Coming off a decade where the humble newspaper reporter was transformed into a crusading hero — All the President’s Men inspired hordes of young people to enter journalism school — 1981’s Absence of Malice came as a bracing dose of reality. Flipping the script and presenting a flawed journalist who not only reports unsubstantiated rumors but also gets romantically involved with her subject, director Sydney Pollack gave us a character in Sally Field’s Megan Carter who would be more at home in the era of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, two rising-star reporters who were fired for fabricating stories.
Three Days of the Condor and The Yakuza had earned Pollack critical respect. But with the release of Absence of Malice,
the critics took issue with the film’s portrayal of the media. Though
he praised the film, Roger Ebert called Field’s character “a disgrace
to her profession,” while The Chicago Reader‘s Dave Kehr
denounced it for being an “invective against the press and the First
Amendment.” Others felt that Pollack, and Field’s co-star Paul Newman,
were unfairly portraying the media as vultures as a way of attacking
rumor-happy celebrity journalism. In actuality, screenwriter Kurt
Luedtke had served as executive editor of the Detroit Free Press and had based his screenplay in part on Janet Cooke, a Washington Post writer who had fabricated details of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story.
Had the movie been released today, Field’s character would be seen less as a commentary
on the dangerous power of the media, than as yet another example of a reporter gone bad. Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass showed how one charismatic journalist could get away with a web of lies in today’s fast-paced media world. Viewed now, Absence of Malice seems to close the book on the era of the journalist as the ultimate
truth-teller, and foreshadow a more complicated time to come.