Category Archives: Journalism

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]


Leave a comment

Filed under history, Journalism, news, Uncategorized

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?


Leave a comment

Filed under history, Journalism

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.

1 Comment

Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times

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!

1 Comment

Filed under Journalism, media, news

Why is it so hard to talk about Charleston?

By Christopher B. Daly

What happened in Charleston this week meets the literal definition of terrorism.

Here’s a dictionary definition (from



the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

Here’s the FBI’s definition:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

So, why do the media find it so difficult to call it an act of domestic terrorism?

The NYTimes was willing to discuss the issue but not to use the term in its main coverage.

The most extreme case (as so often happens) involved Fox News. The Thursday morning episode of the show “Fox and Friends” hit a new low — in which the hosts and guests strained to frame the violent assault by a white man seeking to take his country back as an assault on religion and an attack on Christians. Wha?

Here’s a brilliant analysis by Larry Wilmore, who is getting better by the week. (courtesy of Comedy Central and TPM).gctqv5mtkz5pr8y6j2bi

1 Comment

Filed under Fox News, Journalism, media, news, terrorism

Monday Media Roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

What has become of the New York Times‘ media beat? A year ago, the Times had a strong claim to be the single most important source of original reporting about journalism and other media issues. Today, in the Monday Business section of the print edition, not a single story. The obvious reason is the death six months ago of David Carr, the paper’s pre-eminent media reporter/columnist. But that was a long ago in media terms, and the paper shows no sign of recovering its mojo. I have heard that there is a search underway with a small number of finalists. There has been some speculation in other venues, but little indication from the Times that the paper has a commitment to regaining the leadership in covering its own industry. It will take more than a single high-profile hire, too. To make it work, the paper needs a full-fledged “desk” with an editor, a team of reporters (to compensate for the loss of Brian Stelter in late 2013), and a high-impact columnist.

–One thing you never want to hear on the other end of your telephone line: “Hi, this is Mark Fainaru-Wada, and I have a couple of questions for you . . .” Here is his investigation into Hope Solo, the 33-year-old goalkeeper of the U.S. women’s World Cup soccer team. It sounds like she was one hot mess that night. (Among other things, ESPN‘s Fainaru-Wada was one of the reporters at the SF Chronicle who broke the BALCO steroids scandal.)

–Speaking of ESPN, does anyone doubt that there’s more to come on the Friday afternoon sacking of Jason Whitlock as founding editor of The Undefeated? I’d like to hear it straight from Whitlock himself. Hmmm. . .

Gawker, a pioneer in digital journalism, is making news itself. First, there was the startling vote by the hamsters who churn out all that clickbait to form a labor union. As a former union member (The Wire Service Guild) and a sometime labor historian (Like A Family) myself, I say welcome to the movement that brought us all the weekend.

Then, the Times weighed in last Friday (in a piece under the standing head MEDIA) about Gawker founder and editor in chief Nick Denton. After a fairly labored lead about Denton smoking a joint on a fire escape with his husband, the Times piece (by Jonathan Mahler — a possible candidate for for taking over the Media Equation column?) observes the phenomenal growth of Gawker:

Mr. Denton started Gawker Media 12 years ago in his living room. It was initially just two blogs, the snarky — though the term was not yet in popular usage — media gossip site Gawker, and a technology blog,Gizmodo. The company had two freelance bloggers who were paid $12 per post.

Today, Gawker Media encompasses seven sites with 260 full-time employees. There’s the sports blog Deadspin — noteworthy journalistic coups include an investigative article revealing that the football star Manti Te’o had an imaginary girlfriend and the publication of photos said to show Brett Favre’s penis — and the feminist site Jezebel. For technology, there’s Gizmodo. For video gamers, there’s Kotaku. Mr. Denton’s personal favorite is Lifehacker, Gawker’s take on self-help.

By most measures, the company is doing fine. Gawker Media says it generated about $45 million in advertising revenue last year, and was profitable, earning about $7 million.

What could go wrong? Well, for one thing: a $100 million invasion-of-privacy lawsuit pending against Gawker by former wrestler Hulk Hogan. No surprise: Hogan was not happy when Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan.

The whole piece is worth reading, for its exploration of whether Gawker is capable of maturing as a news source and how it plans to relate to social media.

–A hat tip to the Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan for calling bullshit on the paper over its recent mania over a silly book by Wednesday Martin about the folkways of the wealthy residents of the UES.

It all began, reasonably enough, with a Sunday Review cover story last month by Ms. Martin, in which she told of her experience moving to Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the strange beings she found there — women who were (gasp) blonde, wealthy and fit.

But then, The Times’s overkill machine geared up and began to churn out one article after another: a review of the book, another review of the book, a column about the book, and an inside look at the column about the book, a blog post about the book, and a review of a similar television series with a prominent mention of the book. Then, to finish up (well, one can always hope), there was a news article about the book’s departures from reality and its publisher’s plans to add a disclaimer for future editions.

‘Nuf said.

–The ever-helpful “On the Media” NPR program has a really helpful guide to filming the police in public places. Don’t miss: the ACLU app that makes sure your video of the cops survives even if they confiscate your phone.

–This just in: from today’s Washington Post, here is media reporter Paul Farhi’s latest offering — a tour d’horizon of the digital journalism world. Not a very pretty picture.


Leave a comment

Filed under David Carr, Gawker, Journalism, media, New York Times

Monday journalism roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

It’s been a busy week for thinking about the news business.

Here’s Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, sharing his reactions to one day’s New York Times with the paper’s “Insider” feature.

–NPR recently did a devastating investigation of the Red Cross’ spending in Haiti. Here is the story behind the story.

Here is Part II of Michael Massing’s survey of the digital news landscape for the NYRB. (Spoiler alert: he’s more impressed by the legacy media than  by most digital natives.)

Here is this week’s offering from NPR’s “On the Media,” which is a consistently worthwhile show. Particularly good: this segment on the nation’s librarians, who have shown an impressive toughness in defense of the public’s right to read without being spied on. Go, librarians!

Here is an original episode of public radio’s “This American LIfe,” which focuses on what might be called “journalism by other means” — opera, drama, etc. Great idea.

As the saying goes: More later!

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, media, news