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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Film Dour   

“The Insider” reflects the public’s disenchantment with the news media. But it falls victim to some of the field’s flaws.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


When "The Insider" was released this fall, the docudramatized version of "60 Minutes" vs. Big Tobacco won complimentary comparisons to that abiding press favorite, "All the President's Men." But it is the crucial differences between these movies, not the similarities, that should haunt journalists.

First, the films spotlight different media. "All the President's Men" focuses on print. "The Insider" depicts broadcast.

Second, the two movies present sharply different portrayals of the people who run the media. Newspaper executives are reporters' heroic allies in "All the President's Men." Network managers are shown as their cowardly adversaries in "The Insider."

Third, the outcome differs. In Watergate, the bad guy is driven from office. In "The Insider" it is the journalist who quits, disillusioned and depleted.

These distinctions, it seems to me, represent more than random artistic decisions by moviemakers. They signal important, perhaps dangerous cultural and media shifts that are being absorbed into our collective way of thinking.

The shifting spotlight from print to broadcast is not surprising, of course, but "The Insider" provides another powerful, symbolic reminder of how status and glamour have transferred away from print in the past generation.

More serious is the mutation of managers from stout-souled news defenders into corporate lackeys. Even Hollywood, it turns out, has caught on to the widening confidence gap between today's street-level journalists and their conglomerate-anointed bosses.

That the journalist ends up quitting raises further concern. In "All the President's Men," we see a powerful newspaper and its brash young reporters team up to blast through the obstacles to truth. In "The Insider," the journalist is a solitary crusader who eventually chooses to go it alone rather than struggle inside the corporate culture.

Increasingly, our faith seems to lie with individuals rather than institutions. Like producer Lowell Bergman, the character played by Al Pacino in "The Insider," today's journalists tend to rely more on their individual professional ideals and less on trust in the social responsibility of their media employers. This is an alarming turnabout.

Ever since World War II, the media have rather consistently put their wallets where their words were--into a public-service model of journalism that elevated duty to an equal and often higher plane than profit. This attentiveness to public service has long been a signature characteristic of American journalism, a main energizing force for newsrooms, and an ideal that has animated and inspired truth-seekers the world over. To trifle with it puts at risk the soul of the news enterprise.

Still, "The Insider" is, as they say, only a movie. And in many ways it is a fine one. It is well-written, well-acted, well-directed. In dramatizing the CBS decision to tone down a whistleblower's account of tobacco company chicanery, it is suspenseful and entertaining.

Pacino is edgy and engaging as the producer, Russell Crowe affecting as the whistleblower, Christopher Plummer believable as a "60 Minutes" correspondent with the accompanying blend of principle and pomposity.

Even so, I am one of those people deeply troubled by docudramas, especially those that recount contemporary events. Somewhere during "The Insider," there is a derisive reference to "infotainment," the use of information to entertain. "The Insider," like most docudrama, is the essence of infotainment, blurring all sorts of lines between reality and invention in ways that viewers cannot possibly fathom.

For example, many characters in the movie bear real names--Bergman, Mike Wallace, whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand--but some names have been changed. Some characters, especially the ones playing Wallace and Don Hewitt, are groomed, outfitted and postured to look and act like their real-world counterparts. Some words and actions correspond faithfully to reality, but others are made up.

The problem is that viewers can't tell what is true, what is half-true, what is guesswork, and what is fantasy. This is fundamentally unfair to both the characters and to history.

It is, amazingly enough, even unfair to Big Tobacco. To my way of thinking, almost any imaginable definition of evil would cover the deliberate making and selling of a product that is addictive and deadly. So it is hard to work up sympathy for the tobacco industry.

But "The Insider" romanticizes its journalist heroes so much and turns tobacco executives into such cardboard villains that the whole enterprise borders on caricature.

Much worse is a matter that goes significantly underexplored in "The Insider" and that represents the gravest departure from standards connected to "All the President's Men":

For all its power and drama, the whistleblower's tale to "60 Minutes" is a classic example of an unconfirmed, single-source story. And it is offered by a classic example of a dubious source, an executive who has been fired. It should be a starting point for investigation, not the end of the chase.

Unfortunately, where "All the President's Men" helped institutionalize the two-source rule, "The Insider" all but buries it.

Ultimately, both the movie and the true-life episode pose the same worrying problem. They are too much about getting the story and not enough about getting the truth.