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Stunt Reporting, Sob Sister Journalism, and Distrust of the Press in Films of the Great Depression

Philip Hanson

Assistant Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies Coordinator, Expository Writing
University of San Francisco

To many a British journalist a U.S. reporter is a creature who chews black cigars, speaks to ladies without removing his hat, and stoops to anything for the sake of a story.
Time Magazine, February 10, 1930

Doctor Enoch Downer: I'll tell you briefly what I think of
newspapermen. The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn't
elevate one of them to the depths of degradation.
Nothing Sacred (1937)


Near the end of His Girl Friday, and after the numerous and complex plot complications have been resolved and the film's romance between reporters Walter Burns Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) has reached a fruition point, Hildy and Walter have a moment alone. By the ‘30s, films had conditioned audiences to expect romantic tenderness at such a point in a story's evolution. Hildy, feeling sentimental about their previous shared romance before they divorced, reminisces: “Remember the time we stole Old Lady Haggerty's stomach off the coroner's physician?” Her reminiscence, romantic to her, recalls a repulsive stunt they've pulled to get a story. The humour lies in the callousness of the reporters' notions of romance. It's a moment that represents a whole body of such moments in films of the ‘30s. As such it is revealing of acerbic attitudes that had developed toward the newspapers and that were intensified by the developing political conditions of the Depression. In film after film of the period, newspapers come in for negative treatment. Reporters are presented as duplicitous, amoral, and opportunistic, a barely necessary evil in a free society.

 

The bitter attitude of His Girl Friday toward the amorality of newspaper people manifests itself in films in a range of ways. Newspapers are often seen as part of a soulless, Hooveresque power structure that operates with a life of its own; they're in the service of power or profit, impervious to the suffering around them. This representation of the press arises because the press was widely perceived as a voice for the powerful. At the height of his national popularity, Populist Huey Long spoke for many of the “little people” of the era when he charged newspapers were “only allowed to give us such information as the big fellows want us to have” (Brinkley Voices of Protest 145-6). Feeling that newspaper publishers represented those with influence in the power structure who were “opposed to socio-economic reforms,” New Dealers began to refer to publishers as “press lords” (Emery and Emery 423). Harold Ickes, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, complained about the press in class terms, remarking, “Evidently newspapers, even little ones, are Big Business and the people who own them are therefore dominated by a Big Business psychology. . . . the money in their pockets edits their columns every day” (13).

 

In the decades leading up to the Depression, newspapers had established a reputation for discarding morality in the service of success. Herbert Hoover's unwillingness to extend government aid to the down-and-out in the first years of the Depression had created a lasting resentment on the part of the American populace for insensitive people wielding power. The newspapers of the Depression era seemed to have tapped into the reservoir of resentment toward others with the same attitude. By the ‘30s, the distrust the press conveyed in His Girl Friday and other films was the cumulative result of decades of stunts and sensationalist falsehoods that had marred the history of the American press, intensified by new sensitivities created by Depression hardship. And the newspapers were regularly the messengers that brought the bad or tragic economic news during the Depression. One could wake up to find one's life savings wiped out or the factory where one had a job closing-such news sold papers, so the press could easily be perceived as profiting from misery. Additionally, newspapers at least made a show of being objective. This combination, their claimed objectivity (or disengagement from the misery of others), their quite subjective profit interest in bad news, and their do-anything-to-get-a-story tactics contributed to rubbing a generation of anxious people the wrong way. The psychology of the relationship between people suffering and the feelings provoked by the newspapers is suggested in Alan Brinkley's analysis of the underlying tensions that marked many in the Depression. Trying to solve the mystery of why the Depression, in the words of two sociologists, Robert and Helen Lynd, “had approached in its elemental shock the primary experiences of birth and death,” and at the same time was described by people who lived through it as “often hard to see,” Brinkley looks at how people explained the Depression and concludes, they did not “lay the blame for their problems…on their society…on the economy…on the culture, but on themselves.” He adds, beneath the surface, they could not escape “feelings of guilt, shame, and failure” (Culture and Politics 8). However, people of the era did, in political terms, blame politicians. And they acted on their feelings, burying Hoover in the election with Roosevelt, and repeatedly re-electing FDR. Even a pseudo objective press, one which could profit at each new disaster, would be hard to swallow for people who felt as much in pain Brinkley describes. And, psychologically, picking up a daily newspaper could feel like playing Russian roulette. Added to this point, the decades leading up to the Depression were loaded with journalistic chicanery; and conditions that characterized changing American views on several subjects, among them-and of particular importance-on democracy itself, exacerbated the public's view of
newspapers.

 

Collectively, by the ‘30s, the members of the American press establishment had worked hard to earn the distrust of Americans, a distrust that was in many ways mutual. In their history of the American press, Edwin and Michael Emery point out that as the nineteenth century closed, “new techniques could be used to emphasize sensationalism at the expense of news…now [editors] had better tools with which to make sensationalism distinctive and seemingly new. The degrading product of this effort became known as yellow journalism” (281-2). The term originated from the newspapers' newfound ability to use colour to liven up the appearance of their papers, and specifically from the cartoon character who first appeared in the Sunday comic, Hogan's Alley, which
depicted life in the tenements, often including crude representations of immigrants and minorities. A central figure in the strip was the Yellow Kid, “a toothless, grinning kid attired in a ballooning dress. When the World printers daubed a blob of yellow on the dress he became the immortal ‘Yellow kid'“ (Emery and Emery 285). The publisher most associated with yellow journalism was William Randolph Hearst (with Joseph Pulitzer getting votes as well). Hearst had become editor of The San Francisco Examiner when his father, George Hearst, became a senator. The Examiner lagged behind the rival San Francisco Chronicle, a circumstance Hearst was determined to change. He did so by employing sensationalist methods, “stunt reporting,” and “sob sister” journalism.

 

Such tactics permeate ‘30s films. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a newspaper's star stunt reporter (Jean Arthur) pretends to befriend Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a small town rube who's inherited a fortune and comes to the big city. While playing at wooing him (pulling a stunt) in the evenings, she delivers stories for the amusement of the newspaper's urban readers, regaling them with accounts of Deeds' Yokumesque lack of sophistication. Typical of such films, the reporter is made to see the heartlessness of her position when she falls for Deeds and he's hauled into court on charges of mental incompetence for his eccentricities (being, in the famous terminology of the film, “pixilated”). The Arthur role emerged from the legends of real life stunt and sob sister reporting. San Francisco Examiner reporter Winifrid Black Bonfils, who churned “out tearful copy that drew millions of readers,” and was known to Hearst readers as Annie Laurie, pulled one of the most publicized stunts of the period (Beasely and Gibbons 118). To get the goods on a San Francisco hospital she pretended to faint on one of San Francisco's streets, was taken to the hospital, and wrote an emotional account of how she claimed inmates there were treated. Her story contained a “sob for the unfortunate in every line” (Emery and Emery). On another occasion “she obtained an interview with President Benjamin Harrison by hiding under a dining car table and popping out with a notebook in hand when Harrison sat down” (Beasely and Gibbons 118). In the sensational Earle Peacox torch murder story, sob sister Mildred Gilman “climbed the back fence at the victim's home and entered with Peacox,” later claiming she believed he was another reporter. She heard the victim's family reasoning with Peacox, trying to convince him to go to the police who were looking for him. The family didn't realize he was actually guilty. Gilman heard him confess “that he had poured gasoline on his wife and set the body aflame after he had bludgeoned her for spurning and humiliating him.”

 

Shortly after this confession, the family noticed Gilman's presence. Gilman claimed to be a personal friend of the dead wife. After inventing some condolences for the dead woman's relatives, Gilman hurried out and raced to phone in her story, gushing to her editor that Peacox was at the police station” (Marzolf 34-5). Emery and Emery comment, “Trumpeting their concern for ‘the people,' yellow journalists at the same time choked up the news channels on which the common people depended…This turned the high drama of life into cheap melodrama and led to stories being twisted into the form best suited for sales by the howling newsboy” (Emery and Emery 282).

 

As a result, when a film of the period wanted to represent particularly low moral behaviour, it often turned to the behaviour of newspaper people. In Jean Harlow's The Girl from Missouri, 1934, Edie (Harlow) falls in love with a millionaire's son, Tom Page, Jr. (Franchot Tone). Tom's father, T.R., a banker (Lionel Barrymore), snobbishly doesn't want his son to marry a commoner. T.R. trumps up a theft charge and sends the district attorney and a flock of sharkish reporters to Edie's apartment. T.R.'s hired thug sneaks into Edie's apartment, partially disrobes, and rushes to her door to answer the D.A.'s knock. The reporters, eager for trash, quickly start flashing pictures of the blackmail job, unwittingly aiding T.R. in smearing Edie. The film cuts to the subsequent day's front page picture of the hired thug embracing Edie (caught in her negligee). Later in the film, having learned from T.R.'s sleaze tactics, Edie enlists a group of reporters attending T.R.'s send-off as delegate to an international disarmament conference. T.R. steps in front of a room from which Edie jumps out in her underwear and embraces him, while newspaper photographers' flash bulbs go off everywhere.


Similarly in Libeled Lady (1936) when a newspaper prints a false story about an heiress, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), smearing her morals, its editor, Warren Haggerty (Spenser Tracy), hires Bill Chandler (William Powell), a professional at getting papers out of libel suits (that such a profession might exist suggests the film's view of the truth content in newspaper stories) to frame Connie by getting her into his room aboard an ocean liner during a cruise and having a newspaper photographer snap her picture and enmesh her in scandal. The film's cynicism about the press's disregard for truth emerges from newspaper ethics. Hearst and his reporters were at times reckless, though generally remaining unabashed, in their meddling in national and international affairs. Claiming President McKinley to be a tool of the trusts, a Hearst paper, The Journal, ran an editorial that remarked, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” Five months later, McKinley was assassinated (Robinson 331-2). When he succeeded McKinley to office, referring to Hearst, Theodore Roosevelt angrily characterized McKinley's assassin as one “inflamed by the teachings of professional anarchists, and probably also by the reckless utterances of those who, on the stump and in the public press, appeal to the dark and evil spirits, of malice and greed, envy and sullen hatred” (Swanberg 195).


In cases where a social problem existed, the press was represented as deepening the problem, rather than serving the people. For example, They Won't Forget (1937) presents the problem of lynching in the South as an age-old expression of Southern bigotry. But in the film's dissection of the power structure that enables subversion of justice by regional prejudice, the press is presented as integral to the ugly process. The film juxtaposes scenes of marching Confederate veterans with the occurrence of rape and lynching. That the lynching will be of a white vocational college professor, Robert Hale, rather than of a black man, as was happening throughout the South in the ‘30s, characteristically reflects the movie industry's unwillingness to take on the powerful forces that successfully locked anti-lynching laws throughout the decade. The evening after a Confederate Memorial Day March, reporters appear at a police station complaining, “Nobody hurt, no fights, no nothing.” When Bill Brock, a star reporter, belittles the police for the penny ante arrests they make, a cop reproves him, telling him to show respect for the police. Suggesting the film's view of journalistic integrity, Brock responds, “I haven't even got any for myself.” When a student, Mary Clay (Lana Turner), at the college is raped and murdered, the immediate suspect is a black elevator operator, Trump Redwine. The film makes the point that blacks were not given just treatment in its showing the aggressive interrogation tactics the police employ with Redwine and the repeated suggestion of the torture they want to use to get a confession. But Redwine won't serve the D.A., Andy Griffin's (Claude Raines) political ambitions. When the chance to pin the rape on an outsider, a Yankee, arises, the D.A., with persistent help from Brock and his newspaper, does so, pinning it on Hale. The film takes pains to present the unprincipled tactics of the reporters who question Hale's young wife. They enter her apartment without her having answered their knock. When she faints at the news that her husband has been arrested, rather than catching her, a photographer snaps her picture. Reporters search her bedroom, going through drawers and snitching a wedding photo. Dolly, a female reporter, uses her age and gender to get Mrs. Hale to confide in her, assuring the young woman she won't make the confidences public. Mrs. Hale recalls that her husband complained that the Southerners treated him like an outsider, characterizing the South as “still fighting the Civil War.” She reveals her husband had intended to find a job outside of the South. The film cuts to newspaper headlines in enlarged type, which read, “Hale Planned Flight!” The D.A. later ignores Mrs. Hale when she tells him the newspapers printed “vicious lies” and attributed them to her.


Repeatedly the film presents the reporters as intensifying the problem of Southern prejudice by exploiting it to sell papers. On the screen typewriters are represented as sending messages across a map of the nation, a representative example of which reads, “Sell Prejudice Angle.” When the papers inflame public opinion to the point that a private detective named Pindar, who investigates the case on Hale's behalf, is beaten by a Southern mob, Brock tells the D.A., “When you find the men that beat up Pindar, give ‘em a vote of thanks and let them go. That beating was all we needed to put this case over.” Later, the newspapers are represented as loudspeakers that blare out sensationalist versions of the trial. After a mob lynches Hale, Mrs. Hale confronts the D.A. and Brock, whom she accuses of the murder. With a campaign poster boosting Griffin for senator nearby, the two admit, after Mrs. Hale departs, they really don't know who committed the rape.


In foreign affairs, the Hearst papers were willing to try to force a reluctant story to materialize by manipulating emotions to sway public opinion, at times rushing a story into print without having checked the facts (as is represented in Libeled Lady). In 1897, for over a year the Hearst papers had been calling for war with Spain in Cuba. Hearst had sent star reporters Richard Harding Davis, James Creelman, and an artist, Frederick Remington, to Cuba to cover any breaking events. So little was happening that according to Creelman's later reminiscences, Remington cabled Hearst that there would be no war and he was returning home. According to Creelman's later memoirs, Hearst wrote back, “You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war” (a line repeated almost word for word by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Emery and Emery 290). Evidence that Hearst was willing to do so came in the form of his papers sensationalizing several incidents and fabricating facts. When three Cuban girls boarded the U.S. ship Olivette to leave Havana for New York, Spanish police boarded the ship, claiming the girls were smuggling dispatches out of Cuba. They insisted the girls be searched before they could depart. Davis's story of the incident “was illustrated by a half-page drawing by Remington, showing one of the girls half naked, surrounded by interested policemen.” The story caused an outcry in the U.S. But Pulitzer's World, irritated at being scooped, searched the girls out and interviewed them, learning that they hadn't been stripped by the male police officers, but by Spanish matrons. The World published their story under the headline, “The Unclothed Women Searched by Men was an Invention of a New York Newspaper” (Swanberg 112).

 

Such stretching of the truth wasn't exclusively the domain of Hearst. Joseph Pulitzer's New York World also dived into yellow journalism tactics in the war over circulation. Typical headlines of the period from New York papers illustrated how freely the newspapers played with the truth: “Real American Monsters And Dragons”; “Startling Confession of a Murderer Who Begs to be Hanged”; and “Strange Things Women do for Love” (Emery and Emery 286). The history of the press up until the ‘30s explains the treatment accorded it in films. The press seems almost omnipresent in ‘30s films and all of its recent abuses are aired out. In What Price Hollywood? (1932-remade as A Star is Born) when actress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) helps out an old friend, Max Carey, an alcoholic director who helped her get her start, he commits suicide in her home. Wracked with grief Mary shuts herself up in her home, but a newspaper photographer takes the initiative to climb in her window and snap a picture of the grief-stricken woman.

 

In Back in Circulation (1937-based on a story in Cosmopolitan by long-time reporter, Adela Rogers St. John) the effrontery of “stunt reporting” furnishes the logic for the film's irony. Reporter Timmy Blake (Joan Blondell) arrives at a train reck. Because of the casualties, police are keeping everyone out. Timmie's newspaper pals see the wreck as an opportunity (rather than a tragedy). They get in by lying to a guard, saying they're doctors. Later, the editor, Bill Morgan (Pat O'Brien) tells the photographer, “best picture we've had since that dame worked on Willie Guffy with a sash blade.” When the editor doesn't want to take Timmie to a nightclub, she reminds him of the time she committed perjury for him on the witness stand in a libel suit. Soon Timmie is covering a sensational murder trial. A doctor has been poisoned and his wife is a suspect. Tricking her way into the widow's presence, Timmie coerces her by painting a frightening picture of how the newspapers will cover the story, which she characterizes as in opposition to American law: “It won't be like a court of law, Mrs. Wade. You'll be guilty until proven otherwise.” Later, Timmie comes on to Mrs. Wade's old boyfriend to get his story. When Mrs. Wade sues the Morning Express for libel, to beat the lawsuit, Morgan pressures the D.A. to indict Mrs. Wade. When at last Timmie learns Mrs. Wade is innocent, she finds that Mrs. Wade has been protecting the doctor who befriended her. She makes Timmie promise not to print the story, but Morgan eavesdrops and runs the story anyway. Until the film's end, ethics are of no particular importance in Back in Circulation. The film's treatment of the press is as cynical as it believes the press itself to be.

Intensifying such cynicism, a group of cause-and-effect relationships arose in the ‘30s which contributed to film makers' ambivalence or downright hostility toward the press. Economic instability and the depersonalisation of life under industrial capitalism, both of which contributed to eroding the influence of high art and, more generally of
the elite, had caused doubts to arise for some about the values of a democratic society. Editor James A Wechsler remembered the early ‘30s as a time of “democratic despair” (quoted in Schudson 122). Both Mussolini and Hitler enjoyed some popularity in the U.S. during the early ‘30s. Ezra Pound became so enamoured with Mussolini during the ‘30s that he broadcast pro-fascist messages over the radio for Italy during the war. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles represents Kane as initially admiring Hitler. Michael Schudson points out that this was not “simply the despair of a Depression year. Even…among…liberal intellectuals there was deep pessimism about political democracy” (123).

 

A sense that the Depression itself might unseat American democracy makes its way into films of the period. And the newspapers as part of the elite establishment are in some films seen as part an anti-democratic trend. Emery and Emery point out that negative criticism of the press in the ‘30s emphasized “its political power. Supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal charged that much of the press was opposed to socio-economic reforms, sometimes in ways viewed as bitterly partisan.” The FDR people were especially critical of publishers they tabbed “press lords” (423). Meet John Doe opens with a close-up of a plaque outside of a newspaper building that reads, “free press for a free people.” Immediately these words are chiselled off and replaced by the words, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era,” conveying the film's distrust of the too-slick values of the newspaper's new owner, D.B. Norton. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), a reporter about to lose her job due to the management change (and the Depression economy), fakes a letter from an invented down and-out-man. Soon D.B. is exploiting the fake John Doe (Gary Cooper) for his own fascist political ends. Like demagogues Huey Long and Father Coughlin of the period, D.B. plans to start a third party and take over the country. By 1936, Coughlin had hoped to “seize the government of the United States.” Another demagogue, Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, remarked, “The democratic method is a lot of baloney…it doesn't mean a thing” (quoted in McElvaine 278). D.B., who owns a private police force as well as the newspaper, uses almost identical language: “These are daring times, Mr. Barrington. We're coming to a new order of things. There's been too much talk going on in this country…Too many concessions have been made. What the American people need is an iron hand!” Meet John Doe sees an element in newspaper history of the press serving as a tool for corrupt political power.


A similar point could be made without dragging fascism into it. A contender for the title of bitterest film of the ‘30s, Five Star Final, especially in its treatment of the press, dissects a sensationalist newspaper, not as a fascist threat to democracy, but for its compromised capitalist profit concerns and willingness to distort and smear people.
The film summarizes trends that had been occurring in American papers, such as a paper employee referring to putting girls in underwear in prominent places in the paper. It becomes apparent that worries over circulation lead to tackier stories. The newspaper's editor, Randall (E.G. Robinson), is accused of hurting the paper by using highbrow stories. Ziggy Feinstein, a reporter specializing in stunts and fabrication, tells Randall to give them girls; no one wants to read about politics. The film's own conservative streak emerges when Ziggy fixes a contest by, in his words, “letting an Irishman, a Jew, and a wop win,” the implication being that such immigrants are part of the problem of a lowering of American moral standards. Lacking a scandalous story to capture the public's attention, the circulation and advertising people pressure the newspaper's owner, Hinchcliff, to dig up an old scandal and run it again. They recall how Randall made his reputation on the story of Nancy Vorhees, a woman who killed her husband, but waslet off by a jury on account of her baby. Unknown to the public, Nancy Vorhees has begun a new life. The film shows her with her daughter who is about to be married; she's clearly an ideal mother. Randall is reluctant to participate in the grubby tactics the publisher suggests employing. He says, “it's like going back to the old days.” Randall uses divinity school dropout, Ichabod (Boris Karloff), to impersonate a reverend to catch the Vorhees family unaware. The daughter has never been seen by anyone at the paper and they want a photograph of her. She's marrying a society swell and it's implied the smear will ruin her marriage. The film represents both Ishbod and the newspaper's secretary as having to drink to live with themselves. Soon Randall starts drinking. Interspersed with shots of the newspaper's thugs beating up a vendor who carries rival papers, the scam on the Vorhees' family unfolds; eventually Nancy and her husband commit suicide. After Nancy's death, the advertising and circulation big shots plot to run a fake story, purportedly by Mrs. Vorhees. Mr. Hinchcliff mouths platitudes about “newspapers [being] only a reflection of the world.” But Randall quits, reviling Hinchcliff for selling out integrity. In the heavy handed closing scenes the film presents a closeup on Hinchcliff, Pontius Pilot style washing his hands, then one of the burial victims (Nancy Vorhees) on the front page of the paper, which blows into a gutter and is swept away with the slime. The film is presented with such anger that the shouting Vorhees daughter, crying, “Why did you kill my mother?” and other histrionics virtually destroy any artistic value. But as a social document it conveys a deep sense of disgust for the American press, one based on the press, not as an impartial reporter (or as a conscience of the people), but as an organ for capitalist profit, involved in thuggery and smear tactics.


Responding to press behaviour in the early twentieth century, Walter Lippman argued that the quality and impartiality of newspapers had to be upgraded. Reporters would have to adopt a standard “in which the ideal of objective testimony is cardinal” (quoted in Schudson152). Michael Schudson explains, “By the mid-thirties the term ‘objectivity,' unknown in journalism before World War I, appears to have been common parlance”
(156). Citizen Kane, written and filmed at the height of Hearst's power and influence, isolates and examines objectivity from a perspective different than that of Five Star Final. Having taken over the Inquirer, which he's inherited, Charles Foster Kane repeatedly claims to be serving the people, telling Walter Thatcher, the banker who raised him, “It is my duty…to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this city are not robbed blind by a group of money-mad pirates because, God help them, they have no one to look after their interests!” Unlike the circulation and advertising men in Five Star Final, Kane is not motivated by circulation numbers or money. The project of the film is
to uncover his motivations, which he repeatedly represents as principles-so much so that at one point he offers a “declaration of principles” for the paper. They include honesty, truth, and no special interests. This last concept concerning special interests is a synonym for objectivity. His drama critic, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), saves the principles, which Kane has written down. When Thatcher tells Kane he'll lose a million a year running the Inquirer, Kane responds. “We did lose a million dollars last year…we expect to lose a million this year, too…at the rate of a million a year-we'll have
to close this place-in sixty years.”


In its early scenes, Citizen Kane establishes that Kane's mother, who has inherited a silver mine, sends Kane off to be raised by Thatcher to get the boy away from an abusive father. The film treats Kane's motivation as a secret that needs unravelling, but as Pauline Kael pointed out, the secret is pretty “shallow” (4). As Kane's story plays out, he loses friends. As Hearst kept the actress Marion Davies as a mistress, Kane keeps the not-so-talented singer, Susan Alexander.

He loses his wife and election as governor. In turn, Leland begins to sour on Kane, claiming that Kane thinks he owns people. He remarks Kane won't like organized labour because they'll expect some things as rights rather than as gifts. Years later, when a newsreel reporter interviews Leland in an effort to understand Kane's dying word, “rosebud,” Leland explains Kane only wanted love, but he didn't have any to give. He only loved Charlie Kane. His second wife repeats this message, telling Kane he tries to buy love. The mystery of Kane's motivations requires only Sigmund Freud to sit Kane down and ask, “How did you feel about your father?” Kane's actions can be explained by his primal scene, being separated from home and sled (rosebud). Eventually, his subjective interests take over as he plants favourable stories about Susan Alexander's performances in his newspapers, conveying the film's view that the denial of special interests in Kane's declaration of principles (among them a claim for objectivity) was compromised by his own special interest. Kane provides a clue to the potential, philosophically speaking, of any objectivity at all when he responds to Susan's charge
that he wants everything on his terms: “My terms? The only terms anyone ever knows.” Schudson points out, “While objectivity, by the 1930s, was an articulated professional value in journalism, it was one that seemed to disintegrate as soon as it was formulated. It became an ideal in journalism…precisely when the impossibility of overcoming subjectivity in presenting the news was widely accepted.”(157) Citizen
Kane understands and exemplifies the problem. Newspapers had a history of allowing special interests to shape their “news.” But how much this happened differs from paper to paper, with no one exempt. For anything other than subjectivity is impossible. Kane's sins are a matter of claiming a set of objective principles while acting in his own subjective interests.


A development illustrating the depth of special interest taint on American journalism was the emergence of public relations. Politicians and businessmen had utilized public relations in the nineteenth century, and by the 1920s the idea of managing public opinion was on the rise. In the case of press agent, Phineas Taylor Barnum, one can see the
potential in public relations. P.T. Barnum utilized “exaggeration, outright fakery, and staged events to obtain reams of stories in the newspapers” (Emery and Emery 413). The journal, “Editor and Publisher, feared that public relations agents helped businesses to promote as news what otherwise would have been purchased as advertising” (Schudson 136). Of a gift from John D. Rockefeller to Johns Hopkins University, famed PR man, Ivy Lee, wrote to Rockefeller (of the publicity job he had done on the matter): “This was not really news…[but] the newspapers gave so much attention to it, it would seem that this was wholly due to the manner in which the material was ‘dressed up' for newspaper consumption. [This] suggests very considerable possibilities along this line” (Schudson 138). Politicians, business people, and movie studios all were making use of public relations people. Reporters feared that the news would be replaced with manipulative information dispensed by special interests. In a study of public relations and its influence, Silas Bent determined that “at least 147 of 255 stories in the New York Times of December 29, 1926,origniated in the work of press agents, as did 75 of 162 stories in the New York Sun of January 14, 1926” (Schudson 144).


This development did not go unnoticed in films of the ‘30s. It intensified public and screenwriters’ perceptions that the newspapers were a tool of big money special interests and part of a sleaze network with public relations people. The Jean Harlow film, Bombshell (1933), derives its comic irony from perceptions of the public relations-newspaper connection. The film opens with evidence that the studio PR man who is responsible for film star, Lola Burns (Harlow,) has been doing his job effectively. The film's first images are of newspaper clippings and magazine covers featuring Lola. At Lola's home she arises at 6 a.m., griping about the pressures of her job and an early morning interview. We soon see the connection between the studio's publicity machine and the possible dangerous effects. Selling Lola results in consumers who have their desires so inflamed that they want more of the product. As Lola passes a crowd of fans, an apparent lunatic steps out from the crowd and claims to be Lola's husband. Later, unknown to Lola, the public relations guy, Hanlon, sets up her European boyfriend and Lola to be arrested by government agents on charges of immigration violations against the boyfriend. He then tips off reporters so they'll be present to get the story and pictures. Back at Lola's house the stalker who claims to be her husband again shows up. Later that day we see an interviewer arranged by the studio shape Lola's opinions, rather than merely reporting them. The interviewer, a woman, convinces Lola that Lola's deepest wish is for a baby, a case of the reporter shaping opinion on the spot.


Eventually Lola is so tormented by the publicity pressures that she runs off to a secluded ranch, where she meets and falls in love with a man, Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), who claims to not know she's a star. But Gifford's parents disdain Lola for being too socially beneath their son. They criticize her for working in the movies, forcing her to defend having done so. Distraught over the break-up of her romance and
the assault on her career, Lola returns to Hollywood and making movies. Behind her back we see the studio PR man pay off her boyfriend and his parents, actors who helped manipulate Lola. Hanlon kisses Lola, having succeeded in tricking her into falling for him. But the film ends with her catching Hanlon paying off the stalker; even the apparent lunatic is a result of the publicity campaign. The comic core of the film's ending suggests the historically grounded perception that special interests could manipulate the truth, making it almost impossible to distinguish fact from fabrication. Ultimately, the film suggests to mass audiences of the period, even romance can be acquired through manipulation. As in Citizen Kane, stories in the newspapers are revealed not to be the
result of disinterested digging by reporters in search of the truth, but manifestations of special interest-even those of paid public relations people--attempting to shape public thought. Notably this occurs in the era of the rise of public relations as a profession. Though there are moments in films of the period when the press is instrumental in exposing fraud or rottenness, in actually serving the people, films of
the ‘30s consistently return to a deep distrust of the claimed disinterestedness of the American press. In times of economic darkness, when the average citizen felt the wracking changes that were chaotically tossing his and his family's lives about, the press comes in for a consistently harsh screen treatment for acting subjectively under the
guise of objectivity, selling its morality for profit, and placing itself in the service of those in power rather than serving, as it advertises itself, as the people's fourth estate.