Citizen Kane: Why the most famous journalism film barely involves the journalist

I’ve never thought of Citizen Kane as a film about journalism. For me, it has always been first and foremost a filmmaker’s film—the greatest film ever made, top of the list, a film to be watched in cinematic theory classes over and over. Journalism is a background to the action, not the center, and I suppose it just flew right under the radar for me.

Charles Foster Kane is a newspaper man; he is not a reporter, he is not an editor, he does not go off on assignment or hunt down sources. And thus I never thought to call him a journalist, even in an age when journalism didn’t always mean tireless factual confirmation and ethical procedure. Even if his character’s inspiration, William Randolph Hearst, shaped 20th century journalism in ways few others did.

But Citizen Kane is all about the hunt for information, the tracking down of sources that beget sources that could possibly maybe answer the one question: who is Rosebud? It’s about cajoling a persnickety Susan Alexander Kane into telling her story, reading through tedious documents that may have nothing to do with the information that is needed, trying to get an aging senior to ignore his desire for cigars and tell you what you need to know. It’s about an all-consuming search for something that could have been explained in a sentence, if only you were asking the right people the right questions. If that’s not a portrait of journalism, what is?

But the journalist in the film is merely a vehicle for asking questions. He’s not a character, he’s barely visible. After three viewings, I don’t know his name and honestly, I don’t care. Is he the same person, or are there multiple reporters? I don’t even know, because it doesn’t matter. The story is what matters. In the world of news, it doesn’t matter what you had to do to get it, the trials and tribulations of snagging that one perfect quote or spending hours on the phone tracking down a source, what matters is what hits newsstands the next morning. In traditional journalism, we are taught to capture the stories of others, rather than telling our own stories. Readers don’t pore over by-lines, they delve into the body of the text.

And so it’s appropriate that Citizen Kane is hard to identify as being a movie about journalism. For what comes out of it is not a story about how a reporter or a paper investigates, but what comes out of that investigation: the story of a man, his dreams, greed, control, wealth, power, maybe even love. The day-to-day of the journalist is only a vehicle to get to the actual story.

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