This weekend, i managed to see two distinctly different movies concerning radical shifts in journalism and the differences were chilling – Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck.
Capote is a portrayal of Truman Capote, focusing on his work in creating In Cold Blood. In Cold Blood was the first journalistic novel, taking a true story and adding literary flair to draw you in. It allowed people to fetishize real news. In the film, you see Capote devolve as he creates the masterpiece that makes him famous. Writing the book, getting to know and helping support the murderers killed him… Capote never wrote another book and died an alcoholic. Of course, what is only hinted at in the film is the role that his book had on the living people he portrayed, on the people who were intimately affected by this tragedy. If it weren’t for Capote, the murderers would not have gotten their appeals, a the small town in Kansas would never be infamous, and the people could’ve moved on from the horrors without their lives perpetually being invaded for Capote’s gain. Legacies have a price.
Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of how Edward R. Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy by taking advantage of his privilege as a trusted reporter to offer editorialized reporting in order to reveal the underlying problems of McCarthy’s approach. Murrow took on McCarthy when no one else was willing and many credit him for ending the Red Scare. In doing so, Murrow was accused of being a red, his good friend committed suicide and he almost lost his job at CBS. Yet, there’s a reason why he’s an icon to most journalists – he did what was right. Of course, every ounce of this movie makes you think of contemporary times… (are there any journalists today who would stand up to the current regime?)
Both films portray characters who made a choice to write in a way that frames a story, recognizing that the true facts are only one part. Yet, Capote did it for personal gain at a great cost to both him and the town portrayed. Murrow, on the other hand, did it for what he felt was a moral responsibility. Both realized that the reporter did the framing. And yet, at what cost?
What are the moral responsibilities in reporting? In speaking in public? When we recognize that there is no neutral truth, no fair and balanced anying, everything is framed.. then what? How many more Red Scares can we perpetuate? How many communities can we destroy by fetishizing their losses?
I feel it’s changed a lot due to the celebrity of reporters in today’s media. Yes, there have always been famous reporters but the earning potential and other perks of being “known” make it unlikely anyone is going to stand the line against a popular viewpoint. It’s easier to try to be truthful ,when you know you’re not doing “it” for the money anyway.
profit margins will determine the framing of more and more stories. More lurid and graphic tales always catch our attn. “Gray tales” don’t make sales. The bad(reporting) chases out the good everytime.
I believe the concept of “objectivity” in journalism is actually relatively new. If you look at what passed as journalism, for example, during the post Revolutionary War it was extremely biased, with the newspapers being clearly on one side or another side. This continued on, I believe, for over 100 years.
One of Murrow’s lines is the most telling: basically that it is foolish to think and act as though there are ALWAYS two equal sides to a story. Deborah Tannen makes a very similar argument in her book “The Argument Culture.”
Striving for objectivity when examining/investigating a story is great and necessary. Reporting the results of that careful, fair and thoughtful examination, drawing actual conclusions from what the investigation brought to light…to me that’s a noble journalistic pursuit.
Of course I didn’t go to J-school, so I have no idea what they’re teaching these days.
My review of Good NIght & Good Luck is here:
I wonder if it is a statement of cable and network news today when arguably the most objective news show is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“How many communities can we destroy by fetishizing their losses?” you ask.
I find this a brilliant observation regarding Capote in particular. It also led me to think about journalistic practices generally that fetishize tragedy. But I wonder if these practices are successful precisely to the degree that we tend to want to fetishize our own tragedies – the Capote impulse, you might call it.
Perhaps journalism has in fact historically “destroyed communities” by using their stories for their own purposes. But I believe we must ask ourselves – up to our ears in cultures of camp, snark, and psychobabble – the degree to which we are complicit in this – perhaps even familiar with the techniques in our own experiences.
Thank you for your insights, and your call for greater ethical responsibility – not only to the truth, but to the truth of suffering, and the obligation to respond with humility and humaneness.