Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Timeline of Reporting Dramas: Movies About Journalistic Coverage of Real Public Issues and Events

"The Post" vies for Academy awards in one delivered issue of the New York Times running a front page advertisement, plus a double page interior advertisement that appeared with a promotional interview of its stars, Streep and Hanks.
- *NOTE: Since the publication of this original post National Notice has published an updated list of films that includes, as one of its updates, “Shock and Awe.”  See: Time To Update Our Timeline Presenting Movies About Real Journalists Covering Real Public Issues and Events (To Include “Shock and Awe” and “Risk”), Sunday, July 15, 2018.-  
With Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” currently up and vying for Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and given the way that “The Post” ends with a scene denoting it as a prequel to the renowned “All The President’s Men” (1976), I thought it was time to gather a list of films that have been made  in either documentary fashion, or in dramatic form based on real reporting events that are about the subject of journalism. My interest was in films that are about the duties involved and the issues and decisions that the practice of journalism raises.  . . . I decided that it would be instructive to present them in timeline fashion, basing the timeline, not on the year that films were made, but upon the time period of the actual reporting of those events that took place.

Although I am not endorsing the accuracy with which any of these films convey history, I am including in my list only films that are about the ostensible reporting of ostensibly real events with particular interest in what made the decisions about such reporting dramatic at the time.

There are films that are inspired by real events and are great films about reporting, journalism and the newspaper business, but if those films are too highly fictionalized I am leaving them out.  “Citizen Kane,” (1941), inspired by the life of newspaper publisher `Citizen' William Randolph Hearst, is a great film and raises issues about what gets reported and with what sort of motives and sensationalism, but it is obviously highly fictionalized even if Hearst himself sought to smear/destroy its director Orson Wells and wanted the film destroyed (there is a dramatic HBO film precisely about that: “RKO 281" (1999).  Although my grandfather, Thomas Justin White, was General Manager and one-time president of the Hearst organization I don’t include “Citizen Kane” in the list.  (The film doesn’t happen include any character representing my grandfather).

Other great films on the subject of newspapers and journalism that don’t involve real journalists or real events include the versions of “Front Page” (1931 and 1974) and “His Girl Friday” (1940), “Broadcast News”  (1987), and the savage Paddy Chayefsky satire “Network” (1976).  “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) has scenes key to the plot that depict how critical it is to a villainously corrupt political machine’s control of an unnamed western state for the machine to exercise a monopoly on the information with which newspapers and radio stations in the state supply its population.

I could perhaps arguably include three films that can be watched as a triptych: “Capote” (2005), “Infamous” (2006) and “In Cold Blood” (1967) as being about the death penalty and Truman Capote’s book.  I didn’t, and the last of those films, simply the film made from the book, doesn’t have Capote or a journalist as a character.

If journalism and its ethics is too remote from the central focus of the story (“The Killing Fields” 1984, “Salvador” 1986, and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” 1998) I am not including films in my list, notwithstanding that real journalists are characters in the films.  Maybe I ought to be including “Live From Bagdad” an HBO film about CNN reporting (and yet one more film starring Michael Keaton as a journalist) or “Control Room” (2004, about Al Jazeera reporting, but I don’t know enough about them at the moment.

“Quiz Show” (1994) stands out as a delightfully fun film about a television network's deceit of the American public.  I am not including it since the famous deceit tsk-tsked by the film is with respect to the facts of the NBC television network’s own rigged game shows, rather than the reporting of the facts of important national events.  (It was based on events covered in a book “Prime Time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s TV Quiz Scandal A D.A.'s Account,” co-authored by Joseph Stone, and my mother-in-law’s boyfriend, Tim Yohn.)  However, a film that could be be made that would arguably make this list would be about another rigged NBC game show that in more recent times did not get tsk-tsked, “The Apprentice,” which helped a misrepresented featured participant, Donald Trump, go on to the U.S. presidency.  . . Yes, although fictional, "Broadcast News" and "Network" were both cautionary about the failure to distinguish news from entertainment, a failure that helped pave the way to Trump's becoming our distractor-in-chief.

Many of the films in my timeline feature whistle-blowers.  In many of the films people pay prices or are very much in danger of paying high prices, including ruined careers, prison or even loss of life, for reporting news the government or the otherwise powerful want to suppress.

There are shorter form, certainly informative documentaries I am not including like Frontline’s, “WikiSecrets,” about the release of alarming information about US military conduct by Bradley/Chelsea Manning through Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.  And, not included, Frontline has covered subjects about manipulation of the media by big and dirty corporate money seeking political manipulation in segments like: “Climate of Doubt” and “Big Sky, Big Money.”  . .  Also not included is an HBO recent 'documentary' about Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, basically the audio-book version of Bradlee’s self-flattering autobiography with pictures, “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee.”

I am also not including documentary films that are overall critiques about the failure of mainstream American corporate media in general to report reliably, such as “Project Censored the Movie” (2013) or “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism” (2004) that offers a political view about the particular unreliability of Fox News.  I am not including such films even though their skepticism might undermine the sometimes rosy hopes that films in my chronological list sometimes offer about how it is envisioned mainstream media may do its job.

Here then is my list that presents a chronology in which you can see an evolution of what we have believed has been the role of journalists in reporting on the actual conflicts of our changing times.

    •    Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).  Set in 1953, during the early days of television broadcast journalism. Edward R. Murrow along with his CBS news team take a stand and take on the anti-communist fear mongering of  Senator Joseph McCarthy.

    •    All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone (2016).  This film covers the legacy of investigative journalist I.F. Stone who died at 81 in 1989, who writing in his I.F. Stone Weekly (1953–71), reported about and during the eras of Joe McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson all the way to Ronald Reagan.

    •   The Post (2017) and The Pentagon Papers (2003).  Both are dramas about the publication of the Pentagon Paper released by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study.  The papers were first brought to the attention of the public on the front page of The New York Times starting Sunday, June 13th, 1971.  The Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers on June 18, 1971.
    •    All The President’s Men (1976).  About the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal.  The Watergate scandal began with the incident with which “The Post” ends: On June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills at the Watergate complex finds a door's bolt taped over so that it will not lock.
    •    Frost/Nixon (2008). Based on the David Frost interviews of Richard Nixon recorded and broadcast on television in four programs in 1977 in which Nixon climatically admitted his wrongdoing.
    •    Kill The Messenger (2014).   Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, the film takes place in the mid-1990s. Webb uncovered the CIA's role in importing cocaine into the U.S. to secretly fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels through the manufacture and sale of drugs in the U.S.  Pressure to drop pursuit of his story Webb published his evidence in the series "Dark Alliance."  He then experienced a vicious smear campaign fueled by the CIA, during which he found himself defending his integrity, his career, his family, ending in his unfortunate death.  (This film somewhat oddly does not show up as readily when googling these subjects as the others do.)

    •    The Insider (1999).  About whistle-blower Jeffrey S. Wigand who became famous for his appearance in 1996 on the CBS news program 60 Minutes to reveal that the Brown & Williamson tobacco industry company had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blend with chemicals to increase the addictive effect of nicotine in cigarettes.  The film is about how CBS, with business motivations driving it, was suppressing the story while a smear campaign was conducted against Wigand, and about the ultimate involvement of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times in getting the story out.  Afterwards, in real life, the producer of the Wigand segment, Lowell Bergman, portrayed in the film by Al Pacino, went on to work for the New York Times, including working on collaborations with “Frontline.”
    •    Shattered Glass (2003).  A film about the embarrassment of how for three years until 1998 many of the humorous and entertaining articles that Stephen Glass wrote for the liberal magazine “The New Republic” were cobbled together from his multiple inventive fictions.

    •    Spotlight,” (2015).   It is based on a series of stories by the "Spotlight" team about the Catholic Church's concealment of its priests' sexual abuse of children that earned The Boston Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. (With news stories appearing from January 6, 2002 to December 14, 2002).

    •    Truth (2015).  This film is another about the CBS news program 60 Minutes.  It takes place in the months leading into the US 2004 presidential election (Bush v. Kerry) and tells the story about how CBS News anchor Dan Rather and others working for the CBS program were subject to criticism and lost their jobs for alleged liberal bias in reporting a basically true story about preferential treatment of George W. Bush in the National Guard (1968 to 1973 during which time Bush did not show up for a medical exam and stopped fulfilling his flying commitments) when it turned out that documents with which the newspeople had been supplied to support their story were likely faked in whole or in part by somebody.

    •    The Fifth Estate (2013), Underground: The Julian Assange Story (2012) We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) Mediastan (2013) All of these films deal with Julian Asssange, the founding of Wikileaks (in 2006) and related events through 2010.  “Underground” covers the earliest period of Assange's life (the 1980s and 1990's pre-1997).

    •    Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)  It deals with Times coverage of many things mostly during the time it was made, such as the 2008 bankruptcy of Tribune Media and The Afghan War documents leak, also called the Afghan War Diary, published by WikiLeaks in July 2010.

    •    Citizenfour (2014) and Snowden (2016). Respectively, first the film that won the Academy Award for best documentary and the subsequent Oliver Stone directed bio-pic that both cover Edward Snowden’s leaks to journalists of classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 concerning the extensive and illegal spying of the US government on U.S. citizens and on others around the world after the 9/11 attacks.

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