In the various science fictional worlds of comic book superheroes; possessing the profession of a journalist almost guarantees you’re a good person. Between Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Peter Parker it’s almost as if working in the media makes one destined for sainthood. But what about journalists depicted in science fictional contexts that are not in the genre of comic books? What about the journalists of the 23rd, 24th, or 80 Billionth Century? When looking at some examples of these SF&F news media characters, they almost always are portrayed as villains. Let’s investigate.
The first step to making somebody into a bad guy, is to show that our heroes don’t like them. At all. In Star Trek: Generations, there are clearly reporters on the bridge of the Enterprise-B covering its launch. Now, let’s be honest, despite the enthusiasm the reporters seem to show, this was probably a fluff piece for them. I mean, did they really want to watch retired Captain Kirk hang out on the Enterprise and do nothing? Not likely. But then when things start to heat up, the first thing Kirk does is to tell the reporter/camera person to “turn that damn thing off.” Why? Do you like suppressing the freedom of the press, Captain Kirk? Come on! These guys were covering some page six nonsense which involved you saying and doing very little, but now they’ve got a news story! Give these guys a break! But Kirk doesn’t care and we hardly notice, because in the future, everyone hates journalists. Well not Jake Sisko. He was a nice journalist. But we saw what the Dominion did to him.
On Babylon 5, the notion that the press is not only sensationalist, but also politically corrupt is highlighted in numerous episodes. In the episodes “And Now for a Word” and “The Illusion of Truth” the entire story is told in a documentary style, depicting Babylon 5 as seen through the eyes of an Earth-based news magazine. We seem to be dealing with some variety of “Space TV” here, as the styles and tones of ISN reporters are basically no different from investigative reporters of the 1980s or 1990s. Both of these episodes end up making Captain Sheridan, Delenn and all the rest look like pretty crazy people doing crazy things. But, of course, we the viewers know the truth because we’ve been with these characters the entire time! Sheridan’s not crazy power hungry! He’s nice! Dr. Franklin isn’t hiding a bunch of telepaths in cold storage! I mean, um…he is hiding telepaths, but it’s all for a good cause. You can see why the press might get the wrong idea. But it doesn’t matter because, these reporters are depicted as evil and scheming and really nothing more than some kind of Orwellian mouthpiece for the government.
The contemporary Battlestar Galactica would use this almost exact same format in the episode “Final Cut.” In it, a reporter, D’Anna Biers, shows up on Galactica with damning evidence that basically makes the marines under Adama’s command look like a bunch of mindless murderers. Adama and President Roslin make a deal with the reporter to let her do a full documentary on the ship and its crew in exchange for giving them the tape with the compromising footage. Already D’Anna Biers: Investigative Space Journalists is coming across as a rotten mean terrible person. Why does she have to come in here and ruin everything? I mean all Adama and Roslin are trying to do is save everybody! Screw the press! Though the documentary eventually produced depicts Galatica in a more positive light than the one on Babylon 5, the journalist is still the bad guy. In fact, she’s a Cylon, and her whole reason for pretending to be a mean journalist was so she could help her Cylon buddies figure out better ways of killing all the humans. See? You can’t trust a reporter.
Though not a space reporter, you’ve also got Rita Skeeter from the Harry Potter books. Considering that there is clearly a big news industry in the wizarding world (The Daily Prophet is mentioned about a billion times) it’s very telling that this is the ONLY journalist that we ever meet. Of course, we all know Harry Potter is a nice guy, but a lot of the stuff Rita writes about him initially is totally true. He does have mood swings. He does fight with his friends all the time. He is sort of a jerk on occasion. Naturally, Rita Skeeter starts making up all kinds of stuff about everybody at some point, which only goes to prove magical journalists are just as bad and evil as space journalists. Only Hermione has the good sense to read Rita’s book about Dumbledore in The Deathly Hallows because surely there must be something true in there.
So what causes popular science fiction and fantasy to depict journalists as petty, small people concerned only with their own agenda or the agenda of the organization controlling them? Why in the genre of imagination are journalists reduced to basic stereotypes? It seems to me there are two basic reasons.
The first is that science fiction in particular has never really been great on handling how news is transmitted in a futuristic setting. Though the worlds of Star Trek or Babylon 5 clearly have things that resemble the internet, we still get these approximations of “Space TV.” In another episode of Babylon 5 characters are seen getting custom Space Newspapers from a dispenser slot on the space station. But of course, they have to recycle their old newspaper first! The clunkiness of this scene is actually the perfect analog for why journalists are depicted so poorly across the genre. If the delivery system by which people get their news in the future is ridiculous (Space TV, Space Newspapers) then the people who create the news will similarly be depicted in an absurd light.
The second reason why journalists seem like such terrible people in these popular, more adventure formats of science fiction is because the majority of protagonists in these kinds of stories have nothing to do with that part of the world. These kinds of people tend to be soldiers, or scientists, lonely politicians, or in the case of Harry Potter, teenagers. These are not the kind of people who write for a living. Instead our heroes are people who are changing the world and saving all our lives. They couldn’t be bothered who knows about it, because they’re selfless and great and heroic. So in stark contrast, people who are concerned about the details threaten that supposed selflessness, which really irks our heroes. Granted, Heinlein gives us Ben Caxton in Stranger in a Strange Land and Asimov has a reporter following around Susan Calvin in I, Robot, but mostly these characters are ends in themselves. It is interesting however, in more complex, layered world of a novel, the idea that there is a press and it’s not ALL bad seems to be more apparent.
I’d like to believe any universe, science fictional or otherwise, would be made a lot better off if more of its heroes sat down and gave solid interviews. And let’s not even think about Star Wars. Ever wonder why it was so easy for the Empire to rise to power? How come people had so much misinformation about the Jedi only 20 years after the big coup? Well, we never see one single news camera. Oh wait. Once. In the senate during a scene in the Phantom Menace. Hey Galactic Republic, if you want to preserve your democracy, you might want to think about putting news cameras on places like Naboo or Geonosis.
You know, where people are dying and stuff. I mean if Padme had been a little more Lois Lane, she could have blown the lid off that whole Sith Lord thing in three seconds. I mean it wasn’t that hard to figure out. The audience knew the entire time.
Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared here, with Opium Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine and elsewhere. He has not forgotten about April from the TMNT.