Not too long ago I read an article that was wondering about why no one trusted journalists anymore. The writer floated a lot of interesting theories: journalism has devolved into being sensationalistic celebrity gossip and why would you trust that; newspapers have lost their monopoly on the truth now that we've entered the twitter age where the public has unlimited access to first hand accounts of foreign events; there have been too many recent scandals where journalists either fabricated stories entirely or were basically just carrying water for a political regime, like when the media sold George Bush's lies about Iraq having WMD.
All of those are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the people who bring us the news, but I would like to add one more to that list: I think that in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting on the Watergate story journalists have been in love with the idea that they are themselves a central part of the story and that's led to a lot of stories where journalists over-glamorize themselves or their actions. Journalists (and people who cover journalists) often seem to forget that there's a real difference between being the person who made an important story happen and being the person who merely delivered a story that had already happened to the public. In that first case talking about the journalist makes sense, because you can't understand the whole story without understanding the reporter's contributions, but in that second case I think it's actively unhelpful to look at the reporter, because it refocuses the audience on a minor topic at the expense of the actual issue at hand.
Kill the Messenger and Rosewater are two movies that came out in 2014 about imperiled journalists, and they both portray their protagonists as being a little more heroic than they probably were. Kill The Messenger is about Gary Webb, a California reporter who broke a story about how the C.I.A. was taking profits from crack cocaine sales and funneling them to the Nicaraguan contras. Rosewater is about Maziar Bahari, an Iranian/Canadian journalist who was jailed and tortured while he was trying to report on Iran's Green Revolution. Both films treat their main characters as martyrs - which is fine, in that both men certainly suffered and I don't want to belittle that. However, Kill the Messenger is a lot more persuasive than Rosewater because it does a better job of keeping it's eye on the big picture, and thus it's sense of moral urgency makes a lot more sense.
Let's tackle Webb's story first. He fell into his Dark Alliance series accidentally. It started with an article he wrote about how the government was seizing property from suspected drug dealers at the time of their arrest and then refusing to return it to them after they beat their case in open court, which he believed violated the Constitutions prohibitions against illegal search and seizure. A drug kingpin's girlfriend saw the article and contacted him about her boyfriend's case. She then slipped Webb a copy of a classified deposition that had been accidentally given to the defense, and Webb then used that deposition to unravel a much larger story about the ins and outs of the drug trade, and specifically about how the C.I.A. was funding illegal operations in South America using funds raised by selling crack in America.
In the first half of Kill the Messenger Webb is not treated like a martyr, he's treating like a hard working guy - which is totally the right call. After all, it doesn't matter if he's tackling a big story or a small one - his job to find leads, investigate them thoroughly, and then publish the results, and that's what he's doing. However, the second half of the movie lionizes him quite a bit, because the mainstream media begins to question his reporting but he refuses to back down, since he believes that they are merely regurgitating C.I.A. propaganda. The more he refuses to back down the more he endangers himself and his career: Kill The Messenger alleges that the C.I.A. tried to ruin his life through several indirect means as a way of punishing him for revealing their dirty laundry, an allegation which is certainly plausible, even if it is probably unproveable.
Overall Kill the Messenger feels honest and it's portrait of Webb is persuasive, and that's because this movie does most of the things that a film about a journalist needs to do. 1.) It makes a convincing case that this story would not have come to light had Webb not found it. Its possible that it would have eventually leaked to the public, but the C.I.A. is generally pretty good about burying incriminating evidence, so it seems like we can safely assume that we only know about this particular story because Webb was in the right place at the right time and he had the courage to follow the leads. 2.) It uses it's protagonist as a way into a bigger story and doesn't get bogged down in Webb's life. Yes, it pays attention to what the stress of the situation did to his personal life, but Webb was focused on the story to the detriment of his family and his career, and since Kill the Messenger is focused on him, we never spend too much time with his wife and kids before returning to the topic that has broader social relevance.
3. While it does put Webb on a pedestal, it does so for a legitimate reason. Kill the Messenger is basically comparing him to all the other journalists who are fine with touting the official party line even if they know it isn't the whole truth, and that's an important comparison, because it explains why it's so hard to ever gain any forward momentum on issues like this - so much of our supposed protectors are not interested in exposing problems. 4.) It's actually fun to watch. This is, after all, a movie and that means that you want a bit of entertainment with your education. Kill The Messengers unspools like a classic 1970s paranoid thriller, meaning that it knows that it needs to be exciting, but it never feels like it's artificially inflating the danger to make the story seem more exciting than it really was.
Unfortunately, Rosewater does not fare nearly as well under the same criteria. At first it seems as if Rosewater is going to use it's main character Maziar Bahari well: he's an audience surrogate, someone who understands Iran's culture enough that he can kind of fit in, but who has also lived outside of Iran for so long that he will need certain things explained to him. It makes sense that he would be in the position that he's in, but it also makes sense when other characters give him exposition about the realities of Iran's political landscape. The film's early scenes work reasonably well, since they keep the emphasis where it should be - on the electoral upheaval that Bahari is witnessing, not on the man himself.
However, that starts to go south once Bahari is arrested for being a spy. The last half of the movie is devoted to scenes where he is being psychologically tortured in an Iranian prison, and those scenes mostly work on their own - they convey his experience in a way that's mostly compelling. However, they don't really work in the context of the movie, because they are shifting the focus from the plight of the everyday Iranian onto a specific non-Iranian. You could make a case that by following one specific person from the street through the underground detention centers we're getting a more complete picture of the whole state-run apparatus, and that's fair enough - but Bahari is the wrong person for that because he's an outlier. He's a foreigner and a well regarded journalist so people will pay attention to his cause in a way they wouldn't for someone less well known, so his situation isn't necessarily representative of what living in Iran is like. Yes, it is terrible that Bahari was tortured, but his experience would have been worse (and more typical) if Hillary Clinton wasn't going on the news on a regular basis to advocate for his release.
I'm not against a movie about Bahari as a person; he seems like an interesting fellow, and he certainly had a singular experience. But Rosewater treats him far too deferentially. His story is fine, but it pales in comparison to the broader story about the secular-religious tensions in Iran, and the movie ultimately feels like a let down because it has the right story in it's sights, but then it gets distracted.
There are good reasons why a journalist might write from a first hand perspective. I understand the worth of an audience surrogate, and I also understand that some stories can't be untangled from the person who broke them. But I do think that the media needs to keep in mind that there is a real difference between being born on third base and hitting a triple - that sometimes a reporter breaks a big story because they are a hero, and sometimes they do it because they got lucky. Kill the Messenger is a story about a journalist whose life was ruined because he was the right man in the right place and the right time to expose a story everyone wanted hidden; there is a certain amount of luck in that, but you can't deny the man his perserverence. Rosewater is a story about a journalist whose life was ruined because he was a warm body in the wrong place at the wrong time and he got swept up in a massive wave of hysteria; this story could have been told about hundreds of other people who were also jailed at the same time for similar reasons. There's a real difference between what happened to Gary Webb and Maziar Bahari, and if the media is incapable of drawing a distinction between those two types of stories then the public's only recourse is to automatically assume that everything the news is telling them is biased until they get proof otherwise.
Of course, people should assume that the media is biased for a lot more reasons than that. But you know, now is not the time or place to discuss how our sensationalistic celebrity gossip industry has a pronounced (and possibly unfair) agenda against Kanye West. After all, it wouldn't make any sense to talk about him in an article about dudes who think they are heroes just because they are doing their jobs.
Kill The Messenger: Me