When We Were Clark Gable

A former Times columnist dissects journalism

Russell Baker, the one-time New York Times columnist has a long multi-book review in The New York Review of Books, surveying all the many problems facing journalism today. It’s a familiar list and Baker thankfully adds nothing new to it. Let’s see, there are the market forces increasingly chipping away at the quality of newspapers, the dawn of the Internet and its army of bloggers, the stain of poor performance in the buildup to the Iraq war, etc., etc. We know this laundry list well and Baker bites off a little too much trying to touch on all of these issue, not ever really digging deeper than what we already know. But it’s his conclusion that I found the most depressing. All of these many troubles have created a “widening disconnection between public and press,” he tells us.

As he puts it, the journalist was “once a cultural hero…glamorized in the movies by Clark Gable and she by Rosalind Russell. They were salt-of-the-earth, wise-cracking, sassy, but high-principled types. So were James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffman, all of whom did cinematic newsroom duty too. To be a journalist was to be a kind of proletarian hero worthy of Hollywood star power.”

As to how journalists are seen now. Baker borrows a characterization from one of the books his piece reviews. Get ready. The “vague organism called ‘media’” now consists of “an “assemblage of self-servers, frauds, political double-dippers, gasbags, mountebanks, spoiled reporters, and unprincipled swine.”

Well, read it for yourselves. I’m not sure Baker completely agrees with this assessment. Still, the picture he paints is bleak. I can’t remember a positive portrayel of a reporter on film in the last few years. The first journalism movie from recent times that even comes to mind is this one. Oh boy, this is not a good sign.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.