Between Black Humor and Yellow Journalism
The old Walter Matthau flick The Front Page seems eerily prophetic of modern journalism.
The top three regretted college majors are journalism (87 percent), sociology (72 percent), and liberal arts and general studies (72 percent), according to the ZipRecruiter survey. Who could be surprised?
When I think of the tabloids, Walter Matthau in The Front Page always comes to mind. Seen through today's eyes, he looks like the stereotypical journalist of another time, from the old guard: unscrupulous, capable of selling his mother in pieces for a front-page scoop. But the truth is that Matthau's Walter Burns could pass today for a sincere and honest journalist next to the generation of clickbait-mongers occupying today's newsrooms.
In the 1974 film, Jack Lemmon plays the Chicago Examiner's most brilliant reporter, Hildy, who has just decided to leave journalism to marry the beautiful Peggy Grant, played by Susan Sarandon. Burns, the paper's editor, will do everything in his power to stop him from both leaving and getting married. A morbid story for the Chicago Examiner, the possibility of getting the scoop on the imminent execution of a condemned death row inmate, crosses the plot. Burns does not intend to lose out on a good dose of blood for his readers just because Hildy has decided to abandon rock-and-roll journalism and become a normal guy.
"Every damn paper is gonna have the same damn story on that execution,” says Burns. “But we're going to scoop them all. Because you know what goes in there? A picture of Williams swinging by the neck".
Hildy raises problems: "What are you talkin' about? That's against the law. You can't bring a camera in there."
But Walter has it all figured out: "Who's gonna know? Here, I had this specially rigged up. You clip it to your ankle, you run the tube up your pants leg. Make a hole in your pocket. The minute Williams drops through that trap door you lift your pants leg and squeeze the bulb. Clever? At 7:00, the guy kicks off, at 7:03 you're out of the jail yard, there's an ambulance waiting for you with a darkroom and a typewriter inside. You take off with the sirens going. While you're batting out the story, they're developing the negative. At 7:22, the picture gets to the engraver, and we start setting up your copy. At 7:56, we re-plate the front page. At 8:12, the presses start rolling and at 8:47, you're out in the street with an extra. How's that?”
"Walter,” replies Hildy, “you'll either get the Pulitzer Prize or a year in the clink."
Like The Front Page and its scheming lead, the postmodern general press oscillates between yellow journalism and black humor. It is not always easy to tell the difference. When the Washington Post finally admits that the United States is in recession, it does so only to say that "it could be good for you financially." Having lung cancer is good, too, if only because it will stop you from smoking.
The other way in which journalism has been devalued is even more similar to what happened in The Front Page. Clickbait is the natural evolution of yellow journalism at the end of the century, when readers became customers, merchandise, cattle. To reach this point, it was necessary to scuttle the profession’s ethical values, a process later accelerated by the industry’s economic crisis.
Even some of the most bizarre tactics in The Front Page were copied in real newspapers. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo famously managed to get a photograph of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez testifying in the Supreme Court in 1998 for the GAL state terrorism scandal. Photojournalists were not allowed at the deposition, but the El Mundo journalist used a remote shutter release in his pocket to activate a camera installed in the leg of his pants.
That, as far as it goes, at least had real informative value. Today a young journalist is not even required to have a good story, or for it to be true, or to know how to write, or to have the slightest idea of the subject she is talking about, just for her story to get clicks. It may be frustrating for the journalism student, but what is certain is that it is more frustrating for the reader, and for the health of the country.
In recent decades, instances of manipulation and outright lying in the media have been adding up: the fake 8-year-old boy addicted to heroin in the Washington Post in 1980; the fake missile from the British nuclear submarine in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War, by Sky News (whose reporters never got anywhere near the war, but recorded the scenes with the ship moored in port); the hacking of celebrities by News Of The World; or more recently, the news and social media blackout about Hunter Biden's computer in the middle of the 2020 election.
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For the rest of it, a large part of generalist journalism consists in telling readers they are idiots. I'm sure you've seen those headlines like "The reason you've been opening the wrong box of cookies all your life" (thanks, I'll keep doing it), "Your diet isn't working? You may still be making this mistake" (eating?), or my favorite, which I read just yesterday: "The mistake we make with toast for breakfast in Spain that increases your risk of cancer" (smoking it?).
And, of course, I could fill ten pages with headlines on global warming; no doubt environmental hysteria is behind much of the press’s loss of credibility. It combines the two great tragedies of the journalism we are addressing here: ideological capture and apocalyptic clickbait. Recently seen in the press: "birds are getting smaller because of global warming" (beware when stepping on mosquitoes, you could end up murdering a hummingbird!); "climate change will destroy 460 glaciers worldwide by 2050" (I love such precision from futurologists: exactly 460, not one more nor one less); and my favorite: "global warming will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050" (journalist amends the Gospel of St. Matthew: "But of that day and hour no one knows".)
Indeed, the profession of journalism has been devalued to unexpected extremes. I suppose we have all, in some way, contributed to this. It cannot be said, however, that we weren’t warned—by Walter Burns, no less: "Marry an undertaker, marry a blackjack dealer, marry a pickpocket, but never marry a newspaperman."