Late last year, Luke O’Neil wrote an essay for Esquire in which he addressed a crisis of online journalism. On the Internet, he argued, an insatiable appetite for web traffic has come to govern the news, shifting the priorities of editors away from integrity and toward sensationalism. The problem is basically two-fold: the first issue is that publications on the web feel compelled to make content available as quickly as possible in order to maximize its visibility, often at the expense of time-consuming old media niceties like fact-checking or original research. The second, and more insidious, is that publications on the web have no incentive to prevent misreported stories from being published: even if a popular story soon proves inaccurate or even completely false, the story has already been widely clicked, shared, and tweeted, and each of those clicks, shares and tweets has generated revenue for the publication. The Internet has thus entrained a news culture in which the speed of reportage is valued over its veracity. A viral story doesn’t need to be true. It simply needs to be read.
To anyone familiar with the many Hollywood newspaper comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, of course, this swell of alarmism will no doubt seem amusing. Diminished standards, ethical bankruptcy, the easy propagation of mistruths—O’Neil makes it seem as if these are ills unique to modern journalism, but in truth this conception is nothing new. Let’s consider the history. In 1928, former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page, a hugely popular Broadway comedy which satirized the unscrupulousness of the newspaper business. The play concerned the efforts of Walter Burns, the ruthless editor of a big-city daily, to orchestrate the last-minute exoneration of a criminal sentenced to be hanged, which he hopes will both secure his paper a landmark exclusive and convince his former star reporter to return to the masthead once more. Its best-known adaptation, His Girl Friday, would arrive in 1940 courtesy of Howard Hawks. But Lewis Milestone’s 1931 version remains perhaps the more influential: its success ushered in an era of like-minded newspaper comedies, setting a precedent of satirical vigor which would prove inexhaustible.
To be a reporter in a film during this period was to be calculating, underhanded, and altogether amoral—the title soon became shorthand for the corruption of its bearer. A reporter could be charming, but only as a function of his duplicity; he could aspire toward romance, but always in conflict with his natural careerism. This proved true even in films not expressly concerned with the newspaper industry. Clark Gable twice played a newspaperman assigned to chronicle his own blossoming affair: first in It Happened One Night, in 1934, in which he becomes enamored of the wealthy heiress he’s agreed to escort (and interview); and again two years later in Love on the Run, in which he surreptitiously reports on his affair with a well-known millionairess who remains none the wiser. Joan Crawford, the lead in the latter, has been contending with the news world’s “buzzards” her entire life, and to her the vocation is beneath contempt: “I feel sorry for anyone who has to make his living that way”, she reflects. “No self-respecting man could accept money for prying into people’s lives.” Gable responds with a complaint of his own: “No, no, and they don’t earn very much at that.”
Gable may have been deceitful in his efforts to land a career-making scoop, but at least the stories on which he reported had some basis in truth. Not so for the heroes of many other newspaper comedies of the period. My personal favorite is Jack Conway’s Libeled Lady, from 1936, a breezy screwball romance reuniting William Powell and Myrna Loy after their success together in The Thin Man two years before. Here the inciting incident is the sort of misreported story you could imagine making headlines today: a young high-society girl, played by Loy, is reported in the New York Evening Star as having been seen cavorting with a married man at a party which, it turns out, she never even attended. When she sues the paper for millions in libel, the editor reasons that her case won’t stand if he can catch Loy cavorting with a married man for real, and he thus conspires to send his most irresistibly attractive reporter on a mission to seduce and destroy. Despite its rather jovial spirit, Libeled Lady is not without bite: in its conception, it seems, journalism lacks even a pretense of integrity. The only thing preventing newspapers from printing outright fabrications is the threat of legal action which might ensue—and occasionally even that isn’t enough to deter them.
This suggestion is echoed in two other films from the same period, and, taken together, the pair provide a useful illustration of how journalism was perceived in the popular imagination at the time. The first is Nothing Sacred, William Wellman’s pitch-black comedy from 1937. Written, not insignificantly, by Ben Hecht, the film deals with an overzealous newspaperman whose desire to break a sensational true story leads to the accidental publication of a fake one. What distinguishes Nothing Sacred from the bulk of its contemporaries its reconfiguration of the central lie: here it belongs not to the unscrupulous reporter, but to the subject he vaults to celebrity, a healthy woman who claims to be suffering from a terminal illness. Hecht and Wellman regard everyone as complicit: not only the reporters and editors all too eager to seize an opportunity for a hot lead, but the people so desperate for the spectacle of news that they’re willing to accept whatever the read on the front page. A hoax, after all, requires two parties: one to lie and one to believe it.
The hoax, in this case, soon makes itself known to those who’ve been publishing it. But the fervor the story has provoked proves too appealing for the paper to abandon just because it isn’t true. Wellman knows that given the proper incentive, everybody is willing to participate in a scam, and he therefore spares no one from the film’s satirical sweep. An interesting counterpoint to this sensibility presents itself in Meet John Doe, Frank Capra’s comic drama from 1941. Another newspaper story centered around a runaway hoax, Capra’s film proceeds from a familiar premise: a big-city reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, publishes an incendiary letter by a fictitious American everyman, whose instant popularity requires that she find someone to play the part of her made-up ‘John Doe’. The difference is that Meet John Doe isn’t really interested in satire. Stanwyck’s reporter, for one thing, isn’t unscrupulous—she’s an otherwise moral person who invents her everyman on her last day of work as payback to the boss who fired her, and, when she’s rehired, she summarily uses John Doe’s platform for good.
John Doe himself, played by real-life everyman Gary Cooper, seems the very embodiment of goodness, and the drama of the film emerges when his goodness (and Stanwyck’s) is threatened by the corporate interests who run the paper. And Capra finds in the hoax itself the capacity to effect positive change: the influence of John Doe over the lives of the American people comes to be a force of good even when it’s revealed that it isn’t true, which suggests that perhaps even the sins of journalism can be redeemed. Where Meet John Doe and Nothing Sacred converge is in their conception of the good a lie can do: they both suggest that an inspiring, moving, or uplifting hoax is one that may prove positive despite its mistruth. Maybe that’s something we should keep in mind when we fret about the crisis of online journalism. It’s certainly true that hoax stories are disseminated and accepted more readily now than in years before. What’s less obvious is the degree to which that is a problem. If people only seek in the items they click, share and tweet the momentary satisfaction of an interesting story, maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s untrue.