The journalism profession, the television faction in particular, takes it on the chin again in "Prime Suspect," an otherwise routinely competent suspense drama on CBS tonight at 9 p.m.
The story involves a pillar-of-the-community type who buys some cookies from a 10-year-old girl scout and finds himself suspected of her murder. Although he is never charged with the crime, the harassment by the police and the media wrecks his job, his marriage and his mental health.
In several recent movies that come to mind, reporters and editors, particularly the television type, are inevitably portrayed as insensitive jerks. Reporters are usually seen clustering around some important person, shoving each other and asking questions that would embarrass most real reporters. And when a reporter is a main character, he or she is either a well-meaning dim bulb like Jane Fonda in "The China Syndrome" or an agent of evil like Sally Field in "Absence of Malice." "Lou Grant" has done its share to portray the job somewhat more realistically, but lately the show has been tilting back toward the stereotypes.
This is not to say that journalism isn't as full of fools and climbers as any other profession, or less deserving of criticism. Perhaps it is too much to expect commercial television to go beyond simple-minded criticism, since it is so much more convenient dramatically to have a clear villain.
The creators of "Prime Suspect" have a cause to go with their message, too -- they want a law, modeled on "the English system," that would restrict the media from naming a suspect until he or she has been indicted. Their assumption, which is also the impetus of the plot, is that the media commonly identify suspects whose names are obtained from confidential sources rather than public record. The common practice, however, is to wait until the police release the name of a suspect.
The debate takes on familiar tones. "We're just doing our job," is the universal excuse, whether from the news people or the cops. Everyone displays a lack of courage, although in the end the hero, played by the affable Mike Farrell, triumphs by asserting his.
The tension is neatly built in a formulaic manner. The fingers of plot point clearly at the news media as villains, but in this case the crime is not absence of malice but absence of talent.