesting maybe a strong dose of luck in it. He also seems pretty adept at schmoozing with the right people to further his career. And he relies on colleagues like Jane being willing to help him with the professional skills, which seems to go okay until Jane realizes how much he’s manipulating her. So on one level, you could say the message is that if you’re telegenic enough and know how to network with the right people (including romantically), that’s what boosts your career. Tom would seem to be burning bridges on the way up, but what makes the movie interesting is that he doesn’t necessarily get the comeuppance one might expect. Both Jane and Aaron stay connected with him in the end. And Jane, who is portrayed as generally very empathetic towards her colleagues, isn’t afraid to throw her romantic rival under the bus at one point. I suspect it’s as much a commentary on corporate workplace culture of the 80s as it is journalism and television news. It’s an interesting study on how people treat one another in such a work setting. While college isn’t necessarily the only way to acquire the needed professional skills, it’s hopefully an environment that fosters reflecting deeply about what kind of journalist – and what kind of person – one wants to be later in life.
E: Well said, sir. And it seems fitting that we close this with our own theme song…
At the end of 2022, the Poynter Institute crowdsourced a list of the top 25 journalism movies. I’m watching them with students, colleagues and friends, so we can talk about why they’re important and what they tell us about journalism.