WHEN ROBERT REDFORD called The Washington Post’s Robert (“Call me Bob”) Woodward to say he liked the book All The President’s Men and to ask about the movie rights, journalism was at the top of its popularity as it will probably never be again. Journalists then were imagined to be a race above, an idealized hierarchy. No one could fool them-not even a president. Reporters became the thinking man’s rock stars. They could right wrongs. They could mete out swift justice. When a reporter found a city official who sent out personal Christmas cards at the city’s expense, his outrage was transmitted to us in six- and eight-part copyrighted series. The trust we usually reserved for leaders of nations we now gave gratefully to journalists.
In the movie, it was one Holy Trinity playing another: Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee. For the actors, the roles were less like work and more like patriotic obligations; for the two reporters and the editor, it was the ultimate celebrity-hood. Didn’t Bradlee come dashing out of the preview, excitedly asking anyone within earshot, “How did I do?” The lines between journalism and show business were blurred indeed. In the aftermath of the book’s publication and the movie’s release, journalism schools were filled to overflowing with zealots looking for the chance to bring down a president or a county clerk-it didn’t matter which. No more chasing fire trucks, no more rewrite desks. This was journalism’s equivalent of a bull market, and it was every man for himself.
Several years later, we saw a different sort of reporter, played by Jane Fonda. The movie was Electric Horseman, and this time Redford was playing another kind of American icon, the Incorruptible Cowboy. Fonda played an updated version of Lois Lane. She was a TV reporter for an affiliate station, and she saw this story as the one that could do for her what a hurricane had done for Dan Rather: put her on the network. Much to the chagrin of the new breed of wound-up, go-for-the-throat reporters, Fonda backed down on her story at the last minute. She felt more of an obligation to Redford than to the story, and who could blame her? The demythification of the reporter was beginning.
What’s interesting is that Redford, who was always on the small “r” right side of the issues, who was never out of sync with the public’s taste, has now picked a role in which he is the target of reporters. Now The Natural (Redford’s latest movie) has opened, and the image of the reporter has slipped even more. In this case, the example is wonderfully black and white. Roy Hobbs, the best baseball player of all time, has come back, and he’s all we ever wanted: a modest man and a team player who has an uncanny ability to hit Federal-Expressed line-drive homers-without a lawyer to represent him. Incredible as it seems, Hobbs wants to win one for his manager.
In The Natural, Robert Duvall plays another American archetypal character: The Godfather’s father-confessor is now a sportswriter whose lip is permanently curled. (Eddie Chiles would love him because he’s in the owner’s pocket.) Duvall plays to perfection Ted Williams’ version of a sportswriter-a man who resentfully understands that no matter what he writes, he will never bring a crowd to its feet. Here, Duvall is no hard-bitten cynic with a heart of gold; he’s the bad guy who hates his bit part among the boys of summer a little more every day.
Even Paul Newman, who played Red-ford’s outlaw partner, Butch, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, had let his feelings about reporters be known in Absence of Malice, which was about as far from the All The President’s Men portrayal of journalism as you can get. I read somewhere that Newman relished the role because it tracked his own feelings about reporters’ aggressive disregard for privacy. (Newman once had a bitter press experience when one of his children committed suicide.)
Those who make movies possible-the investors-are not in the habit of swimming too vigorously upstream against what they guess to be their audience’s desires. They won’t let a movie go against the press unless they think the public will go along. As much as they want Redford or Newman, they’re not about to invest $20 million in a polemic. The money supports the movies that the investors think the public wants; the money men would almost rather be too late than too early in spotting a trend. And in more movies than usual, the Fourth Estate is definitely out of favor.
If you believe that Robert Redford chooses his roles and movies with great care (could you picture him as Scarface?), and if you believe that he chooses them in such a way that they suggest something about what he believes, then maybe a conclusion can be drawn that Redford is no longer as enamored of the journalism profession as when he and Woodward used to meet for a beer after work.
What eventually got to Redford is the same thing that seems to be getting to a growing number of people. It’s sanctimony. It’s stonewalling in the face of anything that resembles criticism. (Can you imagine the outrage reporters would try to drum up if they found out that the airlines wanted to get rid of the Civil Aeronautics Board and regulate themselves? And yet the journalism profession just allowed a relatively toothless agency that was supposed to provide a forum for legitimate grievances about the press to go out of existence.) And it’s the unwillingness to openly admit that the fear of being beaten by a competitive news organization is the force that more often than not shapes reporting.
As the esteem for journalism seems todrift downward, you wonder just how far itwill go and when it will come full circleagain. Maybe what it will take is a decisionby Roy Hobbs to retire at the peak of hishomer-hitting prowess and become a journalist. The press needs Roy, because if youcan’t believe Roy Hobbs, who can youbelieve? The movie opens next summer-Roy Hobbs Meets Punch Sulzberger: TheNatural, Part II. Don’t miss it.