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?