New Films 'Truth' and 'Spotlight' Revisit American Journalism's Ballsier Days

From left, Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather in a scene from the movie "Truth"; it's one of several recent films showing journalists in a positive light. Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics

I went to the former Soviet Union in January 1988 on assignment, and though it was a pretty tame story about children in the USSR, the photographer and I were monitored on our travels. When someone wanted to say something critical about the country or its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, they took me into a bathroom and turned on the fan.

How great it was to return to New York City, turn on the TV and see CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather grilling then Vice President George H.W. Bush regarding his knowledge of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal that originated in the basement of the White House. Bush had been told he would be lobbed softballs about education and his "vision thing" for his upcoming campaign for president, and instead here was that pesky newsman throwing hard ones right under his chin. "If this is a political profile, I have a very different idea of what one should be!" the vice president protested, live, before 32 million viewers. Hooray for democracy! I said to myself. Hooray for the First Amendment!

Whither Rather? younger readers might wonder, or perhaps: What's CBS News? The litany of forces that brought TV and print journalism to its lowly state today needn't be replayed here, and while you could argue the sometimes eccentric anchor was his own worst enemy (ending his newscasts by saying, "Courage," telling his "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" story), you don't find many speaking-truth-to-power moments in American journalism now. The days of the crusading reporter are over.

Now several films seek to revive the public's estimation of journalism, starting with Truth, in which Robert Redford portrays Rather at the end of his tenure with CBS. Redford would seem to be the perfect candidate for the job; his turn as Bob Woodward in the 1976 film of All the President's Men launched a thousand J-schools and cub reporters across the country dreamed of taking down a president or at least winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Robert Redford plays Dan Rather in a scene from the movie "Truth." Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics

In the years since, the portrayal of the press in film and TV has reflected the suspicions of the public. In the 1981 Absence of Malice, Sally Field played a well-meaning reporter fed a false story by the feds with bad results (the movie's one indelible image is of the woman Field smeared going to each neighbor's front yard to collect the morning paper before they've read it) and now a press badge in a movie usually screams "caveat emptor!" From Netflix's House of Cards (in which Kate Mara's DC journo sleeps her way to a big story until her source pushes her in front of a train) to the new season of Showtime's Homeland (in which Sarah Sokolovic blows off the suggestion her leaking of CIA documents will get innocent people killed), reporters are portrayed as vain, untrustworthy and easily misled.

Truth recounts the tale of Rather's last days and the story that brought him down. Based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power by former CBS News producer Mary Mapes (played here by Cate Blanchett), the film recounts in tick-tock fashion the 2004 investigation into George W. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard—though "time" implies that he actually served while some hot documents leaked to Mapes indicate he did nothing of the sort. (The authenticity of the letters, most written by Bush's late commanding officer and disputed by his family, has never been established.)

The story seems jinxed from the get-go: The documents in question, letters to and from military brass about the MIA GWB, are photocopies; her source, retired Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) won't tell her where he got the copies, and won't appear on camera; Mapes's bosses, while leery, push her to produce the story for 60 Minutes II in under a week (their constraints caused in part by a Dr. Phil special the network wants to run); and critics on the right are already convinced CBS and the whole liberal media cabal are working for U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

The story continues to unravel (I imagine the fact-checkers at Rolling Stone watching this saga through their fingers), but I'll leave the movie's more dramatic turns to be revealed in the theater. For all the film's sometimes ham-fisted moralizing and occasional speechifying, Truth conveys the more boring parts of reporting pretty well. A key plot point concerns superscript—you know, that little thing in your writing program that turns the "th" after a number into a tiny th—and Mapes's crack investigative team (Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss) spend hours looking through boxes of contemporary documents, looking for examples created by a typewriter in the 1970s.

I know—I didn't dare get up to use the bathroom! But it turns out that such minutiae is a big deal in their investigation, and the constant pressure to tighten the story, edit the testimony of forgery analysts and rush the deadline do as much to damage the report as anything Mapes or her minions do or don't do.

But it's impossible to take this story out of the polarized political context in which it was born. Rather was already considered suspect by the right, due largely to what they deemed his disrespectful treatment of previous GOP presidents Nixon and Bush I, and the Internet enabled an army of trolls to vilify anyone critical of GWB. At one point in the movie, Mapes makes the mistake of reading the comments about her online before closing her laptop in revulsion.

Far worse than the dittoheads are the corporate stooges at the top of Black Rock, who eagerly sacrifice Mapes et al rather than risk any more blowback from the Bush administration. In one of the movie's soapbox scenes, the young researcher played by Grace chews out his former boss as the newsroom listens. The company's eagerness to sacrifice its news division has more to do with the looming Viacom-CBS separation, which the FCC would have to approve, than anything they did, he declares before being escorted out of the building by security.

Huzzah! A few of the press people at the screening I attended gave his speech at least a barking laugh of approval, though the financial realities have made monkeys of us all. Watching another news program cover their story, Roger Charles (Quaid) says, "This is what our business has become: reporting on reporting." And that's just their news rivals. The network of Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite had become the network of Survivor: Vanuatu, and there was little doubt as to who would be voted off the island.

The loss of investigative reporting, or any kind of substantive reporting, is ours, Truth implies. Making a speech of her own before the internal investigators convened by CBS, Mapes says, "Our story was about whether or not the president fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that; they want to talk about fonts and forgeries, and they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum."

The truth can be as slippery as a rugby ball, of course, and the movie is at its worst when it acts as if it's scored a goal. The more nuanced and nimble Spotlight, reviewed by Alexander Nazaryan here, tells the story of the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Like Truth it invokes the less glamorous aspects of reporting (cold pizza, archive rooms populated by dead rats) and makes heroes out of men (and at least one woman) in rumpled shirts.

The film became "a love letter to journalism," director Tom McCarthy told an audience at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 8. Newspapers "are just not supported in the same way" they were then, he said. "It's an American tragedy.… I don't think we realize what we've lost."

The Globe's reporting broke the Church's record of silence on its handling of pedophile priests; what other institution could have done that? How many papers have the resources, let alone the tenacity, to pursue a story of that size?

It's too soon to tell if films like Truth and Spotlight will spawn a new generation of journalists ("The pay sucks and the business is dying? Where do I sign?!"), but it's nice to see reporters portrayed as something other than venal, as actual humans with complicated lives and a code of ethics. The profession seems to be getting something of face-lift, at least in the theater. The documentary Hot Type tells the story of The Nation (a magazine that has been hanging on by a thread for 150 years) while Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead manages to make the creators of the National Lampoon look heroic, if you're one of those people who thinks Lenny Bruce was Jesus. Someone thought there was an audience for these films.

Now if that audience would just start subscribing to newspapers...