Movies You Gotta See

Broadcast News explores journalistic ethics with humor and heart


Broadcast News, released in 1987, was written, produced, and directed by James L. Brooks and stars Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt as journalists working at a national television network’s Washington, D.C. bureau.
Jane (Hunter) is a classic workaholic – well, considering her daily stress-induced breakdowns, you could say she’s a slightly more extreme version. Aaron (Brooks), like Jane, is a talented journalist. He’s also wry to a fault and extremely smart – the kind of person who’s probably too smart for his own good. Aaron and Jane collaborate often and do stellar work together.
Then there’s Tom (Hurt), a new hire at the bureau. While Jane and Aaron are veteran reporters of hard-hitting news, Tom’s background is in sports, and even in this, he isn’t very experienced – something he’s self-conscious about. The guy’s also not going to be splitting the atom any time soon, if you catch my drift. But he’s a kind, charming, handsome dude, and he looks good on TV. Hurt absolutely kills as a guy who might be best described as a puppy that was recently transformed into a human: not especially bright, but likeable, and just generally happy to be wherever he is at any given moment.
Broadcast News offers a thrilling and hilarious glimpse into the work of television journalists. Early in the film, Jane’s in the trenches: she’s in the editing room, putting the final touches on a piece while her deadline is literally minutes away. Tom’s also in the room, observing the process. By doing this, Tom represents the film’s audience. Most viewers have never seen anything like this before, and neither has Tom; we’re all in this together. And by “this,” I mean witnessing utter chaos. Jane’s story, on which she teamed up with Aaron, follows a veteran returning home from overseas. Jane gets the idea to use a Norman Rockwell painting depicting a World War II soldier’s homecoming in the piece. They quickly and cleverly incorporate the artwork, producer Blair (the always wonderful Joan Cusack) literally runs the tape across the office to the control room, and the piece is featured in that evening’s broadcast, just under the gun. Tom’s wide-eyed shock gives way to exhilaration – he’s completely intoxicated by what he had just seen, and he’s especially impressed by Jane.
Later in the film, Tom gets his big break. While at an office party, word arrives that a Libyan plane had bombed an American military base in Sicily. Paul, the head of the network’s news division, taps Jane to executive produce the special report, and Tom’s chosen to anchor. Jane disagrees with Tom’s appointment, citing his inexperience, and pushes for Aaron, who’s well-versed in American-Libyan relations, to get the nod. Paul ultimately sticks with Tom, and it’s an absolute gut punch for Aaron, who reacts as any reasonable person would: by going home and making a few cocktails. The man does deserve some props, though; although he’s wallowing in self-pity during the broadcast, he calls the studio and feeds useful information to Jane, who relays it to Tom, who, in turn, nails the report.
As the film goes on, Tom’s stock within the network begins to rise, and Jane and Tom start to develop feelings for each other, despite their surface-level incompatibility: Tom, the embodiment of news becoming entertainment, represents everything Jane stands against as a journalist; and Tom finds Jane’s experience and intensity intimidating. Meanwhile, Aaron harbors unrequited feelings for Jane, who only sees him as a close friend. The film is largely focused on the Jane/Tom/Aaron love triangle, but it’s a set of circumstances exacerbated by each person’s individual views on journalism in a time when how news was being reported was changing.
One of my favorite scenes features Aaron explaining to Jane why he believes Tom is “the devil”: “He will be attractive. He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great, God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He will just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance.” Aaron ends his rant with a doozie of a line: “And he’ll get all the great women.”
Aaron’s quite dismissive of Tom’s reporting methods – specifically, Tom’s use of emotion to drive a story home – and there’s a case to be made that Aaron’s criticism of this is hypocritical. On a piece focused on women who were sexually assaulted while on dates with men they know, Tom tears up while listening to a subject of the story recount her attack. Aaron writes this off as cheap pandering, yet in Aaron and Jane’s story about the returning soldier, the Rockwell painting is used to achieve the same goal – to evoke emotion. Why is it exploitative when Tom tries to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, but when it elevates a story by Aaron, it’s simply effective journalism? And would Aaron feel so strongly about Tom’s approach if he wasn’t carrying an unreciprocated torch for Jane? It’s easy to imagine that Aaron’s anger, jealousy, and insecurity are fueled by his own feelings of rejection. Later in the movie, some surprising information about Tom’s story comes to light, and it’s a bombshell in his relationship with Jane.
While journalistic ethics might not necessarily be the focal point of Broadcast News, I believe the film deserves a sincere tip of the cap for exploring the subject in a way that entertains the viewer while also pushing them to ask a few questions. Is the utilization of emotion in journalism manipulative? Or is it necessary in connecting with the audience on a human level? Are these ideas simultaneously correct? Are they mutually exclusive? Are these issues that black and white? Are any, when it comes to journalism? I don’t know if there are definitive right or wrong answers to these questions, but Broadcast News interrogates them thoughtfully, with both humor and heart.
In an ideal society, Broadcast News would’ve aged horribly. Someone watching the movie in 2024 would optimally decry how unrealistic it is, saying something like, “Man, remember how back in the late ‘80s, TV news almost turned into 24-hour profit-driven entertainment? That was a close one.” Unfortunately, the fears Jane and Aaron had about the direction of news media have largely come to pass.
I’d be negligent in writing about Broadcast News without mentioning its ending. The saga of the three main characters arrives at one of the oddest – and one of the most realistically mundane – conclusions ever featured in a drama-comedy film. Sometimes, there aren’t fireworks or a party; some things just … end with a somewhat boring peacefulness, and it took guts for James L. Brooks to wrap up his film on this note when he so easily could have gone a different route.
Broadcast News tries to pragmatically answer difficult questions about journalism, friendship, and relationships, and it confronts the reality that although sometimes you don’t get the resolution you’d hoped for, the one you end up with might be better in the long run (I think The Rolling Stones wrote a song about this). The final scene with Jane, Aaron, and Tom shows three people who took paths that might not be the most exciting, but they’re the right ones, and that’s okay. In fact, it might even be great. But, if you happen to be really lucky, and your real life exceeds your dreams – keep it to yourself.
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