by Bob Stepno
This page is a departure from this website’s focus on old-time radio. In 2011 and 2012, JHeroes.com was featured in a broader college course on the portrayal of journalists in film and fiction. I update this original “assignment sheet” page from time to time.
I was going to call this page “Book Club.” Sometimes it does feel like a professor needs a club to get students to read a book these days. But I hoped we wouldn’t have that problem in my “Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture” course. Along with some of the radio shows I discuss here on JHeroes, I invited students to explore films and novels, looking for themes, memes and stereotypes that contribute — for better or for worse — to the general public’s conception of journalists.
Films won the students’ interest, with books coming in second — especially books with recent film connections, zombies or portrayals of gonzo Hunter Thompson.
A few memorable characters have appeared in all three media — print, radio and film. They include real-life newswomen Nellie Bly and Anna Zenger, fictional shutterbug Flash Casey, and the reporters featured in the radio and comic book adventures of Superman and The Green Hornet. This page originally was an attempt to help students pick a novel or two to read, so that they wouldn’t limit themselves to the Hollywood world of “newspaper movies.”
For two more recent novels to start with, Terry Pratchett’s comic other-worldly fantasy about the invention of journalism, The Truth (excerpt), and Stieg Larsson‘s twice-filmed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both seemed like “no club needed” choices. (All three of Larsson’s serial novels have the magazine writer, editor and researcher-hacker characters from the first book; the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, adds a Swedish newspaper sub-plot, which didn’t make it into the movie version.)
Groups of three to five students will focus on a particular book, series or author. Members will discuss the works among themselves, write short individual papers, and make a panel presentation to the class.
This page is my list of recommendations, updated with four new titles in August 2012:
- Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D., Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, about a counter-culture freelance photographer and a cynical magazine editor. (“On tour to promote his book about revolutionary journalists, he’s looking for another story; she’s after something more important.”) Brasch even provides a press kit about the book. The book is so new that I haven’t read it myself, but former CBS anchor Dan Rather calls it, “First-rate fiction that explores and contemplates modern American history, culture, politics and journalism.”
- Mimi Johnson’s Gathering String is the newest book on the list — so new I haven’t read it yet. I noticed a blurb by an up-to-date journalist that I follow on Twitter, but he might be ever so slightly biased. It is timely, both because this is a presidential election year, and because the future of online journalism is on all of our minds.
- Pete Hamill‘s Tabloid City is just about a year old, a “thriller” novel by a veteran of both of New York’s daily tabloids who is clearly obsessed with both his city and its newspapers. Listen to his Tabloid City interview on NPR, and follow its link to an excerpt. (You also might like Hamill’s autobiography, A Drinking Life.)
- Closer to our Southwest Virginia home, Sharyn McCrumb’s The Devil Amongst the Lawyers features lessons in 1930s tabloid journalism practice and ethics — a bit reminiscent of the film “Ace in the Hole.” The opening chapter recounts the true story of the day an East Tennessee town hanged an elephant for murder. Honest. And only Radford University students will know what’s going on when the woman accused of murder reads Grapurchat (her old school newspaper) in the jail cell.
So, with The Truth and Dragon Tattoo, that makes six “highly recommended” titles so far, but you aren’t limited to those — and some of you may want to read others for comparison, for your final semester projects, or for just fun.
Novels with newspaper-reporter characters range from classics like Henry James The Portrait of a Lady and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to the post-9/11 Spook Country by William Gibson, and many mysteries by modern reporters like Edna Buchanan (e.g. Contents Under Pressure), Carl Hiaasin (e.g., Basket Case) and Tony Hillerman (The Fly on the Wall). Some have been written by former journalists who became journalism professors, such as Athena’s Forum.
See Jean Marie Lutes’ Front Page Girls (Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction, 1880–1930) for an academic overview of women reporters in early twentieth century history and literature. By the 1930s “newspaper novels” were common enough for “newspaper movies” like “Front Page Woman” to make jokes about them. There are “newspaper novels” that later became movies — examples, The Dark Page — filmed as Scandal Sheet, as well as The Pelican Brief, The Shipping News, The Kolchak Papers, The Good German, The Rum Diaries, Gentleman’s Agreement and many more. Notice how the book is emphasized in this trailer:
In historical novels featuring real-life journalists, you could read about the partisan press of Thomas Jefferson’s day in Scandalmonger or American Aurora (and you might compare the same era in the non-fiction Infamous Scribblers). You might follow the fictional adventures of Nellie Bly, as if her real-life adventures racing around the world and going undercover in a madhouse weren’t enough. Nellie investigates a series of murders in Carol McCleary’s series of novels and, although not the main character, Nellie teams up with Sherlock Holmes to take on Jack the Ripper or someone like him in Carol Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series.
For a combination approach, I’m fascinated by Edna Ferber, who in real life went from teenage reporter to Pulitzer-winning novelist. She wrote about reporters in Dawn O’Hara and Cimarron, and talked about her reporting days in her autobiography. Now, 40-plus years after her death, Edna is the star character in Ed Ifkovic’s series of mystery novels! (I enjoyed the teenage Edna’s encounter with Harry Houdini in Escape Artist, and noticing how Ifkovic’s novel and Ferber’s Dawn O’Hara compared to anecdotes in Ferber’s autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure.)
Similarly, California journalist Miriam Michelson (1870-1942) must have drawn on her own experiences as a turn-of-the-century journalist to write her 1905 romantic adventure A Yellow Journalist, about a young woman reporter’s rapid rise during the heyday of sensational reporting — in competition with male reporters and editors. (Librivox has an excellent free audiobook edition.) See a brief Tablet magazine profile of Miriam Michelson here.
More recently, author Gail Godwin has released her journals about her early days as a reporter in Miami 50 years ago and a novel about a young reporter in Miami at about the same time. There must be something about Miami that inspires journalism novels! (See both Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen, mentioned above.)
And New York journalist Julia Dahl has begun a fascinating series of murder mystery novels featuring a young New York journalist covering that city’s Hasidic community, starting with the award-winning Invisible City (2014).
Want to go even darker? How about a team of bloggers covering an election after a zombie apocalypse, complete with the blood-smeared press credentials on the right? The online new media theme is part of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy: Feed, Deadline and Blackout. Or you might learn something from the alleged media visionaries trying to create a hip, new tabloid for young readers in Russell Wiley Is Out to Lunch? (So far I’ve only read reviews of these, so you’re on your own.)
Interested in something lighter? Did you know the author of the first Nancy Drew mysteries also wrote a series of “teen” novels about a girl reporter named Penny Parker? (Her 1939 to 1947 adventures precede sometime news photographer Peter Parker’s appearance at the Daily Bugle by more than 20 years.) There’s plenty of journalistic curiosity, observation and suspense — but on a level that wouldn’t bother 1940s teenagers as much as the zombies and serial killers of more recent fiction. For the record, the 1940 book illustrated at the right is about a fully-clothed adventure at a ski-resort hotel, unrelated to 1950s rock song or 1970s porn film by the same name.
So… How many novels might you choose from? Here’s an experiment: Go to Worldcat.com and search for the words “journalist” and “novel” or a variation with other keywords (e.g., reporter, editor, newsman, newswoman, sob-sister, newspaper, journalists, journalism etc.) Worldcat’s entries are linked to summaries, GoodReads reviews and to libraries that have the books.
Among other projects, your panel might read non-fiction as well as fiction by a single author, then discuss the crossovers between the two halves of his or her writing life. For example, here’s a blurb about Carl Hiaasin’s journalism for the Miami Herald:
“Though best known for his ribald crime fiction, with its meticulous universe of South Florida idiocy and venal conspiracy, Hiaasen cut his teeth as an investigative reporter, and this spirit is strong in both his chosen subjects and his wry attention to unforgiving evidentiary detail.”
At the bottom of this page, I’ll gradually add more links to information about “newspaper” novels after the semester begins. Comments and suggestions welcome, especially if you notice any radio crossovers, since this page is also part of my “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” project.
- Terry Pratchett and a 2000 interview with him including mention of his newspaper and public relations experience. Here’s The Truth, opening scene
- Original GWTDT film site and Stieg Larsson biography — including his journalism experience, and the official book site.
- “The Girl Who Loved Journalists” is an essay arguing that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the most positive fictional portrayal of a journalist in a long time.
- Dean Wright, Reuters ethics columnist, with a list of novels, When Journalism Becomes a Good Story
- Finally, here are more than 75 additional bookmarks about journalists in fiction, including more links for some of the authors mentioned above.