Tuesday, March 31, 2009

He's the perfect example of that dying race, unpressed gentleman of the press...

It feels like I've had this entry sitting, half-finished, on my computer for almost a month. Sorry, guys; school's been eating all my free time lately, and just when I think I've found a way to make it work to my advantage, it goes and devours some more. Anyway...

This blog started as a combination of my personal and academic pursuits. Through sheer coincidence, those two parts of my life are crossing paths here once again. I spent much of one Sunday, a few weeks ago, reading The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel for my Evaluating Writing class. I woke up the next morning to find my school closed, and a journalism-themed marathon on TCM. How's that for timing?

I sat down that afternoon wondering, dork that I am, if I'd be able to pick out any of Kovach and Rosenstiel's lessons in the careers of these fictional characters. One of the issues in journalism, though skimmed over in the book, jumped out at me immediately in Teacher's Pet. The question alluded to by these writers and posed by the movie script is whether and to what extent education is necessary, or even desirable, in journalism.

By the time Kovach and Rosenstiel's book was published in 2001, journalism schools had long been a part of the business. Its effectiveness, however, was not universally accepted among journalists. Yes, Jim Gannon is alive and well, although the nature of journalism has undergone some changes since this film was made. The fundamental argument made by Clark Gable's character seems to still hold water to a certain extent, even today. On page 155, Kovach and Rosenstiel make note of "the degree to which journalists, compared with other professionals, failed to communicate the lessons of one generation to the next." They go on to state that "hairdressers have more continuing education than journalists." I'm sure my journalism-major friends would dispute this, but it's an interesting idea. What ultimately constitutes an "education" in journalism: the Poynter Institute, or the School of Hard Knocks?

In the film, James Gannon firmly believes in the latter. A high school drop-out who worked his way up to editor of the city paper, Gannon at first holds all education in pure contempt -- "The important thing is he's had no experience," is how he dismisses his rival for Erica Stone's affections, the pretentious Dr. Hugo Pine. "He didn't start at the bottom and work up. That's the only way you can learn." His opinion on the matter is made very clear early in the film, when a distraught mother asks him to fire her son so that the boy will go back to school. Gannon ignores her, confident the boy will fare much better under his wing. Shortly thereafter, he discovers a certain journalism teacher has a particularly low opinion of him and decides to do some undercover reporting, for his own edification of course.

Miss Stone, played by Doris Day, represents everything that Gannon abhors: "Amateurs teaching amateurs how to be amateurs." A former reporter and the daughter of a well-respected editor, Erica Stone decided to teach "for the same reason that occasionally a musician wants to be a conductor; he wants to hear a hundred people play music the way he hears it." She believes that carefully training reporters in the art of explaining not just what happened but why and how is the only way for print journalism to overcome the blow it was dealt by television newscasts. When a mild-mannered older gentleman who introduces himself as James Gallagher appears in her classroom, she sees in him the potential to be a great reporter -- if only he had a little bit more schooling.

Naturally, Gannon-as-Gallagher attempts to be as antagonistic as possible towards the unsuspecting Erica without actually giving himself away. And naturally, this being a romantic comedy, he finds himself falling in love with her despite her wildly different approach to the job he's spent much of his life married to. His growing attraction to Erica opens his mind to her side of the debate, and he even comes to question his own self-worth, especially after a night on the town with his well-educated competition. He begins to think that formal education may very well be the best path to becoming a journalist -- until he sees what a well-educated editor who lacks reporting experience can do to a front page. Unfortunately this boost to his self-esteem comes courtesy of Erica's late father, which has the expected consequences for their relationship, but it also leads to interesting conclusions from a journalistic perspective. Good instincts, after all, can't be taught.

Neither the film nor the debate ends there, but I won't spoil the ending. Everyone should see this movie; it's a hilarious romantic comedy if you aren't interested in journalism, and if you are, it raises some important points that are still valid today. In fact, with the rise of amateur internet-based reporting and the uncertain future of print journalism, this film may become even more relevant with time.


  1. This movie certainly had unexpected depth and I'm glad you explored it with this post. When I saw it some months ago, I was intrigued by the battle between experience and education.

    Superb post! And as I've said before, I love the titles you give each entry. They are so clever.

  2. Wow! What a fantastic post, Caitlin! You should save this and submit it as an assignment in school-- it's a sure A+ :)

    Are you taking summer classes too, or do you get to relax in a few weeks? I'm not going to take any until September, so starting May I'm free as the wind!

  3. Raquelle: It really interested me, because in class just before I saw this movie we'd been talking about what might happen if the major newspapers all fold, as some already have. One of the things that came up was amateur Internet-based reporting, which goes right back to the same debate shown in a movie made 50 years ago.

    Kate Gabrielle: I'm actually studying in Paris in June, and after that hopefully going back to my old job for a few weeks. But I'll have a couple of weeks of free time before then that I'm really looking forward to.

  4. Dear Princess F&M--nice post on one of my own fave movies. I wrote about it in my own somewhat different fashion a few weeks ago; but its writing aspects always interested me too, as I'm a scribe who has practiced magazine journalism professionally without any systematic training in its craft or art. Like Raquelle says, the movie is complex and presents the strong points of both sides of the argument. And even Dr. Hugo Pine turns out to have a lot on the ball in his own way (and I thought Gig Young was more hilarious in his hangover than even Jerry Lewis as bleary-eyed Prof. Kelp in The Nutty Professor).