Nearly forty years after "All the President's Men" made reporting look cool — even heroic — Robert Redford has returned to the deadline-driven environment of the newsroom.
What he finds in "The Company You Keep," the new thriller he directed and stars in, is an industry that has lost its moral compass amid cutbacks and a relentless pursuit of scoops. The film debuts in limited release this Friday.
Redford told TheWrap this week that he was inspired to make the film because his attitudes had shifted since he produced and starred in the seminal Watergate story.
"At that time my view of journalism was totally heroic, because I see journalism as a path to the truth, that I thought, 'God I’m so proud, I'm so happy to be able to make a film that celebrates how important journalism is and how it proved itself that by hard work, and hard truthful work, it was able to undermine the top level in the United States," he said.
The admonition in "All the President's Men" to "follow the money," worked a little too well, Redford noted, inspiring a generation of journalists to go into the profession with visions of their own book and movie deals. That hard work part was less attractive.
He said this obsession with self-aggrandizement has been exacerbated by cable news shows that flaunt their ideological stripes and by the rise of blogs that have a more flexible interpretation of journalistic fairness.
"Anybody can put something up," Redford said. "Anybody can tweet, so therefore it’s harder and harder to find out what the truth is. When you have barking dogs on television that are so extremely to the right where they’ll lie right to your face and with such conviction, somebody just channeling they’ll go, 'Oh I guess that’s what the truth is.'"
Nor is Redford's film the only recent piece of entertainment to cast a disparaging eye across the wild west of news-gathering. Netflix's "House of Cards" also features an up-and-coming reporter. played by Kate Mara, who is more interested in scoring television interviews about her scoops than she is with checking the validity of the news breaks themselves.
In her zeal to be first with a story, she sleeps with a source and ditches a newspaper beat for a website where she's allowed to post her pieces without editorial oversight.
In the series, which focuses on the machinations of a devious congressman (Kevin Spacey), the media comes across worse than Americans' other least favorite institution — politics.
"This is not a noble pursuit of the truth, it is a young woman who wants access and influence," Beau Willimon, the screenwriter and playwright who developed "House of Cards," told TheWrap.
"I sympathize with journalists, because in a way, we who make up stories are trying to do the same thing," he added. "We’re holding a mirror to society. We don’t have to be bound by facts while [journalists] presumably do. And yet when the mirror is turned around on the media, they get deeply uncomfortable."
Evil triumphs in "House of Cards," while virtue, with a few detours, wins out in "The Company You Keep." Still, the pessimistic views both present about the quality and integrity of this generation of reporters mirrors public attitudes.
A recent survey on perceptions of media credibility by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press examined 13 top news organizations such as the New York Times and NPR and found that distrust for many newspapers and radio and TV programs had grown more pronounced in the past decade. On average, 56 percent of the more than 1,000 people surveyed said they believed most of what a news organization said, down from 71 percent in 2002.
Part of the problem isn't just that technology has democratized the media, it's that the mainstream media was tarnished by a series of high-profile scandals, such as those suffered by the New York Times, when it was revealed that Jayson Blair had plagiarized and invented stories and that Judith Miller had trumped up flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"To the extent that people know about media scandals it detracts from the media's overall credibility," Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism said.
It also contributes to a perception that the media is often error-prone. In a 2011 study, Pew surveyed more than 1,000 people and found that 66 percent of respondent believe that news stories are often inaccurate. That was an increase from 2007, when only 53 percent of respondents said stories were frequently inaccurate.
"We could define what journalism was at time of 'All the President's Men,'" Jurkowitz said. "It becomes much trickier now. Is an opinion pundit a journalist? Is a blogger a journalist? We've expanded the definition of journalist so dramatically, that when people are asked how do they feel about the media, they usually think about the media personality who rubs them the wrongest."
Redford's film tries to make sense of this new landscape. Shia LaBeouf, who plays the ethically challenged reporter at the center of the story, is an investigative whiz, but he is willing to bribe officials to get information and is often heedless about the repercussions of his reporting.
"This reporter of today, see he's ruthless, he’s brilliant, he’s amazing, he’s skilled, highly skilled, but he’s tricky, because is he going after the story for his own aggrandizement?" Redford asked. "Is he going after it for his own ego satisfaction or is he going after it because he really wanted to get the truth?"
The answer he ultimately arrives at, is all three.