Five worst journalists -- in the movies, at least

Ron Burgundy
Ron Burgundy
Dreamworks Pictures

The Stop the Presses series at the Alamo Drafthouse, which celebrates the media in movies with screenings of such classics as Sweet Smell of Success and concludes with the premiere of Anchorman 2, has inspired a lot of conversation about the relationship between journalists and the films that portray them. While inspirational tales of dedicated investigators may go on to win awards and persuade young idealists to pursue a career in the news, movies about journalists who suck at their jobs are often much more entertaining. The worst newsmen in cinema are united by their blinkered narcissism, which bleeds into their work life in fascinating ways. Read on for a list of movies that herald wildly unprofessional behavior -- and stay classy, Denver.

See also: Six best journalists -- in the movies, at least

5) Richard Thornburg in Die Hard and Die Hard 2

A good journalist should not insert himself into a story, particularly one as grievous as a terrorist attack. But Richard Thornburg, a WZDC reporter, gets improbably involved with two domestic attacks, obliviously throwing wrenches in John McClane's hero gears out of sheer narcissistic obsession. In Die Hard 2, Thornburg's broadcast from the inside of a hijacked plane is riddled with embellishments, manipulations and cowardly attempts to escape. Essayed by William Atherton -- the protean snob of '80s filmdom -- Thornburg does worse than self-servingly report biased news and generally smarm up the proceedings. He endangers the lives of terrified hostages and keeps getting in John McClane's yippee-ki-way. Thornburg gets his comeuppance in the end, however, when Holly McClane tazes him.

4) Howard Beale in Network

While Howard Beale's "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" speech can be an intoxicating mantra -- as appropriate for '70s malaise as it is today -- the character is not meant to be admired. Peter Finch's final acting role, for which he won the first-ever posthumous Oscar for Best Actor, is such a tour de force that viewers drawn into the whirlwind of his charisma fail to notice that Beale is going slowly insane on-air. Beale starts out as an industry hack, but one night he freaks out enough to say something true. After this stunning moment of clarity, Beale immediately returns to being strung along by his corporate puppeteers, which makes him more of a cautionary tale than an aspirational figure. Besides, any character whom Glenn Beck claims as an influence has much to atone for.

3) J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success

Often, the worst journalists make for the most entertaining movie characters. J.J. Hunsecker, a gossip columnist modeled after Walter Winchell, is a silver-tongued scoundrel who wields his media influence almost as devastatingly as he wields his scathing wit. As played by Burt Lancaster (easily the most manly Burt of cinema history), Hunsecker is drunk with power, using the influence of his column to destroy a moony jazz guitarist who wants to marry his little sister. Sweet Smell of Success is a fantastic film. Brazenly cynical for its era, the movie may inspire some nostalgia for a period in time when columnists enjoyed that much influence -- until it demonstrates precisely why they shouldn't.  

2) Ron Burgundy in Anchorman and Anchorman 2

If only a career in news could be measured in fine suits, manly spirits and lovemaking prowess. Ron Burgundy is a great character, and the Anchorman series gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Burgundy's journalistic ineptitude. WIll Ferrell plays Burgundy as a dim and debauched yet unfailingly confident newscaster who sexually harasses his female co-workers and mindlessly reads whatever appears on a TelePrompter. In fact, the only remotely journalistic thing Burgundy does during the entire movie is fight it out with other news stations in that glorious rumble sequence.

1) Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass

Shattered Glass may mark the one movie role in which Hayden Christensen, with his innate pretty-boy emptiness, was perfectly cast. As Stephen Glass, the one real-life journalist listed here, Christensen is supposed to be unconvincing, despite his best efforts. As a star writer at the esteemed New Republic magazine, Glass repeatedly made up quotes from fictional sources and even fabricated entire stories. Shattered Glass chronicles his rise to associate editor, the mounting pressure he felt to generate novel content, and his eventual downfall after an editor at Forbes exposed his deceits. Glass now works in a law firm, presumably more at home in a profession that rewards dishonesty by design.

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

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