Category Archives: Journalism

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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Is the New York Times building a digital ark?

By Christopher B. Daly

What’s going on at the most important institution in American journalism?

Hard to say, but let’s engage in a bit of speculation.

Recently, the New York Times announced two developments, which the paper reported in a single story, giving rise to the notion that they are somehow linked.

Item #1: An earnings report. As usual, the Times reports about itself in a glass-half-empty way.

Buoyed by strong digital growth and cost savings, The New York Times Company reported on Thursday an increase in quarterly profit but said revenue was flat as its print business continued to decline.

There is not all that much news there — just a continuation of two long-running trends. Digital revenues (the money that comes in from online advertising plus the money from digital subscriptions) continues to rise. Print revenues (the money that comes in from display ads in the printed newspaper, plus money from people who subscribe to the print edition) continues to fall. The digital revenue is rising pretty briskly, but from a small base. The print revenue is dropping relentlessly, but from a large initial base. Someday, those trend lines will cross, but not just yet.

Later, the story added this:

Digital revenue remained an area of growth. Digital advertising revenue increased 11 percent during the fourth quarter, to $70 million, a number representing about a third of the company’s total advertising revenue.

And this:

The company said it added 53,000 net digital subscribers in the quarter, the most added in a quarter in three years. The Times now has close to 1.1 million paid digital-only subscriptions.

So, that’s the good news. All those digital ads are starting to add up, and the blessed new digital subscribers are finally pitching in and paying a greater fraction of the cost of delivering all that journalism. All told, the digital revenue is approaching $400 million a year, or about a quarter of total current annual revenue. The paper has set a goal of $800 million in annual digital revenues by 2020.

The existential question for the Times is this:

NYT newsroom

Is that enough money to sustain the newsroom?

In other words, if the newspaper got out of the paper business altogether (as it one day must) and laid off all those printers, truck drivers, and others who are linked to the print edition, could it survive on a budget of digital-only revenues?

That’s an open question, which brings us to . . .

Item #2: Announcement of a team charged with conducting a “sweeping review” of the Times‘ own newsroom — staffing, procedures, everything. It will be led by David Leonhardt, the fair-haired boy who created The Upshot. Clearly, he’s a figure on the rise. The paper’s top editor, Dean Baquet, framed the undertaking this way:

He said The Times would always have a large newsroom, but it was “not going to get any bigger” and “we’re probably going to get a bit smaller.” He added that some areas of the newsroom, including those focused on multimedia and international coverage, could grow.

He did not rule out layoffs, but said he did not expect any in the immediate future.

So, my hunch is that Leonhardt is really charged with figuring out how the legacy newsroom could live within its digital means. Can the paper afford its traditional system of strong desks (especially if they slow the transmission of news onto the web)? Does the paper need to keep spending so much time and energy figuring out how to lay out Page 1 of the print edition? How many jobs could be pared out of sections like the Book Review, the Magazine, and T, if they were online-only?

Clearly, the Times cannot afford to haul the entire apparatus of printing a newspaper into the digital future. At some point, it will have to jettison some or all of its print operations and live entirely online. Any guesses as to when?

[Don’t take my word for it. Here is another take, by Michael Calderone at HuffPo Media.]

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Not all change is progress: Bring back Paperboys (and girls)

By Christopher B. Daly

[I am posting a longer version of an essay I wrote this week for Cognoscenti, the public discussion page run by the terrific Boston NPR affiliate WBUR.]

Lately, the Boston Globe has earned some unwanted headlines for problems with a new home-delivery service. Reporters, editors, and other Globe personnel have left their warm beds and leapt into the breach, using their cars to deliver the print version of the paper to their precious regular subscribers.

I can sympathize.

I delivered the Globe for nearly eight years, six days a week, in my old neighborhood in West Medford. By my reckoning, that was nearly 2,500 days of delivery without a miss – with help, occasionally, from members of my family who filled in (thanks, Monica!). It was a robust business that helped put me through college and taught me a number of life lessons – all in an era before corporate out-sourcing and sub-contractors.

I began my career as a paperboy (alas, no girls in those days) for the Globe in the winter of 1965. Back then, paper routes were coveted, and almost the only time of year when a route became available was during the week or two after Christmas. The reason was simple: paperboys all tried to hang in there and keep their routes through December so as to reap the traditional Christmas tips. Once they had collected that windfall, they would quit. That’s how I got my break.

The delivery system was simple. Sometime during the overnight hours, a Globe truck would slow down outside our house and someone would toss out a bundle of newspapers equal to the exact number of my customers. When my alarm clock went off, I would get up and get dressed, stuffing my feet with extra socks into the green rubber boots I wore most days in those snowy winters. I would bring the bundle of papers into the house, cut the string, and place them into a giant canvas bag that would hang from my shoulder.

On my very first day, I ventured out into the cold, dark morning, lugging my load of Globes like a tiny peddler. I had not memorized my route yet, so the first days took a long time. I had a paper list of my customers and their addresses, but it was still so dark out that I had to stop under a streetlight, read the next few names, try to memorize them, then trudge along making deliveries until I needed to check the list again.

My goal: get every paper safe and dry onto each front porch and get back home in time for breakfast and the walk to school.

Eventually, I got the hang of it and became more and more efficient. First step: memorize the route, so I would not have to keep checking “the list.” Second step: get a bike, which really speeded things along. Third step: learn to fold the papers so that I could toss them onto porches from the street rather than walking up each front walk.

Weather permitting, these simple steps greatly increased my delivery speed, to the point where I was able to take on a second, adjoining route. Now my customers sprawled over an area from the far reaches of Pine Ridge Road almost all the way to just short of West Medford Square, about a mile from end to end.

With the larger territory, I was keen to step up my pace. So, I mastered the ultimate in suburban paper delivery: I slung the canvas over 0106_paperboy_cog-592x324my shoulder and hopped on the bike. While riding “no-hands,” I would fold the papers as I went and toss them up onto the porches. Now, I could get through my whole route in no time and focus my attention on the revenue model.

The revenue model was pretty straightforward. I charged my customers whatever rate the newspaper established for home delivery. I was entitled to a share of that base figure, plus regular tips, and the Christmas bonuses. It was a pretty good business for a kid who could not even legally get a real job.

Yes, it was child labor, and it would have been illegal if the nation’s newspapers had not exempted themselves from all such legislation. Legally, I was considered an independent contractor. All I knew was that it put money in my pockets.

Besides, I started to get interested in the contents of all those papers. I started with the “funnies,” which were usually printed on the back page. As I got a little older, I moved forward through the paper, discovering sports and then general news. By the time I was a teenager, I

kept reading about Yaz and Russell and Orr, but I also included a pretty steady diet of news about Vietnam, protests, and the Beatles. This was, no doubt, the genesis of my life-long career in journalism.

 

But as good as it was, the paperboy business had its downsides. For one thing, I saw more sunrises than I care to remember, and to this day, I hate getting up in the morning. And there were the occasional disasters, such as when I would toss a folded paper onto a front porch only to see it crash through a glass storm door. Most of the time, I had to pay to replace them.

Another problem was on the customer-relations side. It was part of the paperboy’s responsibility to visit every house every Friday afternoon to collect that week’s subscription money. By going door-to-door to collect, I couldn’t help but stay in touch with my customers. I learned who really cared about getting the paper inside the storm door, who left for work early, and who tipped well.

Collecting also required me to learn a bit about book-keeping, because an astonishing number of my fellow suburbanites somehow couldn’t manage to scrounge up 50 or 75 cents at the end of the week. They seemed to be under the delusion that information should be free, or else they just couldn’t be bothered. So I had to keep track in a little ledger book of who was paid up and who was delinquent.

Then, there were the dogs. A mutt named Tammy seemed to be put on Earth just to torment me, chasing me every morning for the sheer malicious pleasure of it.

Plus, there was one special horror on my route. That was the Emery Nursing Home, a huge house set back from the road. I had about half a dozen customers in there. Delivering the papers was tolerable. I would just hop off my bike, leave a short stack on the front desk, and skedaddle. I hated the smell of the place, and I would often hear shrieks or moans coming from the upper floors.

But on Fridays, I would have to actually go in there and collect the week’s subscription money from each customer. This meant getting my courage up to walk upstairs and go room to room, hunting down those nickels and quarters that were owed to me and the Globe. For some of the inmates, I was their only visitor all week, month after month. Others were in various states of undress, dementia, or problems I could only imagine.

So, seeing as how I was an independent contractor, I made one more change in my small business: I hired a sub-contractor. My friend Bob Gillingham wanted a paper route, but I had the two routes in our area locked up. Eventually, I made a deal with Gilly: if he would take over the collections for me on my routes, I would split the week’s earnings with him. (I forget the details, but I’m pretty sure the split was in my favor.)

 

Despite all the problems, my route became so easy and so lucrative that I hung onto it all through high school. I would say the experience had a major formative influence on me, and I always thought it was a shame when the newspaper industry moved away from having paperboys (and girls) in favor of grown-ups driving around in cars and never stopping by to chat.

Not all change is progress. As the Globe struggles to tweak its home-delivery service, I might suggest that the newspaper’s executives consider recruiting a small army of boys (and girls!) on bikes. Globe readers would be delighted at the high level of customer service, and those kids would learn a thing or two about perseverance, efficiency, thrift, and record-keeping. They might even develop a real interest in the news.

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Monday media roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

Here are some recent comments worth thinking about:

–After seeing “Spotlight,” NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan expresses concern over the state of investigative reporting by the nation’s regional newspapers. (I guess “regional newspapers” is Timesspeak for papers that the Times respects but does not consider in its league — i.e., Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee.)

–“On the Media” views with dismay the current state of political rhetoric. The show even uses the L-word. (To listen, click on the link, then hit “This Week’s Show.”)

–On CNN, “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter went a few bruising rounds with Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson  on this Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 3.17.01 PMquestion: “Is Donald Trump the “post-truth” candidate?” Pierson is one tough cookie, and expect to see and hear a lot more from her.

–The battle over ad-blocking rages on. I don’t like most ads, and I happily use an ad-blocking app on my iPhone. My only complaint is that some ads still slip through. Now, I am the first to say that the news business needs to work as a business if it is to succeed and do all the other

BADADSillo-master1050

Illustration by Sam Manchester for NYT

things we want from it. My solution: allow customers like to pay more — even a lot more — to pay the full freight of news-gathering and eliminate the need for advertising altogether. This approach, which is reflexively pooh-poohed by certain people, has worked in the past: it was the basic model in the 18th century, and it has worked for I.F. Stone, for a lot of investment newsletters, and for a few others. Any takers?

–Finally, RIP to M. Roland Nachman, who was on the losing (and wrong) side of one of the landmark First Amendment cases in U.S. history — the Sullivan case of 1964. He seems to have been a decent fellow, but he was still wrong. Read more in my book, Covering America, at pages 312-13.

 

 

 

 

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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.

MV5BMTk4NjQwNTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTQzNTA3._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_

 

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.

 

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.”

 

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.

 

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.

 

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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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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A Grim Anniversary: The A-bomb 70 years later

By Christopher B. Daly

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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