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posted: 8/16/2012 9:05 AM

In fiction as in fact, credibility is king for papers

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The tweet from longtime newspaper blogger Jim Romenesko was not to be resisted. "Netflix says 'State of Play' is the most popular newspaper film. ("Zodiac" is #2 and 'Citizen Kane' is #3.)" Wow. Self-indulgence plus a list. What could be more compelling?

Newspaper people note our profession's appearance in popular culture with a mixture of pride and discomfort. Many people have similar feelings when they or their life's work are featured in the newspaper, and like those subjects, we're alternately flattered by the attention and amused by the distortions in our portrayals.

The Netflix list, is well stocked with excitement ("The Year of Living Dangerously"), intense characters ("Citizen Kane"), quaint humor ("His Girl Friday"), and heartbreaking reality ("The Killing Fields"). But in general, movies that prominently feature newspaper people can be difficult for newspaper people to watch, because one feels near-spasmodic urges to blurt out, "It's not really like that!"

Though it sort of is at times, which I guess is as close to accuracy as we can hope for in art.

Full of such thoughts, I asked our newsroom for reflections on newspaper movies. My first reaction at the response was, "Wow. There are a lot of good movies about newspaper people." My second was to notice the range of portrayals that captured our imaginations.

There was the hero of the common man -- seen in such characters as Humphrey Bogart in "Deadline USA" (centering on a crusading editor at a dying newspaper who goes down fighting) or "Call Northside 777" (based on a true story about a Chicago reporter whose tenacity and heart get an innocent man removed from Death Row).

There was the uncomfortably flawed, as in Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" (recommended by sports reporter John Leusch, one of the least flawed reporters I know); the morally ambivalent, as in "Under Fire," wherein the protagonist newspaper photographer fakes a photo (recommended by DuPage director of photography Scott Sanders, who is among the planet's photographers least likely to fake a picture for any reason); and the plainly ridiculous, as in "Never Been Kissed," starring Drew Barrymore as a copy editor with both a private office and a secretary (laughingly offered by several copy editors, including assistant news editor Michelle Holdway, who, like all copy editors I've ever known, works from an open cubicle in the middle of the newsroom and does all her own typing and coffee making).

A comment from Food Editor Deb Pankey particularly caught my attention. "I have a problem with movie depictions of newspaper restaurant critics," she wrote in an email. "The two that come quickly to mind are 'My Best Friend's Wedding,' where Julia Roberts plays the critic and 'Ratatouille.' The restaurant always knows the critics are in the house. It does not happen that way."

Not that the movies always get us wrong. There is probably some piece of truth in most portrayals and in some -- "All the President's Men," "The Paper" and the television drama "Wired," as three examples -- the picture is pretty accurate. But overall, the body of work reminds me of a national survey more than a decade ago that found some of the biggest critics of newspapers were people they had profiled or quoted. I'm not exactly sure of the import of that connection, but it emphasizes at least one point that goes beyond self-indulgence and idle list making. When it comes to newspapers, both in fiction and in fact, eventually everything comes down to credibility.

Jim Slusher,, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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