Ted Cruz holds professional journalists in such contempt that, in the aftermath of CNBC’s Republican debate, he says future debates should be moderated instead by “real journalists”—like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Marc Levin. They at least know the difference between policy, entertainment, and making a quick buck—so there would be no “gotcha” questions about nutritional-supplement companies that exploit Christian customers or finicky doubts about how cutting taxes on the very rich by $6 trillion could possibly raise revenues.
Politicians have been airing this sort of disdain for the press and its pesky questions for years. And for more than three decades, Hollywood has often followed suit, portraying journalists as reckless dupes and showboats. Absence of Malice (1981) helped popularize the trend, as cowardly, sensationalist media hacks quickly became stock characters in series like Die Hard and Spiderman.
Of course, some of us are cowardly, sensationalist hacks. But two new films—Truth, about the fumbled 60 Minutes II report that ended Dan Rather’s career at CBS, and, opening Friday, Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning pursuit of the Catholic clergy child-abuse scandal—portray reporters once more as vital to American democracy, more like Woodstein in 1976’s All the President’s Men.
Both films show that conservatism’s instincts to protect the privacy of the powerful and shut out opposing views are naturally inimical to good journalism. Facts may or may not have a “liberal bias,” but censorship is always authoritarian.
Not so coincidentally, the germ of both movies can be found in the work of Spotlight, The Boston Globe’s crack investigative team led by veteran reporter Walter “Robby” Robinson.
In May of 2000, seven months before Bush v. Gore descended into a Dockers-clad conservative riot, Robinson broke a story saying that George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard for a year in the early ’70s, while less fortunate sons were fighting in Vietnam. At the time, the story had little impact, possibly, as Dan Froomkin writes, “because the Globe had out-reported its bigger colleagues, [so it] didn’t get picked up by the elite national outlets.”
In Truth we learn that elite national outlet CBS, where producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) works with anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), wanted to run the Bush-Guard story very badly in 2000. But she was forced to drop it when her mother died. If she hadn’t been grieving, one character says, “there’s a very good chance Al Gore would be president.”