Mark Danner

Hacks of the Silver Screen

Hacks of the Silver Screen

Reporters on Film, Reporters in History

Spring 2022//Monday 6 -10//North Gate Library

Mark Danner

If you think back to when you first discovered what a journalist looks and acts like, chances are you learned it at the movies. From Lois Lane to Clark Kent, from Dith Pran to Sydney Schanberg, reporters have been staple characters of the silver screen. The rich history of journalists on film offers a history of journalism and its evolution from a working class, “gumshoe” job hardly more elevated than that of cop or con man to the smooth professionalism of today’s elite “mainstream media.” In this class, we will sample books, sift through articles but, above all, watch films, tracing the history of reporters on the silver screen and through them the history of journalism. We’ll be reading a bit of criticism and we’ll be watching a lot of compelling films, from His Girl Friday to All the President’s Men, from Citizen Kane to from Sweet Smell of Success to Ace in the Hole, from Absence of Malice to The Killing Fields to Network to The Parallax View to A Private War to Talk to Me to I’m Not Your Negro to Spotlight – to some others besides. The list will evolve but the fact won’t: This is a class to gather and watch and discuss great films.

Course Lectures

Class Requirements This class will be a mixture of film screenings, lecture, discussion and some writing. The most important requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Keep up with reading assignments

*Participate in discussions

*Complete one five to eight page final paper

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the quality of his or her writing, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade. Good attendance is paramount. Students who miss multiple class sessions will not receive a passing grade in this course.

Schedule Note that all classes will meet Mondays at 6 pm in the Logan Media Center – North Gate Library.

Note You will see we have screenings listed for Monday, February 21, President’s Day, and for May 16, the week following the end of classes. Both of these films will likely be rescheduled for another day that is agreeable to all.

Reading The reading in this course will consist primarily of short pieces of criticism and opinion distributed by the professor via email and bCourses. These will appear on the bCourses syllabus the week before the film is screened.

I have also listed below several books about journalism and film. They are not required but we will draw on them during the semester and I do encourage you to consult them from time to time.

Writing A final analytic paper of five to eight pages is required. The paper should analyze one or more of the films we will watch or follow a more thematic argument about journalism as depicted in film. We will discuss the paper further in class. The paper is due on May 9.

To bolster the clarity and vigor of your prose, I strongly suggest studying two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which can be readily found on the web, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.

Office Hours I will want to meet individually with each of you at least once during the semester. I will be holding office hours Friday mornings, initially – at least – via Zoom. You will find a sign-up sheet and Zoom address on bCourses. We will begin to schedule the meetings a few weeks into the semester. You are welcome to talk to me about the class, the reading or anything else of interest. Meeting ID: 950 2931 1493

Note that my writing, speaking and other courses can be found on my website,

Grading Students will be graded on their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work, roughly as follows.

Attendance        40 percent

Participation      35 percent

Writing                25 percent

Suggested Secondary Texts

James Agee, Film Writing and Selected Journalism (Library of America, 2005)

Matthew C. Ehrlich, Journalism in the Movies (Illinois, 2006)

Matthew C. Ehrlich, Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (Illinois, 2015)

Brian McNair, Journalists in Film: Heroes and Villains (Edinburgh, 2009)



January 31, 2022 – Introduction to Course. Journalism and film: the shape of history. What we mean by film. Feature films in America. Journalism and class. How to Succeed in this Course. Fixers and their Reporters. The Color/Nationalism Divide

Watch: Roland Joffre, The Killing Fields (1984)

Introduction Video:

Rec Watch: Rithy Panh, S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003)


The Killing Fields Notes:

– Think of 3 dates when watching a film 

– the day of the events in the film

-the day the film was released (1984)

-the day currently watched, our vantage point.

The Killing Fields takes place during the Vietnam War

-1984 during the retribution protests and Reagan era

-Watched January 31st, 2022


 Hero versus Scoundrel Dilemna 

– The Killing Fields combines the two

-redemption (John Lennon “Imagine”) and guilt

– What moral obligations did Syd Schanberg have to Dith Prawn?

– What obligations did Syd Schanberg have to bring the suffering of the Cambodian people to the front page?

 “A love story set against the Cambodian genocide”

Who are fixers?

– tend to be indigenous

– usually paid a day rate

– often the lifeline for journalists or in The Killing Fields case, a journalist themselves.


February 7 – Watch: Alan J. Pakula, All the President’s Men (1976)

Read: Edward Jay Epstein, “Did the Press Uncover Watergate?”

Commentary July 1974

Read: “The Watergate Story,” (Four Parts), The Washington Post (Links to an external site.)


All the President’s Men Class Notes:

Introduction Audio:

Class Discussion Audio: 


-Event: June 17, 1972 (Should also include the events of the Vietnam war)

-Made: April 1976

-Watched: February 7, 2022

Destroyed Trust in the American Government

-single largest event that changed the trust of government

-having the taping system unveiled on live tv was monumental

-The Journalist is the Hero

-takes down a corrupt government

-saves the country

– B.W & A.W (before and after Watergate)

-The era of supreme achievement is to show public figures in wrongdoings

-the myth revived, strengthened, and living through

-went from shoe-leather journalism to an elite one

-simulacrum to a great profession

-Superficial to Misleading -Epstein 

-investigations were also done by FBI, Grand Jury, Congress

-Identity of ‘Deepthroat’ and association with FBI

-off-the-record quotes often mean they are using you. How or when does this conflict with the ethical duty of a journalist?


February 14-   Watch: Howard Hawks, His Girl Friday (1940)

Introduction Audio:

Discussion Audio:


3 Dates-

Period depicting: 1920’s

Date made: 1940

Date watched: 2-14-22


-Golden age of Hollywood

-Hays Code Era, censorship

-Remake of The Front Page

-Brutal newspaper circulation wars in Chicago

-fastest dialogue in cinema history

Genre: Screwball Comedy

-early 30s and 40s

-a sort of mating dance between man and woman

-woman is often dominate and man’s masculinity is in question

-“comedy of remarriage” Stanley Cavell

-provides extra layer of romantic tension

-alludes that the couple has already slept together

Journalist as Scoundrel 

-Existential heroes, outlaws, people who created and were not bound by fact

-cynical view of square life

-expressive culture of journalism

-newspapers as a lurid, creative act

-degraded the profession of journalism to the minds of millions -NYT

-the idea of a career as journalist was uncertain


TUESDAY February 22 

– Watch: Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)


Read: James Baldwin et al, “The Negro in American Culture,” CrossCurrents (Summer, 1961)

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (Links to an external site.)

James Baldwin, “Letter to My Nephew” (Links to an external site.)

Watch: (Links to an external site.)





Depicted-1960’s civil rights movement & the aftermath

Made– 2016 before #MeToo the rise of BLM and extreme interest in race relations

Watched- 2/22/22 post-George Floyd


-more interested in Baldwin’s relationship with cinema

-Baldwin wrote about women as cinema objects

2 short sites with the film:

1. queerness

-madly in love with Billy D. Williams

2. ‘bohemianess’


-the effects of going home alone

-the isolated figure’s desire to touch and be touched

-father telling him he isn’t a beautiful person


Can we get to the essence of Baldwin through archival alone?

Interested less than a political character but how we can see ourselves through him

Rec Watch: Lewis Milestone, The Front Page (1931)

Rec Watch: Billy Wilder, The Front Page (1971)

                           Read: “The Front Page” (script)


February 28 – Watch: Orson Wells, Citizen Kane (1941)

Read: Gore Vidal, “Remembering Orson Welles,” June 1, 1989

                          Read: Sanford Schwartz, “The Master Builder,” March 15, 2007 (Links to an external site.)


Audio Intro:

Class Discussion:

Citizen Kane Notes:

-Best movie ever?

-pre-figures other films

Date Depicted:

-Characterizes in the era of Hearst and Pulitzer

-“Yellow Journalism” in the late teens

-Idea of creating journalism

-Wealthy people who owned the press and parleyed it into a political career.

Date Made:

-1941 when Welles was 25

-Welles contracted Final Edit status

-Combination of screwball and noir

-Destroyed objectivity

Date Watched:

-Media hero who becomes a political hero (ring a bell?)

-idea of using information for getting money

-commercial imperative crucial for presidency

Were the last words?

-privileged knowledge?

-or that there is no privilege?

A different point of view:

-from statement of principles

-epic of lies

-making of myth

-statement on personal corruption or deeper critique on the ability to know something?


March 7 – Watch: Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole (1951)

Intro Audio:

Discussion Audio:


Ace in the Hole:

-Billy Wilder was a tabloid reporter in Vienna and Berlin

-Narrative on how stories are framed

-Compare to media-thons

3 Dates


-Post-war era

-noir era

-disillusioned truth hating antagonist

-noir adapted to newspaper

-communist paranoia

-the American dream: doing anything for success


-Modern Media-thons

-questioning media stars, darling hero narrative

-creates an arc to the story

-movie about ambition

other notes:

-alientated hero

-stumbled upon story

-harsh view of journalism

-take on the 40s & 50s America


March 14 – Watch: Alexander Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Intro Audio:

Discussion Audio: 


3 Dates:

-Made 1957

-era of the House of Unamerican Activities:

name names or go to jail for contempt of congress

-noir: world corruption, isolation

-Depicting modern times

-based on Walter Winchell, powerful newspaperman, could ruin people if he wanted to

-intimate picture of NYC

-Watched in 2022

-Politics and entertainment have been meshed together

-power, gossip, corruption

-realities of journalistic power

-Trump: King of the gossip column



March 28 – Watch: Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View (1974)

Intro Audio:

Audio Discussion:

Dates Watched:




1960s fears and paranoia of assassination

3 major: Kennedy, MLK, Robert F. Kennedy


Think of the fear, paranoia, and conspiracies by QANON


-induces the feeling of paranoia

-plays with suspense, time, smash cuts

The Parallax Montage

-unnerving vs disturbing

-LIFE magazine photoesque

American Paranoia

-Onset by political assassinations

-many people believe it is a conspiracy / establishments attempts to cover up

Journalist as hero or scoundrel:


-breaks the rules

-individualization: can’t break the system down alone


April 4 – Watch: Sidney Lumet, Network (1976)

Discussion Audio:


Date Made/ Depicted


Date Watched


-Trump Era, News as entertainment

The Network as Satire

-what is the distance between the satire of the 70s versus the tv news of today?

News Before

-3 major television networks

-television was regulated

-news programs were loss leaders

-It didn’t have to measure eyeballs per story even though you could

News Now

-Press makes profit

-entertainment swallows news cycle


April 11 – Watch: Sydney Pollak, Absence of Malice (1981)

Intro Audio:

Discussion Audio: 


Date Made/Depicted:


-Reagan Era

Date Watched:

-Matt Gaetz

-Leak in NYT for trafficking underage girls

-Never arrested, never indicted

-damaged reputation


-shows the troubling reality of journalism

-blind quotes can be deeply troubling

-could be serving someone’s illegitimate cause

-abuse of power territory

-newspapers can do terrible things to public figures without getting in trouble for libel

-journalism becomes part of the establishment

-journalists have a great deal of power but almost no liability

-a self-policing profession

-Nat Hentoff says journalists and police are the most defensive professions. He felt the movie was too soft on reporters.


April 18 – Watch: James L. Brooks, Broadcast News (1987)

Intro Audio:

Discussion Audio: 

3 Dates: 

-made/depicted: 1987

-Regan Era

-Lots of jobs were being lost



-watch with a sense of nostalgia

-anxiety about journalistic accomplishment

-the commercialization of news

Romantic Comedy:

-about journalistic lives professionally and personally

-romance entangled with professional matters

-can you fall in love with someone whose professional accomplishments you don’t respect?


**April 20 – Watch: Alexander Nanau, Collective (2019) SPECIAL BMAPFA SCREENING, 7 pm**


April 25 – Watch:  Matthew Heineman, A Private War (2018)

Janine di Giovanni: (Harper’s December 4th, 2019) (Links to an external site.)

Intro Audio:


MAY 9th- DUE: ***Five to eight-page paper due.


Recommended Watching to finish out the semester:

Ron Howard, The Paper (1994)

Kasi Lemmons, Talk to Me (2007)

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight (2015)


Notable Journalism Films

Lewis Milestone, The Front Page (1931)

Henry Hathaway, Call Northside 777 (1948)

Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Billy Wilder, The Front Page (1974)

Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger (1975)

James Bridges, The China Syndrome (1979)

Warren Beatty, Reds (1981)

Peter Weir, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

Roger Spottiswoode, Under Fire (1983)

Oliver Stone, Salvador (1986)

Barry Levinson, Wag the Dog (1997)

Michael Mann, The Insider (1999)

Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous (2000)

Mick Jackson, Live From Baghdad (2002)

Billy Ray, Shattered Glass (2003)

George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

David Fincher, Zodiac (2007)

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon (2008)

Kevin Macdonald, State of Play (2009)

Jose Padiha, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (2010)

Mohammad Rasoulof, Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013)

Michael Cuesta, Kill the Messenger (2014)

Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler (2014)

Steven Spielberg, The Post (2017)

Rob Reiner, Shock and Awe (2017)