Absence of Malice: Learning from Mistakes

Following last week’s post on Nothing but the Truth as a counter-fable of investigative journalism gone wrong, this week I’ll look at a much older movie, Absence of Malice, which had its debut in 1981. Thinking that the post-Watergate lionizing of heroic investigative journalists had gone too far, its screenwriter, Kurt Luedtke, a former newspaper reporter and executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, left journalism to write a screenplay about incompetent tradecraft. Absence of Malice, a work of fiction, didn’t deal with research-based investigative reporting, but with day-to-day reporting. Nonetheless, a reporter who cannot do the latter effectively would be hopeless at the former. Absence of Malice was not an audience favorite, with a tepid rating of 6.9 from 9000 viewers on imdb.com and a 61 % rating from 4500 viewers on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, at the time of its release, it did spark debate within the journalistic community. I used it in my narratives course years ago and the students enjoyed it. As I’ll discuss below, it also raised an important public administration issue.

Absence of Malice has a complicated plot that appears to have been structured, like a teaching case in journalism school, with the objective of presenting errors in tradecraft for classroom discussion. An organized crime strike force (OCSF) in the Miami office of the US Department of Justice is investigating the disappearance of a prominent union leader, without success. The head of the strike force thinks that a liquor wholesaler (portrayed by Paul Newman) whose father was a gangster might have been involved or have information. The strike force head leaks a file about the investigation of the wholesaler to an eager reporter for the local paper (portrayed by Sally Field). With the concurrence of her editor as well as legal counsel, the paper runs her article about the investigation, written without any serious attempt to contact the wholesaler.

The wholesaler then contacts the reporter in an attempt to clear his name. On the day the union leader disappeared, the wholesaler was in Atlanta accompanying a friend – a single woman teaching at a Catholic school – who was obtaining an abortion. The single woman nervously contacts the reporter to tell the story that would exculpate the wholesaler. The reporter, again with the approval of her editor, writes a detailed story. Overcome with guilt and shame, as soon as the woman sees the story she commits suicide.

To assuage the liquor wholesaler’s justifiable anger at the suicide of his friend, the reporter reveals that her source was the head of the strike forced. The plot then turns on a matter of public administration inside baseball that most of the audience likely missed – but I made sure to point out to my students. The head of the strike force is appointed by and reports to the Organized Crime Division of the US Department of Justice. However, the responsibility for prosecutions rests with the United States Attorney for South Florida, a presidential appointment. Rather than attempting to influence the head of the strike force to drop the investigation, the wholesaler approaches the US Attorney, whom he knows to be politically ambitious. A donation to a PAC supportive of the US Attorney is sufficient to convince him to make a public statement dropping the investigation of the liquor wholesaler. The head of the strike force has not been consulted, disagrees with the US Attorney’s initiative, and asks the Miami FBI office to begin investigating and wire-tapping him.

After the investigation of the liquor wholesaler was dropped, he and the reporter begin a relationship. The reporter soon hears from a source in the FBI (a previous relationship) of the new investigation. She then asks the liquor wholesaler about the new investigation, which incenses him. She ultimately gathers enough information about the strike force investigating the US Attorney to write a front-page story. A prominent story about internecine warfare within the Department of Justice office in Miami attracts the attention of the Assistant Attorney General for the Organized Crime Division (portrayed by Wilford Brimley) who storms down from Washington to investigate, summoning US Attorney, head of the strike force, reporter, and liquor wholesaler. The Assistant Attorney General soon realizes that the liquor wholesaler has outwitted his would-be prosecutors by creating a trail of evidence that would suggest, but not prove, that he had bribed the US Attorney. The Assistant Attorney General, though not the US Attorney’s superior, recommends that he resign. The Assistant Attorney General, who has direct authority over the head of the strike force, fires him for breaking the law by leaking documents and authorizing unlawful wiretaps. The reporter is fired and the liquor wholesaler, despite being exculpated, sells his home and sails away to points unknown on his antique powerboat.

The narrative should make clear the reporter’s violations of journalistic ethics, which include writing a story without seeking confirmation, writing a second story that needlessly named an individual who would be under extreme duress, having a personal relationship with a person whom she was writing about, and revealing her sources. Though many reporters might make one of these errors at some point in their career, it is exceptional, in the worst sense, for a reporter to make them all on one story. Lucinda Franks, a journalist with the New York Times, discussed it in the Columbia Journalism Review and concluded that “in real life, she never would have made it as an investigative reporter in the first place”. Her editor, who never second-guesses her and indeed encourages to her make her articles more sensational, is no better. Her paper’s lawyer is irresponsible, concerned only about libel suits and concluding that because the articles were written absent malice towards the wholesaler (hence the title of the movie) he could not successfully sue.

Most of the film’s characters are one-dimensional: the head of the strike reveals himself to be a single-minded zealot willing to embrace illegal means to achieve his goal and the US Attorney is simply corrupt. It is impossible to have sympathy for the reporter because she shows herself in every instance not up to her job. At one point, in a conversation with the liquor wholesaler who heatedly asks her to consider that she might not be writing the truth, but only what people tell her, she blandly replied that “things are usually as they seem.” Under prodding from the Assistant Attorney General at the end of the movie she finally realizes that “I did [my work] badly” but she communicates no sense that she would do any better the next time. So if there is to be learning from mistakes, as I titled this post, it will be on the part of the audience.

The choice of Sally Field for this role is unfortunate; two years before Absence of Malice she won the Academy Award for best actress for portraying an uneducated but street-smart union organizer in Norma Rae, the polar opposite of her role as a college-educated but intellectually uncurious reporter. On the other hand, Paul Newman’s performance as a common man whose life is turned upside-down but manages to keep control and plot a clever way to get revenge and take his life back, was memorable. Wilford Brimley’s portrayal of the Assistant Attorney General was also memorable: disheveled to the point of appearing to be a rube, but dominating the climactic meeting with a shrewd and quick mind and deep devotion to public service ethics.

The narrative arc of Absence of Malice, as a counter-fable to an heroic fable, is that of a corporate nightmare, though in miniature. The reporter loses her job. The newspaper is embarrassed over its coverage of these events. The head of the strike force and US Attorney both lose their jobs. The liquor wholesaler, while defending his reputation, no longer feels comfortable in Miami and decides to leave. Finally, an entirely innocent third party is driven to commit suicide.

Within its admittedly small universe, Absence of Malice does make the point that, if investigative journalism is done incompetently, anyone whose name appears in print can be unjustly injured. It speaks in a cautionary way to the power of investigative journalism. Given the focus of its plot on public institutions, Absence of Malice makes a second point that in the public sector in the United States power is often diffused, in this case among the US Attorney, the FBI, and the Organized Crime Strike Force. As I’ve discussed in my research on public sector innovation, cooperation is necessary for effective action; internal conflict begets inaction and failure.

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