You could do worse than a double feature of Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. Both are up for the best picture Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards, and taken together they give a crash course on everything that’s wrong with journalism today.
Capote follows author Truman Capote from 1959, when he started writing a book about a small-town mass murder, until In Cold Blood came out six years later and sealed his fame. He went to Holcomb, Kansas, to talk with anyone he could—from the victims’ friends to the accused killers—as part of his research. Reporters call this gathering material, and the movie’s Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) lives up to the expression, treating the people around him as a sculptor treats clay.
After the killers are sentenced to death, Capote needs more time to hear their story, so he pays for a lawyer to launch an appeal, to the frustration of the police detective he befriended. Later, when he’s ready for an ending, Capote turns his back on the killers. Death by hanging offers better literary closure than languishing in custody on a successfully copped insanity plea.
At one point in the film, an editor responds to a draft of In Cold Blood, telling Capote his captivating story will change the way people write. It’s a high compliment for the vain Capote, and it came true. Capote called his book a nonfiction novel because it blended journalism with literary devices, and by the late 1960s the writers emulating him, including Tom Wolfe, called their style “The New Journalism.” Now there’s nothing new about it: “narrative journalism” is ubiquitous. So by calling Truman Capote’s methods into question, Capote is questioning the foundation of journalistic practice from j-schools to CNN.
In Boston last December, at the Nieman journalism foundation’s annual conference on narrative journalism, panelists and speakers (including Tom Wolfe) raised their own concerns about media. Gerald Boyd, who lost his job as managing editor of the New York Times over the Jayson Blair scandal, described offers he received from reporters who wanted him to talk about Blair: Play ball with me, and you’ll get better treatment. Like Blair, these reporters willingly compromised notions of truth and fairness to get scoops, and the attendant glory of journalistic stardom. “The biggest problem this profession faces,” Boyd told the several-hundred-person audience, “is journalists trading access in order to become celebrities themselves.” The Capote we see on screen, who prized celebrity over integrity, was godfather to this journalistic strain as well.
John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, also spoke at the Nieman conference. Based on his experiences, Carroll sees the most pressing trouble coming from the giant companies that are buying up media organizations. To these conglomerates, a newspaper or radio station is an asset in a portfolio, not a long-term responsibility. “No longer is the owner a family that wants the paper to be important in the community their children and grandchildren will live in,” Carroll said. (Haligonians know family ownership alone is no guarantee of greatness, although the Dennis family’s Chronicle-Herald is making a better effort of late than the Daily News.
Carroll’s warnings about differences between the corporate and journalistic mindsets echo the legendary CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow, subject of Good Night, and Good Luck. The movie starts and ends with a damning speech Murrow (David Strathairn) gave in 1958 to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Famous though he was, the Murrow of Good Night embodied integrity, and in his speech he demanded the same.
“Unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late,” Murrow said. Decades later, Murrow’s insights are being celebrated as entertainment instead of news. It’s not the sort of fate that would have him thanking the Academy.
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