Pursuit of Truth, Justice and the American press
| Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen persevere in the face of media backlash. |
Americans and the news media have long had a rocky relationship. Distrust of the news media, however, has been heightened in recent years, with mainstream news outlets becoming the brunt of damaging jokes, such as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's criticisms of the "lamestream media" in 2009 and President Donald Trump's "Fake News Awards" in 2018. A report from the Committee to Protect Journalists argued that Trump and his administration's continued assaults on the integrity of journalism "dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country."
The diminished role of journalists in American society is reflected in comic books. Reporters were once very common characters in comic books. As Katherine A. Foss has noted, in writing for the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture,
Either as the heroes themselves or as extensions of their dedication to improve society, it is the reporters who work to identify, expose, and end local corruption. Created for comic books in earlier eras that heralded the journalists as “watchdogs for the people,” dominant journalist archetypes in these stories reflect the idealistic, ethical, truth-seekers of an earlier time. Indeed, even as late as the early 2000s, film adaptations of comic books preserved and perpetuated the positive stereotypes conveyed in the original works. (p. 2)
Fittingly, Paulette Kilmer, also for the IJPC, argues that the characteristics of a superhero mirror the qualities of an investigative reporter. But the superhero-as-journalist can also reflect the public’s ongoing skepticism of the press; both Superman/Clark Kent and Spider-Man/Peter Parker use disguises to hide their true identity, reinforcing the popular image of undercover reporters. Lois Lane, when she knows the truth of Superman’s identity, is complicit in hiding, rather than revealing, the truth to the public. Parker’s editor J. Jonah Jameson dislikes Spider-Man, which seems to put him at odds with the public welfare.
Whether their roles portrayed the highest ideals or lowest estimations of journalism, Foss observes that the role of journalists in comics is declining. Key characters in the comic books, they may be written out of modern cinematic adaptations or, if not, have their work as a journalist ignored or abandoned in the script. The press as a faceless, monolithic, enterprise remains, but mostly to advance the plot or provide exposition, at best. At worst, the media is used as a tool of propaganda or terror by the villains. Foss suggests that the shift may reflect the shifting landscape of media. Rapidly changing technology more quickly dates, or makes obsolete, a film that foregrounds the tools of the trade. And in an era of smart-phones and social media, anyone and everyone can play the part of a journalist to uncover the secret identity of a hero or trace the location of the villain (2016-18). Indeed, Billy Batson’s 14-year-old foster brother in Shazam! is as much the journalist covering the rise of a new superhero in his blog as Lois Lane ever was landing Superman’s first interview for the Daily Planet. But Foss also suggests that the diminishing role of the comic book journalist might be explained by the fact the “journalists have lost their public credibility” (p. 21). The duplicity of Superman or Spider-Man in hiding the truth of their identity from their newspapers’ readers cannot be redeemed in a culture that already distrusts the honesty and accuracy of mainstream media.
It is, therefore, particularly notable that two recent mini-series from DC Comics have put journalists in titular roles and placed media practices front-and-center in the story lines: Lois Lane and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen.
Described as topical story with scenes taken directly from the headlines, Lois Lane follows the intrepid Daily Planet reporter as she embarks on a perilous journey of conspiracy, intrigue, and murder to uncover an insidious plot that reaches the highest levels of international power brokers and world leaders. Issue #1 was released in July 2019 and immediately tackled the Trump administration's attacks on the press. At a White House press conference, the president’s press secretary, Lee-Anne McCarthy - who visually bears a resemblance to former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and was written as a composite of Sanders and Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway – dodges questions about a refugee camps at the border. Lois presses with questions specifically about the separation of children from their families. In retribution for her antagonistic reporting style, she is ejected from the briefing and her White House press credentials are revoked, echoing a real 2019 practice by the Trump White House. The story itself was entitled “Enemy of People,” a direct quote of Trump's indictment of the news media.
In issue #5, Lois Lane offers a response to those who believe that the mainstream is #FakeNews. When a woman on a plane suggests that journalists can write whatever they want and probably just make things up half the time, Lois replies, "That’s not how it works […] We need facts, we need sources, we need research.” But the woman remains unconvinced, doubting that there is any mechanism in place to prevent fraud. The exchange highlights not only the public’s distrust of news media, but also its poor understanding of what journalists actually do.
I explored Lois Lane's ongoing crusade for truth and justice at length in a paper I recently presented at the National Communication Association's 2020 conference. You can check out the presentation in the video below.
-presentation of "Lois Lane & the Image of the Journalist: Comic Books are a Medium with a Media Message" by Christina M. Knopf, November 2020.-
The Daily Planet's photographer, Jimmy Olsen, also starred in his own mini-series released in July 2019. The series, as noted by DC Comics, is primarily focused on Jimmy's high jinks and adventures as
Superman’s best friend and Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen tours the bizarre underbelly of the DC universe in this new miniseries featuring death, destruction, giant turtles and more! It’s a centuries-spanning whirlwind of weird that starts in Metropolis and ends in Gotham City.
Despite the mad-cap story, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen like Lois Lane offers readers a sympathetic look at the modern American news media landscape. In the series, Jimmy is less of a photographer and more of a vlogger. Like most print newspapers, The Daily Planet is flagging and one way it stays afloat is through the online traffic (and ad revenue) generated through Jimmy's extreme reality-series antics.
Despite its focus on murder, mayhem, and mystery, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen nonetheless reinforces the value of truth and the pursuit of justice at the heart of the media's mission. It is by uncovering the truth, not through sensational video antics, that Jimmy is ultimately able to save The Daily Planet.
Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane suggest, like Ben Smith did in The New York Times, that "Trump made the legacy media great again." But the media has to adapt. It needs to adapt to a changing socio-political climate; to audiences, administrations, and campaigns that are increasingly online; to different news cycles and shortened attention spans. It needs to do what Lois Lane tried to do - explain the art and practice of journalism to its audience in an age when anyone can be an influencer and everyone is an information broker. And no matter what, it must, like Jimmy and Lois, keep pursuing and telling the truth.
~Christina M. Knopf
23 November 2020