Absence of Malice (1981)

When bad journalism kills

When I was a student in journalism school, in the beginning of my first semester, one of the professors of the required Ethics course assigned the 1981 Sydney Pollack film Absence of Malice. I was probably one of many incoming students who had cited All the President’s Men in my application essay, having been appropriately infected by its romantic portrayal of journalism, but I hadn’t heard of this one. The main character of Absence of Malice, Megan Carter, was nothing like Woodstein, as it turned out. I watched it, and it scared the crap out of me. Which was probably the point.

As the film starts out, Carter (played by Sally Field), on staff at a daily called the Miami Standard, seems to be just the kind of bad-ass beat reporter we love to see at work. She’s on a first-name basis with the secretary at the Department of Justice, she smokes at her typewriter by day and goes drinking with the guys by night (at a bar called The Pen and Pencil), she looks great in those tasteful long-belted skirts and blazers, and she really knows her way around the microfilm machine.

Unfortunately for her, though, she’s actually a terrible reporter. She’s got one half of the job down: the fearless persistence it sometimes takes to get the story and to get it on time. But she’s irresponsible with sensitive information, and fails to consider the motivations of her anonymous sources. And in the pursuit of the story, she forgets she’s talking to actual people, people who will have to live with the effects of what she writes about them. She also sleeps with the subject of her biggest story, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The trouble begins when someone on an FBI strike force decides to use her as a pawn in the investigation of the disappearance and possible murder of a union president. The team doesn’t have any evidence in the case at all, and it’s been going on for months, so they’re afraid they are starting to “look like dopes.” One of them leaks the news to Carter that Michael Gallagher, a liquor importer who has familial ties to the mafia, is under investigation for the crime, just to put pressure on Gallagher and see if he’ll cooperate and point the finger at someone else.

Carter starts out writing her story cautiously, but her editor keeps sexing up the language (“You want anybody to read this thing?”). She wonders aloud why her source leaked the story to her in the first place. The unscrupulous editor shrugs:

Maybe he’s trying to be a nice guy. Maybe he wants us to owe him a favor. Maybe he likes your legs. If we try to figure out why people leak stories, we’ll publish monthly.

It gets worse. The paper’s attorney suggests Carter contact Gallagher for a response, which Carter halfheartedly attempts, once and without success (even though she can’t see why Gallagher would have a problem with the story, since she’s sure it’s the truth). The attorney intones, sounding bored:

I’m telling you, madam, that as a matter of law, the truth of your story is irrelevant. We have no knowledge that the story is false, therefore we’re absent malice, we’ve been both reasonable and prudent, therefore we’re not negligent. We may say whatever we like to say about Mr. Gallagher, and he is powerless to do us harm. Democracy is served.

When the story comes out the next day, it’s on the front page, with the headline GALLAGHER KEY SUSPECT IN DIAZ DISAPPEARANCE. The repercussions for Gallagher are immediate: readers assume he’s guilty, and his workers strike, effectively shutting down his business.

Carter’s characteristic swagger stops abruptly when Gallagher—played by a very stern and ice-cold-blue-eyed Paul Newman—walks into the newsroom and up to her desk, demanding to know the name of her “knowledgeable sources” in the Justice Department. Cue the spilled coffee and the stuttering. Of course, this being a movie, one thing leads to another, and Carter and Gallagher quickly become involved—albeit in a weird, mutually suspicious way.

As Gallagher tries to coax the information he wants out of Carter, he throws out a lot of the film’s best zingers against her, and against journalism in general. “You don’t write the truth, you write what people say!” he says to her. She looks at him like that’s the first time she’s thought of it that way. In another exchange, Carter promises him she’ll write a story if he gets cleared of the investigation.

Gallagher: What page? See, you say somebody’s guilty, everybody believes you. You say he’s innocent, nobody cares.

Carter: That’s not the paper’s fault—it’s people! People believe whatever they want to believe.

Gallagher: Who puts the paper out? Nobody?

Carter is a tough lady, but she seems to have lost her sense of humanity—a fact of which Gallagher reminds her throughout. She holds the innate conviction that journalism is important, without understanding how incredibly harmful it can be, if done badly. The film underscores this point with the entrance of Gallagher’s best friend. The continuously distraught Teresa Perrone is collateral damage personified.

Perrone, played with great fragility by Melinda Dillon, reaches out to Carter to explain why Gallagher couldn’t have been involved in the crime, but she doesn’t want to tell Carter the details. In desperation, she eventually explains that Gallagher had accompanied her on a trip to Atlanta that weekend for an abortion—over which, as a Catholic, she is still distraught and ashamed. She is sure that everyone around her would condemn her if they knew, and she would certainly lose her job at a Catholic prep school.

Carter is a very bad listener. She pulls out her notebook and starts scribbling away, to Perrone’s horror. “Are you crazy?” Perrone begs. “Don’t write this!” But Carter tries to assure her that people will understand; it’s 1981, after all. “You’re a friend of Michael Gallagher, he’s in trouble. You told the truth about something that will help him. No one’s going to hate you for that, really,” Carter says, completely missing the point. She casually asks if there are any ticket stubs or other proof of the trip, while Perrone wanders away, in shock.

Sadly, Perrone seems to have confused the Miami Standard with a courtroom, and its journalists with a judge and jury. They are not the same; they have different methods and different motivations. They certainly don’t offer the same protections. The newspaper is the place where Perrone comes to make her case, though, because it’s the only place where Gallagher has actually been accused of anything.

The fact that the forum is necessarily a public one is what brings about the next tragic turn, because she’s not the only one to fail to make the distinction between the law and the press. Back at the office, Carter wonders whether the reason for Gallagher’s trip to Atlanta is relevant for her story; her editor pushes her to include it. “She’s the alibi witness for a key suspect in a major crime. People have a right to know the alibi,” he says. Well, he’s wrong about every part of that. He’s so wrong that Perrone commits suicide the day the story comes out in print.

The film could have ended right there after the first hour, could have stood alone as a pit-of-your-stomach cautionary tale, right along with The Journalist and the Murderer (which I was also assigned during my first semester at school, come to think of it—rounding out the first half of Columbia’s humble/inspire combination punch). But it doesn’t end there. The rest of the plot rolls along, following Gallagher’s calculated revenge on the D.A.’s office for their deception and his increasingly complicated relationship with Carter as he grieves his friend’s death. He plays all sides against one another—even Carter—and all of the characters pretty much end up getting what they deserve. In the last scene, Carter tries to defend the value of her profession to Gallagher, even while admitting that she “just did it badly.”

For me, though, that second hour was anticlimactic. The scene that made the biggest impression was the heartbreakingly quiet one in the midst of the action. Perrone, having waited up all night on the front stoop of the house she shares with her father, picks up the morning paper as soon as it hits her lawn. She reads Carter’s story on the front page, her face pale. Then she slowly runs down her block, barefoot and dazed, trying to pick up all of her neighbor’s copies of the paper before anyone else can read it. But it’s no use: once the news is out, it can’t be put back in.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , , , ,