Near the end of “Citizen Kane,” Joseph Cotton’s character, reporter Jedediah Leland, wakes from a drunken stupor to finish a negative review of the opera “Thaïs.”
He has little hope of seeing it published. After all, he is panning the performance of Susan Alexander, wife of Charles Foster Kane, the paper’s owner and publisher.
Realizing that the review is no longer in his newsroom typewriter, he turns to Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s right-hand man, and asks what has become of the notice. “Mr. Kane is finishing it,” Bernstein said, at which point the camera cuts to Kane, masterfully played by Orson Welles, hunched over a typewriter, pounding out the words.
“I suppose he’s fixing it up,” Leland says. “I knew I’d never get that through.”
Bernstein moves to Leland’s side. “Mr. Kane is finishing your piece the way you started it. He’s writing a roast like you wanted it to be. I guess that’ll show you.”
It’s a quiet moment in a movie populated by bombastic ones, yet it’s the scene I most remember from the movie that indelibly imprinted on my consciousness what a newspaper is supposed to be and do. Kane’s actions here — putting the finishing touches on a negative review of his own wife, a woman he has forced into the public spotlight against her will — is complex and tough and contrary and, somehow, the quintessential selfless act of a person who has dedicated his private and professional life to a cause bigger than himself.
Earlier in the film, Kane — a fictionalized version of real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst — drafts a Declaration of Principles. It reads, “I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and human beings.”
I’ve been thinking about “Citizen Kane” recently, wondering if the lessons it teaches are still germane in the 21st century. The movie, after all, is the product of a time when many of the nation’s smallest papers were more influential than the largest today, when ink spilled in one direction could change the course of public opinion in ways contemporary publishers only dream of. For many Americans in the 1940s, newspapers weren’t just the primary source of information, they were practically the only source, with radio and movie newsreels a distant second and third, respectively.
Today, we are infinitely better informed from a plethora of media at our fingertips (literally, in the case of smartphones), all of them vying for a small piece of the pie that once belonged exclusively to men like William Randolph Hearst, powerful gods striding across pulp and ink kingdoms, deciding the fates of politicians and policies as they determined which stories to run and which to spike.
Because contemporary newspapers must thrive in a more competitive environment, one would think they would take more risks, probe more deeply and stir more debate, simply as a survival mechanism. Yet the opposite is true: They have become more conservative, more hands-off, less willing to risk offending anybody for fear of losing what they have.
On the one hand, I commiserate. Nothing makes us more cautious than fear of loss. Newspapers are not exempt.
On the other hand, a still-viable lesson of “Citizen Kane” is that one person or institution with a vision and the determination to see it through to its conclusion — good or bad — can make a difference. Newspapers are not exempt.
The overwhelming majority of newspapers, including this one, still exist to tell all the news honestly. Many, however, have abandoned the second part of Kane’s Declaration of Principles, if they ever practiced it at all. They are not “a fighting and tireless champion of people’s rights as citizens and human beings,” especially when such championing forces them to step out from behind an objective facade that is really just a mask for cowardice.
Kane himself never quite lives up to the promises in his Declaration of Principles, and he’s a fictional character in a fictional movie. What chance, then, do any of the rest of us have, muddling about our daily affairs without benefit of screenwriters, directors and cinematographers to cast us in the best, most heroic light?
But life isn’t only about succeeding, it’s about the effort. It’s about pounding out that negative review, late at night, long after everybody else who cares has given up and gone home, staying true to a singular vision because it’s the truth, even when it is contrary to your own opinion.
Maybe especially when it’s contrary to your own.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published in The Alliance Review on May 3, 2012.