You hold in your hands an invention of the mid-19th century—the modern newspaper. In 1844, Samuel Morse (the code guy) opened America’s first telegraph line, which wired information at the speed of light. Distances collapsed to zero; the telegraph, in an instant, made geography meaningless. Information—from everywhere, to everywhere—exploded. The first newspaper in the West Indies, The Jamaica Gleaner (heard of it?), began at roughly the same time.
“The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” Neil Postman was right; the wire transformed newspapers from publishers of reasoned opinion into purveyors of information—as much as they could print, as fast as they could print. The weekend forecast, Sharapova’s forehand, the President’s foreplay—all in the name of selling copy, and selling copies.
In the last century, movies, broadcast television, cable television and now the Internet have all superseded newspapers, manufacturing “the news” in ever-accelerating cycles, in more exciting formats (Moving pictures! In colour! All the time! Now interactive!), in more ubiquitous media. Wait—are you reading this online?
Since the American media is not exempt from either narcissism or existential angst, and since they consider themselves highly “newsworthy”, there is no shortage of movies about movies (Sunset Boulevard, The Player), movies about television (Network, Good Night and Good Luck), television about television (Murphy Brown, Sports Night), television about newspapers (Early Edition, The Wire), newspapers about movies (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter), and movies about newspapers (Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday). And just in: State of Play.
State of Play follows seasoned reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) at the fictional Washington Globe (a stand-in for The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, or The New York Times). Both Cal and the Globe, despite credentials and experience, face obsolescence. Cal, writing for the print edition, is older, slower and more expensive than the always-on bloggers from the online half—like young Della Frye (a cute-as-a-buttoned-sweater Rachel McAdams). The Globe, under new owner MediaCorp, is under pressure to be profitable, pressure which falls on editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren).
Things get worse when Cal’s old college roommate, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), is embroiled in a sex scandal. Cal and Della, both assigned to the story, represent two conflicting approaches—one grounded in thoroughness and objectivity, the other in expediency and populism. Editor Lynne, and the newspaper, occupy the no-man’s-land between them, full of paradoxes and non sequiturs—trying to wring unbiased coverage from reporters corrupted by human emotions, trying to win readers while holding to stodgy conventions, trying to be an independent watchdog while leashed to a huge corporation.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is nostalgic both for the mini-renaissance of 1970s American filmmaking and the halcyon days of the press. The journalist hero of Watergate, Bob Woodward, was immortalized by über-hunk Robert Redford in All the President’s Men (another movie about newspapers). The real Bob Woodward appears in State of Play, which was almost shelved when the original actor to play reporter Cal dropped out—über-hunk Brad Pitt.
Too often, the media invents tidy answers instead of asking hard questions. State of Play asks just one: What is happening to newspapers, and will they be around to tell us? To which comes our tidy answer: We sure hope so.