The truth about the truth

For me, The Insider was the most complex, intricate view of the news world we’ve seen so far. It was also the most riveting story. It clocks in at 2 hours and 37 minutes, and as each minute passed I thought of another topic I could tackle in this blog.

It chronicles the story of CBS’s 60 Minutes special outing of the tobacco industry for choosing to conceal the harms it knew its product incurred, with the testimony of former tobacco executive Jeffery Wigand.  At the core of the story are producer Lowell Bergman and journalist Mike Wallace, who must both persuade Wigand to speak as well as defend him from the legal entanglements and threats to his safety the interview incurs.

For now, we’ll settle on this: as hard as earlier movies tried to paint journalism in a bad light, showcasing petty reporters, only a vague notion of truth and slippery morals, The Insider did it much more effectively. Even with characters to root for, institutions grounded by the highest standards and a commitment to changing the world, somehow it seemed to prove the complete fallibility of the system. For even when they seek out the truth and report it, their jobs are not done. The world is still a tough, unfair place where money can win out over justice, and even the most respected men in the field can bow to that.

I found the film heartbreaking. I admire Lowell Bergman for doing what he does. It isn’t easy to find sources even if they have nothing to lose from a story, and it definitely isn’t easy to find high profile, important sources to risk their livelihoods in front of a camera. And I admire Mike Wallace, the way he commands the room when he interviews a subject, even when being screamed at by volatile men brandishing guns. But even when they do their jobs spectacularly, the fight isn’t won.

It broke my heart to consider the idea of the truth never being broadcast, even though it was there, wrapped up in a nice little video package, ready to be shone into every living room in America through little television beacons. Journalism is the Fourth Estate, supposed to defend and protect the people’s rights, providing them with the information they need to know but would never otherwise be told.

But journalism is also a business, and when the business crumbles, so does the flow of information. One cannot succeed without the other. Sure, Patch.com might be out there reporting a story, but without the giant CBS corporation, would there be experts like Bergman and Wallace be out there getting interviews with Hezbollah?

Spoiler alert: the truth eventually wins out, and it’s print journalism that pushes it to its rightful end. So in a way, the ending should speak to the power of the press to shine a light on the truth even despite immense opposition. But when one of the most powerful, respected institutions of journalism bows to political pressures and bullying, it has an impact. The story came so close to disappearing into the black hole of unpublished news. Dangerously close.

It’s constantly pounded into our heads that we must be precise, accurate and right. We must tell the truth. But what happens when the truth isn’t enough?

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