By Barry Jagoda
Three movies out in the last few weeks capture among the most profound issues that can be faced in a free society: What happens when high public and private officials lie? How can objective journalism respond to leaders who feel comfortable with factual distortions?
The short answer is that assertions, from elected and appointed public and private leaders—as well from others in positions of power and responsibility—often must be reported. But in many, perhaps most, cases such statements must be verified. This is because leaders often intentionally, or through mistake or ignorance, distort the truth.
Journalists have a responsibility to report the views of leaders, but official, and often questionable, statements must be reviewed and vetted against facts.
An aphorism, about truthfulness, once sounded by Ronald Reagan, is relevant. As the late President put it about potential foreign leaders: Trust but Verify.
Dramatic attention is being drawn to these issues by movies out this season. The films are “Truth,” about CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather’s efforts to expose favorable military treatment given to George W. Bush; “Spotlight,” the true story about the courageous investigation by The Boston Globe,” exposing the Cardinal and Catholic leadership in Boston for sheltering 90 pedophile priests; and “Trumbo,” the spectacular film revealing and reminding of the damages caused to our people and country by the Red Scares of the 1950s.
The best of the three films, “Trumbo,” demonstrates the great difficulty of vetting statements by lying politicians, and what happens when free speech rights are destroyed by official demagoguery. This is the story of Hollywood creative artists whose left-wing political opinions were silenced by official Washington’s invocation of “Red fears.” These were false charges that the United States was in danger from internal enemies loyal to the Soviet Union. The crime of stifling opinion was made possible by vicious office holders personified by Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a notorious liar, whose charges of contempt of Congress ended up in jail terms for ten Hollywood artists whose mistake was to express their opinions about American politics.
“Spotlight,” a wonderful movie, is the true story of how an investigative reporting team from the Globe overcame huge cultural and local political odds to name 90 priests who had been found guilty of sexual molestation of parishioners. To get to the truth the Globe’s “Spotlight” reporting team had to take on the Catholic culture of Boston and years of official lies by the Cardinal and other church leaders. The best of our journalists learn they must often challenge authority, even at the risk of peril to their careers and their emotional balance. This film is a classic look at the process of “telling truth to power,” which had the result of pulling back years of despicable behavior by priests and their church bosses.
The most painful story from among the three movies is the true tale of what happened when CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather and his team of producers set out to show favoritism doled out to a young George W. Bush. The CBS team learned that Texas National Guard officials had found a non-combatant role for the son of the then President George H.W. Bush. The CBS reporting came as the younger Bush was himself seeking re-election as U.S. President. The movie shows how the reporters were stymied by lies and cover-ups with the result that Rather, who had been the top reporter at CBS News, was fired from his job when errors were discovered in reporting procedures. In this case “Truth” was sacrificed to political power. The lying, and cover-up by young Bush—and family political allies—was left to stand.
Trying to hold powerful figures to a standard of truth and accuracy is particularly dangerous in an age when journalism organizations have come under financial pressures from a vastly changing media environment. With cable news channels adopting partisan political ideologies, leaders often have an open microphone for their distortions. The rise of the Internet with unchecked digital outlets, particularly wide-open, often feckless “social media” expression, had exponentially increased opportunity for political and civic distortion.
A free and open society must have procedures for ensuring factual communication. Competing political and business entities can be helpful in creating a climate of honesty. These three film stories dramatically demonstrate that the front-line of defense for integrity in society often depends on an increasingly rare “fearlessness” from a free press.
Barry Jagoda is a San Diego-based journalist and international consultant. He was an award-winning writer and producer at NBC News and CBS News, and a founding contributing editor of the highly regarded Texas Monthly magazine.
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