Tuesday, October 20, 2015

'Spotlight'ing the 'Truth': Journalism in Cinema, 2015

Boston Globe/Entertainment One
Who knew 2015 would become a hit year for journalism in cinema?

It started off with the little seen Jonah Hill pic "True Story", and now two more films about the truth-seeking industry are being released in the heat of Oscar season: "Spotlight" and "Truth".

Both films take place around the same time, early- to mid-2000's, but they couldn't be anymore different. "Spotlight" is an underdog story of sorts about a group of watchdog journalists at The Boston Globe taking down the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and "Truth" is a group of television legends at CBS covering up their "errors" in a report about Pres. George W. Bush's time in the National Guard.

Neither of these holds a flame to the paramount journalism film "All the President's Men", but damn if they aren't good. And how suiting is it for Robert Redford to star as Bob Woodward in "ATPM" and now portray Dan Rather in "Truth"? Redford is definitely an iconic part of the world of journalism, and that's not even his profession.

At the core of both of these films is the hunt for facts, the hallmark of journalism.

For "Spotlight" it's weighing through a plethora of information, and dead-ends, to bring to light that the Boston Archdiocese covered up 1,000 cases of molestation by as many as 87 priests throughout the last few decades. It's a true film about what it's like to be a thankless reporter in this world. People can be unforgiving when you try to dig around for information, especially when it involves something sacred like religion.

But in "Spotlight", the Roman Catholic Church can stand in for any big business accused of wrongdoing. To the three reporters and the one editor of The Boston Globe's Spotlight team who tackled the story, it didn't matter to them that it was an institution, and one so well respected in the area. The staff made no qualms about it, and didn't use a political motive to drive their determination in exposing the truth.

"Truth", on the other hand, asks if the decision for a top CBS producer to bring to light Bush's service records from the 1970's in an attempt to show that he was brought into the National Guard to dodge the Vietnam War draft because of his connections was politically motivated. The story ran before election night 2004 when Bush was seeking reelection.

As it turns out, both stories, as told in the films, started with very casual tips presented to editors. Nothing outlandish or dripping of political envy, just something meaty to sink your teeth into. That's how it happens in this business. Sure, it helps to have some proof to back up whatever a tipster alleges, but anything that rouses suspicion or public interest will definitely get us investigating.

While "Spotlight" focused on the investigative part of compiling a story, "Truth" had the dubious pleasure of investigating the truth once, and then after public outcry of false reporting by bloggers, going through their sources and information once more to ensure all truth had been broadcast in the original report.
Sony Pictures Classic
Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as CBS producer Mary Mapes
in "Truth"

In the end, the spotlight team was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for their work, but much of the editorial team involved with the Bush story were let go.

At their core, having the support of your superiors to pursue what you believe is right is key at this time in journalism. Around every corner, and page of the internet, there is always going to be comments about what stories are reported and why they're "wrong" or "incorrect".

"Truth" nailed that on the head.

At a time when internet policing of news coverage started to take form, producer Mary Mapes (portrayed by Cate Blanchett) sees vicious comments about her from the story she put together on Bush.

Another character also says the news is going to be about how other news organizations are reporting news, and reporting about their coverage and backlash.The film shows archival footage of other networks reporting on CBS' "inaccurate" reporting and then take on their ways of (dis)proving the story.

That has certainly held true, right up to the moment I write this.

In the heat of primary debates for the 2016 presidential election, each of the major broadcast news channels will cover the others coverage. Remember the spat between Republican candidate Donald Trump and FOX News' Megyn Kelly? Everyone was reporting how Kelly and FOX were answering to it.

Bernie Sanders, in the first Democratic presidential primary debate, took his own brash approach into the handling of fellow nominee hopeful Hillary Clinton's emails, saying "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," obviously referring to continued coverage of Clinton's use of personal email accounts while secretary of state.

At least for television, (over)sensationalizing of an event is their specialty. Grab a few flapping heads and everyone has an opinion. One person's view will then lead to a whole other story for everyone to gobble up. In broadcast news, there's an event, a discussion on it, and a discussion on the discussion about it. It's a vicious cycle of nothingness.

Print, in the vain of traditional news outlets, aren't as bad, but they have their moments.

In any regard, "Truth" and "Spotlight" are new journalism film standards for a new generation. Both films embody the spirit of "ATPM", but it's so particular to the internet-age of the field that it feels fresh. Like, "ATPM, "Truth" has a high sense of urgency to get things right - or even more correct given the story - while "Spotlight" tackles the procedural portion of the landmark film.

The truth of it all is that both films show what it's like to be right or wrong in this industry. The watchdogs are being watchdog'd by everyone no matter how much we try to report the facts. But how are we ever wrong when we're only reporting what sources have all confirmed to be accurate? We get the brunt of it because we're the messengers. Who cares what the sources say?

We're always going to be wrong in someone's eyes, so why bother continue reporting big stories? Because it will matter more to those who aren't as loud as the naysayers.

Mapes knew just what to say to deal with everyone: F.E.A.

"Truth" and "Spotlight" are now playing in limited release.

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