One of my formative childhood movie watching experiences was All the President’s Men. I saw the movie in my early teens and was the only person in my high school modern U.S. History class who knew what Watergate was or who Bernstein and Woodward were.
I also grew up in a household which valued journalism. Both my parents were reporters at various points in their careers and my grandfather was a sports journalist for forty years.
Because of this background, I probably have a very noble idea of the tenets of journalism. I believe the press is the the unofficial fourth branch of the government’s checks and balances system. It is a watchdog and should question those in power. Journalists should ask tough questions about the government’s own behavior rather than becoming a mouthpiece.
During a time in which the transparency and morals of the American government are being questioned because of drone strikes, NSA surveillance, and other tactics in the ongoing war against terror, Nora Ephron‘s post-humous play, Lucky Guy, reflects on the values of the investigative journalism of New York’s tabloid heyday in the 1980s and 90s.
“I think she [Ephron] always saw the signposts of human behavior that mark the era in which we lived,” said Tom Hanks, who stars as reporter Mike McAlary, in a recent interview on Charlie Rose.
Lucky Guy is a play about a reporter, Mike McAlary, who circulates between Newsday, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post at different points in his career. The story, as Ephron tells it, is McAlary, a hard-working reporter, dreams of one day becoming a newspaper columnist like the famed Jimmy Breslin.
And even though McAlary may have an ego the size of Cleveland, his love and respect for journalism ring through whatever spells of ego-mania he experiences.
“We write the first draft of history. We’re the voice of the people. If it wasn’t for us, we’d be living in a dictatorship,” McAlary tells his editor.
Tabloid newspapers seem an unlikely source for strong investigative journalism, but that’s exactly what McAlary wrote. During the 1980s, McAlary uncovered the story of the Buddy Boys, a ring of corrupt policemen in New York’s 77th Precinct.
In 1997, while McAlary was undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer, he reported on the Louima case, about the police torture of a young man in Brooklyn. His work earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
Although the play takes place in the 1980s and 90s, it’s interesting to consider what its playwright, Ephron, a former journalist herself, and its main character, McAlary, would think of current events such as Bradley Manning‘s trial, Edward Snowden leaking information about NSA surveillance, and the death of journalist Michael Hastings.
Manning and Snowden aren’t reporters, but they seem to share the same high morals which investigative journalists have. High morals, in this case, means coming across information—whether it is information about national security operations or corrupt cops—which gives one pause about what is going on, why is this happening, and on whom’s authority. In tManning and Snowden’s cases, they felt it was information the American people deserved to know.
Alan Rusbridger, an editor at The Guardian, the British newspaper which has been publishing the leaked NSA documents from Snowden, said he thought Snowden’s reasoning for leaking the information was two-fold.
“It brings up two philosophical questions. One is the ability to report. Reporting requires a transaction between source and reporter and if those transactions can’t be private, that’s the end of investigative reporting. It’s something society ought to think about. The other is protest. The ability to protest and dissent from the economic or environmental or political system we have and if those methods [that the NSA is using] are starting to be used to anticipate or suppress or cut off forms of protest, then you’re moving into a kind of government or surveillance state which has no happy precedence in history. From his desk, he [Snowden] saw this and said that’s what we ought to be discussing. You can’t have that debate without putting facts into the public domain,” Rusbridger said in a June 27 interview on Charlie Rose.
In today’s society, it’s difficult to name a journalist who could be considered a true investigative reporter, but that’s exactly what Michael Hastings was.
His unwillingness to buy into the party line when it came to government officials led him to write a Rolling Stone profile on General Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General”. McChrystal was the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in the Afghanistan war and Hastings’ profile uncovered his contempt for civilian officials in Afghanistan. The story led to the general’s resignation.
On June 18, Hastings died in a high-speed single automobile crash in Los Angeles. After the crash, it was revealed Hastings believed he was being investigated by the FBI. Questions remain around his death.
Hastings, much as McAlary did, believed in the freedom of the press above all. They believed by uncovering the truth and questioning authority, they were serving the public. The public still needs those who believe in the tenets of journalism. Those willing to ask the hard questions.