An anonymous evaluator for the National Humanities Center recently called my (unsuccessful) proposal “more like journalism” than scholarship. This person meant to be withering, but I carry the words with honor. After all, Kermit the Frog’s best gig was on “Sesame Street News.” Holly Hunter is unforgettable as Jane Craig in “Broadcast News.” Henrietta Stackpole is the only character in James’s “Portrait of a Lady” with whom I’d have lunch. There is Mary Tyler Moore, producing the nightly news in Minneapolis. Nellie Bly was a real-life genius. And, of course, there is Lois Lane.
“Spotlight” won “Best Picture” because it narrates tenaciously courageous journalists fighting systemic evil. One of the charms of the Superman franchise is that Superman’s main sweetie throughout is a muckraking, investigative force of nature. Superman fights crime, and Lois Lane uses her pen and paper, her tape-recorder, her wits and her nose for corruption to rake the muck and find the big baddies. This is tricky work, in part because the big baddies pay lower-level bullies to set fires and steal purses from women crossing the road. The big baddies rely on shallow journalism, and Lois Lane is determined to find the tunnels of money underneath Metropolis. This is sometimes literal — in that Lois Lane goes sleuthing through tunnels. Her effort is also metaphorical — in that Lois is willing to dress up and pretend with a mid-level baddy in order to discover how baddies are funding architectonic shifts in Metropolis. She is a tenaciously courageous journalist fighting systemic evil. Lane is an icon for local, truly independent journalism, and she is the best picture in any iteration of Superman.
I recently endured “Man of Steel,” a Superman movie, because young people I love enjoy giant, blockbuster films featuring heroes. Mind you, I am an equal opportunity critic when it comes to these sorts of movies. I don’t enjoy giant, blockbusters featuring a hero of any gender or sexual identity saving another person. I particularly loathe giant blockbuster films where one person saves a few people in a city, only after a gazillion people have been killed by a monstrous villain. But, I went valiantly into the theater with popcorn, Jordan Almonds, and a handsome date. I tried to like the movie. Then Lois Lane promised to keep her mouth shut.
In the introduction to her edited collection “Examining Lois Lane: The Scoop on Superman’s Sweetheart,” Nadine Farghaly writes that, from 1938 forward, Lois Lane “challenged, undermined, superseded, and sometimes, if necessary and convenient, aligned herself with the roles women were assigned in society.” Amy Adams was cast in “Man of Steel” as the worst possible version of Lois Lane. In “Man of Steel,” Adams was asked to be stupid and then be silent. The writers collapsed Lois Lane into a one-dimensional feature of the overarching Superman story: Kent is Superman, and Lane keeps that secret. Alongside crashing giant things and screaming, bleeding, squished people, the fact that Lois Lane is a reporter is made into a morality tale about the importance of keeping governmental secrets.
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Any comic franchise worth its weight in paper shouldn’t bury the lead. The television series “Lois and Clark” ran from 1993-1997. Writer Deborah Joy LeVine puts reporting front and center, with a pilot episode that intertwines the murder of a wrongly discredited, whistle-blowing scientist, government corruption, double-crossing villains, sabotage, and a faked suicide. And, of course, Lex Luther. A strand running through the series is Luther’s alliances with other dirty-dealers, including the aforementioned strategy of hiring baddies to splash the headlines and distract from Luther’s machinations. For example, Luther attempts to demolish and then monopolize real estate in downtown Metropolis. Over four years, Lois digs up complicated corruption and subterfuge, both local and global.
The winner for the 2017 Pulitzer in Public Service Journalism is New York Daily News and ProPublica, “For uncovering, primarily through the work of reporter Sarah Ryley, widespread abuse of eviction rules by the police to oust hundreds of people, most of them poor minorities.” The Prize for Investigative Reporting went to Eric Eyre of Charleston Gazette-Mail, Charleston, W.V., “For courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.” And the staff at the The Salt Lake Tribune won the prize for Local Reporting, “For a string of vivid reports revealing the perverse, punitive and cruel treatment given to sexual assault victims at Brigham Young University, one of Utah’s most powerful institutions.”
We need more heroes like these, who dig through tunnels to expose villains. “Lois and Clark” closes with Lex Luther trying to buy up and destroy The Daily Planet. After all, villains can’t abide the likes of Lois Lane.
Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University whose column appears monthly in The Herald-Sun.