Tag 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]


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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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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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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 Dictionary.com):



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

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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!

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Sy Hersh’s latest expose: Did Obama mislead about bin Laden’s killing?

By Christopher B. Daly

Before deciding that veteran investigative reporter Sy Hersh has become the crazy uncle of American journalism, it might be worth considering whether he might be right about the bin Laden killing.

Earlier this week, Hersh unloaded a 10,000-word alternative history of the 2011 raid on that compound in

White House photo, by Pete Souza.

White House photo, by Pete Souza.

Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the official version, a U.S. Navy Seal team risked their lives in a dangerous raid into hostile territory to swoop in, find bin Laden, and (when he made a false move) execute him. It was a major gung-ho moment for the Obama national security team. Even conservatives briefly had to salute the president for having the nerve to order the raid.

Now comes Hersh, the fabled investigator who first came to prominence in 1969 when he broke the My Lai massacre scandal, who says he was dubious from the outset about the Obama team’s story. Hersh argues that his reporting points in another direction. He asserts that bin Laden was effectively in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence service and that the Pakistani military agreed to stand aside while the Seals pulled off the fatal raid.

The Obama administration quickly pushed back. So did some American journalists, such as Peter Bergen of CNN.

Then came a second wave of articles covering the controversy, raising such questions as: if Hersh’s story is so great, why wasn’t it published in The New Yorker (which is Hersh’s institutional home base)? Here’s a version by the always interesting Gabriel Sherman in New York mag. The most disappointing point raised in Sherman’s fine piece was the no-comment by David Remnick, the top editor of The New Yorker. (Come on, David.)

Before coming to any conclusions, everyone should settle in and prepare to do a lot of reading. I would also recommend paying particular attention to someone who really knows what she’s talking about: Carlotta Gall, who was the New York Times‘ bureau chief in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013. During those dozen years, she too was on the trail of bin Laden, and she followed leads into the lawless “tribal areas” between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Fearless, tough-minded, and thoroughly empirical, Gall is skeptical about the Hersh’s story but points out that it tracks some of the rumors, leads, and facts that she heard while in the region. In a piece for the Times magazine posted yesterday, Gall wrote that she “would not dismiss the claims immediately.”

Here she is talking to John Hockenberry today on his NPR show “The Takeaway.”

And an update: TNR offers an explanation for why Hersh is so isolated in this instance.

To step back a bit, here’s my view about Sy Hersh: he is a national treasure. Even when he gets things wrong (as he sometimes has over the decades), Hersh performs two important public services:

1. Never trust the official version.

2. When in doubt, dig in and do your own reporting.


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Monday media roundup (the Tuesday edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Just wrapping up the spring semester, so I’ve been a little busier than usual. With apologies for the delay, here’s a rdp of recent developments and commentary about the news business:

–THE ECHO CHAMBER: Here’s an intelligent discussion of the recent Science article examining the “echo chamber” effect of social media — to wit, do people on Facebook arrange their feed such that they hear mostly (or exclusively) from people who agree F1.largewith them politically? The helpful folks at Harvard’s Journalist’s Resource have not only analyzed the Science article, they have also put in the context of other, similar studies.

–NYT NAILS THE SALON BIZ: The New York Times has struck again, this time with a major expose of a local industry that is much more widespread than Starbucks — the business of fingernails and toenails. The investigation by Sarah Maslin Nir has exploded, as it deserved to. She ripped the lid off a deeply corrupt industry. Reading her accounts of the women in the manicure business made me angry. It sounded like many of them had never left China: they have to buy their jobs with upfront money; they work for no wages at all until the boss decides they’re worth something; they make sub-minimum wages when they get paid; the chemicals they work around cause all kinds of harm; and on and on.

The Times has gotten a little of push-back for hyping the series (some of which is captured in this odd piece by the NYTimes‘ own public editor), but I disagree. What would Joseph Pulitzer have done? What would WR Hearst do with this kind of material? Of course, they’d shout it from the rooftops and demand reform.

One particularly impressive innovation: the Times published the articles in Chinese, Korean and Spanish as well as English.

The fallout so far: more than 1,300 comments; Gov. Cuomo is already submitting reform legislation; some of the owners are starting to cough up back pay; customers are finally beginning to wonder how their mani-pedis can be so cheap; and the journalist has been celebrated in print and on NPR.

For anyone in the news business not suffering from sour-grapes syndrome, there’s a lot to learn here. Start with the ancient wisdom: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

–ADVICE FOR JOURNALISTS: Speaking of the public editor, here is Margaret Sullivan’s wisdom about journalism, boiled down to 395 words. Way to go in being concise.

–BETTER LIVING THROUGH METRICS: Jeff Jarvis unloads on his latest Big Idea that Will Transform/Disrupt/Save Journalism. Here ya go. He says we need better metrics, which is probably true.

–RELIABLE SOURCES: Here’s the newly re-designed website for Brian Stelter’s program on CNN.

–NYT MEDIA COLUMNIST: Curious minds want to know — when will the Times name a successor to David Carr? Carr is irreplacable, of course, but there should be a successor. Since his death in February, all the air seems to have gone out of the Times’s Media vertical. They need to get their mojo back.

Muddy Waters mojo

–In separate posts, I am hoping to write soon about the NCAA, the new local evening news show on PBS in Boston, and what may have been the busiest news period in all human history. Stay tuned.

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