The Problematic Trope of the Reporter Who Changes America

I don't entirely mind this trope because I like investigative stories--that is, I like watching stories unwind as someone (a detective, a reporter, Miss Marple) follows the thread backwards. All the President's Men is fairly fascinating in this regard since it involves actually "following the money!" Who paid what to whom at who's instruction is honestly rather explosive, even 45 years later.

The problematic element of the trope is not the investigation; nor is it the supposed violation of state secrets. I agree that in a democracy, the press needs a fairly free rein. Hence, my contributions to Wikipedia.

The problematic element is the insistence that these reporters are acting against the common herd or flow, entirely outside the box. Reporters (and I do include the Internet here) then begin to believe that they are somehow acting as enlightenment to the dumb masses, when, in fact, they are acting as spokespeople for the masses and should never, never forget it.

The following two movies deliver the trope of the reporter who changes America. Weirdly enough, in both cases, the movies were more or less accurate. Consequently, I came away with a totally different impression than intended:

David Strathairn as Murrow
Good Night, and Good Luck about Edward J. Murrow's decision to use See It Now to criticize Senator McCarthy.

Do I think Murrow was brave to do what he did? Sure! Career anybodies take risks when they poke the bear. And television executives are generally speaking big scaredy-pants.

Was Murrow acting alone? Absolutely not. As I watched Good Night, and Good Luck, I was struck forcibly by the fact that Murrow was catching a wave of distrust about McCarthy. Several people, including Maine's own Margaret Chase Smith, had already spoken out against McCarthy. The army was already gearing up (but had not yet acted) to get ticked as a poked bear about McCarthy.

Again, this doesn't mean Murrow wasn't brave. He was, after all, riding the beginning of the wave. And television executives are notoriously lousy people to have in one's corner. But he wasn't acting absent a national feeling of increasing unease. He was part of a trend.

All the President's Men. I finally saw it! I enjoyed it!

And I came away, despite Woodward's reactions within the movie, with the distinct impression that Woodward and Bernstein had never been in the slightest bit of danger.

In many ways, producer Robert Redford was too exact, perhaps purposefully so, which is impressive. He delivered the story as understood by the reporters, not the kind of story that finds its way onto Cable television. (As a murder mystery aficionado, I kept thinking, "Where are the dead bodies?")

Again, it isn't that Woodward and Bernstein weren't brave. It's that the possibility that the FBI was nudging them down a particular road is not impossible. I don't think there was any conspiracy going on--except for a dissatisfied Deep Throat and, oh, yeah, Nixon. That is, I don't think the FBI was using Woodward and Bernstein as pawns. I do think that there was a push in a particular direction that Woodward and Bernstein walked down with nudges from many others. 

Does that mean that Woodward and Bernstein shouldn't be commended for their work on Watergate? Of course, they should be commended for their work on Watergate!

The point is: when reporters, including online reporters, start thinking that they are acting in some kind of vacuum, when they forget that they operate within a democracy, they start thinking they are brave little dictators who are creating public policy.

But their job isn't to CHANGE people; their job is to report the news.

In this regard, despite some of my reservations, The Post is one of the more accurate reporter movies to come out of Hollywood. The question on the table is not whether to force the American people to hear THE TRUTH (insert drum roll and serious gazes). The question is whether to report material already handed over to The New York Times, which is under an injunction, material that appears to fall into the category of "historical knowledge that embarrasses people."

Graham's choice is not between THE TRUTH and THE LIE but between the role of the newspaper and her bankers--who are rather like CBS executives.

She chooses her role and takes charge--with support. Which is a far closer truth than the lone reporter who wants to SHOCK and AWE others--without support.

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