Lessons from the movies

There are some universal truths about good journalism: It’s hard work and it’s vitally important in a democratic society.  But it also can be hard to pigeonhole what it takes to produce good journalism, and that’s not a recent development.

Frost/Nixon, the fictional retelling of David Frost’s 1977 interviews with ex-President Richard Nixon, brought all of these issues up for me. While the film doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, it does reflect some of these truths.

Here are a few of the things that struck me:

Interviews take preparation. Lots of it. The movie suggests that Frost didn’t get serious about preparing until just before his final encounter with Nixon. That’s apparently not historically accurate. The team of researchers Frost hired worked tirelessly to dig up new information and rehearsed strategies for dealing with what they expected Nixon to say.

Good journalism can come from all kinds of sources. Frost wasn’t a journalist and didn’t work for a news organization. He was a well-educated talk show host who put up his own money to produce the Nixon interviews independently. “Serious” journalists thought of him as a lightweight, an attitude that comes through pretty clearly in this piece about the interviews that Mike Wallace did for 60 Minutes.

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Journalism plays a key role in holding the powerful accountable. The only time Nixon ever came close to admitting his mistakes in office and apologizing to the American people for Watergate was during the interviews with Frost.

A couple of other points: There’s no denying that Frost engaged in “checkbook journalism.” He paid Nixon $600,000 for his time. Would the networks have paid to get Nixon on the record? The movie suggests that CBS was ready to part with $350,000 but Frost outbid them.

Finally, the movie reminded me of how much times really have changed in TV news. The film opens with a montage of 1970s network news footage–reports on the Watergate break-in, Nixon’s resignation, and Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor. All of the reporters and anchors were male and white. And when NBC covered Nixon’s 9 a.m. departure from the White House live, Today Show host Tom Brokaw was on the air.  The era of the big-foot anchor was yet to come.

Frost/Nixon isn’t the only current film with lessons for journalists. State of Play, which I haven’t seen yet, makes a strong case for the importance of investigative journalism, according to Gina Chen of  Save the Media.

I won’t advocate some of the “reporting” methods used in the movie that were over the top in my mind. But I do applaud the movie’s depiction of journalists as skeptical, tenacious, and not easily duped. That’s a good lesson for bloggers, journalists — anyone trying to spread information in our evolving media world.

Either or both of these movies would be good discussion fodder for any journalism class.


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