inner workings of a fictitious New York daily newspaper, the Sun. “The Sun: It Shines for All,” reads the sign atop the New York Sun’s office building. The staff of the Sun is a varied bunch, including protagonist Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), who is the paper’s intrepid Metro Editor, Bernie White (Robert Duvall), the old-school Editor, and Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), the pugnacious Managing Editor. Reporters, including Hackett’s wife Martha (Marisa Tomei), also vie for their bylines. In addition to inter-office politics, Howard’s film depicts gender relations, race relations, and ethnic diversity. In some cases, the depictions are fair and positive. For example, the Sun’s office is diverse, comprised of a range of people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. However, some of the portrayals of women are unfair, such as Close’s character Alicia Clark, a testosterone-driven managing editor who contributes to the belief that women can’t be good leaders unless they act like jerks. Similarly, Tomei’s character comes across occasionally as the typical nagging pregnant wife whose life goes on hold during her maternity leave and who pressures her husband into taking a job at a competing newspaper.
A tabloid “commuter paper,” the Sun and its staff competes with similar Manhattan publications for the most sensational headlines, preferably those that deal with death, disaster, or scandal. The bloodier the better; and accompanying photos are a must. The paper is unabashedly insular, reporting only on events that affect Manhattan and unconcerned with global events or intellectually stimulating reporting. To remain a viable commuter tabloid paper, the Sun must retain its niche of the market. The Sun also thrives on being the first paper to report on any given topic and resents being outdone by any of its competitors. For instance, the Paper focuses on one major news story involving the killing of two prominent investors: two young African-Americans were framed for the crime. The paper missed reporting on the initial murder and to make up for their loss by ambitiously pursuing the story.
Hackett becomes predictably obsessed and suddenly loyal to the Sun, even though a more reputable competing paper, modeled after the New York Times, offered him a staff position. When he interviews with the New York Sentinel, Hackett steals their lead from the editor’s desk, blowing his chances at being able to work there and severely upsetting his wife. The relationship between Hackett and his wife is somewhat strained and stereotypically portrayed by Howard and the screenwriters. Nevertheless, Martha Hackett is a strong, upstart female reporter who balances the overly harsh presence of Managing Editor Clark. Other females in the film offer a rounded, hopeful view of gender. For example, an older woman and several women of color work at the paper, some as prominent editors and journalists. They are treated as equals by their male and female peers.
In the Paper, women are depicted in conflicting ways. Alicia Clark is an unfortunate caricature of a woman in power: her nasty attitude sends strong messages about women in positions of power. Clark is devoid of femininity, underscored by her dog fight with Hackett in the press room and her having followed Bernie White into the men’s washroom. However, her character could satirically suggest that women do not need to act like men to be well-respected. In fact, Martha Hackett and several other staff editors and reporters do suggest that women work on par with men in the world of journalism and do not need to act like Clark does.
The editorial decisions regarding the leading story about the wrongfully accused African-American youths relate to themes of race relations in America. Howard treats race sensitively. The black youths were framed for the killing of two white businessmen. Michael McDougal (Randy Quaid) listens constantly to the police scanners and discovers that even the arresting officers believe the kids didn’t commit the crime. With his tip and with Hackett’s stolen information, the reporters go on a rampage in order to be the first to publish the headline, “They didn’t do it!”
Knowing that race riots could ensue because of the false arrest partly prompted the editorial decision to pursue the story, and the reporters were also partially motivated by genuine compassion for the innocent. For instance, Hackett raises the potential issue of “race wars” that could result from convicting the young boys in the press. Hackett is well aware that many jury trials begin with the newspapers and appears to be genuinely concerned. However, in general, financial interest and self-interest trumped any altruistic motives. The editors did not so much care about racial profiling as they did about being the first to bust open the story. The Sun struggles to stay financially afloat, so it is understandable that most editorial decisions are made with finances and self-interest at heart.
The television news emphasizes race in a more insidious way, calling the crime a “racial killing,” and emphasizing the skin color of the victims and the suspects. The Sun seems tame in comparison to the sensationalism on TV. When the story unravels to reveal that organized crime is to blame for the murders, the Sun finally manages to break the story before their competitors, but not before widespread inter-office and interpersonal conflicts ensue. The Paper is an imperfect movie that somewhat glamorizes the work of daily news reporters but which nevertheless shows how politics, gender, and race relations do strongly influence the outcome of editorial decisions and journalism in general.
Howard, Ron. The Paper. 1994.
The Paper.” IMDB.com. Online at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110771/.
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