The recent 40th anniversary of "All the President's Men" and the Best Picture Oscar notched by "Spotlight" offer potent reminders not only of the power of journalism, but of the power of journalism movies.
The films, bookending four decades, portray the press at its real-life best, which is particularly heartening amid times of great upheaval in the business and a 2015 Gallup poll putting the public’s trust in the news media at a low point.
"Spotlight" aside, though, the popular culture's take on journalism in recent years tells a different story – manifesting largely in news-driven satirical TV programs spawned by "The Daily Show," including "The Colbert Report," "The Nightly Show," "Last Week Tonight" and "Fully Frontal."
Now the movies are getting back in on the Fourth Estate comedy act. Tina Fey's "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," based on journalist Kim Barker’s experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, opened last month. The latest movie entry arrives April 29 on Netflix: Ricky Gervais' "Special Correspondents," a comedy about the journalistic mortal sin of faking it.
In the film, based on a French flick, Gervais and Eric Bana play a radio duo who produce bogus Ecuadorian war zone reports from the safety of a New York apartment, before finding themselves in trouble they never imagined. Gervais and Bana are the anti-Woodward and Bernstein – instead of following the money, they're chasing the laughs.
Truth be told, some of the best movies about journalism are farces in which reporters come off as scoundrels. Take newsmen Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s 1928 Broadway hit, "The Front Page," which spawned various big screen versions, including "His Girl Friday," the greatest newspaper laugher of them all.
The Great Depression proved the Golden Era for comedies brimming with dubious journalism ethics, among them "It Happened One Night," "Meet John Doe" and "Nothing Sacred," in which a small-town doctor opens a window to let out the stench when he learns a reporter is in the room.
Perhaps Gervais, who directed "Special Correspondents" and wrote the script, wanted a forum to air his grievances with the press (he noted with derisive amusement during his standup act a few years back that one British tabloid referred to him as a "chubby funster").
His fun at the expense of the media follows the recent Pulitzer Prize announcement. Winning reports, including ones that exposed shocking labor abuses and mistreatment of mental patients, only reinforced the importance of a strong press.
Satire, though, can help provide insight by spotlighting absurdities of all kinds – even among those charged with finding and sharing the truth. Check out a preview of "Special Correspondents" (above) in which Gervais presents a dim view of the media at its worst.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.