My favorite films about journalism

By Christopher B. Daly

This weekend marked the general release of the terrific new film “Spotlight,” about the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the prize-winning story about the widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. The film, as I noted in my review, is a much-needed valentine to traditional news media, praising their willingness to use their resources in pursuit of telling the truth and holding the powerful accountable.

“Spotlight” is already being hailed (to use a bit of journalese) as one of the best films of all time about journalism. Which raises the question:

What are the best films about journalism?

Here’s my annotated list:

[I like all of these films, for one reason or another, so I am not ranking them. Instead, they are arranged chronologically, which makes some interesting points about the evolving view of journalists over time. I had never noticed how many of these come in clusters, which must be a lagging indicator of something.]



Claudette Colbert plays a smuggler’s daughter who is being investigated by a reporter, played by Ben Lyon. Complications naturally ensue. Fun fact: The title song was recorded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and others.



Dir. Howard Hawks. My personal favorite. Watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the top of their games in a romp through Chicago journalism of MV5BMTM3ODQ2Mzg0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjM3ODA5._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_the 1920s. HGF features an epically dense screenplay, as the two leads constantly talk over each other. One memorable zinger after another. From the play, “The Front Page,” written by journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.



Dir: Alfred Hitchcock. Joel McCrea plays a young American reporter in London on the eve of WWII, trying to expose enemy agents (as all good journalists just naturally do!). Ben Hecht is one of the writers, though uncredited.



The cinematic masterpiece from Orson Welles, who wrote, directed and MV5BMTQ2Mjc1MDQwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUyOTUyMg@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_starred. It’s a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst, who hated it and did all he could (which was a lot) to try to suppress it. Welles gets the last laugh. Screenplay co-credit goes to Herman J. Mankiewicz.




The first of the nine Hepburn/Tracy films. Two rival reporters meet cute and marry not-so-cute. Kate Hepburn plays a version of the real-life columnist Dorothy Thompson. Spencer Tracy wishes his globe-trotting, multi-lingual wife were home a bit more often. Ring Lardner Jr. shares screenwriting credit.



Gregory Peck plays a journalist who decides to investigate anti-semitism by pretending to be Jewish himself. Peck at his righteous best. Screenplay by Moss Hart, based on novel by Laura Z. Hobson.



Jimmy Stewart, who knew his way around a fedora, plays a Chicago reporter who re-opens a cold murder case in this film-noir drama.



Burt Lancaster, depicts gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Tony Curtis, MV5BNTk2MzU2ODc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDU1MjkyMw@@._V1_UY105_CR6,0,105,105_AL_plays an oily, sycophantic p.r. agent. A noir masterpiece that explores the careers of people who don’t know how not to manipulate others. One of the screenwriting credits goes to playwright Clifford Odets.



MV5BODAxMTc4ODcxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDY0NTAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_AL_The essential celebration of investigative reporting, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The film dramatizes the real-life reporting of the Washington Post reporters that led to the downfall of President Nixon. Screenwriter William Goldman wrote the best line, uttered by Hal Holbrook, playing “Deep Throat” in a dark and empty parking garage: “Follow the money.”


NETWORK (1976)

Dir: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Faye Dunaway and William Holden. Featuring Peter Finch for his memorable freak-out live on television, urging viewers to join him in ranting: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Writer: Paddy Chayefsky



Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and a bearded Michael Douglas star in this drama about white-hat journalists exposing safety problems at a nuclear power plant. Very much in the shadow of the Three Mile Island incident of the same year.



Dir. Sydney Pollack. Sally Field plays a young reporter who libels Paul Newman (horrors) by publishing leaked information about him that is false and harmful to his reputation. This one causes a lot of journalists to squirm.



Dir. Peter Weir. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. Australian reporter, assisted by Linda Hunt, covers Indonesia during a period of turmoil and finds time to romance Sigourney Weaver. Could be Gibson’s career high.



Sam Waterston depicting NYTimes correspondent Sydney Shanberg covering Cambodia during the appalling regime of the Khmer Rouge. Terrific performance by first-time actor Haing S. Ngor, portraying the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran.



Dir. James L. Brooks. A romantic triangle involving William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and their boss, the incomparable Holly Hunter. Set in a MV5BMTMwMzg2Mzc1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjY4ODk4._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_television newsroom, the main characters manage to address real journalistic issues without preachy speeches. Written by James L. Brooks, no relation to Albert. (who also wrote the newsroom-based TV shows Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant).


THE PAPER (1994)

Dir: Ron Howard (formerly Opie on Mayberry). Michael Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the city editor of a NYC tabloid, in a day-in-the-life about a journalist’s crusade for the truth at any cost: major fight with wife, lost job at the New York Times, etc. Highlight: the knock-down brawl with Glenn Close.


WAG THE DOG (1997)

Dir. Barry Levinson. An acidic satire of Washington’s manipulation of the mass media. Starring Robert DeNiro as a political operative who enlists a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to gin up a photogenic war to divert public attention from scandal. Hoffman envisions was as “a pageant.” From the book by Larry Beinhart.



Dir.: Terry Gilliam.

Benicio del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo himself. In a masterpiece of understatement, IMDb tries to gets its arms around this film this way: “An oddball journalist and his psychopathic lawyer travel to Las Vegas for a series of psychedelic escapades.” That about sums it up. From the book by HST.




Starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Based on CBS investigation into Big Tobacco. Crowe plays a chemist-turned-whistleblower, and Pacino plays TV producer Lowell Bergman as a blow-hard. Christopher Plummer portrays a TV reporter based on Mike Wallace of CBS’s “60 Minutes” – who did not appreciate the insinuation that he pulled punches. Based on Marie Brenner’s article in Vanity Fair called “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”



Writer/director Cameron Crowe wonders what it would have been like to be a teenager who gets to write a story for Rolling Stone that involves traveling with a rock band on tour. Starring Kate Hudson as the allusive singer Penny Lane.



The sad, miserable story of some guy (I don’t want to even use his name) who bamboozled his editors at The New Republic for an unforgivably long time. The guy’s story pitches were too good to be true, alas. Partial writing credit: journalist Buzz Bissinger.


CAPOTE (2005) MV5BMTczMzU0MjM1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjczNzgyNA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

In one of his last major roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a star turn as the writer Truman Capote as he undertakes the reporting that turned into the non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.” Catherine Keener plays the young Nelle Harper, Capote’s sidekick and better known as the author Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”



Dir. George Clooney. David Straithairn plays Edward R. Murrow in this heroic biopic. Good as far as it goes, but it pulls punches on what happened to Murrow after he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (CBS sidelined Murrow because he was too overtly political.) Clooney wrote it, too.


THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)MV5BMTMyNjk4Njc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDkyMTEzMw@@._V1_SX80_CR0,0,80,80_

Meryl Streep plays an imperious editor of a woman’s high-fashion magazine (a la Anna Wintour at Vogue), and Anne Hathaway plays her plucky assistant. Terrific cast.



A dramatization of the real-life interviews conducted by British talk-show host David Frost with disgraced former president Richard Nixon (see “All the President’s Men”). Frank Langella turns in a very credible Nixon. Fun fact: the role played by Oliver Platt in the film was played in real life by former BU Journalism professor Bob Zelnick.



Replacing Brad Pitt (who backed out), Russell Crowe plays an old-school Washington reporter covering the death of a congressional aide, with help from perky blogger Rachel McAdams, who tries to teach the old dog Crowe some new reporting tricks found on this thing called the Internet. Fun cameos of actual DC reporters, including Woodward.



Dir. Tom McCarthy. With help from screenwriter Josh Singer, McCarthy delivers an appreciative bouquet to traditional “accountability” journalism. Based on the true story of the Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who exposed the rampant sexual abuse and extensive cover-up within the Boston Catholic archdiocese.

*        *         *      *       *       *

Honorable mention, TV series:

The Wire, Season 5


Lou Grant

Superman (George Reeves)

See a mild-mannered reporter at The Daily Planet, Clark Kent, turn into a righteous super hero. If only all reporters could be caped crusaders.


Honorable mention, documentaries:

Reporting America at War

Control Room

Around the World in 72 Days




[For more info, see the website Image of Journalism in Popular Culture at USC]


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New film shines spotlight on real news reporting

By Christopher B. Daly

In the new movie “Spotlight,” there’s a wonderful scene where a reporter is seeking documents in a courthouse. The building is a dreary linoleum monument to The Way Things Are. In the scene, a recalcitrant clerk treats the reporter as if he were a nuisance and declines to lift a finger.

The moment perfectly captures an ethos that I remember well from my own adventures as a reporter covering Massachusetts

How's never?

How’s never?

government, courts, and politics. In that world, the idea that knowledge is power is intuitively understood by all parties, like an article of faith or an early item in the Catechism. The thinking goes something like this: If I know something that you don’t know, why should I tell you? If I tell you, then you’ll know as much as I do. So, go fuck yourself.

Freedom of information? Ha!

And that ethos pervades much of the world that “Spotlight” tries to illuminate. The film takes its title from the special investigative unit at the Boston Globe that cracked open the scandal inside the clergy and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Globe team documented the pervasive, long-running practice of high-ranking Church officials covering up for priests who sexually molested, abused, and raped children.

The film pits two powerful Boston institutions against each other — the Church and the city’s big newspaper. Worthy adversaries, they did battle for years in the early 2000s. The paper was trying to pry evidence of the scandal out of court records (which were sealed, naturally, under terms of the many settlements the Church reached with its victims), out of victims, out of lawyers, out of anyone who would talk.

Church officials, starting with the disgraced former cardinal, Bernard Law, used a variety of classic techniques: stonewalling, threatening, denying, appealing to old friendships. According to the film-makers, some Church leaders and some lay defenders of the Church tried to demonize the Globe’s then-new top editor, Marty Baron, by raising insidious questions about him: isn’t he Jewish? why isn’t he married? he’s not from here, is he?

Ultimately, of course, the journalists triumph — in the film just as they did in real life. In doing so, “Spotlight” sends out a strong and welcome message: Journalism ain’t dead yet. For a field that has had more than its share of bad news for more than a decade now, it’s nice to be reminded that journalism matters.

Writer-director Tom McCarthy clearly holds journalism in high regard. He takes us close inside the reporting process. We watchspotlight the team of reporters made up of Matt Carroll (played by Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Mike Rezendes (a twitchy Mark Ruffalo) as they are led by “Robby” Robinson (played with eerie intensity by Michael Keaton, who played a big-city daily paper editor in “The Paper” in 1994) and their boss, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery).

One of the best things about “Spotlight” is the way it portrays the thrill of the chase that fuels reporters when they are trying to pin down an important story. We see the Globe reporters toiling into the night, wrecking their weekends, and actually enjoying their work. We root for them as they match wits with surly clerks, oily Church fixers, and the dead weight of centuries of Catholic indoctrination and obedience. (“Yes, Father.” “Of course, Father.” “Yes, Your Eminence.”)

In my opinion, the film makes one major mis-step. It is unnecessarily harsh in its portrayal of Eric MacLeish, grandson of Archibald MacLeish and a Boston attorney who represented many of the Church’s victims. I spoke to MacLeish many times during those years, and he was always straight with me and as forthcoming as his legal duties would allow. In the film, he is depicted as the asshole lawyer who could help the Globe but won’t. Instead, attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played marvelously by Stanley Tucci) gets to play the only decent lawyer in sight.

I saw “Spotlight” in October at a special screening for faculty and students of Boston University (the alma mater of two real-life Spotlight reporters, Sacha Pfeiffer and Mike Rezendes). All the key figures from the Globe investigation were there, except for Baron, who has moved on to be the top editor of The Washington Post. Robby acknowledged a point made in the film that I had not been aware of — that sources had sent the Globe much of the evidence needed to break the story years earlier, but no one paid much attention.

The film ends just as the Globe breaks the big story, in January 2002. The story rocked the Church, all the way to Rome, by dragging all the foul deeds of priests out of the darkness and into the light (the spotlight, if you will), and it won the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

The folks at the Globe (at least, those who still have jobs) are rightly proud of their newspaper. The depiction of reporting that we see in “Spotlight” gives all of us who work in journalism a reason to feel proud too, by reminding us that the world would be a pretty crummy place without those driven, impertinent, nosy people who won’t take no for answer.

[Full disclosure: I’m a lapsed Catholic myself — or, as I prefer to put it, a “collapsed Catholic.” I am also a journalist who worked in Boston during those years. I covered the trials of two of the Church’s “bad apples” — Father Porter and Father Geoghan. But like everyone else, I failed to connect the dots. So, I tip my hat to the Globies who did the hard, sustained reporting that it took. Bravo.]

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Journalism informed by history

By Christopher B. Daly

After a summertime hiatus, I want to revive this site. As ever, there is much to say about journalism, history, and the assorted other topics that show up here from time to time (NCAA, fossil fuels, etc.)

Today, I want to praise the NYTimes business columnist Eduardo Porter for his smart and effective use of history to inform what was essentially a political column about Donald Trump.

Porter begins with the premise that we all have our own histories and that our individual histories are entwined with the broader histories of our times. In Trump’s case, that personal history involved a coming of age at a very unusual period in American history — when the fraction of the foreign-born population was at an all-time low.

When Donald Trump was reaching adulthood in the mid-1960s, the United States was a less diverse place. By 1970, the share of the population born overseas had shrunk to 4.7 percent, the slimmest on record. Only about 0.4 percent of the population had been born in Mexico.

For a person of Trump’s time, that experience helps define a norm, against which all change is experienced as a deviation. Thus, for Trump and the slice of the population that is about his age (69, about the oldest possible slice of the baby boom), the last few decades represent a disorienting change in the composition of American society. Incidentally, there is nothing inevitable about his perception that such change represents a decline. He might see it as a plus. The fact that he interprets the change as a harm tells us a lot about Donald Trump as an individual. The times in which we live do not dictate everything about us; they just give us material to work with.

My only gripe with Porter’s column has to do with an issue that pervades the Times. Why won’t the paper include more links to source material? Most of the links in the online version link to other Times stories or to backgrounders prepared by the Times. In the Porter piece, it would make sense to link to the works of some of the experts he cites or to link to the Pew study he relies on. I suppose the paper is worried that readers will depart from the Times‘ site via links and never return. But I think that’s wrong. I think more readers would value the Times more if it included external links.

Besides, if the Times is going to write using a historical perspective more often, the writers will have to meet the standards that historians have for evidence. Footnotes anyone?


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This Week in Fossil Fuels

By Christopher B. Daly 

Dear readers:

Sorry about the unannounced hiatus. All I can say is, there was a beach involved. I am returning to this theme by posting a bunch of links that I was gathering all through the late summer.

Further in my defense: I spent some of my time last month pursuing a solar option for the rooftop of my own home. Putting a fair amount of money where the mouth is.

Some fairly recent developments:

–Another coal company bites the dust. One bond rating agency says investors should avoid the whole sector:

The bond rating agency Fitch expects coal companies to struggle in the future. “The sector default rate is likely to increase further in the near term,” its analysts wrote in a note to investors Monday.

–How crazy is it to over-cool offices? Way to go, men!

Molly Mahannah shivering at work in the summer in Omaha. NYT photo.

Molly Mahannah shivering at work in the summer in Omaha. NYT photo.

–How hard do advocates of fossil fuels fight? Pretty hard, according to this NYT story. (Don’t miss the comments.)

In a related development, TNR comments on the GOP response to Obama. A sample, from Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell:

“I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy,” the Kentucky senator said. The new regulations, he argued, would mean “fewer jobs, shuttered power plants, and higher electricity costs for families and businesses.”

Problem is, there are only about 6,000 coal-mining jobs in Kentucky.

Not only that, but we have to ask: WHAT IS THE IDEAL NUMBER OF COAL MINING JOBS ON THE PLANET? (I’d say it should approach the number of whale-oil harpooneers.)

–I wasn’t sure whether Newsweek was still in business, but here’s a science lesson.


–NO FRACKIN‘ WAY!! (another upside to low oil prices)

–Who says coal is cheap? It’s actually very costly when you count all the costs.


–Even Bloomberg (the pro-business news agency that’s afraid to rock the boat in China) had to report on this grim news: air pollution, mostly from coal, kills 4,000 Chinese people a day. A day.

If you missed the viral Chinese documentary “Under the Dome,” here’s a link to a story about it.

–Even oil companies don’t want to drill for oil. Sheesh. (Are you listening, Drew Faust? Or do you plan to hold onto those stocks until they’re worthless?)

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A Grim Anniversary: The A-bomb 70 years later

By Christopher B. Daly

Seventy years ago this week, the United States used atomic bombs in war for the first (and so far only) time in history. It is an occasion to reflect on what that action meant and what it continues to mean for every person on the planet. Without getting into the debate over the morality or the military effectiveness of the bomb, here are some thoughts on the journalism of that fateful period.

Here is a recent piece by me that ran on The Conversation (a terrific website in which academics are invited to write for non-specialists). It is adapted from my book Covering America.

Here is the NYTimes own history of its role in the coverage.

And here is the text of John Hersey’s masterful account of Hiroshima.


William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.  Military photo.

William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.
Military photo.

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Media Roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

–I am so proud of my old newspaper, The Washington Post. The paper has recently been rendering a major public service: a reckoning of all the shootings of civilians by police that take place in the United States. You might think that information would be routinely collected by Justice, the FBI, or at least every state police agency. You’d be wrong.

Turns out, there is no central governmental accounting. So, the Post stepped into the vacuum and built a database from the ground up.

Turns out, American cops shoot about two civilians a day, every day.

Is that too many? Too few? Just about right? I don’t know, but at least now we can begin to have a debate about it and come to terms with the police. As Juvenal put it 2,000 years ago: Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Or, Who will police the police? Who will guard the guardians? Who will watch over those who watch over?

In my view, this is exactly why we need a free and independent news media.

–Here we go again with the NSA.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for a robust, state-of-the-art intelligence service. To my mind, that means spying on other countries in ways that advance our national interests without them even finding out about it. That’s my standard for U.S. intelligence-gathering. Anything else has to yield to the Constitution. When it comes to spying on Americans, there is no reason for the executive branch to take it upon itself to routinely spy on Americans who are not even suspected of having broken any laws.

According to the Times, the secret agency has justified its secret program to a secret court, so we are all supposed to just shut up and submit our data. Absolutely not.



–So, I see that tourists will now be allowed to take photos while touring the White House. Yay.

If only the professional news photographers who cover the White House had the same liberty!

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This Week in Fossil Fuels

By Christopher B. Daly 

Thanks a lot, SCOTUS! In an otherwise welcome flurry of decisions, the Court issued a ruling that means continued emissions from coal-fired power plants and continued release of mercury into the environment. Isn’t it obvious that Congress created the EPA to protect the environment and the people who live in it?

From the Times:

Writing for the majority, in the 5-to-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits. Statutory context supports this reading.”

If possible, Scalia has topped himself here in being not only wrong but also belligerent and hypocritical. He has done no cost-benefit analysis himself, so he does not know if the EPA’s action would cost “billions” while yielding only “a few dollars” in benefits. What is the long-term, total cost to society of all that pollution? Does he know? No, he does not. Plus, he justifies his view on the basis of “statutory context.” How about that? In other recent rulings, he has lectured his colleagues on the importance of ignoring “statutory context” in favor of what he calls “originalism” or (when it suits his purposes) something he calls “textualism.”


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