Category Archives: history

A warning from a century ago: Resist criminalizing thought, speech, and expression

By Christopher B. Daly

Below is a piece I wrote for the Made in History section of The Washington Post.

(The original had a different illustration.)

 

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Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History Perspective

Why we shouldn’t criminalize political speech — even the worst of it

A marketplace of ideas is our best hope for functional democracy.

By Christopher B. Daly May 24 at 6:00 AM

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America,” now available in an expanded second edition.

A CENTURY AGO this month, Congress passed a Sedition Act, effectively making it illegal to express opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s war policies and abridging Americans’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press.

With candidate Donald Trump arguing protesters should be arrested and now-President Trump making threats on a regular basis against what he calls “fake news,” hinting that he would like to rein in a free press, it seems timely to consider the Sedition Act of 1918 and see what can be learned from that history.

Wilson had campaigned for reelection in 1916, in part on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War!” Things changed quickly, however, in 1917. By April, Wilson had decided that German attacks on U.S. shipping were intolerable, and he attempted to lead a reluctant nation into war. Because he did not entirely trust the public to support his push, Wilson was concerned about enforcing “loyalty,” as he understood it.

With the U.S. mobilizing for war and Democrats in control of the federal government, Congress gave Wilson a new tool for enforcing that loyalty: the Espionage Act. While criminalizing expression, the Espionage Act was fairly non-controversial — prohibiting behavior that amounted to military spying (taking U.S. military secrets without authority and selling or giving them to a hostile power in wartime).

But it also set a dangerous limit on freedom of speech. Whenever the United States was at war, the law made it a federal crime to make “false statements” intended to interfere with the armed forces or to “willfully obstruct” the military draft. Violations could be punished by fines of up to $10,000 or by 20 years in prison.

Essentially, Congress made it a crime to use words to oppose the war effort or to encourage young men to resist the draft. The greatest immediate impact of the new law fell on the socialist and German-language newspapers, many of which were promptly suppressed.

In 1918, while U.S. forces were fighting in Europe, the majority of American newspapers enthusiastically supported the war effort. Most cooperated with the government’s efforts to shape the coverage, and when in doubt, most editors engaged in self-censorship. Even so, the president and Congress were not taking any chances.

So Congress passed another, more draconian law abridging freedom of the press, the Sedition Act of 1918 (technically, a batch of amendments to the Espionage Act). For the first time since 1798, Congress deemed expression of certain ideas a crime. The result was, according to one legal scholar, “the most repressive legislation in American history.”

The 1918 law made it a crime to publish “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” or any language intended to provoke scorn about the American government, system of government, Constitution, armed forces or flag. It also prohibited displaying the flag of a foreign enemy and any advocacy for the curtailment of the production of goods necessary to prosecute the war effort. Violations could be punished by fines up to $10,000 or 20 years in prison. Both the House and Senate rapidly approved the measure, and Wilson signed it into law in May 1918.

The plain meaning of the new law was clear: Watch what you say. If you displease the government, you will go to jail.

sedition_cartoonFederal prosecutors made ample use of the statute during the remaining six months of the war. One month after the law was signed, for example, prosecutors brought charges against the most prominent socialist in the United States, Eugene V. Debs. As the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Debs had captured almost a million votes. Debs was a visible critic of the war with a substantial following nationwide. Yet his popularity didn’t prevent Debs from being sentenced to 10 years in federal prison — just for giving a speech.

The wartime limits upon freedom of speech and press led to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings after the war ended in 1919, which permanently circumscribed freedom of expression, particularly in wartime.

In the landmark case of Schenck v. U.S., socialist Charles Schenck challenged a prison sentence he had received not for an act of resistance, but for authoring a pamphlet urging voters to tell their member of Congress to vote against the draft. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. spoke for the court, asserting that all speech must be considered in context. He famously used the example of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, which, while being a civic duty in a burning theater, was dangerous and reckless in a theater not on fire.

Applying this logic to wartime, Holmes concluded that Schenck’s ideas amounted to a “clear and present danger” to a country at war, and the court upheld his conviction. The court also upheld Debs’s conviction. Holmes explained that if “one purpose of the speech . . . was to oppose [the] war, . . . and if, in all the circumstances, that would be its probable effect, it would not be protected.”

The Court split in Abrams v. U.S., a case in which the defendants were sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison for a political pamphlet that charged that Wilson had ordered an invasion of Russia not for his stated reason — to open an eastern front against Germany — but to roll back the Russian Revolution. Citing Holmes’s reasoning in Schenck, the majority unsurprisingly upheld the convictions of the defendants.

But Holmes himself dissented, along with Justice Louis Brandeis, laying out the case against the Sedition Act — one that resonates today. He argued that the framers of the Constitution believed that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” Clearly, Holmes had come to believe that Americans were best served when truth and error were free to do battle in a wide-open “marketplace of ideas” in which the government plays no role.

In spite of the Court’s willingness to countenance limits upon free speech, on Dec. 13, 1920, Congress repealed the Sedition Act while leaving intact the older provisions that made up the Espionage Act. That law remains in effect today, banning criminal deeds.

But we have now survived a century without a Sedition Act, and we should heed the clarion warning from Holmes. The First Amendment protects political speech for a reason — the founders wisely understood that an open marketplace of ideas provided the best chance for democratic governance to work. We should not be in a rush to put Americans in jail for the things they think, say, print, broadcast or tweet.

–30–

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Happy birthday, Frederick Douglass

By Christopher B. Daly 

BY TRADITION, today is the day that marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, a towering figure in American history known for his journalism, his public speaking, his opposition to slavery, his support of women’s rights, and much more. But in fact, no one can be sure of the date of Douglass’s actual birthday, for a simple reason: He was born into slavery, and most slaves were never told the exact date of their birth.

As Douglass wrote in the powerful opening to his Narrative:

        I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. . .

I have always found that line comparing the status of a slave to that of a horse to be stunning. It epitomizes the evil of chattel slavery.

douglfp

dougltp

 

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Trump epitomizes the “charismatic leader” where power is personal

By Christopher B. Daly

Nothing so aptly captures the phenomenon of Donald Trump as the social theory laid out more than a century ago by the German social thinker Max Weber. In Weber’s scheme of understanding power, Trump epitomizes a type known as the “charismatic leader.”

American politicians are sometimes described as charismatic by people who really want to use a word more like “charming.” But leaders like Trump are actually pretty rare in American political history.

Which means, in turn, that Trump is likely to present challenges to the journalists trying to cover him. Most of the national political press corps has never seen the like. On the one hand, Trump is a gift to the news media because he’s exciting; on the other, he does not fit nicely into any conventional category or narrative.

According to Weber, “charismatic authority” is different from traditional or legal sources

max weber

of authority. As the great German sociologist argued in “Politics as a Vocation,” the charismatic leader is followed because of his personal qualities. His success depends on “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” In essence, a charismatic leader is endowed with special qualities because his followers believe he has those qualities. He is powerful because people think he’s powerful.

Trump’s authority is entirely personal. It is not connected to a party or a movement or a set of policies. It is all about him. His subliminal message to the convention and the television audience was: I will make you safe. It’s the rough equivalent of saying “I will walk you to school so no one will scare you.”

As a businessman, he is the “Lord of the Tower.” High inside Trump Tower, he rules over a privately held company. He is not like a CEO of a big publicly traded corporation. The modern corporate executive is a cog in a giant machine – made up of corporate boards, executive committees, finance committees, legal counsel, giant organizational charts, rules, policies, and guidelines. This environment produces CEOS who are risk-averse and who know that their time at the top is limited to about four or five years.

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credit: Orlando Sentinel

None of that pertains to Trump. He trusts only those people who work for him in Trump Tower. Any authority they have flows from him directly, in proportion to how close they are to him or how trusted. No one in the Trump camp exercises power independently or by virtue of a place in a bureaucracy. It’s all about personal relationships, as in a royal court or a cult.

♦        ♦        ♦       ♦

While Trump was rising last week, another career in American conservative politics was ending. Roger Ailes, the founding chief of Fox News, was ousted from his powerful position by his only boss, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Like Trump, Ailes was a charismatic leader in the Weberian mold. For decades, Ailes ruled Fox News by fear, bullying, helping favorites, and attempting to exercise the droit de seigneur by “flirting” with the many attractive news readers he hired.

Trump and Ailes also shared a masterful instinct for managing the public’s resentment. Even if you never watch Fox News, you have probably heard phrases like these:

  • “liberal elites”
  • “the War on Christmas”
  • “mainstream media”
  • “radical Islamic terrorism”

These and similar conservative tropes (or “memes”) are all hobgoblins intended to amplify the fear and loathing felt by some Americans. Such memes reinforce the fear that something is slipping away and reinforce the loathing of those responsible – smart people, immigrants, jihadis, liberals.

Ailes toiled for decades inside the conservative meme factory – generating, refining, and broadcasting the idea that America used to be a great country until _______________________  (fill in the blank: secularism, feminism, political correctness, elites, blacks, gays, immigrants) came along and ruined everything. Like Trump, Ailes practiced a politics of restoration.

♦        ♦        ♦       ♦

Trump had a successful convention in one sense: he managed the almost impossible task of making a modern convention interesting. For decades, the national conventions have been highly scripted, fully produced pageants made for television. No surprises – and no real politics, either. Everything is decided beforehand.

As the Democratic National Convention unfolds in Philadelphia, watch for a dramatic contrast from last week’s show in Cleveland. Hillary Clinton is the opposite of a “chaos candidate” like Trump. He huddles with a small team of political novices and makes decisions at the last minute. In Hillary’s approach to politics, by contrast, professionals are respected, and qualities like steadiness, consistency, and predictably (which Trump disdains) are considered virtues.

She makes plans and sticks to them.  She limits access. Everything is vetted. There is a structure with veteran professionals staff all key positions, from speechwriting to finance to policy.

Not so with the charismatic candidate Trump. He harkens back to political insurgents like Huey Long or George Wallace – not (just) in his bigotry but in his personal approach. Trump has no bureaucracy around him. A reporter cannot go seek out Trump’s “foreign policy shop” and get briefings on his approach to the Mideast. First of all, there is no “shop.” Second, even if there were a shop, there is no policy. There will be a policy when Trump makes one up, and it will change when he feels like it. He may meet with Netanyahu, for example, and if they hit it off personally, then Israel is under U.S. protection. If they don’t hit it off, then all bets are off. What are Trump’s budget plans? Who would make up the Cabinet? No one has a clue. Reporters are hard pressed to find reliable sources.

In covering Trump, the media have a further problem: they feel obligated to treat Trump with a straight face. Their professional code prevents them from writing and saying many things that they know to be true.

Moreover, the press gets no down time with Trump. Even when he has retreated to Trump Tower, he could still feel the urge to tweet out some message or insult or provocation at any time, creating a brand-new controversy and “winning” that news cycle.

Trump likes to talk about law and order. But in his style, he is the candidate of chaos. Fasten your seatbelt.

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Journalism jobs: Digital now outnumbers print

By Christopher B. Daly

Two important trend lines have recently crossed, probably forever. The number of jobs in the U.S. newspaper sector has now dipped below the number of jobs in the digital media. Newspapers are not dead, but they are no longer the center of gravity for the news business. Thus ends a dominance that began in the 17th century and reached a peak in the 20th century before cratering in the 21st century.

That is one of the major findings in a new study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, documenting what many have long noticed: American newspapers are no longer the driving wheel of American journalism. The past belonged to the printing press, but the future belongs to the web.

Here’s the big picture:

Jobs in news

Here are some highlights:

–The purple line that starts so far above the others in 1990 represents all employment in the newspaper industry. It’s worth noting that the BLS counts everyone who works at a newspaper, not just the newsroom crew. So, this is just a rough approximation of the employment situation of journalists — reporters, photographers, videographers, podcasters, editors, producers, and others who are directly involved in gathering and disseminating news. That is a much harder number to track.

–Newspaper employment took a hit in the early 1990s, then sort of plateaued, took a steeper hit when the “tech bubble” burst in 2001 (taking with it a lot of full-page ads), and then really dove in the Great Recession of 2008-9. Since then, the downward trend has slowed a bit, but the trend from 2009 to 2016 gives no reason to think that newspapers are coming back.

–The BLS also provides a helpful monthly chart of the data used to draw all those lines. Here are some salient details I found in the data tables.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 11.23.24 AM

–Looking deeper into the numbers, it is heartening to see that the overall numbers of jobs in all these industries combined has not dropped very much, having fallen about 3 percent over 26 years. The biggest proportional hit seems to have occurred in “books” — which I take to mean the publishing industry as a whole. While a small number of journalists make a living by writing non-fiction books, it is probably a very small group that depends primarily on their book royalties.

–The big gainer is “Internet publishing and broadcasting.” It’s hard to imagine how 28,800 people made a living putting stuff online in 1990 (which was before the Web became ubiquitous), but there is no mistaking that web-based activities have been on a surge.

–The other big gainer in the last quarter century has been “Motion picture and video production.” It is unclear from the BLS definitions of its categories what fraction of all those folks could be considered journalists. Probably a lot of them work in Hollywood or other venues where they produce content that is fictional or promotional. Still, it is a rough indicator of where the growth is.

One question that these data raise is this: what will journalists of the future need to know and do?

About a decade ago, my colleagues and I began a deep re-think of our curriculum to bring it out of the days of print newspapers, glossy magazines, film-based photography, and broadcast television. We eliminated our separate, medium-based “concentrations” and decided that all our students should be educated as digital journalists. We tore out our darkrooms, converted to all-digital photography, and decided that all our students need to be competent in “visual journalism.” We ramped up our instruction in shooting and editing video. We converted our student radio station to digital and embraced podcasting. We decided that essentially all our coursework should be multimedia. Like other journalism programs in U.S. universities, we found that it was not easy, but it was a matter of survival.

As a specialist in the history of journalism, I spend a lot of time thinking about the centuries when the newspaper ruled the field. The newspaper had a good long run, but it is clearer every year that newspapers not only documented history, they are history.

cropped-stamp-tax-tombstone.gif

 

 

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This week in Fossil Fuels: Coal giant bankrupt

By Christopher B. Daly

The market is trying to send a signal: the age of coal is over.

Is anyone listening?

In today’s news, the headline is the decision by Peabody, the largest coal producer in the U.S., to file for bankruptcy.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.32.39 AM Value of stock shares in Peabody (stock symbol BTU)

That step, combined with the recent prison sentence imposed on Massey’s top boss in pro-coal West Virginia, signals the collapse of coal as an economically viable fuel and the demise of coal as a political force in the states where it has long been a factor. (Are you listening Mitch McConnell?)

Those are the headlines. The trend they reflect is a decisive step away from burning carbon. There are now far more jobs in the U.S. in the emerging renewable-energy sector than in the moribund coal industry.

King Coal is dead.

At the funeral, I’d like to hear “Paradise” by John Prine:

“Paradise”
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

[Chorus:]
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.

[Chorus]

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

[Chorus]

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.

[Chorus]

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Trump is dangerously wrong on libel: Why journalists need Constitutional protections

By Christopher B. Daly

In his recent remarks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat to the news media: if he’s elected, he will (somehow) change the country’s libel laws to make it easier for him and others to sue the news media. It’s an issue with a history that is worth remembering.

Here’s Trump (from CNN):

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

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Trump in Fort Worth (Getty)

 

Trump, who has lost a libel suit in the past, took his usual menacing tone and framed the issue as a conflict between himself and the media. The party that is missing from that formulation is the American people, who are the real clients of the First Amendment. That is the amendment that says, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

And that press freedom extends into the realm of libel, as I explained in my history of 51zTMdE6eDL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_this country’s journalism, Covering America. Trump is not the first public figure to try to use the libel laws as a backdoor way to achieve the ultimate goal of intimidating and controlling the news media. Here’s an excerpt from Covering America:

 

One of the greatest potential threats to the national coverage of the South arose in 1960 in Montgomery, Alabama. The means of intimidation was not the usual one—violence or the threat of it—but the legal system itself. At risk was the ability of the news media even to cover the movement in an honest, independent way.

The threat first arose in April 1960 as an unintended consequence of a decision by a group of civil rights activists to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times decrying the “unprecedented wave of terror” being imposed on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists. The ad stated: “Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. . . . They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person.” For good measure, the ad charged “grave misconduct” on the part of Montgomery officials as a group.

The city’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was incensed and decided to sue the Times for libel. (It didn’t matter that the offending passages were in the form of an advertisement and not a news story produced by a Times journalist; under U.S. law, a publisher is equally responsible for all content. It also didn’t matter that Sullivan was not singled out by name in the ad; under U.S. law, if an individual can reasonably be identified, that is enough.) Sullivan sued for $500,000 in an Alabama state court, charging the Times with publishing damaging falsehoods about him. The threat was clear: if Sullivan won, no paper could afford to cover the civil rights movement. “Silence, not money, was the goal,” as one recent history puts it.

For the Times’ Southern correspondent, Claude Sitton, the suit meant that he had better hightail it out of Alabama to avoid being subpoenaed, so he headed straight for the Georgia line, leaving Alabama essentially uncovered for the next two and a half years. For the paper’s lawyers, however, fleeing to another state was not an option, though they tried. It was difficult even to find a lawyer in Alabama who would agree to represent the Times. When one was finally found, the lawyers decided that their only recourse was to argue that the suit did not belong in an Alabama court, since the paper did hardly any business in the state. The jurisdictional argument didn’t work. The paper lost in the circuit court in Montgomery (where the judge criticized “racial agitators” and praised “white man’s justice”), and Sullivan was awarded the full $500,000—the largest libel judgment in that state’s history. The Times appealed, only to lose again. Further appeals did not look promising, since the U.S. Supreme Court had held that journalists had no constitutional protections against libel claims. So far, the use of the courts to silence the press was working.

The passage through all those courts took years, but the Times did not give up. Whatever the publisher and editors thought about civil rights, they were professionally committed to upholding ournalistic principles and prerogatives. The final appeal was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1964. The stakes were high. “The court would decide nothing less than how free the press really could be,” one observer has noted. “If the decision went against the Times,would reporters be vulnerable to every libel claim filed by a ticked-off sheriff?”

And it wasn’t just the Times that was at risk. All told, Southern officials had filed some seventeen libel suits against various news media, seeking damages that could total more than $288 million. If they succeeded, the cost of covering race in the South would be so prohibitive that even the wealthiest national news media would have to pack up and go home.

On March 9, 1964, the Court issued its unanimous ruling in the Sullivan case—in favor of the Times. The ruling, a milestone in expanding press freedom, rewrote many of the rules under which journalism has been practiced ever since. The key finding was that the law of libel had to yield to the First Amendment. The Court held that if the award to Sullivan were allowed to stand, the result would amount to a form of government censorship of the press, tantamount to a de facto Sedition Act, forcing every journalist to prove the truth of every statement, which would in turn lead to self-censorship. Instead, the high court said that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

To make sure that journalists had the breathing room they need to report on and editorialize about the performance of public officials, the Court determined that libel should not be used to trump press freedom. Public figures like Sullivan, who voluntarily enter the public arena by seeking office, must expect to take some criticism. Henceforth it would not be enough for a public official who wanted to win a libel suit just to prove that the published material was false and defamatory. Plaintiffs would have to meet a higher burden of proof, which the Court defined as “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the material in dispute was published with the knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Either way, public figures would have a much harder time winning such suits. The Times—and the rest of the media—were free to go back to Alabama and wherever else the civil rights story took them. . .

For more on these issues, see the classic work by NYT journalist Tony Lewis, Make No Law. There is also a very worthwhile discussion in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

 

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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.]

 

I COVER THE WATERFRONT (1933)

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.

 

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

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.

 

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

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.

 

CITIZEN KANE (1941)

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.

 

 

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)

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.

 

GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

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.

 

CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948)

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.

 

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

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.

 

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)

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

 

THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979)

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.

 

ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981)

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.

 

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982)

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.

 

THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

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.

 

BROADCAST NEWS (1987)

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.

 

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

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.

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THE INSIDER (1999)

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.”

 

 ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)

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 groupie Penny Lane.

 

SHATTERED GLASS (2003)

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.

 

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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.”

 

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (2005)

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.

 

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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.

 

FROST/NIXON (2008)

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.

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

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.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

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

Newsroom

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

Outfoxed

 

 

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

 

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