Episode 3: Fourth Estate Under Siege


Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today. 

My name is Lia Paradis

And my name is Brian Crim. 

We’re historians who watch way too much film and television. And whenever stuff is set in the past we can’t help but notice that whatever is going on when the film was made shows up on the screen too. People are trying to make sense of our world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together or offer the most comfort. Our own lies agreed upon. 

We know there are a lot of people who love tv and movies, and history, just like us, and we’ve created this podcast with those people in mind. Sometimes the connections between the history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed or misunderstood and this is where we come in. We hope to entertain and inform, while we also amuse ourselves.

All our major institutions fell under intense scrutiny after 9/11. Later in this season,  we’ll look at movies and TV series that take on how an antiquated and incompetent government was implicated in the failure to stop the attack. But in the aftermath, and the Bush government’s efforts to pivot away from the domestic failures surrounding 9/11 and towards a new enemy – Iraq –  another institution long seen as part of the foundation of a healthy democracy – the press – was both co opted and, when the journalists wouldn’t cooperated, demonized. 

In the wake of Watergate, when Nixon flouted the Constitution and denigrated the press, Alan Pakula’s 1976 classic All the President’s Men made journalism sexy and heroic again (not surprising as the book it was based on was written by the journalists who broke the Watergate story). This episode looks at three movies that celebrate what  might be called “heroic journalism” in response to the direct attacks of two administrations. George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck  (2005), Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) and Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) go a long way towards rehabilitating the fifth estate in light of post-911 failures.

Lewes Film Club showing All The President's Men

So what are the lies agreed upon that we’re going to explore through these movies? 

  1. These three films reassure us that there actually is a heroic fifth estate acting as a watchdog against powerful institutions. Maybe these directors are showing us historical case studies because the fifth estate is just that – history. Or maybe the noble search for truth with no regard for the financial bottom line was never a reality when a handful of corporations own the vast majority of media.
  2. While the enemy in these stories is usually presented as Republican presidents or a conservative institution like the Catholic Church, the reality is far more bipartisan. The outrage in Hollywood that prompts these movies is definitely liberal outrage. But the culprits always encompass bastions of left-leaning power as well. 

Let’s start, as always, with a short recap of the plots.

2005’s Good Night, And Good Luck is the second movie we’re looking at from the writing/producing team of Grant Heslov and George Clooney. This was also Clooney’s first directorial effort. It stars the always wonderful David Straitharn, as Edward R. Murrow; Clooney as his producer, Fred Friendly; Frank Langella as the head of the CBS network, William Paley, and Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson, head of CBS News. It also stars Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr., Tate Donovan, Alex Borstein, Reed Diamond, and Ray Wise turns in a heartbreaking performance as Don Hollenbeck. 

The film recounts one of the most storied events in the history of journalism – CBS News’ decision to challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy, who has, of course, become synonymous with the Red Scare hysteria of the early Cold War, resulting in blacklists, careers and lives ruined, and a culture of paranoia, self-censorship, and disregard for the Constitution. 

The film opens and closes with Murrow giving a Cassandra-esque speech about the decline of independent, responsible journalism and the dire consequences to the health of democracy and civil society as he accepts an award for his lifetime of work. 

The central plot of the movie is the first critical investigation of McCarthy’s tactics, evidence, and conclusions, as the head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Using footage from the actual hearings, McCarthy speaks for himself. 

The Real Legacy of a Demagogue | The New Republic

But the other plot thread that is woven through the film is the tension between Murrow and Friendly’s team’s desire to do investigative journalism as the watchdogs of civil liberties, and the commercial interests of the network. Their show, See it Now, was juxtaposed with the light entertainment of the celebrity interview show Murrow was forced to host in order to help pay CBS’s bills, Person to Person. And in the end, Paley turns See it Now into a once a week show on Sundays. The message is clear – investigative journalism gets us in trouble with our sponsors. And so we won’t abandon you all together but we won’t champion you either. 

At one point, Murrow, who was incredibly eloquent and played so well by Straitharn, states that “we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” This is at the heart of both his personal and professional defense against McCarthy. Let’s listen to that speech with an ear for how it might have gone over with Americans worried about the excesses of the Bush administration in the wake of the Iraq fiasco.

A decade passes before our next two movies are released. 

Spotlight (2015) takes us back to the original investigation launched by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, into allegations that the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston had, for decades, hidden the fact that priests had been sexually abusing children and moved those priests to other parishes when accusations were made, allowing them to prey on more children. This investigation was the start of what we now know as a global crime and cover up by members of the Catholic clergy. 

The film was directed by Tom McCarthy, who also wrote the film with Josh Singer. Interestingly, McCarthy – also an actor – played one of Murrow’s team in Good Night and Good Luck. Spotlight stars Michael Keaton, Liev Shreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, a particularly slimy Billy Crudup, a wonderfully frumpy Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery (who was also in Charlie Wilson’s War, and this time is playing the Globe’s editor, Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the famed Washington Post editor-in-chief, who is played by Tom Hanks in the 3rd movie we’re looking at, The Post – got all that?).

Spotlight movie review & film summary (2015) | Roger Ebert

The implaccable attitude of the people in power – namely the city, church, and institutional leaders of Boston – as the Spotlight team, led by Keaton and pursued mainly by McAdams and Ruffalo demand answers – is a central component to the movie. 

There has been a cover-up, perpetrated by Cardinal Dolan and the rest of the Church leadership, but also aided by the heads of the Catholic schools, white shoe law firms (personified by Crudup), and even the newspaper itself. There is a moment when Michael Keaton’s character is forced to confront his own complicity because he didn’t pursue the story years earlier when he had a chance.

Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes is a lot like Dustin Hoffmann’s Bernstein, angry, self-righteous to the point of exhaustion, but the moral center of the film. Where Keaton urges caution, Ruffalo sees the scandal for what it is. Let’s play a clip:

The Fifth Estate is critiqued as well as championed in Spotlight

Finally, we have The Post, a film from 2017 whose origin story is as interesting as the movie plot itself. First time screenwriter Liz Hannah graduated from the American Film Institute Conservatory before Donald Trump became president in 2016. She fell in love with the biography of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who died in 2011, and wrote The Post to give voice to her experience. Stephen Spielberg was impressed with the script and wanted a quick turnaround, making the film in less than 10 months. Interestingly, Josh Singer, who wrote Spotlight, co-wrote the final version of The Post. Hannah and Singer were nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay. The cast is typically wonderful for a Spielberg film – Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Mathew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Sarah Poulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and on and on and on.

Set in 1971, The Post chronicles Katharine Graham’s struggle to turn the small family owned Washington Post into one of the premier newspapers amid editor Ben Bradlee’s frantic campaign to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers, a cache of documents compiled former Department of Defense official Daniel Ellsberg detailing over two decades of lies and missteps responsible for America’s disastrous war in Vietnam. Always considered a socialite, Graham inherited the paper after her husband’s death and immediately faced the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world. Graham has to convince the profit obsessed board of directors she is a viable publisher while also winning over the crusty and somewhat chauvinistic Bradlee along with the hard boiled, almost exclusively male newsroom. What you have in The Post is a #MeToo storyline folded into the heroic journalism narrative Spielberg was also focused on.

The Post review – all the news they don't want you to print | Film | The  Guardian

The film begins with Ellsberg’s fact finding mission to Vietnam in 1966 and his realization that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a close personal friend of Graham, was committed to the lie about Vietnam despite knowing the truth – America is in the war to not lose, costing countless lives and treasure. Ellsberg is outraged and copies the 47 volume secret history of the war. He first leaks it first to the New York Times, which is forced to cease and desist by the Nixon white house in court. This gives the Washington Post a window to fill the void and begin publishing its own copy provided by Ellsberg. Both Graham and Bradley have to come to terms with the fact that for decades they befriended their journalistic subjects, often protecting them rather than reporting honestly about their misdeeds. Here is a clip of Bradlee raising this issue with Graham as she debates taking the monumental step of publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Graham also must navigate the hazards of taking the Post public with the full weight of the vengeful Nixon White House bearing down on her. Let’s listen to McNamara warning her friend Graham about crossing this particular president.

McNamara was right because Attorney General John Mitchell threatened to imprison everyone associated with the Pentagon Papers story under the Espionage Act of 1917. The New York Times and Washington Post sued for the right to publish claiming Nixon could not prove doing so would cause “grave and irreparable” danger. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers 6-3 on June 30, 1971. The film ends with Graham emerging triumphant from the Supreme Court and wading through a sea of admiring young women. And Spielberg can’t resist a nod to round two of Richard Nixon versus the Washington Post, the Watergate break-in.    

Setting the Scene

So what was going on when these movies were made? Well, as with previous episodes, we’re going to be highlighting multiple moments in order to understand what these writers and directors were responding to. But these moments are connected because what was allowed and encouraged in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 sent the fifth estate and the society that should value it, down a slippery slope.

The first lie agreed upon we mentioned at the beginning of the episode is that there  is a heroic fifth estate acting as a watchdog against powerful institutions. These three films reassure us this can still happen, but it is not the norm in the age of corporate media and the amazing popularity of Fox News.

Fox News was launched in 1996, As a result – and because their brand of hyper partisan narrative shaping disguised as news was such a new thing – after 9/11 the journalism ecosystem was still trying to incorporate Fox News by taking them at their word, that they were intending to do serious journalism. Their tag line – “fair and balanced” – hadn’t been abandoned yet. The 2000 election cycle, including the highly contested presidential results, had shown where things were headed with Fox News, but deference to established institutions, the inbred interchangeable world of political, corporate and media leadership, ensured that – rather than pressuring Fox News to change, the rest of the media and the press were encouraged to take up the same practices.

How Fox News's Influence Grew Under Roger Ailes - The New York Times

Within days of 9/11, the Bush-Cheney administration was capitalizing on fear, paranoia, and patriotic fervor to push for the creation of a new national security state. As we discussed in episode two, terrorism has always been about spectacle, and 9/11 – as well as the subsequent two wars (until the public got tired of them) were unending sources of fodder for 24 hour news coverage. Real journalism took a back seat to simply capturing the trauma and sorrow of the event while news media organizations often served as an unwitting mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s response.

Between the Patriot Act, passed just 45 days after 9/11, and the fabrication of intelligence linking Al Qaeda to  Saddam Hussein, the need for honest journalism was paramount, but with few exceptions, the fifth estate failed us. Some, like the venerable New York Times, aided and abetted a march to war by reporting uncorroborated or unnamed sources as fact or uncritically examining data fed to them by the administration. Meanwhile, Bush-Cheney succeeded in equating criticism of its national security efforts with disloyalty, or even treason. 

In short, the fifth estate failed us when we needed them most, but in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco journalists came back strong – if too late for the thousands killed. The papers of record began to investigate again, and brought some well-deserved skepticism back into the equation. 

Good Night, and Good Luck was made in the middle of the Iraq fiasco and it is clear the film is about reminding us of what happens when the press rolls over for tyrants and bullies. Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary on the subject – Buying the War from 2007 includes this clip about two Knight Ridder journalists who challenged the conventional wisdom about the Iraq War coming out of the major papers. Sadly, their reporting went ignored. Here’s a clip. 

It’s worth noting that Knight Ridder was a newspaper syndicate that was bought out by McClatchy in 2006. By the time Spotlight was released in 2015, Newspapers around the country were dying. The Boston Globe, once a premier newspaper, was sold to the New York Times in 1993 and resold in 2013 to the owner of the Red Sox. The paper lost 94% of its value in that time, a trend leading to the death of hundreds of papers and the absorption of once proud independent papers into massive media conglomerates. 

The movie shows reporters successfully taking on the millenia old institution of the Catholic Church, but investigative journalism’s true nemesis is corporate media centralization and the death of print. The era of heroic journalism portrayed in The Post and Good Night, And Good Luck seems a million miles away not because there are no more brave journalists, but because there are fewer venues to read them.   

The other thing that was happening ties together Spotlight and The Post: there had been a series of whistleblower events in the decade between the start of the Iraq War and when Spotlight was released: In particular, Chelsea Manning released classified military files to Wikileaks in 2010, and in 2013, Edward Snowden – through intermediaries –  gave classified material to The Guardian, the Washington Post, and later Der Spiegel and the New York Times. 

Defense Intelligence Agency: I was trained as a spy: Edward Snowden - The  Economic Times

The papers were vilified by the Republicans, accused of treason, and the Obama Administration relied on the 1917 Espionage Act to repeatedly go after anyone in the press seen to be cooperating with whistleblowers. In just one instance in 2013, the Obama administration seized AP phone records without notice, because they had disclosed information about a foiled Al- Qaeda terrorist plot. 

And if the press are the ones that these whistleblowers are leaking too, then they are traitors too. 

So, by the time Trump arrived at the White House, his total, undisguised, frontal assault on the fifth estate was really only the natural end point of a long process. And as soon as he took office his war against the press took off. So the 10-month timeline for Spielberg from decision to make the movie to the release date – December 5th 2017 – was a direct retort to Trump’s attempts to bar critical press from the White House and a direct challenge to news media that still thought it was more important to cultivate relationships with the Trump Administration than it was to critique it. 

The second lie agreed upon is that those who abuse power are Republican presidents or inherently conservative institutions like the Catholic Church. Not so. The reality is far more bipartisan, even if our films don’t necessarily show that. We have some great Hollywood liberal stuff going on here. It’s all fine and good to harp on Joe McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities, but – as Newt reminds us in that clip – HUAC was created in 1938 during FDR’s second administration and run by Texas Democratic Congressman Martin Dies. 

HUAC investigated disloyalty and subversive activities among private citizens, civil service employees, and prevented Hollywood from making any political statement against fascism while rooting out suspected communists. Also, it was Harry Truman who pushed for loyalty oaths like the sort the CBS newsroom complained about in Good Night, And Good Luck. The  Hollywood Blacklist amid the second red scare in the late 1940s represented another Truman era stain on American history.  Mr. Moderate himself Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican officially, was happy to let McCarthy do his thing before he just became unbearable and predictably turned on his own president’s bureaucracy. 

CNN’s excellent Cold War documentary produced in the late 1990s covered the blacklist. Here’s a clip featuring some audio of the HUAC hearings held between 1947 and 1949.

The Post pits the free press versus Richard Nixon, but the Pentagon Papers is the story of endless lies propagated by every president since Ike, especially liberal icons JFK and of course Lyndon Johnson. Nixon was just the last in a series of presidents executing the Containment doctrine. Ben Bradlee has to atone for his close relationship with the Kennedys and Katharine Graham befriended the power elite no matter who they were. Just look how close she was with McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense and truly the primary architect of the Vietnam war strategy.  What we have here is what journalist and historian called The Best and the Brightest – all these men from a certain era, socio-economic group, and a handful of Ivy League universities gliding into enormously powerful positions not because it was their right, but because it was expected of them. Political affiliation meant nothing. The national security state thrived on continuity and I think The Post and Good Night, And Good Luck show that very well.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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