Some of the country's top journalists donned black ties and silk and went to the Kennedy Center last night to view the world premiere of a movie that made their profession look pretty bad.
Ironically, tickets to last night's affair, ranging from $15 to $100, benefited the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. The house was sold out.
In what was considered to be a savvy public relations move, director Sydney Pollack and Columbia Pictures underwrote the buffet supper in the Kennedy Center Atrium after the movie.
"It was a gutsy, classy act to premiere the movie in front of a gathering like this," said Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell. "Some people didn't particularly like it . . .I think it will cause people to think."
The film, "Absence of Malice" starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, is the story of an ambitious reporter whose relentless pursuit of a story and less-than-careful use of government sources bring down a lot of innocent people. It was bound to get the juices going. If "All the President's Men" glamorized the world of the investigative reporter, "Absence of Malice" could send the media running for cover.
For the record however, nobody appeared overwrought.
"I think that we in the press are very arrogant and open ourselves up to this kind of description, but I don't think that the description represents all journalists or is totally accurate," said Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, coming out of the theater. "What she Sally Field does is outrageous. And sometimes the system breaks down, but I hope not always."
Also present in the audience were Newman and Field, who created quite a stir when they arrived. They were immediately surrounded by cameras and press, some working, some ogling. Both celebrities appeared uncomfortable. When asked what he would be doing next, Newman quipped, "I think I might take up being an astronaut, so I can get a little more privacy."
The only other person attracting as much attention as the stars was national security adviser Richard V. Allen. Questioned about recent accusations that he had accepted money in exchange for arranging an interview between Nancy Reagan and a Japanese magazine, he said: "I've been known to have a high survival quotient." Later, when introduced to Newman, a staunch Democrat, he shook his hand and said,"My ideological opposite."
"Loyal opposition," smiled Newman.
"We think you should join this administration," invited Allen. "We're for disarmament, too."
"Bless you," Newman said. The two agreed to meet for lunch soon.
The audience of celebrated journalists, local press and other Washington heavies included: Eric Sevareid, Mike Wallace, Roger Mudd, Mike Deaver, John Sirica, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Benjamin C. Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Anne Wexler, Larry Speakes, Ethel Kennedy and Powell, among others.
After the movie, everybody adjourned upstairs to eat roast beef, pasta salad and strawberry shortcake. They also chewed over the film.
"I think the film is absolutely about us," said CBS' Mike Wallace. "It's about how the government uses us and we use the government. Quite frankly I was prepared to find more fault with the film . . . It's time for us to be more careful. Let's get over congratulating ourselves for Watergate and get on with it."
"I thought the movie was remorseful and disturbing the way it was left at the end," said NBC anchor Roger Mudd. "It showed how the First Amendment can trap us into difficult postions. We're prisoners of our own rules."
Investigative journalist Jack Anderson found the movie "entertaining," but not necessarily true to life. "I don't think those things could have happened on my staff. We have reliable sources. We don't take things on face value the way she did in the movie, without confirmaton. Since the Eagleton case, In 1972 Anderson retracted a published claim that Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton had a record of arrests for drunken and reckless driving I've been a little gun-shy and super careful."
The days of Watergate brought a certain glamor to the workaday world of journalism. Reporters sometimes became as important as the people they were covering and their celebrity status came from the belief that they were the good guys. But the honeymoon may be over.
"This is the first time in the last 30 years that the press has been the heavy in a movie," said Motion Picture Association president Jack Valenti. "It's always been business, politicians, the CIA or the FBI. The press is definitely the villain in this movie. I suspect the movie will do very well. The public is ready."