The concept of the First amendment is one of the most discussed concepts in legal history. After all, should everybody be able to say anything no matter how endangering it could be? On an individual scale the answer is no, as evident by the age-old example of not being allowed to shout fire in a theater as it could endanger the public. Yet, this example does not fully answer the question. What are the limitations the media must obey? From a surface level standpoint one may agree that the media cannot have any limitations on what they print in order to expose government corruption. The idea of whether the press should operate within any legal regulations is the central theme in Sydney Pollack’s film Absence Of Malice. While one would expect the numerous abuses of ethics by the film’s protagonist, Meghan Carter (Sally Field), to sway viewers into the pro media regulation column, the results of the films bittersweet ending leave the audience conflicted about the subject and suggest the media should operate freely.
Anyone familiar with journalism knows that there is a code of ethics that any journalist with decency follows. While these ethics use to be a strict rule set every journalist followed, early in the film, Carter breaks the ethical code when she prints information that was supposed to be off the record that implies Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) could not have killed another character in the film, Joey Diaz, because he was assisting Teresa Peron (Melinda Dillon) while she had an abortion. The source that Carter betrayed in this situation was Peron, whose life centers on Catholicism: a religion that does not support abortions. Upon initial inspection, this breaking of trust only comes across to the audience as a careless action, but when Peron takes her life as a result of the information being made public, the audience is able to grasp the severity of Carter’s actions. As a result the audience is left feeling that journalists should operate under some ethical bound. This isolated scenario is difficult to construct viable arguments against but in the following event Carter creates by breaking the code of ethics is not as clear-cut.
Guilt ridden by Peron’s suicide, Carter breaks the biggest of journalistic ethics by revealing to Gallagher her source on the initial story that implicated Gallagher to the murder of Diaz. With this information, Gallagher orchestrates a plan that gets both Federal Prosecutor Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) and district attorney James Quinn (Don Hood) fired. Although it cannot be argued that Carter stepped out of traditional journalism ethics by revealing her source to Gallagher, the resulting actions of this situation are actually quite positive. It is revealed that Rosen intentionally leaked the story to Carter at the beginning of the film to put pressure on Gallagher and pull information on him. Even though Rosen’s intentions in this case is to acquire information that would put criminals in jail for the common good, his method for doing so is illegal and violates rights. Because Rosen would not have been disciplined for these actions without Carter leaking the source to Gallagher, it provides a bittersweet justice for the audience. On one side they are relived to see the government kept in check for abusing the rights of citizens, yet on the other side the only reason this occurred was because Carter acted unethically.
After more deliberation on the topic after one views the film, its quite clear what ideas the writer of the film, Kurt Ludtke, is trying to project. In the first instance of Carter betraying Peron, Ludtke is saying that it is not understandable for a journalist to break ethics in the case of a private citizen because those that will read the story will see it as a comment on the individual's character. When this happens it can cause detrimental effects in ones life, in example Peron’s suicide. On the contrary, Ludtke asserts it is acceptable for a journalist to break the code of ethics if it means exposing corruption, especially on the government level, for it is not viewed by the readership as a statement about an individual but about the system. In fact, by leaving the answer as to whether or not Carter gets fired for actions open ended, it gives off the implication that Lutdke believes it is the media’s duty to expose government corruption and promote the common good.
In effect, Pollack’s film Absence of Malice 35 years ago explores the concept of media regulation that still rings true today. By exploring both sides of the argument the film enlightens the audience that the concept of media ethics is not something that can be discussed as a black and white issue. Instead, the film suggests that there are exceptions to violating journalistic ethics if one is acting as a whistle blower to government corruption. Yet, one must be sure not to follow this same guideline when dealing with private individuals as the power of the media is able to seize people’s thoughts and quickly shift the world’s opinion.
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