Category Archives: Journalism

Journalism in the movies (Whitey Bulger edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

A tip of the old scally cap to Dick Lehr — my colleague at Boston University and an old friend. He has a front-page piece today in his old employer, The Boston Globe, about his experiences visiting the film sets for the shooting of the feature film being made based on his book Black Mass. That excellent book, which Dick co-wrote with his former Globe colleague Gerry O’Neill, is the basis for a film being made with Johnny Depp, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, and Julianne Nicholson (who should not need any Boston-accent coaching, since she is a native of my hometown — nearby Medford, which was a stronghold of the Italian mafia that Whitey helped to bring down.) Personally, I am looking forward to the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, Billy — the former state Senate president, whom I covered from 1983-1989. 

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Director Scott Cooper (l.) and writer Dick Lehr confer.

Dick told me yesterday that he has been spending a fair amount of time on the set, consulting about details for director Scott Cooper. The Globe says Dick will also have a cameo role in the film.

 

 

 

 

In his piece today, Dick struggles to describe his feelings as an author seeing specifics from his own reporting rendered into scenes and dialogue. Most compelling is the performance of Johnny Depp, who has occupied the role of the gangster and murderer Whitey Bulger. According to Lehr:

Whitey is fully in command, cold and calculating. In a close-up, there’s that terrifying look in his eyes. When the director yells, “Cut,’’ the filmmaking spell may be broken, but everyone viewing in the video tent stays quiet, still mesmerized, as a big chill lingers from the scene just finished a few yards away.

He compares his own experience as a journalist/writer to the reaction recorded by Truman Capote on the set of the filming of the movie “In Cold Blood,” based on his true-crime story. In Dick’s version:

Truman Capote once wrote an essay about visiting the set during the 1967 filming of his book “In Cold Blood,” and I wish I could compose lines as artful as his to describe the experience of seeing an actor who has brought an antagonist you know to life.

“I thought a ghost had sauntered in out of the sunshine,’’ he wrote about seeing Robert Blake for the first time portraying the killer Perry Smith. Capote said he had trouble processing the “mesmerizing reality’’ of the actor cast as Perry, because he was Perry, and that’s how it was with Johnny: He was Whitey. It was disorienting, “like a free fall down an elevator shaft,’’ as Capote put it. “The familiar eyes, placed in a familiar face, examining me with the detachment of a stranger.”

Perfect_storm_posterAll of which brings to mind the larger trend of works of journalism in the hands of filmmakers — either Hollywood feature 200px-Guadalcanal_Diary_1943_posterfilm directors or documentarians. Over the decades, plenty of true stories have been told first by journalists and then by filmmakers. From Guadalcanal Diary (book by Richard Tregaskis, film by Lewis Seiler) to The Perfect Storm (book by Sebastian Junger, film by Wolfgang Petersen) and on to the current filming of Black Mass, it has been a long and productive alliance.

 

What are your favorite examples of works of journalism providing the basis for films? Let’s get a list going.

 

 

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Plagiarism is back (Did it ever really go away?)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Jeez, I hope that headline’s original. (I have this haunting feeling that it seems familiar — I better google myself to make sure. Phew. No direct hits. Now, where was I?)

Amidst this recent outbreak of plagiarism charges (the Montana senator, the Times arts writer, some guy at BuzzFeed, and others), it’s worth reviewing what plagiarism is and why it plagues us.

Plagiarism is at once easier to do and easier to catch. Thanks to computers and the internet, it’s very easy to copy things — even things that a journalist, a speechwriter, or any other sincere person intends to use as source material or as quoted matter. On the other hand, thanks to those same computers and the internet, it’s also very easy to catch someone who plagiarizes — whether deliberately or inadvertently.

That’s why I welcome today’s comment by Margaret Sullivan, the NYTimes‘ public editor. Here’s the nub of her (presumably original) comment:

Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link.

Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.

 

That could go up on the walls of every classroom at Boston University, where I teach basic reporting classes in our Journalism program. In fact, I may do just that this fall — with proper attribution, of course.

Personally, I think the heart of the matter is in those first four words: WRITE YOUR OWN STUFF. If you are any kind of a writer who cares about words, you will know instantly whether a phrase or sentence or paragraph in some chunk of prose that has your name at the top was written by you or by somebody else. If you didn’t write it, give credit where it’s due. Any questions?

Class dismissed.

 

 

 

 

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News comes from far away. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?

The New York Times offers two very different answers.

One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.

The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.

Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.

In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.

But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.

This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.

News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable imgresconfusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.

That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.

Thurber-Lippmann screenshot

by James Thurber

 

 

 

 

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“Into the Wild” : A journalism classic revisited

By Christopher B. Daly 

As usual, I’m using the summer to catch up on my reading. Here’s a look back by Jon Krakauer, revisiting his break-out work on the death of Christopher McCandless, which became the basis for Krakauer’s best-seller Into the Wild. Krakauer makes a good case about the scientific validity of his original hypothesis — that McCandless died from ingesting wild foods that poisoned him.

This piece points up the importance of something we do too rarely in journalism — that is, stop chasing the next thing for a moment and go back over the ground we have already plowed. We should test and validate our work more often than we do.

So, kudos to Krakauer for both the original and the look-back.

Chris McCandless, the subject of "Into the Wild"

Chris McCandless, the subject of “Into the Wild”

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The dinosaurs of old media still shake the earth

By Christopher B. Daly

Is all the coverage of Rupert Murdoch’s play for Time Warner a bit of an over-reaction?

The NYTimes, for example, cleared the decks and went all-in, devoting nearly a double truck of today’s Business section to coverage of an 83-year-old business mogul who wants to take over a 91-year-old media company.

Here’s a column/story by Boston University professor David Carr and more stories here, here, and here.

So, it turns out that Murdoch wants to own the company that is a distant relative of the company founded in 1923 by Henry Luce, one of the earliest of the modern media moguls. Luce created TIME magazine with his co-founder and frenemy Briton Hadden, and in its day, TIME was the cool new thing. Over the decades, Time Inc. added more magazines that became household names — Fortune, Life, SI, People, etc. As I wrote in my book Covering America, Luce used his midas touch with magazines to become a wielder of great influence in American politics, culture, business, and foreign policy. In the late 20th Century, Luce’s successors made a series of mergers and acquisitions that transformed a magazine publisher into a multimedia giant. More recently, the company’s executives decided to spin off the print properties, leaving Time Warner as a company with a desirable core of television and film content-makers. That’s what Murdoch wants.

Murdoch himself went through a similar process of corporate cell division last year, dividing his News Corp. into separate print and video divisions. He is using his profitable new company, 21st Century Fox, to gobble up Time Warner. If he succeeds, as he might, it would also represent the final victory of 20th Century Fox movie studios founder Daryl F. Zanuck over his great Hollywood rival, Jack Warner. (Ironically, Zanuck learned the business at Warner Bros., making his bones with “Rin Tin Tin” but left after creative differences with Jack Warner over the making of “Baby Face.”)

It’s hard to find anyone to root for in all this.

220px-Baby_Face_1933_film_poster

 

 

 

 

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Tyler Hicks — a grim day in Gaza

By Christopher B. Daly

The remarkable Tyler Hicks seems to have a knack for being present where things happen. Hicks, the NYTimes photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news this year for his 2013 photos of a mass shooting at a mall in Kenya, just happened to be nearby Wednesday when news broke again. He was staying at a seaside hotel in Gaza when an Israeli rocket struck the beach, killing four young cousins.

In an unusual move, the Times posted a first-person piece by Hicks, in which he described his work. Here’s an excerpt:

I had returned to my small seaside hotel around 4 p.m. to file photos to New York when I heard a loud explosion. My driver and I rushed to the window to see what had happened. A small shack atop a sea wall at the fishing port had been struck by an Israeli bomb or missile and was burning. A young boy emerged from the smoke, running toward the adjacent beach.

I grabbed my cameras and was putting on body armor and a helmet when, about 30 seconds after the first blast, there was another. The boy I had seen running was now dead, lying motionless in the sand, along with three other boys who had been playing there.

By the time I reached the beach, I was winded from running with my heavy armor. I paused; it was too risky to go onto the exposed sand. Imagine what my silhouette, captured by an Israeli drone, might look like as a grainy image on a laptop somewhere in Israel: wearing body armor and a helmet, carrying cameras that could be mistaken for weapons. If children are being killed, what is there to protect me, or anyone else?

I watched as a group of people ran to the children’s aid. I joined them, running with the feeling that I would find safety in numbers, though I understood that feeling could be deceptive: Crowds can make things worse. We arrived at the scene to find lifeless, mangled bodies. The boys were beyond help. They had been killed instantly, and the people who had rushed to them were shocked and distraught.

Here’s the photo the Times posted:

The Times' caption: The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City on Wednesday. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The Times’ caption:
The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City on Wednesday. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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Govt. releases memo giving legal reasons for killing Americans overseas

By Christopher B. Daly 

Finally, under court order, the Obama administration has divulged its legal rationale for killing Americans abroad without trials, charges, or even arrests. That reasoning appears in a contested legal memo written four

Al-Alawki in 2010.  Getty.

Al-Awlaki in 2010.
Getty.

years ago in the Office of Legal Counsel offering arguments that would justify using a drone to take out Anwar al-Awlaki — who was an American citizen living (hiding?) in Yemen and fomenting attacks against you and me and our country.

Leaving aside (for the moment) whether al-Awlaki deserved to die in a drone strike, it was an offensive outrage that the Obama administration not only had a secret plan for killing Americans abroad but they also had a secret rationale for doing it, and they said no mere citizen could even read those arguments. Now, we mere citizens can read them for ourselves.

You can find the court ruling ordering the memo’s release and the arguments themselves here, thanks to the Times. That is, we can sort of read the memo. The ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the government some wiggle room so that officials could redact (i.e., “censor”) some parts that pertained to secret stuff the government knew about al-Awlaki through the fruits of spying on him. That makes a certain amount of sense, I guess, but any time that the government is allowed to redact its own documents, you have to wonder what’s missing.

In any case, the president should long ago have made this argument himself, in public. If he believes in it, then he owns it. It is his duty to protect and defend the Constitution and, therefore, to show why his actions are in conformance with his understand of the Constitution. If he makes the case and the people accept it, fine. If he makes his case and the people reject it, then he’s got a problem. But there is no reading of the Constitution that authorizes the president to carry out a secret assassination program and not tell anyone about it.

For now, I will pass on the question of whether al-Awlaki had it coming and whether Obama has a legal leg to stand on. I want to read the document and think it over. The policy might be acceptable, but what was not acceptable was the secrecy.

Meanwhile, kudos to the Times‘ Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, who are named among the plaintiffs who pried this decision out of the courts, along with the Times itself and the ACLU. No matter what we each think about the president and his policies, these plaintiffs have done the whole country a service. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 10.37.41 PM

 

 

 

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Rove on Iraq: “We create our own reality”

By Christopher B. Daly

As U.S. policy-makers argue over what to do next in Iraq (How about doing nothing?), it is worth recalling how this all came about. One source of the current situation that is worth recalling can be found in a rare moment of candor in the Bush White House. Thanks to the estimable journalist Ron Suskind, we have a glimpse into the interventionist mindset that propelled U.S. forces into ground action in Iraq. In a New York Times magazine piece from October, 17, 2004, Suskind reported on a conversation he had had in 2002 with a person he could not name but could only identify as a “senior adviser to Bush.” Later, Suskind was able to reveal the identity of that source: turns out, it was Karl Rove, the top political brain in the entire Bush operation.

Here’s what Karl Rove said:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is why we need journalists — not just to “study what they do,” but to hold them accountable.

(h/t to Larry Houghteling)

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NY Times: a bridge to a digital future

By Christopher B. Daly 

Most people who care about journalism share a concern: can the New York Times survive the transition from a print past to a digital future? And can the newspaper carry forward its unparalleled standards, staffing level, and values into a future where the Times flourishes in the news business gets out of the paper business and emerges as a truly online news operation?

Increasingly, it appears the answer will be yes.

A big hint landed softly this week in a column by the Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. In her column, she indicated that the budget for the Times newsroom is “more than $240 million” a year. That’s how much it costs for the care and feeding of some 1,250 journalists in New York and around the world — salaries (which are at the top of our field), benefits, travel, rent on foreign and domestic bureaus, and on and on. It does not include other costs, such as printing and distribution.

That figure, which I had not seen broken out that way before now, is important.

It confirms, of course, that journalism is not cheap — especially journalism that is predicated on original reporting on a global scale. It represents the paper’s “journalistic nut” — the hard core of spending that must be met, just like your rent or mortgage and utility payments.

The challenge is: how to make the nut?

The good news is that it seems more and more do-able to make the nut into the indefinite future, despite the severe contraction in print advertising.

Here’s one scenario:

–Begin by reducing the nut. Let’s just assume that there is some inefficiency in there, some feather-bedding, some wasted effort (like the still extensive time and energy put into the laying out of each next day’s print “front page.”) For the hell of it, say you could cut that budget by 8% and still survive essentially intact. (That’s one-12th of the total, or $220 million instead of $240 million.)

–That means you need to come up with $55 million per quarter.

–Already, the Times is bringing in $38 million, from digital advertising only, according to the Public Editor.

–She did not say how much money is coming in every quarter from digital subscriptions, but she did note that “digital-only” subscriptions have risen (from zero) to about 800,000.

–It would not be unrealistic to think that if the Times went digital-only, it would pick up another 200,000 out of the base of subscribers who now get the print edition.

–So, there’s a hypothetical base of 1 million digital subscribers.

–If those 1 million people would pay $20 per quarter, you would have more than your $55 million nut.

Of course, there are problems. Maybe the Times can’t find 1 million customers. Maybe those readers won’t pony up enough in subscription. And these revenue figures are all net figures: someone still has to go to work at the Times every day to sell those ads and handle those digital subscriptions. Just because those operations are digital, they are not free.

My point is that the trend of rising revenues from digital ads and digital subscriptions is approaching the point at which they could carry the newsroom. They are not there yet, which may point to another partial, temporary answer: just print on Sundays. Print advertising brings in something like four times the amount of digital ads, but that print-based is declining and will not carry the paper into the future. So, during the transition, why not keep the big fat Sunday edition? It has the largest number of readers (1.2 million), pages, ads, and revenue. No need to say goodbye to all those full-page Style-section ads from Ralph Lauren and Chanel. At least not yet.

NYTCo homepage

NYTCo homepage

 

 

 

 

 

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Iraq: Why journalists should study history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As I like to say: History keeps happening.

The events of recent days in the part of the world known as Iraq cannot be understood or explained without mastering a lot of history, going back well before the U.S. invasion and occupation. A good starting point for journalists covering the region (or merely pontificating about it) and for news consumers would be this map, drawn up in secret by the Great Powers who won World War I. In this historical map from 1919, British and French diplomats literally drew lines across the sand and decided how to divvy up the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

(Don’t miss: the notation “secret” on the upper left.)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.  (British Library)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.
(British Library)

This map shows how the European powers essentially created Syria (A) and Iraq (B) without regard for traditional ethnic, religious, tribal, or commercial interests. There was no plebiscite, no consultation with local leaders. That’s the fundamental (modern) problem in the region.

To zero in on Iraq at present, here’s a valuable recent map from the Washington Post, showing a much-needed degree of granularity that goes beyond the artificial “national” boundaries. At a glance, the grey area suggests the need for an independent Kurdistan. The green area from Baghdad to the Gulf suggests the contours of a smaller country populated by Shiites. The yellow areas may well make more sense as a new Sunni country that includes parts of Syria.

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.  Washington Post

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.
Washington Post

 

My suggestion: Don’t listen to any journalist, analyst, or U.S. politician who could not intelligently discuss these maps for at least an hour in an informed way.

[My personal view: these are not real countries with genuine borders, so they cannot be effectively governed by anyone until borders are brought in line with social reality. In any case, this is not a U.S. problem. This region belongs to the people who live there. If they want to have a civil war or a religious war, they are entitled to have one. If any outside parties bear any responsibility, it would be the British and the French.]

 

 

 

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