How ‘Broadcast News’ Predicted Journalism As We Know It
The Ringer · by · December 18, 2017
On the last day of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, in San Francisco, Susan Zirinsky was busy with her work as the CBS News floor producer when the president of the network, Ed Joyce, stopped by with a new acquaintance. Joyce introduced them, but Zirinsky could swear she already knew the man from somewhere: “I said, ‘Hi, you look so familiar, have we met?’” And he said, “No, I don’t think so,’” she remembers. The familiar-looking man asked if he could take her for a cup of coffee, because he wanted to ask her some questions about her work. She told him they could talk tomorrow during her afternoon off. He left. Lesley Stahl — currently of 60 Minutes, at the time a CBS News correspondent — turned to Zirinsky and said, “You’re a fucking moron.”
Stahl knew why that man looked so familiar: It was James L. Brooks, who, just four months earlier, had won five Academy Awards — including Best Picture — for his film Terms of Endearment. Brooks had been researching something in Washington, D.C., though no one was sure what it was. Later that year, Zirinsky recalls that she attended a dinner party in D.C. where Brooks had interviewed every single woman there: a pollster, a political operative, a lobbyist. Each woman thought he was making a movie about her. But that week in San Francisco, Brooks was just gathering information, and Zirinsky, meanwhile, was trying to make the most of her afternoon off. Zirinsky’s then-boyfriend, Joseph Peyronnin, also a producer at CBS News, was traveling with her, and they had been talking about getting married for a while, and now they had this free time, so … they went to San Francisco’s City Hall. They had to call their families—and also Dan Rather, because CBS had strict rules about colleagues getting married—but they got their bureaucratic blessings and started celebrating. “Champagne starts arriving, caviar,” Zirinsky remembers, “and I look at my watch and I said, ‘I know this is going to sound strange, but I have a meeting with this Hollywood director.’”
Zirinsky left her new husband and met Brooks for a walk in the park. Hours later, they were still talking about his project, which he described as research about women in broadcast television and politics. “He wanted to know: What does a producer do? As the White House producer, what do you do? When you go to war, does everybody do drugs? Does everybody fuck around?’” By this point, Zirinsky was pretty sure she trusted Brooks, so she admitted that about five years ago she moved in with a CBS Chicago producer who had been transferred to D.C., and “three hours and 10 minutes ago, we got married at City Hall.” Brooks insisted on congratulating her new husband in person, and that was the first day she and Brooks hung out.
Three years later Zirinsky attended the New York premiere of James L. Brooks’s 1987 film, Broadcast News. The experience was a little overwhelming, and she tried to take a minute for herself in a bathroom stall. Two colleagues came in and stood at the sink, talking about the movie and about Zirinsky’s credit as producer. “Can you believe she gave us that bullshit that [the movie] had nothing to do with her?,” she overheard one say to the other. They pointed out that Holly Hunter, in the lead role of television news producer Jane Craig, wore clothes that looked just like Zirinsky’s, that she cried just the way Zirinsky did. (“Who cries but her?”) Later Zirinsky bumped into Stahl, who must have also recognized something in the film — Zirinsky remembers her saying, “I don’t know if I would have told them that much.”
Broadcast News, the romantic comedy-drama released on December 16, 1987, is among the best movies ever made about journalism. Written, directed, and produced by Brooks, it’s the story of three people working for the Washington bureau of a major television evening news show. As senior producer, Jane Craig (Hunter) has an excellent working relationship and friendship with reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a man who has the same intense devotion (obsession) to work. Together they produce the kind of news they believe matters most: investigative, necessary, useful journalism. When Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a very handsome man with very few qualifications or even a basic understanding of the field, is hired by her network as an anchorman, Jane and Aaron are completely unnerved. He is, by all appearances, sincere, kind, perhaps a little too interested in his own insecurities; more importantly, he does not and never has understood the news he reports on. Jane is just as repulsed by Tom as she is into him, while Aaron, who is and perhaps always has been in love with Jane, wants to prove that his kind of news and his kind of love are both intellectually and morally superior.
On first watch, it seems like a classic love triangle in a workplace setting. On the second watch, Broadcast News is a classic love triangle in a workplace setting that also functions as a study of rare, fascinating, ambitious characters. On the third watch, Broadcast News is a classic love triangle in a workplace setting with an accurate and hilarious — brutally so — look at the media hellscape as it was then and is now. In other words: It’s a masterpiece. Released the same weekend as two other classic romantic comedies, Moonstruck and Overboard, News was a film that stood out for its exceptional performances and deeply honest writing. Realer than real, it was released at exactly the right time, as news anchors were beginning to secure multimillion-dollar contracts and a certain kind of celebrity above and beyond their predecessors, and it endures, finding new viewers every year it remains on best-of lists and cited as favorites by some surprising fans, like in 2013, when Donald Fagen introduced it as his favorite for an event at IFC Center.
News was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, described it as “about three people who toy with the idea of love, but are obsessed by the idea of making television.” He described the “deadline rush” that is so attractive to the people who claim to be tortured by it, and admitted he knows this experience too well. (“You don’t think I’m turning this review in early, do you?”) But mostly he was taken with the way the film treated romance as a humane but ultimately ordinary experience. “Brooks, almost alone among major Hollywood filmmakers,” he wrote, “knows that some people have higher priorities than love, and deeper fears.” In Broadcast News, romance is present, but kind of besides the point — Brooks’s characters would be the first to tell you they have more important work to do.
“I was, and am, a news buff,” Brooks told me when we spoke over the phone about the 30-year anniversary of the film. “When I was lucky enough to get a job at CBS News, it was dream-life. I couldn’t believe I was in the newsroom.” First an usher and then a copywriter in the early 1960s, Brooks was thrilled with any task. “I actually got to bring coffee! It was fantastic.”
As the creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-offs, Rhoda and Lou Grant, as well as a coproducer of The Simpsons, Brooks’s influence in television alone has shaped the comedic sensibility of several consecutive generations. He has a talent for showing the hard truths about soft feelings, which is why his movies are so formative to the romantic comedy-dramas that followed. Brooks’s ideas about relationships and other emotional entanglements—like the mother and daughter in Terms of Endearment who love each other even when they kind of hate each other, or the warmly antagonistic dynamic between Mary Tyler Moore and her friends and colleagues — now have an elemental status, both to the people who watch his movies and to other filmmakers. There are many recurrent themes in his work — women in television news, for one, and the lack of clear-cut “good” or “bad” people in any situation — but above all Brooks understands the pleasure of watching a smart person work hard to achieve what they want.
After seven years working on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and after the success of Terms, Brooks says he starting feeling like there was a new character emerging. “Feminism was happening,” he says, “and there had to be a female heroine around. I went looking for her.” While Moore represented a “new” kind of woman — primarily that she was unmarried by choice rather than circumstance, and had a career rather than a job — the character of Jane Craig represented women who had, by the measures of feminism at the time, won. In the film, she is ascending to the highest positions in male-dominated workplaces; her authority is recognized, her work respected, and her ambition championed. She is also, in Brooks’s writing and in Hunter’s performance, a person, rather than a principle: a little insecure (though never about her work), with big crushes on inappropriate men (though never at the expense of herself). Jane works hard and is good at what she does, but she isn’t immune to moments of self-doubt or anxious introspection. She fights for what she wants, but she still cares what people think about her. Her preferred form of kindness is brutal because she always says what she really thinks. Every character in the film knows how lucky they are to have her attention at all.
Zirinsky was one of four women crucial to the writing of Jane’s character; when I told Brooks I’d spoken to Zirinsky, he remembered immediately the day they met. “She spent hours talking to me and then told me it was her wedding night!” he said, still charmed by this detail. Brooks stressed that there were many moments and people that contributed to his process, like Joan Richman, one of the first women to be a senior media executive at CBS News; she produced Walter Cronkite’s coverage of Apollo 13, winning the first of her two Emmy Awards and becoming, according to a statement offered by Cronkite after her death in 2004, “probably more important than any other individual in shaping the presentation of a new science that gripped the world’s imagination.” While he was walking around the 1984 conventions, he met a White House correspondent he described as a brilliant reporter, stuck in a love triangle with two men. (He declines to name her, out of respect for her privacy.) “I always had a thing when doing research: The third time you hear something,” such as the detail about women crying in the office, “you can believe it’s generally true.” The process, he says, “was joyous.”
One of the many things Broadcast News gets so right is that, in the traditional or recognizable sense, there is no single climax and no final epiphany. But there are many scenes with small moments of uncertainty or compromise that, in one light, could seem like a great injury, and in the other a petty slight; wins that could be ordinary achievements or career-defining highs; moments that might be nothing, or all in your head, or the thing that finally turns you into the person you were always meant to be. Starting with scenes of each main character as children, we see the patterns they’ll be following their whole lives — Tom is the son of a salesman, already defined by the way people respond to his looks, and Aaron is pained and self-righteous about the rejection of his peers, self-soothing with adolescent ideas of his future sophisticated life. Jane is the hardest-working person in any room, no task too small and no word too imprecise to make her stand up and defend herself and her work. By the end of the film, it’s obvious by their choices that they are, still, the same. Brooks once said it was a film about three people giving up on their last chance at real intimacy, something he tells me he didn’t realize until long after finishing the film: How, he asked himself, could he make it “romantic, and still have it be meaningful?”
In the present, the film gets going when Jane gives a disastrous speech at a conference for local television news broadcasters, talking about the pervasive influence of entertainment-driven ideas of news. Tom is in the audience, and while he is not quite sure he understands, he clearly reads her intelligence and her energy. Jane asks him to dinner, and then back to her hotel room, where it becomes clear that she thinks this is a date and he thinks she is someone who can help him succeed. They get into a strange fight over Tom’s admissions of inadequacy that neither we nor Jane fully understand — is he insincere and looking to offset his responsibilities, or does he mean what he says and deserves her help? In any case, her instinct to edit takes over, and she tells him what she thinks.
This harsh back-and-forth is the precursor to their entire relationship: He’ll be fucked up, and she’ll set him straight. He leaves, and she calls Aaron, clearly a nightly ritual for both of them. “It wasn’t just the speech,” Jane complains, thinking of Tom. “The same thing happened with this guy. I have passed some line, someplace. I am beginning to repel people I am trying to seduce.” “He must’ve been great-looking, right?,” Aaron says, because he can see right through what she’s saying. “No one invites a bad-looking idiot to their bedroom.” After she hangs up, Tom calls — he’s been hired by her network, and now they work together.
Whether Jane ends up with Aaron or Tom is, I guess, the question of the movie, though that’s incidental to the real story, which is their individual relationships to their work. No frame is without some sort of insight or understanding about the people who make news: the scenes of journalists standing around, testing their colleagues’ moral standards with hypothetical questions about telling a source you love them, or whether or not to broadcast footage from an execution; the barely there smile from a famous news anchor as the most exalted form of praise; Jane yelling at her cameraman for telling someone to put on their shoes, because they are, as she says repeatedly, “not here to stage news.” The background dialogue from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner scene is ruthless, with lines like, “The L.A. Times is a great outfit. Best severance pay in the business.” Jane cries periodically throughout the film, unplugging her phone and weeping for what looks to be no reason, or at least no easily identifiable cause. Aaron hates himself for asking Tom for help in delivering a weekend news report, but is delighted to learn that his tip about sitting on the hem of a blazer really does make it look better on camera. One of my favorites is when at the end of the film, as layoffs happen in the newsroom, Blair, played by Joan Cusack, takes a moment to say goodbye to Jane by telling her that, “except for socially, you’re my role model.”
Broadcast News is a movie that is right about journalism, and right about ambition, and there are three major sequences that show how Brooks captured the technical and emotional realities of both. The first is one of the funniest and most recognizable scenes: Jane is editing one of Aaron’s stories right up until the moment Blair has to deliver the tape to the control room. It’s slapstick, mostly because we can feel how serious this is to them. Watching Blair panic as time runs out — “Why do you do this to me?” she complains to Jane, who is inserting new visuals and copy up until the literal last minute. “Is it because I won an award?” — and then following her through the obstacle course of an open-plan newsroom, we know she would rather die (at the very least, she would rather risk kicking a small child in the face) than let the New York control room cut to a blank screen.
The scene was shot by Michael Ballhaus, the Academy Award–winning director of photography and cinematographer who would, three years later, shoot one of the most famous single-take tracking shots in cinema history, for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Though it’s not a single take, the same principles are here in Blair’s race to meet their deadline: Like Ray Liotta as he guides Lorraine Bracco through the kitchen of the Copacabana, we’re backstage with Jane and Blair, invested most in how they get to where they’re going. These scenes also show a quality of unearned, or uneasy, trust that’s present in both films — confidence is seduction, and like Liotta’s Henry Hill, Brooks’s characters behave as though they do, or should, own their hallways. What they might privately feel about their positions is another story.
The second sequence — a test of Tom’s skill, clearly intended as an audition for a much more powerful position — takes place on a Sunday afternoon, when the station’s bureau chief is hosting a brunch for the entire network, including the president, Paul. The news team gets word that a Libyan plane has been shooting at an American base in Sicily, and because their bosses’ boss is there, he makes the assignments — Jane will executive-produce, and Tom will anchor, while Aaron will do … nothing. Jane, the kind of manager who is never not advocating for her people, tells the president of the network to his face that he’s made the wrong choice. (Another truth about News is that every shot that can contain an inside joke does: The character of Paul Moore, the president of the network, was played by Peter Hackes, who had been a correspondent for NBC for 30 years. He was, as Brooks told The Atlantic, let go “in the search for pretty men.”) “OK, that’s your opinion,” Paul responds. “I don’t agree.” “It’s not opinion,” Jane responds. Paul, perhaps not used to people questioning his choices, looks at her for a second, before setting her up for the best line in the film: “You’re just absolutely right,” he deadpans. “And I’m absolutely wrong. It must be nice to always believe you know better. To always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” “No,” Jane says, sincere and present in her answer, which comes out in a softer register than any of her other lines. “It’s awful.”
She loses this battle, and like a true pro, does everything she can to turn Tom into the right anchor for the job, feeding him lines and setting up the other correspondents so that he never has to ask a question. From home, Aaron tries to pretend that he’s not going to watch — still the same person as that betrayed and resentful teen we saw in the first scene — but can’t help himself. He calls in to tell Jane everything he knows about the political situation in Libya, and she then feeds the information to Tom. “I say it here, it comes out there,” he mutters to himself. Afterward, still feeling the high of getting it right, Tom compares Jane’s voice in his ear to great sex: “There was a rhythm we got into,” he says, and the look on her face seems like she might be thinking the same thing.
The third sequence — in which Tom achieves another real win for his career, at a great expense to Jane and Aaron’s personal and professional ideals — is as close to a traditional climactic event as the film gets. Tom, emboldened by the success of his first on-air segment, pitches his own idea to Jane: “It’s about women,” he explains, “who are attacked, by someone … they know, on a date.” Tom shoots an interview with a woman willing to speak about her experience (the term “date rape” was still new enough at the time that we can hear Tom stumble on the cadence), and as it airs, the women in the newsroom watch, their feelings on their faces, the men silent. Aaron, however, is unmoved; “Could I turn on the news for a second?” he asks. During the interview, the woman cries, and the camera cuts to Tom, who is also crying, just a little. “What’s wrong with it?” Tom asks, knowing that Aaron disapproves. “Nothing,” Aaron says. “I think you really blew the lid off nookie.”
Aaron is morally wrong — indefensibly so — but he is approaching the segment as a journalist, trained to never stage, lead, or corrupt interviews with performances. Tom is telling a story with emotions rather than facts, coasting on people’s feelings rather than speaking to their intellect. Aaron later realizes that this tape has been edited to include a shot of Tom crying, staged after the interview was over; it cannot be trusted. But Tom knows how to study people — their feelings, their responses — and is finding that ability to be far more valuable than studying facts or ideas.
The scene predicts so much of contemporary news — in particular, the tendency for stories about sexual harassment to revolve around personal stories when reporting on systematic abuse. Tom’s behavior is unethical, and Aaron’s response is callous, and what they share is a complete commitment to what they don’t know and won’t learn: Aaron is refusing to see what makes this a story, and Tom is refusing to learn what standards his story should be held to. This is the story line in which Brooks shows his essential skill: He treats the subplot lightly, and in doing so he avoids a film that is merely hagiographic in favor of one that is honest. Brooks has crafted, in fiction, a truth about who tells stories of sex, power, and abuse—and how they decide to do so. After the segment airs, Jane tries to sneak away, and Tom needles her into saying what she thought. “It moved me,” she says, after a moment of contemplating. “I did relate to it, I really did.”
Much later in the film, Aaron will reveal Tom’s edit to Jane; in a long scene that ends with Aaron telling Jane the truth about his feelings for her, he makes the case that Tom, “while being a very nice guy, is the devil.”
The edit is ultimately the reason that, after many stops and starts, nothing happens between her and Tom. Jane realizes that he is not just a simple man in need of her help, not just a person that could be better if she got through to him; whether intentionally or not, he is aware of the effect he has on people and is more than willing to use it to his advantage. She cannot compromise on her ethics, even if she really, really wants to. “You could get fired for things like that,” she says when she confronts him. “I got promoted for things like that,” he replies. They’re both right, which, as we’ve established, is a terrible thing to be. It’s movie magic at its most painful, the tiny truths between characters exactly the kinds of truths we work really hard to avoid recognizing in real life.
That realism is, in many practical ways, a result of Zirinsky’s influence. Though Jane Craig is a composite of Brooks’s research and Holly Hunter’s remarkable performance, Zirinsky’s work as an associate producer of the film can be seen and heard throughout the movie. Currently the senior executive producer of 48 Hours, her list of accomplishments is beyond impressive: She has won multiple Emmy Awards as well as the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence. She led CBS News’s coverage during Tiananmen Square, followed presidents Reagan and Carter throughout their careers, and was the producer of 9/11, the documentary that has the only footage from inside the north tower of the World Trade Center, as well as Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, the Showtime documentary featuring the only interviews with all 12 heads of the CIA, both present and former, at the time. In September I met with Zirinsky at her office in New York, where she keeps a framed poster her staff made for her on the 20th anniversary of the film, superimposing her face over Holly Hunter’s.
As a child, Zirinsky watched movies like Casablanca and Exodus, and wanted to be a film director. But in college, she got a weekend job at CBS News; it was the spring of 1972, and two weeks after she started, burglars were arrested at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. “My roommates were getting shitfaced and I was in the alley of the Jefferson Hotel staking out the attorney general of the United States,” she remembers. “I would come home to regale them of this very important work I was doing, and they were … puking in the sink.” After that, Zirinsky says, she was hooked, totally hooked. “You couldn’t come out of the Nixon era and bring down a presidency based on journalism, and not be, as a kid in college, profoundly impacted.”
At first, Zirinsky turned down the position on Brooks’s film, thinking that she couldn’t take a leave of absence from her job; she had been promoted from White House producer to senior producer at the Washington bureau for CBS Evening News, and the scheduling between her job and Brooks’s shooting didn’t seem right. Still, she found a way to make it work. During the day, she covered Iran-Contra; at night, she wrote simulated stories for Brooks’s characters to read. Once, Brooks asked her to walk around with a tape recorder and just talk about what she did as she was doing it. Another time, Brooks called to ask a question, and she picked up just to tell him, “If I don’t hang up this phone, I’m not going to make the lead piece with Lesley Stahl at the White House, and I’m not going to have a job.” She would speak with her friends at the Pentagon to get the details for the Sicily special report scene, asking them how far a plane could go without refueling, what air base they would have taken off from.
Zirinsky used to deny the obvious connections, preferring to think of her role as primarily technical; but sometimes when she visited the set the similarities were too real. The first day she met Holly Hunter, she peeked into a rehearsal and saw Hunter: They were the same height, with the same build, wearing the same kind of sweater and boots and belt. She remembers that while she was looking, Albert Brooks snuck up behind her and started whisper-singing the Twilight Zone theme song. Jack Nicholson, as anchor Bill Rorish, James Brooks recalls, spent an intensive day with Zirinsky, learning how to speak and read the news like a real anchor. William Hurt, Brooks says, was deliberately kept away from Zirinsky. “Bill, it was important that he not do it. Because the character he played had to be behind the game, and not in on everybody’s joke.”
She is in the film, though always off camera: When Jane watches the tapes from Tom’s date-rape story, she hears a producer say, “Tom, it kills me that we didn’t get you on camera. It’s so powerful … I thought you were going to cry yourself.” That’s Zirinsky’s voice. That’s Zirinsky’s handwriting in the control room, using yellow tape to label the different switches State, D.O.D., and so forth, so that we’re seeing Hunter’s fingers hover over Zirinsky’s handwriting.
The other devil in the details was the work of Polly Platt, Brooks’s frequent collaborator and the production designer of News, who died in 2011. “Many thought [Polly Platt] had the talent to be the first great woman director,” wrote Rachel Abramowitz in the November 1993 issue of Premiere, “but Platt is of a certain generation and temperament, and instead she plowed all her energy and brilliance into making men brilliant.”
Platt’s relationship with Brooks was complicated; they fought, and she pushed him away, accepting job offers for other films. Still, Brooks refused to give up on her. “‘Jim called me and fought harder than I’ve ever seen anybody fight,” Platt said to Premiere. “In Broadcast News, when [Jane] won’t go with [Tom] on the plane, he keeps saying, ‘It’s a big deal.’ I remember Jim just kept saying to me, ‘It’s a big deal if you leave.’’” They shared an open and generous idea of what love can be (she, too, believed that there are no bad guys in a Brooks movie) and even the recollections of their fights show just how much they respected each other. She did eventually accept Brooks’s offer to be the producer on the film — she told Abramowitz that she recognized her own style of working in Hunter’s performance “because even to this day, I’m all about how to get there in every sense of the word” — and there was no detail too small for Platt’s eye on that set. Brooks said the key color of Broadcast News was red, a favored color in television because of its naturally high contrast. Brooks told Premiere that he remembers seeing her during the shooting of a small scene at the beginning of the film, when a teenage Aaron is getting beaten up by his high school bullies, and she was on her knees, painting a red accent on a staircase.
When I asked Brooks about Platt’s work, he spoke of her with such fondness. “She loved film as much as anybody I’ve ever known. She loved it. She loved it romantically. She loved it practically. She loved it like mothers love their daughters. Like women friends love each other. She loved film. She never lost that crazy idealism, the kind of romanticism you bring to what you’re first starting. She never lost that, no matter what happened to her life. And everything happened to her life.”
Of the many subtle moments crafted by Brooks and his crew of experts and advisers, there are two mirrored scenes with Jane that feel especially true, and they both show the influence of Platt, who knew how much details matter, and Zirinsky, who knew how much journalism matters. In the first, Jane helps Aaron pick his outfit for his night as weekend anchor while she is getting ready for her first — and only — real date with Tom. She’s wearing a pretty dress with a cropped blazer, and when she and Aaron stand on a corner to get cabs, she turns and looks at him one last time before pulling out her shoulder pads and inserting them into his blazer. It’s what he needed. But the camera stays on her as she makes her way to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, her fingers fidgeting with her slightly deflated shoulders. She’s left something behind. At the end of the movie, when it becomes clear that nothing can happen between her and Tom, Jane confronts him and refuses to get on a plane with him for a week away. She stays in the airport until she knows he’s gone. Getting into a cab, she sits there, not quite crying, unable to let the driver go without making sure she tells him the best route to get home, holding her hand to her mouth. Once again, we know: She’s left something behind. What that is, and how much she needs it, is not the point — the point is watching Jane be alone in her rightness, her certainty, her successes that are not wins and her losses the conclusion of her own choices. It is, as she said, awful; she’s not just right, she’s responsible for making everyone else as right as she is. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are, at any given moment, approximately one hundred million movies about writers to watch. Many of them share qualities with backstage movies, offering viewers the chance to see how our stories really get made. Netflix does not offer a category called “A Young Journalist Searches for the Story — and Love — of Her Life,” which seems like an oversight, but it is perhaps just a function of the fact that the designation already applies to so many movies: to name just a few, there are His Girl Friday, Heartburn, Up Close & Personal, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Never Been Kissed, Top Five, Morning Glory, and, if you really think about it, The Ring. The 2017 blockbuster Girls Trip was, as New York Times Magazine editor Jazmine Hughes pointed out, a film about ethics in journalism. There are movies about the mechanics of a fashion magazine, like Funny Face, as well as movies about how awesome it was to work at Rolling Stone, like Almost Famous, which was based on Cameron Crowe’s real experience as a boy-wonder reporter, and Perfect, which features a Jann Wenner–like character played by … Jann Wenner. There are movies about disgraced journalists — Shattered Glass — and movies about journalists who changed the world, like All the President’s Men, Frost/Nixon, and Spotlight. This month, Steven Spielberg will offer his version of this story with The Post, a dramatization about the battle between The Washington Post and The New York Times for claim to the Pentagon Papers.
In both of my interviews with Brooks and Zirinsky, I tried to get them to agree with me that Broadcast News is the best movie about journalism, but they gracefully deflected. Brooks is steadfast in his belief that Network could be the best movie ever made, and certainly the best movie about journalism. “Are you kidding?” he responds when I ask him to name a particularly prescient moment from Network. “It’s nuts what it saw coming. [Network] saw reality TV. [Paddy Chayefsky] stone-cold saw the future.” He does not believe that Broadcast News predicted the future in the same way; he thinks the timing was right, and the research was solid, and it is as simple as “the future was beginning to happen.” When I asked Zirinsky if she thinks Broadcast News is the best movie ever made about journalists, she said she wasn’t sure; she liked Good Night, and Good Luck a lot.
Broadcast News is not a satire, although it is sometimes labeled as such. It is too warm, and too concerned with showing something true. The only thing that might function as satire is that, contrary to their depiction in movies and television shows, most writers do not know just what to say exactly when they need to say it. But most writers know how to go home and turn the experience over and over in their mind until they find the perfect response. They know enough to get into screenwriting, or other forms of fiction. They know how to tell stories in which they get to say now what they should have said then.
When the film was released, parsing its realism for reality became a minor sport among print publications. Journalists, well versed in turning any screen into a mirror, watched Broadcast News and looked for their own reflection. In January 1988, The Washington Post ran an article about all the different women who had, in their own way, been identified as inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character; Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter is quoted as saying “practically every unmarried woman in her thirties with a decent job and an occasional anxiety attack thinks the movie’s about her.” (Me, reading that quote 30 years after the fact: “Fuck.”) A February 1988 cover story for People was titled “Tom Brokaw Takes On Broadcast News,” and asks a question that provides its own answer: “The Oscar-bound hit has the networks fuming: are TV news anchors really dumb, overpaid pretty boys with too much power?” The article points out that there is a parallel to be made in CBS firing 215 employees in the past year, while increasing “anchormania” for “the gorgeous guys who read the nightly news: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.” The piece describes Hurt’s character as having “Brokaw’s boyish charm and Midwestern upbringing, Jennings’ lack of formal education and former ladies’ man reputation and Rather’s penchant for addressing the audience personally—even tearing up on-camera.”
Thirty years later, watching Broadcast News might inspire even more questions of life imitating film; watching a film about an industry that has since become the old guard allows us to see parallels among today’s ideas about new media. If the field of journalism has one easily identified and frequently fictionalized problem, it is one of proportions. The people who care deeply about journalism, whether as an art form or a necessity, are too often also the same people who make it. Broadcast News predicted that the way we feel about the news would become the news itself, and that there was real drama to be found in how much the people who make the news care about it — let’s not forget one of Aaron’s lines, delivered with sarcasm, which proves truer than he’d like to admit: Journalists are the real story. This often creates an effect that is less of an overlap and more of an eclipse — journalists making art about why journalism is worth caring about. To look at it without being blinded requires the remove of allegory, and the protection of comedy.
Tom’s promotion will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in journalism. It is not that I am opposed to hot people, but I recognize too well the dynamic that Tom’s advancement represented then and signifies now. He does not just represent the increasing prioritization of celebrity over achievement, one that was evident in the newscasters of 1987, and is seen today in everything from the cynical opportunism of right-wing news anchors who become morning talk-show hosts, to the glib posturing of contrarian op-ed columnists, and to the emotional manipulations of magazine profiles attempting to humanize hate. Tom is gloss over substance, theater over fact. As characters who are white and middle-class, this seems to be the first time any of them have thought closely about the dangers that come with giving people access and status simply because they look the part. “There isn’t a system in the world that wouldn’t value one of us,” Aaron says to Tom toward the end of the film, and he is just as correct as he is grossly entitled.
Producers, editors, anchors, and other kinds of managers or leaders continue to be the same kinds of people, chosen based on the same kinds of precedents for what we consider success (pageviews, tweets, and other high-profile but low-impact forms of insular flattery); they continue to guide the work they are responsible for as though there is no distinction between what the work needs and what they don’t know, and as a result only the stories they understand are published. More insidiously, in today’s parallels, they publicly speak with high-minded rhetoric they know looks right, while treating their employees who have less inherent social and professional power as disposable. The past weeks since the first Harvey Weinstein story was published have been just such a crisis: As publications report on abuses of power, more and more stories about journalists abusing their own power in their own workplaces have required no less than a total reckoning — who can we trust, and under what standards have we determined what that trust is worth?
Meanwhile, billionaires looking to diversify their investments buy publications as vanity projects — like Joe Ricketts, who founded DNAInfo and bought Gothamist and then shut them down, admitting to The New York Times it was motivated by a desire to union-bust. The business of news runs on heavily inflated budgets and periodic cullings, and cruel injustices are found everywhere but remain hidden behind nondisclosure and nondisparagement severance agreements. Distrustful bitterness becomes both a posture and a form of protection. One of Brooks’s favorite lines in the film comes in the scene when the president of the network has to lay off the majority of the newsroom — Zirinsky says she cried watching the dailies because the entire scene felt so familiar — and one man ends his meeting with Paul by saying he is just old enough to be flattered by the phrase “early retirement.” Paul jovially offers to help any way he can, and the fired man replies, “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.”
Death wishes aside, all of those truths can’t touch the way Broadcast News is in love with the work it depicts, and the love felt by Brooks and Zirinsky for what they do. Thirty years after its release, it is an essential movie about journalism because it gives the field the allowance to be everything: deserving of every critique, and of the Vaseline-lensed romanticization it gets from the people who love it. Brooks knows what’s wrong with journalism, and the people who make it; he also understands that that just makes the rewards of getting it right all the more deserved.
Brooks admitted that he does sometimes wonder what his life would have been like if he had stayed in news — “not recently, thank god,” he said. “But yes, I did. The person who reports on a king with honesty is maybe bigger than the king, which is what we’re finding out. You guys still have … there’s still a community in news. That’s the thing that saves it. The community of journalism is still vibrant, I think, with all the shit that’s happening. Don’t you think so?” For the sake of the conversation, I agreed, although months later, I’m still not sure what my answer is.
“Today,” Brooks said, “people have turned against news in general,” referencing what has come to be known as fake news, and a general distrust of mainstream media coverage. “I don’t think there’s a movie that has caught that. I think we have at least two newspapers rising to an occasion, to a demand, and as the line is blurred about opinion and when you’re allowed to have a point of view … the religious rules about it have changed.” He talks about the scene in which Jane catches Tom altering the reality of his story, saying that “I don’t think things are quite as holy as that anymore. I don’t think they can be. But where that leads, I don’t know. There are heroic reporters all over the place, at a time when the whole profession is being drained.” Before we hung up, Brooks wanted to know if I listen to the Longform podcast. “It’s like my fantasy of what the internet would be, where you overhear conversations you can’t believe you’re overhearing.” He loves it; he’s still thinking about the women who make news, and the work it takes to do it right. He wanted me to know he thought the interview with New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, in particular, was extraordinary.
Brooks has spoken about his failed attempt to shoot a more traditionally romantic ending, telling The Atlantic that he told Hunter they were doing reshoots, and had prepped Hurt on jumping into her cab before she leaves the airport—so that they would be left presumably happily ever after, in a more cinematically traditional manner. When a crew member accidentally greeted Hurt on set, the surprise was blown, and Brooks, who had never really felt there was a clear choice as to who Jane should end up with, decided not to choose at all. Aaron, he reminded me, calls Tom the devil, and makes a persuasive case for this characterization. “Sending your heroine off to the devil is a little dark,” he pointed out.
Instead, Broadcast News ends with an odd coda: Seven years in the future, all three characters are at a conference, and in their conversation they briefly reassure the audience that everything has turned out OK, if not especially wonderful. Tom has been promoted to evening news anchor, and Jane has accepted the position of his managing editor, while Aaron is working in Portland. Tom is engaged to a pretty woman, and Aaron has a sweet, curly-haired son. Jane has a boyfriend that she tentatively talks about; it’s still new, it seems. Audiences were not reassured — they reportedly hated the ending, which seemed too pat and final for a conclusion that did not bring an expected romantic reunion, or the tragic finality of a lost love. But the point is that the romantic reconciliation is between the characters and their work. We’re left knowing who they are, and who they’ll always be. They’re colleagues who won’t let go of the respect they’ve earned from each other; friends, even when they kind of hate each other; in love with each other, even if they can’t be together. It’s right. It’s also awful.