Meet the New, Not-So-Mild-Mannered Journalist Clark Kent

Saturday, September 06, 2014
Thanks to the Superman radio and TV show intros, everybody knows that Clark Kent has always been “a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.” But ongoing events in DC Comics’ Superman have not only altered the status quo, they’ve raised a lot of issues about journalism ethics, today’s media and Clark Kent himself.

Now, make no mistake: Superman writers have always meant for readers to consider Clark Kent a top-flight reporter, mild manners notwithstanding. Superman stories, going back to the character’s inception in 1938, have invariably referred to Kent as an “ace” or “star” reporter, one whose byline is synonymous with “honesty and integrity” ( Superman .98, 1955).

At the same time, he’s been meek to the point of embarrassment. That doesn’t make a lot of sense — how can you be a great reporter, and be afraid of your own shadow? As it happens, that characterization was dropped from the reporter in the Adventures of Superman TV show, where a small F/X budget meant Clark Kent had a lot more screen time than Superman and had to resolve problems without resorting to his more expensive other self. But in the comics, Kent has been preposterously mousy since Lois Lane started pushing Kent around in 1938.

That latter part, however, has changed. In 2011, DC Comics re-launched all their superhero characters, and in Superman’s case, began his story over again with young Clark Kent’s arrival in Metropolis. One major change in this brave new world is that Clark Kent isn’t quite as mild-mannered as he used to be. In fact, he’s an aggressive and idealistic investigative reporter who constantly engages in — as Lois Lane admiringly refers to it — “truth to power-ing.”

So while this new Kent is still a star reporter, the Superman-Clark Kent dynamic has equalized. Today’s Clark Kent is just as much a hero as his caped alter ego.

“In the early days, (Clark’s) newspaper job was more of a front for his crime-fighting activities,” said Steve Korte, librarian/archivist at DC Comics, in an interview. “It was a handy place for him to find out what was going on in the world in terms of crime. He could easily slip into his costume and fly away and do his Superman duties without arousing too much suspicion. And now I think it’s probably gone the other way, to where the journalism is really important to him. He’s much more socially aware, perhaps. He probably values being a journalist more than in the early days.”

Especially as compared to, say, the early 1970s, when Kent was — I kid thee not — a TV news anchorman. In those days, his journalism career was more an impediment than an advantage in crime-fighting.

“When Clark was assigned to start doing on-air reports by his boss (Morgan Edge), which he was not happy about, he figured out that he could fight crime during his three-minute commercial breaks,” Korte said with a laugh. “They would break for commercial, he would zip in his costume and run off and undo some criminal mischief, and then be back in front of the camera three minutes later.”

But the new, assertive Clark Kent doesn’t allow Morgan Edge (CEO of the conglomerate that owns the Daily Planet) to push him around. In fact, the Edge-Kent relationship has reversed itself. In 2012, when Edge tried to force Kent into doing “infotainment” instead of hard news, the young reporter quit!

“Your job is what I say it is,” a browbeating Edge told Clark in the middle of the Planet newsroom. “The truth is ... if you can’t do that, Kent, I need to find someone who can.”

“You want a conversation about the truth, Mr. Edge?” Kent retorted. “The truth is that somewhere along the way, the business of news became the news. Growing up in Smallville, I believed that journalism was an ideal, as worthy and important as being a cop, a fireman, a teacher or a doctor. I was taught to believe you could use words to change the course of rivers — that even the darkest secrets would fall under the harsh light of the sun. But facts have been replaced by opinions. Information has been replaced by entertainment. Reporters have become stenographers. I can’t be the only one who is sick at the thought of what passes for news. I am not the only who believes in the power of the press — the fact that we need to stand up for the truth. For justice. And yeah — I’m not ashamed to say — (for) the American way.”

I ran that speech by Dr. Joseph Hayden, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis, who confirmed that these sentiments are familiar criticisms of media today. But, interestingly, he pointed out that it’s a debate that has roots older than bloggers, Twitter and cable news.

“Journalism was characterized early on by unapologetic opinions,” he said. “It was only until the end of the 19th century that a different ethos emerged (of objective reporting), and there have always been competing models — the ‘New Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and others. There are many other critiques here, too, complaints about entertainment, superficiality, docility. Those, too, have a long lineage. The mistaken assumption by many is that there was a golden age of journalism. That’s not true. Journalism, like any other genre of creative work, has always included great work and bad, the consequential and the trivial, gold and gunk.”

Edge was unimpressed by Kent’s speech, but one Planet staffer, gossip/fashion/celebrity writer Cat Grant, was inspired. She also quit, and talked Kent into a joint blog/website to do news the way he wants to. And when broke the news that Superman and Wonder Woman are dating — it truly is a brave new world, isn’t it? — the odd couple are doing well, Korte said.

“Cat is pretty business-savvy,” he laughed. “I don’t think Clark is.”

Which is an interesting new status quo that DC could have milked indefinitely. Instead, two heavy hitters have arrived on the creative end and turned the board over.

Geoff Johns, DC’s Chief Creative Officer, took over writing Superman two months ago, and launched a new storyline titled Men of Tomorrow. Along with Johns came John Romita Jr., an A-list artist at Marvel Comics, doing his first work at DC.

In Men of Tomorrow, Perry White has cut a deal with Kent, which could result in the not-so-mild-mannered reporter going back to work for the Daily Planet. But will he? And more important, should he?

For one thing, despite what the stories tell us, Clark Kent isn’t exactly the poster boy for journalism ethics. For example, in at least two stories about how Kent got his job at the Daily Planet (there are several), he owes his first big story to an exclusive interview with the Man of Steel! In those circumstances he’s lying to his editor and his readers, which is certainly unethical, and since it’s a form of fraud, maybe even illegal. And this is an ongoing ethical breach. How can Kent justify it?

“Well,” Korte suggested, after some thought. “You could argue it’s for the greater good.”

Which is a pretty good argument, as it mirrors Kent’s own reasoning, which is that his secret identity keeps the most powerful man on the planet sane (he doesn’t have to be Superman 24/7), it provides the Man of Tomorrow with information to save lives, plus the big one: If the world knew Superman and Clark Kent were one and the same, supervillains and the underworld would target Kent’s friends, family and co-workers.

Those things, said Prof. Hayden, might be worth a lie or two.

“In my view, human life outweighs truth telling,” he said. “If lying prevented the deaths of thousands of people, for example, then, yes, that would be worth it, and almost anyone would agree with that in theory.”

On the other hand ...

“In practice, however, you see the propensity of the powerful to claim that what they’re doing is for public safety, and very often it’s just that: a hyperbolic claim,” Hayden said. “As (Benjamin) Franklin so shrewdly put it, those who would sacrifice essential liberty for security deserve neither.”

But this is Superman, so we can probably assume good intentions.

Men of Tomorrow is progressing faster than a speeding bullet, with a number of other lingering questions to resolve, most of which involve Clark Kent.

Will he win the ethics argument with Morgan Edge? Will he return the Daily Planet to its glory days? Will he, in short, save journalism in the DC Universe?

“He is certainly going to try,” Korte said.

Now that’s a superhero. And he doesn’t even need a cape.

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