Absence of Malice is one of the best films about journalism. It is not an in-depth primer on how to develop a story, rather it explores the ethical side of publishing inaccurate information in pursuit of “the public’s right to know.”
The premise of the film concerns what happens when misleading and false information is fed to an ambitious reporter by a government source. As a result, damage is done and lives are ruined. Yet the newspaper takes no responsibility for any of it, because they claim they had no knowledge that the information was false, therefore, absence of malice.
The story begins with a federal strike force investigation into the disappearance of a labor leader. The feds believe that organized crime is involved but the investigation has hit a dead-end. To jump-start the investigation, an unscrupulous federal investigator decides to target a family member of an alleged crime boss, to put pressure on him to break the investigation open. The fed don’t really suspect him, but they believe he can lead them to others who are involved.
To turn up the heat on Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), a newspaper reporter, Megan Carter (Sally Field), Carter is baited into reading the investigator’s file, knowing she will write a story, which she does. Her editor inflates the weak file information into an incriminating story about Gallagher. The newspaper lawyer walks the reporter through the legalities of printing the story, which is full of allegations and innuendo. The news story begins to unravel Gallagher’s life, including causing his liquor business to be struck by the local union, making it difficult to keep his business open.
Gallagher reaches out to Carter to try and understand why the story was written since it contained no real facts. She agrees to meet with him on his boat, believing he is some Mafia big wheel. She is intrigued by him and they being to develop a relationship, putting them both under surveillance, by the feds and the local crime organization, who are nervous about what Gallagher might say.
Gallagher visits his uncle to assure the family that he’s no threat, and is advised to check out the feds, since Gallagher suspects the news story was part of a setup.
The one person who can positively clear Gallagher as a suspect in the labor leader’s disappearance, is his longtime friend, Teresa. She reluctantly gives Carter very personal information to backup her story, which Carter publishes, and it publicly embarrasses Gallagher’s friend to the point she takes her own life.
Gallagher blames Carter’s recklessness for the suicide of his friend, and he makes her feel his anger when she comes by to apologize. Carter tells Gallagher that it was Elliott Rosen who leaked the story, as Carter begins to see the impact of her action.
Rosen is the strike force leader and he won’t let the investigation cool down, even after the suicide publicity. Instead of remaining a victim, Gallagher takes control of the situation, and he begins to set a trap for those involved. The local D.A., who is campaigning for election, begins getting contributions anomalously, through a political committee, from Gallagher, who knows the feds will take notice. Gallagher sets up a meet with the D.A. to discuss a deal, also so the feds will notice. Gallagher asks for a statement from the D.A. ending the investigation in return for information about the disappearance of the labor leader. Rosen has swallowed the bait and orders the investigation expanded and to include a tap on the D.A.’s phone, all without a legal court order. The implication is that Gallagher has bought the D.A.
Gallagher re-starts his relationship with Carter. Then she gets a tip from the FBI that Gallagher paid off the D.A., which frosts her relationship with Gallagher. This leads Carter and Gallagher to debate what truth means and should anything be fair game to be reported. Carter’s interest is now renewed in the investigation so she sets her sights on the D.A. based on this campaign contribution information, linking the D.A and Gallagher.
Carter publishes a news story implicating the D.A., which now gets the attention of the Justice Department and especially ire of the Assistant Attorney General (Wilford Brimley), who gathers everyone for an inquiry.
The inquiry is a device by the filmmakers to bring the various story threads together to resolve the conflict. Rosen accuses the D.A. of being bribed, of the campaign contributions from Gallagher. Gallagher admits to making the anonymous contributions because he likes the work of the political committee and they were made anonymously to prevents a lot of other people from asking for contributions. The illegal phone taps are revealed, and Rosen is confronted with running an illegal investigation of the D. A. Gallagher also denies being a government informant, he told the D.A. he would check around about information regarding the missing labor leader, but none of his sources was talking.
It becomes apparent to everyone in the room that Gallagher set up this situation to get even with Rosen, the D.A. and the newspaper. Carter now understands that in her zeal to get the story she became a pawn, and how this led to damaging lives. She is asked to reveal her source for the story, but she won’t, which places her in contempt. She will accept the responsibility for her actions and not hurt anyone else.
Rosen loses his job, the D.A. considers resignation, and Carter is herself the focus of a story by her own newspaper. Gallagher asks who he can see about Teresa’s death. He is told no one, there is no responsible party to see about his friend’s death.
The film is interesting in several regards. This was a few years after Watergate, but the media got a huge boost from the reporting done during that era as a powerful protector of democracy. The “public’s right to know” opened the door to Sunshine Laws on getting information from governmental agencies. But did this new power give the media too much latitude and independence without any oversight. Absence of malice is a large protection. Yet, the media is under fire for reporting information they believe to be correct and truthful. Cries of “fake news” and the media being the enemy of the people cast doubt on traditional media and news gathering organizations. Internet blogs and unfiltered opinion outlets on cable television and social media are not really judged using the same criteria as new organizations, yet these opinion outlets shape the views and beliefs of Americans without any vetting for facts, and there is no responsibility for accuracy or damage done through their information.
The other thing the film presents is the use of investigative authority by governmental agencies. Beginning with the RICO laws, the growing use of secret grand juries, the Patriot Act and other resources, law enforcement both nationally and locally, have more authority to investigate and gather information on citizens. We trust there are safeguards from actions that violate constitutional rights and redress to courts or other entities when felt that actions cross that line.
Absence of Malice is an entertaining film that offers up some very intriguing matters. Directed by Sidney Pollack (Out of Africa, Three Days of the Condor) the cast includes Newman, Field, Brimley, Barry Primus, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Melinda Dillon.