A favorite scene from one of my favorite films happens midway through the 1996 horror flick Scream. Moments after being attacked by the serial killer Ghostface, Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell) is attacked again. This time it’s by the bright lights of a television camera crew as she’s confronted by tabloid journalist Gale Weathers (played with predatory ambition by Courteney Cox). Sidney is at her most vulnerable when Gale shoves a microphone in her face. But she delivers a right hook into Gale’s chin, sending the reporter back into the mob of journalists who have gathered for the spectacle.
In a movie filled with revenge and comeuppances, it’s a satisfying resolution. We’re all Neve Campbell in that moment. For as slashy as this film gets, the audience clearly understands that among the film’s many demons are the members of the press.
Annenberg Professor Joe Saltzman knows this trope well. As director of the Lear Center’s Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project, he has devoted nearly 30 years to finding and cataloging the portrayals of reporters in all forms of popular content – books, movies, television shows, video games, music videos, etc.
It’s a labor of love that was born from tragedy, which began when his son, David, died of cancer at the age of 22. Devastated and needing a distraction from his grief, Saltzman buried himself in library archives to create this record of depictions of journalists dating as far back as the ancient Sumerians to the present-day.
The extensive database reveals that portrayals of journalists in popular TV shows, films and the like show both the good and bad sides of the profession. The Fourth Estate can act as savior, a constraint on the powers that be, just as it can devolve into a corruptible force that subjugates the truth for ratings, sales, and, nowadays, clicks.
Why is this archival perspective of public opinion of journalism so important? As Saltzman explains in more detail in this 6-minute video, Hollywood seems to favor the latter. Muckrakers, yellow journalists and swarms of paparazzi make for better plot devices. But what disservice have these depictions done to the greater narrative behind journalism and its role in American democracy?
In this Presidential Administration, as journalists are labeled “Public Enemy” and bashed with monikers like “fake news” and “alternate facts,” Saltzman and his IJPC project are helping frame the historical context. The long legacy of this country’s distrust of the Free Press evolves as much from our entertainment as from anything else.
We can thank Joe Saltzman for his foresight.