The pains of broadcast news

I hate watching broadcast news. I always have. It’s overly dramatic and fluctuates between bubbly, well groomed anchors giggling together and doomsday readings of the latest murder/car chase/drug bust. It wasn’t until I got to Medill that I realized how much work broadcast news is, with long hours and tight deadlines. How hard it is to line up a shot right, get the mike to work properly, find sufficient b-roll, ask all the questions and find someone to say sure, film my every word and movement for the public to see. Maybe it’s because our professors don’t bring in the lightweight anchors like Tom Grunick, the bumbling pretty boy of Broadcast News. They bring in the Aaron Altmans, the hardworking, capable reporters, who tell us harrowing tales of 6 a.m. story pitching, followed by more pitch meetings throughout the day, actual reporting and taping and meetings until the 10 p.m. news. I still hate watching broadcast news, but I respect it more, because I know I could never do it.

So I guess I don’t know how I feel about Network. The satire follows the devolution of a network broadcasting station. Like in The Insider, at times the broadcasters and newsmen are helpless to stop the power of the media machine, try as they might. The news can try to be pure and independent all it wants, but there’s still that pesky corporation to deal with, nagging for viewers, ratings, income. Veteran anchor Howard Beale starts mouthing off on-air when he’s told that he will be fired, and the viewers love it. Conniving and ruthless programming director Diana Christiansen exploits his popularity, turning the news show into a circus complete with raving prophet, fortune teller, and clamoring studio audience. The film ends on a voice over: Howard Beale, the first man to ever be killed for bad ratings. I understand that television news isn’t perfect. It’s showmanship as much as it is hard news gathering. But Network was too over the top for me. The minute they brought out the psychic, I felt myself tuning out. Like in The Front Line, there wasn’t anyone to root for. Harold was a raving lunatic caught up in his own little world, Diana was barely even human and Max, the only one who seemed sane, didn’t push back even as the network crumbled around him, blithely allowing Diana to use and abuse him however she wished.

Broadcast News, even as a romantic comedy, somehow managed to tackle many of the same issues about the weaknesses of television news without the apocalyptic overtones. Tom succeeds even though he barely knows what he’s saying because he’s pretty while Aaron works himself to the bone for few rewards. Personal feelings get in the way of objectivity and Jane sends her romantic competition out on an assignment to get rid of her, instead of because she’s the best reporter for the job. It’s a lighthearted movie with no happy ending, and that made it more powerful and lifelike. Everyone just keeps doing the best they can, under the circumstances.

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His Girl the Front Page

His Girl Friday was one of my favorite films to watch in the class so far. But The Front Page – the 1928 stage play that it was based on – left me fidgeting in my seat, wondering how long a second act could possibly last. The essential story lines were the same: star reporter tries to jump the editorial ship to get married, settle down and be a normal human being, while an overbearing editor stops at nothing to prevent such a travesty. It’s an insider look at the editor-writer relationship and beat reporting, and in many ways it’s a dark tale. The only thing that changes in the two versions is that Hildy Johnson, ace reporter, is played by a woman in His Girl Friday.

And yet, the entire tone of the play changes because of that fact. Hildy, as a male, is a playboy, a rough-and-tumble man’s man who pinches women, taunts his colleagues and lies to his fiancée. He’s good at his job, sure, and dedicated, but he doesn’t have the same compassion as his female counterpart.  Without the prospect of sexual tension, supereditor Walter Burns doesn’t even show his face until the end of the second act. Most of the comedy in the film comes from the interactions between Burns and Johnson, but they aren’t really given that fun familiarity in the play. Most of their scenes together include screaming into telephones at unnamed editors on the other line.

But while Walter spent most of the play as a theoretical entity, a voice on the phone, the other reporters in the press room were given far more attention. The 1940 film didn’t have the capacity or the priority perhaps, to allow ample character development of the lesser actors. They were simply a herd, like a pack of wolves running around hunting for the story. Hildy was better than them, and so they weren’t really important. But the less admirable Hildy becomes, the more important those reporters become. In a small play, it’s easier to grow attached to the characters, but they were given more individual time and quirks, to be the musician, the germaphobe, the gambler. Despite the fact that they constantly made up stories, were bullies and abused any female they encountered, it made them a little harder to hate. Not impossible, but harder.


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?


Investigating technology

All the President’s Men dramatizes the holy grail of investigative reporting: Watergate. The ultimate display of the power and the responsibility of the watchdog reporter. The poster child for the importance of curiosity.

Woodward and Bernstein are our typical journalism archetypes: the steadfast, old-school newsboy-turned-reporter who’s been on the job since he was 16, and the newer upstart who’s shaking things up and bumbling his way into results. When they start nosing around the Watergate burglary, their sources start clamming up. They know something is fishy, but they don’t know what. They know they’ve hit on something big, but where do they go next?

It was my second time seeing the film in less than a year, and what struck me most upon this viewing was the overwhelming differences between then and now. It was 1972, and the newsroom was an inherently different place. Sure, the reporters were still frantically trying to make deadline, the editors were pushing for seemingly impossible information, the news was still getting out. But there were no cell phones, no internet, no covert texts from Deep Throat. They took handwritten notes on legal pads, napkins, matchbooks, whatever was handy. It wasn’t like they were typing full speed on their Macbook. It seems like they were feeling around in the dark even more than they would be today, placing flags on balconies and getting secret messages delivered with their daily mail. Woodward ends up hunting down a source in a Minnesota phone book. But today we would just type his name into a search bar.

How would Watergate have been different if the stories were going up on the web, Google-able by any conspiracy theorist or crackpot commenter? Would other reporters have picked up on the story too? If, instead of showing up at the library and demanding to see every request for every book within the last year, what if they could have been looking it up online? Would they have taken the time to flip through every slip of paper carefully? Would Bernstein have taken the time to fly all the way to Florida to get ahold of a check if he had had a computer and the internet?

I was struck by how often doing their jobs entailed calling on people in the middle of the night, speaking through barely cracked doors, forcing their way into people’s homes just to get one question in. Again, being a good journalist seems to involve your story and your life becoming inexplicably intertwined. But again, I wondered how it would play out today. Would some of the sources too afraid to be seen speaking with reporters have sung a different tune through email?

Certainly, it would have been a different movie if Watergate took place 40 or 50 years later than it did. Would it be better? Would it have meant as much? I don’t know. The editor of the magazine I intern at keeps posing me and my fellow college-student-interns a challenge at our weekly pitch meetings: find a story without the internet. Find a story without reading about it anywhere else. And it’s hard, and I don’t often succeed. Part of me wonders whether the internet is ruining our ability to really get out there and report. If we’ve become so dependent on it, can we ever re-create what Woodward and Bernstein did?

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All the President’s Men dramatizes the holy grail of investigative reporting: Watergate. The ultimate display of the power and the responsibility of the watchdog reporter. The poster child for the importance of curiosity.

Woodward and Bernstein are our typical journalism archetypes: the steadfast, old-school newsboy-turned-reporter who’s been on the job since he was 16, and the newer upstart who’s shaking things up and bumbling his way into results. When they start nosing around the Watergate burglary, their sources start clamming up. They know something is fishy, but they don’t know what. They know they’ve hit on something big, but where do they go next?

It was my second time seeing the film in less than a year, and what struck me most upon this viewing was the overwhelming differences between then and now. It was 1972, and the newsroom was an inherently different place. Sure, the reporters were still frantically trying to make deadline, the editors were pushing for seemingly impossible information, the news was still getting out. But there were no cell phones, no internet, no covert texts from Deep Throat. They took handwritten notes on legal pads, napkins, matchbooks, whatever was handy. It wasn’t like they were typing full speed on their Macbook. It seems like they were feeling around in the dark even more than they would be today, placing flags on balconies and getting secret messages delivered with their daily mail. Woodward ends up hunting down a source in a Minnesota phone book. But today we would just type his name into a search bar.

How would Watergate have been different if the stories were going up on the web, Google-able by any conspiracy theorist or crackpot commenter? Would other reporters have picked up on the story too? If, instead of showing up at the library and demanding to see every request for every book within the last year, what if they could have been looking it up online? Would they have taken the time to flip through every slip of paper carefully? Would Bernstein have taken the time to fly all the way to Florida to get ahold of a check if he had had a computer and the internet?

I was struck by how often doing their jobs entailed calling on people in the middle of the night, speaking through barely cracked doors, forcing their way into people’s homes just to get one question in. Again, being a good journalist seems to involve your story and your life becoming inexplicably intertwined. But again, I wondered how it would play out today. Would some of the sources too afraid to be seen speaking with reporters sung a different tune through email?

Certainly, it would have been a different movie if Watergate took place 40 or 50 years later than it did. Would it be better? Would it have meant as much? I don’t know. The editor of the magazine I intern at keeps posing me and my fellow college-student-interns a challenge at our weekly pitch meetings: find a story without the internet. Find a story without reading about it anywhere else. And it’s hard, and I don’t often succeed. Part of me wonders whether the internet is ruining our ability to really get out there and report. If we’ve become so dependent on it, can we ever re-create what Woodward and Bernstein did?


A gentleman’s story

The Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) finally shows us a journalist we might want to meet in real life. Phil Green is one of the first likeable portrayals of the news industry we’ve seen. He’s upstanding. He’s successful. He’s got a cute kid. He’s even nice to his mother.

Rather than dwelling on the personal failings of Green, the film explores the all-consuming nature of a story. He doesn’t just researching and write – – he lives his topic. He takes a broad topic – anti-Semitism – that’s been written about before, and he makes it his own. Along the way, it becomes a part of him, affecting every part of his life.

Often, journalists are taught to keep a safe distance between them and their subjects. To remain an objective, disembodied voice above the fray. But even the idea for the piece is inspired by feelings. The magazine publisher, John Minify, is angry about anti-Semitism. And although Green’s first attempts at the article are more traditional research-based pieces, it’s not until he makes the story more personal to him that it gets off the ground. In a world when practically every story seems to be already written in some version, already out on the internet for anyone to read, is first person narrative journalism the way to go? No one can scoop you if the story is inherently yours.

But journalism doesn’t seem to be the kind of career you can leave at the office when you clock out. It’s the kind of work that follows you home even when you don’t intend it to. Green finds his decision to pose as Jewish affecting his relationships both at work and with his girlfriend. It places enormous strain on his relationship with Kathy even though it was her initial idea to write the story.  It affects his son at school. It ruins his honeymoon. Is this the cost of a good story?

Was he too involved? Or was he correcting injustice one person at a time? In the end, he gets everything: the girl, the story, the respect, a happy ending for his childhood friend. But that’s how movies work. Would it have been the same in real life? In the end, Gentleman’s Agreement is about using journalism to shine a light on injustice. Nobel. But it’s also about the sacrifices you sometimes have to make for an important story.


Tragic Circus

What is the price of a good story? That’s the question Ace in the Hole reporter Charles Tatum must ask himself as he navigates what could be the defining event of his career. Fired from numerous newspaper jobs for being a drunk, Tatum takes a job at a New Mexico paper he barely considers worth his time. On the way to cover a drab story on a rattlesnake hunt, he chances upon a front page story waiting for him to write it: a man trapped in a mine said to be home to angry Native American spirits. He endears himself to the miner and his family, quickly establishing a bond of trust, while simultaneous plotting with the town’s sheriff to ensure that the hullabaloo keeps up long enough to benefit them both.

Charles Tatum is another in the long line of slimy, hardened reporters portrayed in film. He does a lot of questionable things: he doesn’t admit to the miner’s family that he’s a reporter for some time after he’s begun covering the story, he lies, he endangers his source and gets too personally attached. There’s none of the impartiality and distance that modern journalism so values. Tatum is out to make money, selling his story to the highest bidder. He’s a quintessential part of the old school, working man’s journalism. He tells his young photographer “I didn’t go to college. I know what makes a good story because before I worked on a paper I sold them on a street corner.”

And, he says, bad news sells. Well, that’s certainly true. Thousands flock to see Leo Minosa’s tragedy. Whole families come, setting up camp near the mine just to be a part of the action, generally getting in the way and being insensitive. It’s not exactly an argument for the importance of news stories. The news coverage adds stress and pomp to a dire situation.

For much of the movie, Tatum seems to be torn between his instincts as a journalist and his humanity. To extend the story’s run for as long as possible, he keeps Minosa underground for days, when he could have been safely extracted in hours. He lies to the doctor, agreeing that Minosa will be out from underground in a day’s span, before turning around and ordering the construction head to find a drill to go through the entire mountain. He encourages the tents and carnival rides and the radio broadcasts painting him in a shining light. He colors outside the lines of truth in almost all his stories, portraying Mrs. Minosa as a fawning, worried spouse and not an opportunist. For most of the movie, he seems firmly committed to the dark side, and he’s dragging his young colleague along with him.

But at the cost of him being heartless and manipulative, he’s getting a great story. Though he certainly is doing a lot of things he’s not supposed to, in some aspects he’s successful. He gets to the story before anyone else, sensing something newsworthy before he even speaks to anyone. He is calm, reassuring; he coaxes the story out of the family of the miner, out of the miner himself. He becomes enmeshed in the miner’s tale, living in his house, spending almost all his time with the story. Minosa calls him his “best friend.” He taps on his typewriter till all hours of the night, working around the clock.

But he only regains his humanity when he stops pursuing the story. When he finally starts to understand what he has done, he can only attempt to limit the damage. He doesn’t return his editor’s phone calls, at the cost of the job he’s worked so hard and burned so many bridges to land. He can’t save Minosa; he can only get him some oxygen, a priest, try to stop the suffering. When he finally dies, Tatum has to go outside and face the crowds of people he drew there. He has to try to provide a solemn moment for the miner in the midst of the balloons and Ferris wheels. The other reporters don’t have time for that: they rush back to their tent to dial their editors and get the story in. In a way, Tatum is irredeemable, but his only chance at being someone we can root for is when he stops trying to be a journalist.


Hearkening back to darker times

At the risk of betraying my age, I will confess that the McCarthy era baffles me. It strikes me as surreal. And so it seems so perfectly placed within the confines of Good Night and Good Luck, cloaked in black and white scenes, the historic footage of Congressional trials interspersed with fictional actors performing half a decade later.

Edward Murrow and Fred Friendly are crusaders for the cause of rationality in an era of hysteria. Despite pressures from their superiors and sponsors, they air night after night of broadcast content calling into question the communist-hunting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

But as surreal as that point in history feels to me, there were certain points of the movie that struck me as familiar, modern even. It is a film about the influence of journalism and the responsibility of the fourth estate to be a watchdog, a protector of truth. It’s about the struggle for objectivity and the struggle to say something different than what everyone else is saying, to create controversy when it is perhaps vital.

It was when Murrow said “we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” that the bell in my head went off. For 2005 was not such a good time to be a dissenter, either. Replace “communist” with “terrorist” and the situation becomes exclusively contemporary. “We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home,” Murrow argues—rhetoric fit for anyone arguing against the Bush administration. In a climate where people were afraid to speak out against the war in Iraq because it was part of the War on Terror and to argue against it was an affront to everyone that died on September 11, the Edward Murrows of the world had to be there to speak out.

Even in the media, rumors circulate. At some point Murrow and his team have to reiterate that the ACLU is, in fact, neither communist nor on any watchlist. There is a responsibility for journalists to tell the truth and get their facts right, because the entire nation is looking to them for information. And I think behind the curtain, we sometimes forget that. If the New York Times prints it, it’s true. If CNN says it, it’s true. But journalists are human, with human shortcomings and human bias.

The most heartbreaking part of the film is when Don Hollenbeck is brought nearly to tears by a bad review in a paper, one that insinuates that he’s less than completely impartial. Today, partisan news is an old hat, and you don’t see anyone crying over it. But Hollenbeck felt a deep responsibility to his show, to do his show justice and make it fair. And I admire that. I have all but lost faith in broadcast news, but Good Night and Good Luck gives me hope that it doesn’t all have to be puppy pageants and over dramatized car chases, that the news that beams into our homes each morning, afternoon and night can truly have an impact.

Few other professions can boast that kind of power. And it isn’t the kind of thing that can be taken lightly.