Brian Williams’ reporting scandal and the recently released movie Nightcrawler have put the spotlight on the issue of unethical journalism. Although there have been many films made about the importance of good journalism — including classics such as All the President’s Men; The Insider; and Good Night, and Good Luck — there have also been a number of critically acclaimed films about the dark side of journalism. From manipulative newspaper magnates to disreputable tabloid reporters, here are five great films about journalism at its worst.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
While Orson Welles’s masterpiece is perhaps best known for its multiple filmmaking innovations, the story of the film revolves around the rise and fall of a newspaper magnate who built his media empire by using sleazy yellow journalism techniques. In the film, Charles Foster Kane uses his newspapers to do everything from manipulating the public into supporting the Spanish-American War to giving glowing reviews to operas that feature his untalented wife.
While Kane is a fictional character, it is widely believed that Welles was inspired by the life of real newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Citizen Kane has a 100% “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes and is still widely cited as one of the most important and influential films in the history of cinema.
2. Ace in the Hole aka The Big Carnival (1951)
Like Nightcrawler, this Billy Wilder-directed film features an amoral and ambitious journalist who uses unscrupulous methods to further his career. In the film, small-town newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) uses the story of a man trapped in a cave as a springboard for regaining his job at a prestigious New York City newspaper. Besides manipulating the rescue efforts in order to prolong the story and sell more newspapers, Tatum further compromises his journalistic integrity by having an affair with the trapped man’s wife. Ace in the Hole currently has an 89% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and the film’s sharp dialogue garnered it an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
3. Network (1976)
Director Sidney Lumet takes a satirical look at television news shows’ quest for ratings at any cost in this critically acclaimed dark comedy. In the film, embittered news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivers an unscripted on-air diatribe during one of his final appearances before he is due to be fired because of low ratings. However, Beale’s outburst unintentionally results in higher ratings and leads to him getting his own show, which soon becomes the most popular show on television.
Meanwhile, programming director Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) develops a new television series that will feature a radical terrorist group. After ratings for Beale’s new show begin to slip, Christensen and several other network executives come up with a murderous plan to boost the network’s ratings and get the troublesome Beale off the air once and for all. Network garnered four Academy Awards, including a Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for Finch and a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar for Dunaway. The film currently has a 91% Certified Fresh rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
4. Broadcast News (1987)
While less biting than the satirical Network, Broadcast News takes a similarly dim view of the world of television news. In the film, talented news reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is overlooked for the coveted news anchor position in favor of the handsome but dimwitted Tom Grunick (William Hurt). The animosity between the two reporters increases as both compete for the affections of Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), the network’s news division producer.
While on one level Broadcast News is a typical romantic comedy, it is also a sharp critique of television news networks’ tendencies to place more value on superficial appearances over quality journalism. Broadcast News was nominated for seven Academy Awards and the film currently has an impressive 98% “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
5. Shattered Glass (2003)
Shattered Glass is based on the true story of Stephen Glass, a former journalist for The New Republic who was discovered to have fabricated the majority of his news articles. Directed by Billy Ray, the film stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, Peter Sarsgaard as editor Charles Lane, Hank Azaria as editor Michael Kelly, and Steve Zahn as Forbes reporter Adam Penenberg. Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson are also featured as fellow reporters. Shattered Glass was well received by most critics, including The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who called it “a serious, well-observed examination of the practice of journalism.” The film currently has a 91% “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
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