DVDanger: Advice to Young Journalists
What cinema tells us about what we expect from the news
By Richard Whittaker,
9:30AM, Sat. Feb. 14, 2015
It's been an odd week as a journalist. Brian Williams' career implodes, Bob Simon dies in a car accident, David Carr drops dead at his desk, and Jon Stewart quits The Daily Show.
This all came as #adviceforyoungjournalists trended, as seasoned reporters and veteran burnouts tweeted useful, satirical, and jaundiced bons mots to their inevitable successors and replacements.
Add to the word count, in an odd coincidence, four films all making their way to home release this week that tackle the role of journalists: two based on true stories, one documentary, and one piece of too-close-to-truth-for-comfort fiction.
Yes, normally this column is about monsters and bloodshed and nudity and so on and so forth – you know, the good stuff. But this has been a week when we're all thinking about what the news is and, by extrapolation, what we believe our reporters should be.
Cinema has not always been kind to reporters. From the sozzled louses and D.C. muckrakers of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the moral quagmire and career desperation of Ace in the Hole, we haven't always had the best of reputations onscreen. It was really the daring duo of Redford and Hoffman in All the President's Men that at least balanced our karma a little.
By odd coincidence (or, for conspiracy theorists, the most roundabout way to promote a film), Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater is released the same week as his intention-to-quit letter was filed. The film is an adaptation of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari's autobiography of his time in an Iranian interrogation chamber, Then They Came for Me. Its core question is simple: Is the act of reporting inherently activist?
It's a small wonder that Stewart was drawn to this project. Now I'm firmly of the opinion that what Stewart does on The Daily Show is not journalism. He is a comedian and commentator, and the commentary has increasingly overtaken the comedy. However, that makes him an anchor, one who uses humor to both sharpen the knife and soften the blow. In the context of his resignation, the pivotal scene in Rosewater occurs during the siege of a militia building by pro-democracy activists. Bahari (Gael García Bernal) has been very circumspect about getting any footage that will draw down the ire of the authorities. One protester points at his lowered camera and accuses him of failing to use the one real weapon that will make any difference. It's not hard to see Stewart empathizing with this moment, and that this whole film is his attempt to raise the camera, like Bahari.
The end is jubilant, with Stewart (ever the inherent optimist) showing that good journalism will save the day. That's where he and I part ways: He's got too much Frank Capra running in his veins, and the world is often a much darker place.
Bahari lived and returned to the West, becoming a much more potent truth-teller because of his experiences. Gary Webb, by contrast, died by two gunshot wounds to the head, divorced and cast out of the industry he loved. Webb, the central figure of Kill the Messenger (as played by Jeremy Renner), was another true-life journalist. He was behind the legendary "Dark Alliance" series for the San Jose Mercury News, the 1996 articles that arguably were the first experience of a news story going viral. His investigative reporting confirmed many of the suspected links among the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras, and the influx of crack into U.S. cities in the 1980s.
This is the polar opposite of Bahari's experience. He became an international poster child for Western liberties vs. extremist Iranian repression, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making public statements demanding his release. Webb was never sued, imprisoned, or legally castigated: Instead, he was basically excommunicated from his own industry, with reporters at other newspapers far more eager to debunk his claims than to examine, clarify, or build upon his work. His off-the-cuff style was reinterpreted as shoddy and unprofessional: The fact that he didn't have CIA contacts was used to undercut him.
Most worrying for the onscreen version of Webb is his complex relationship with his editors: Oliver Platt as Jerry Ceppos, who initially oversells then undercuts his work, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the more supportive Anna Simons (based on Webb's Mercury News editor Dawn Garcia). It's their failure to stand by his work that cuts him most deeply (meanwhile, critics of the publication attacked them for too little due diligence at the beginning).
It's the perennial axe hanging over the heads of journalists tackling controversial subjects: How far do you push it? There's always the nagging fear that, when push comes to shove, your editors, your publisher, your employer's lawyers, won't have your back, even if you know you have all your facts straight. Years after the scandal, Webb looked back on his career dryly and said that he thought he'd had a successful career because he had been a good reporter. Not so, he surmised: "I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
That's the dichotomy: We want our news edgy, but we don't want it to point the finger at our own crimes. By contrast, entertainment news is supposed to take the edge off our day. No one was more revered in that position than Roger Ebert, arguably the most important American film critic of all time.
That geographic clarification is important: To most of the world, he was just the thumbs up/down guy. During my youth in the UK he was constantly overshadowed by Barry Norman, the BBC's definitive voice on all matters cinematic. Documentary/eulogy Life Itself has been seen as a near-hagiographic tribute to the man as a whole, but its most significant segments may be in Ebert's early life, first as reporter, then editor of the Daily Illini. His decision to – literally – stop the presses because of the juxtaposition of a shot of JFK and a cartoon of a gun is a moment that reminds everyone that presentation is sometimes everything, and that details are what will keep you up at night.
The worrying and inadvertent part of Ebert's legacy will always be the reductionist positive/negative, thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to reviewing a film. It worked because he was balanced by Gene Siskel, and loyal viewers knew where they stood with each critic. Even if they both liked a film, the individual audience member could still say, "Hey, I hate films they agree on. Pass." That's a far remove from the near-meaningless percentage points of Rotten Tomatoes – the critical proof of the old saying about lies, damned lies, and statistics. But, at his core, Ebert was still a journalist, and that one decision as a college news cub speaks volumes to how, at this industry's best, it can do the right things for the right reasons, and in the right way.
And then there is the darkest shadow of all this. The fact-based films discussed so far all have the reporter as observer, as hero, as the angel of our better nature. Lou Bloom, the monstrous protagonist of Nightcrawler, is the ultimate dealer in prurience. Untrained, with nothing more than a cheap video camera, a car, a police scanner, and the number of a local news producer who will buy any footage of death, destruction, horror, murder, rape – you know, the stuff local news loves.
Bloom is based on the real-life stringers of Los Angeles, who spend their time trying to find the one piece of footage that will run at 6 and 9. He's nothing new: Tobe Hooper recalled that part of the inspiration behind the Texas Chain Saw Massacre was "the people with the cameras who stopped on I-35 to get close-ups when things went all crashing bad." They'd take that footage and sell it to the news stations in San Antonio. In Nightcrawler, the station staffers' analog is producer Nina (Rene Russo). Bloom is already a bottom-feeding monster: Think of him as Kirk Douglas' tabloid scrabbler Chuck Tatum from Ace in the Hole who encourages, nurtures, and pays Bloom. She fails the kind of morality test that Ebert, in real life, passed, and the real-life Ceppos arguably botched.
So what is the advice to young journalists? Is it nobility? Is it to have a different conscience than the world demands? Is it about paying attention to the details? Is it about staying up all night and getting the story, no matter what the personal costs? Is it just that expense accounts are a thing of the past? Is it that the next wave of movie journalists will struggle to extract drama from listicles? Who knows. As Carr once said of the trade, it beats working.
Nightcrawler (Universal) is available now on DVD and Blu-ray (read our full review here).
Kill the Messenger (Universal) is available on DVD and Blu-ray now (read our full review here).
Rosewater (Universal) is available on DVD and Blu-ray now (read our full review here).
Life Itself (Magnolia) is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Feb 17 (read our full review here).