Spoilers: So, That Punching Down at Journalism Joke in ‘Long Shot’ Was Totally Unnecessary, Actually
In his review for Long Shot, Dustin shared with you the awesomeness of that screening experience at South by Southwest. Pretty much everyone involved in the making of the film was there, and everyone seemed trashed. Boyz II Men came out and threw roses at us. I think I screamed so loudly that I ruptured Dustin’s eardrum. It was a very cool time!
Long Shot didn’t do so well at the box office last weekend, and although its B CinemaScore isn’t amazing, I think it might have longevity as an early-summer romantic comedy. It’s 81% RottenTomatoes score is certainly positive, and Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron have been killing it with their press appearances.
All that said, something has rankled me in the months since we all saw Long Shot at SXSW. Put bluntly: This movie does journalism a disservice, and the way it treats an industry legitimately in crisis as a punchline pissed me off quite a bit, actually.
SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR LONG SHOT
READ MY BELOW RANT AT YOUR OWN RISK
The specific line of dialogue that I underlined in my notepad and that I can’t stop thinking about is in the movie’s final moments, when we’ve already spent months alongside Seth Rogen’s Fred Flarsky and Charlize Theron’s Charlotte Field as they’ve fallen in love. They decide to go public with their relationship during Field’s run for president after serving as secretary of state. After they announce they are together, the movie jumps forward—we don’t see her properly on the campaign trail, nor do we see what role Fred would play during the campaign and whether he would continue serving as a speechwriter for her.
Instead, it’s 2021. Charlotte has been elected president. She and Fred are sitting in the Oval Office, being interviewed, and Fred is discussing what he does as the First Mister and how he’s putting his personal spin on the responsibilities of the president’s spouse. He likes this job a lot better than what he used to do, Fred says, and his days of being a leftist reporter for an alternative newspaper, the job he held before Charlotte hired him to jazz up her speeches, are totally over. Changing the world “through journalism?” Fred laughs. “That’s not at all the case.”
I didn’t write down the rest of the dialogue, but the entire vibe of that scene is, Journalism does not matter. Who cares. Better to be part of the elitist political class. And the scene wraps with Fred noting of his former self, “He was very idealistic, but needed to chill out a little bit, maybe.” Chill out. Be more centrist. You know, like Joe Biden.
OK, that was purposefully inflammatory on my part; the film makes no mention of Grandpa Joe. But Long Shot does do this extremely infuriating thing where it flattens Fred’s identity as an activist, and then abandons it entirely, to get him the girl. Is that a step forward, I guess, in that it’s a romantic comedy where the female character isn’t the one forced to give up her ambitions? Where it’s the guy who leaves behind a part of himself to be more worthy for his romantic companion? I guess so. But the film ending on a note that basically laughs off journalism and calls it a meaningless endeavor and proposes getting into politics as a trophy husband as a more legitimate calling? Yeah, I kind of hate that.
Because, as you may know, journalism is dying. First we only thought it would be print media. I graduated with a degree in journalism in 2009 and struggled to find a job for months and then eventually took a job as a copy editor for The Gazette, an award-winning chain of community newspapers owned by The Washington Post Company. We covered local news around Maryland and Virginia and I watched every few months as another set of layoffs was handed down from on high. First editors, who had decades of institutional knowledge, then reporters, who often got hired out of college for sub-$20,000 a year, then photographers—in fact, all photographers across the company save one to handle our entire coverage area. I left in 2011 for graduate school; in 2015, after Jeff Bezos bought the company, he shut all the papers down and laid everyone off. The billionaire didn’t save those newsrooms; he gutted them. I think the building in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is still empty, gathering dust.
We know by now that it’s not just print media, it’s everything. People don’t want to pay for stories or for content. People complain about ads. People whitelist websites. No one has quite figured out how to successfully monetize ad-based journalism now that the internet has trained people to expect that everything they read online should be free. I work in an office and nearly every day I hear people complain about various newspapers’ pay walls. The idea of just subscribing to a goddamn newspaper seems utterly unfathomable. They would rather make fake email addresses for new free trials than pay out $5 a month.
And throughout the country, for years and years, newsrooms have been stripped. Each story is more depressing than the last, so let’s just talk recently. New York City’s legendary Village Voice was shut down last year. So far in 2019, the industry has lost about 3,000 jobs. 3,000! From Buzzfeed to the Huffington Post to Vice, companies owned by billionaires who get to keep their wealth as thousands of other people get laid off. In April, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti (whose name you may recognize as being the brother of Chelsea Peretti, and hence Jordan Peele’s brother in law) blew off a meeting with the remaining journalists who wanted to unionize. Just this week, some asshole executive didn’t even introduce himself to the Times-Picayune newsroom in New Orleans before telling them all they were being fired. I’m sure his salary won’t make us all want to bring back the guillotine!
Other industries where this blood-letting happens get legislation and emergency funding and a sympathetic narrative about how the backbone of America is dying. With journalism, though, no one gives a shit that wide swathes of professionals whose job is to educate and inform are having their livelihoods eliminated. I’m not going to sit here and pretend every one of those jobs was perfect and every reporter or editor or photographer or videographer or designer was amazing, but why did Long Shot feel the need to undermine like that?
Overall, since 2008, newsroom employment has dropped about 23%—and to be fair, Long Shot addresses this when the alt newspaper Fred works for is bought by the environment-hating billionaire Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). Fred’s editor (Randall Park!) thinks he could keep his job if he toned down his anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, anti-war writings, but Fred refuses, quitting his job out of principle. He isn’t wrong about anything he’s railing against!
But the film recedes his position scene after scene after scene, simultaneously delivering an exhausting “Democrats and Republicans should meet in the middle” argument and mocking the importance of journalism, of speaking truth to power, and of being an advocate for those who have no one to defend them. Fred gets his moment of triumph when he punches Wembley in the face, but that’s a personal victory, not a broad-reaching one. As First Mister, Fred can be relieved that he doesn’t have to be a journalist anymore, that he doesn’t have to scrap around and dig up stories, but to discredit the field to which he devoted decades of his life? To discredit the other journalists whom Fred worked with and struggled alongside? I guess he doesn’t give a fuck about them.
I know I sound really grossly sincere here. I’m reading over all this and realizing that I’ve essentially typed out that moment in Mad Men when Don tells Sally not to be so cynical, and I guess now you know that I actually think journalism is essential to a functioning democracy and I remember what me and all my classmates went through when we graduated with a collapsing field around us and I look around us now and this nightmare still isn’t fixed. I’m not sure it will ever be fixed. Our 45th president has made it totally normal to assault the media—which has flaws, I admit, but shouldn’t be destroyed because we’re not a totalitarian country yet—and to belittle and harass reporters with personal attacks. And to have all of that struggle mocked in a throwaway joke in Long Shot that disparages an entire industry and props up a “Well, both sides of the political spectrum are valid” argument is enraging indeed. Journalism is in its death throes, and Long Shot didn’t need to punch down at it to sell its central romance.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/Lionsgate, Epk.tv/Lionsgate
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