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.”