The paper trail

All the news that fits the screen … Bill Nighy in State of Play. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men.
Nanjing Night Net

Gene Evans and Mary Welch in Park Row.

I arrived in the newsroom of this newspaper fresh from school in January, 1976. I was 18 and impressed with everything I saw. This was a newspaper, even if 235 Jones Street, Broadway, looked like Stalin’s other headquarters.

Later that year I saw All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece about Watergate, and I was dumbstruck. The Washington Post newsroom was so modern and white, so big, and ours was so brown and grimy. ”What a dump,” I thought, looking around the fifth floor at fort Fairfax. Such is the power of movies, to make you feel as though you’re not living the right life.

I watch that movie maybe once a year. Now that newspapers are under siege, I may have to step it up to twice, to remind myself that the profession of journalism is still big, even if the newspapers got small.

All the President’s Men is my favourite newspaper film, for its seriousness, the way it shows how a story is constructed, the things you hate yourself for doing (like when Dustin Hoffman has to coax the frightened White House staffer into talking), the terrible price of making a mistake and the inspiration that comes from a great editor, like Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee (”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 f— up again, I’m going to get mad.”)

Robards also played a tough proprietor in Ron Howard’s underrated 1994 comedy about a New York tabloid, The Paper. He tore a strip off Glenn Close for going over Robert Duvall’s bald head to ask for more money.

Close has a deadly battle with Michael Keaton, as metro editor. They end up in a fist fight over an interesting issue. He wants to stop the presses and remake the lead story because he has confirmed it’s wrong. She says it will cost too much: ”The story was right when we printed it.”

That nails one of the big conundrums of newspapers: they are finite, not continuous. Each issue is a weapon, an artefact, and once it’s on the street, you can’t just bring it back, like on radio or TV or the internet. A quicker mechanism has arrived.

I am confining myself to newspaper films, not the best media films. That excludes Good Night, and Good Luck, Broadcast News and great films about reporters in the field, such as The Killing Fields. I want ink, paper, the sound of typewriters and the rumble of the presses.

That’s another thing I loved about The Paper: they touch the air vents to find out when the presses are running. The very building quakes, as it did at Broadway in the days of hot metal.

If those words are a mystery, go to YouTube and type in Park Row. You will get part of Samuel Fuller’s classic 1952 film about the newspaper business in the 1880s in New York, when newspaper type was set by hand, letter by letter.

One of the characters invents the linotype machine, changing the business forever. Park Row is the story of Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans), a hard-drinking reporter who sets up his own paper to defeat the ruthless woman for whom he once worked, Charity Hackett (Mary Welch).

Their circulation war is an actual war, with bombs and henchmen. At one point, Mitchell tells another drinker: ”Mr Spiro, escort the wench back to her slaughterhouse before I throw her outta here right on her front page.”

Samuel Fuller was an ex-journo and Hollywood has always been a second home for them. After all, newspapers and movies are in the same business, that of retailing stories, although the pay is better at the fictional end.

Ben Hecht wrote for the Chicago Daily News. Charles MacArthur worked for the Chicago Tribune, then the Daily News. Together, they invented the modern newspaper movie, albeit as a play, The Front Page, in 1928. It is still the most accurate portrayal of the cynicism and scepticism of the profession and a defence of its greatest purpose: holding power to account.

The first of four films based on the play appeared in 1931 but my favourite is the 1940 version, His Girl Friday, in which Hildy Johnson is a woman – and what a woman. Rosalind Russell is a gal any scribe would fall for – smart, funny, gorgeous and as hard-nosed as any of the boys in the press room at City Hall, where most of the action takes place, waiting for a hanging.

Cary Grant plays her editor (and ex-husband), Walter Burns, devastatingly handsome and dapper, as well as devious, cheap and utterly fearless. I’ve known editors and reporters like both of them, just not to the same degree.

”A journalist?” Hildy cries, when Walter says she’ll always be one. ”And what does that mean? Peeking though 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 dandy buttinskys running around without a nickel in their pockets.”

She got the last bit right. Last year, there were said to be 10,000 journalists out of work in the US. A lot of bad novels are going to be written.

I can’t list all the great newspaper films. Who could exclude Kirk Douglas keeping a man trapped in an old mine for six days to prolong his story in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, or Humphrey Bogart denouncing the way papers had moved away from news in Deadline – USA.

”It’s not enough to give ’em just news, they want comics, contests, puzzles. They want to know how to bake a cake, win friends and influence the future, ergo, horoscopes, tips on the horses, interpretation of dreams, so they can win on the numbers lotteries. And, if they accidentally stumble on the first page, news,” he says.

That was in 1952. How prescient. And there is Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) sending a message to his man in Havana: ”You provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war.”

What of the profession today, rather than the romance of before? That’s easy. The best drama about a modern newspaper is the English television series State of Play, in which Bill Nighy plays the editor to John Simm’s investigative reporter. There are more dirty tricks in this than any newspaper film I’ve seen.

It’s like a road map of the horrors of modern British journalism: phone-tapping, room-bugging, threatening and kidnapping sources, withholding evidence, more lies than the News of the World had readers. And these are done by the good guys; the people they go after are murderers. Thank heavens it’s just fiction.


This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.