Investigative Reporting: Is it still a staple of the modern press?

The following piece is based on interviews I conducted in February/March 2011, and is obviously disadvantaged by not having the Leveson Inquiry to reference or the full revelations regarding NotW phone hacking. 

I am unable to understand how a man of honour could take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust. – Charles Baudelaire

INTRODUCTION

Journalism has forged a strange and unique reputation within society. Without a doubt an efficient and functioning independent press is the keystone of an open and honest democracy. Over the decades journalists have effectively saved lives, exposed corruption and toppled a President. But in the public consciousness, journalists are demonised and lionised in equal measure. With its own retellings and representations, Hollywood has further promoted the idea of the ‘investigative reporter’ as wielder of ‘truth’ against the tyranny of injustice, but also the invader of privacy and the destroyer of lives. This duplicity is standard stuff, and not entirely incorrect.  As journalist Roy Greenslade would put it, “in the public estimation of our worth, we rank alongside politicians and estate agents. It always seems to have been the case, since the dawn of newspapers onwards.” (2010)

It can be argued that journalism itself is in some way investigative, but the differences between standard and investigative journalism appear to be vast, not least for those who practice the latter. However, those with a romantic sensibility always look backwards. Many journalists cite ‘Watergate’ as a crucial influence upon their career choice, and a benchmark for the power of the press and investigative reporting. It is nearly 40 years since Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, and there have since been many significant investigations, but none which garners such affection as the probe into President’s Nixon’s crooked machinations.

Times were different in the 70s. The modern news industry is plagued with an increasing assortment of destructive forces: the decline in sales and revenue; the increasing online imperative; the rise in public relations; libel laws and injunctions; and shortages in newsroom staffing. And although investigative reporting in the current age sets itself apart from (or in opposition to) day-to-day news reporting, it is nevertheless shackled to the same sinking ship.

WHAT ISN’T INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM?

Defining investigative journalism in a broad sense rarely poses much of a problem. Those with an opinion on the matter tend to agree on the fundamentals: that investigative reporting sets out to uncover that which, for whatever reasons, is concealed. But, ‘what’ investigative reporting is does not take us very far. To begin to get a more accurate picture requires a bigger focus on ‘why’: why there needs to be a culture of journalism that by its nature is much more in-depth. Read more of this post

Apocalypse Now: Into the Heart of Darkness

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.  If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.” Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche

In Fax Bahr and George Hinkenlooper’s documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), Frances Ford Coppola says of his 1979, Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now: “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment –and little by little we went insane.”

Although the statement may have been intended as a neat sound-bite with which to promote interest in the film, there is still something poignant about it. All three stories –Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Coppola’s feature was based, Apocalypse Now, and the aforementioned ‘making-of’ documentary– have created a mythos about what occurs when men journey into the depths of their own souls, and into the souls of other men.

In the case of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse now, there are three elements that are paramount to understanding each ‘story’ thematically. They are the ‘personal’ readings (i.e. the deconstruction of the protagonists Charles Marlow and Benjamin Willard); the ‘sociological’ (the circumstances, historically, in which each is set) and the reading of the Kurtz character; which binds all of the elements together.

So, spite of the fundamental differences in plot –locations, character names, motivations, et cetera –Coppola manages to re-invent a product that maintains, thematically speaking, much of what Conrad’s original vision intended.  Each text implies that the ‘soul’, or ‘heart’, is somehow inextricably linked with the sense of the ‘primeval’ that exists when one is closer to nature, and that overexposure to this ‘id’ side of the human psyche will eventually result in what Conrad’s refers to as the “abomination,” and film theorists call, the grotesque. Read more of this post

Vietnam in Film: Opening the Doors of Representation

Until the Vietnam War, Hollywood and most of America had held the US soldier in an almost mythic regard; they were the defenders of truth and liberty against worldwide tyranny run amok.  WWII had drafted the ordinary man, farmers, bakers, grocers, and then violently launched them with little training to the dizzy heights of martyrdom.   And Hollywood, for it’s part, had done it’s best to maintain that level of divinity.

John Wayne was as famous a soldier as he was a cowboy, and the heroism portrayed on the big screen helped define and further the already patriotic tendencies of military nations such as the United States.  When talking of Vietnam, most critics choose The Green Berets (1968) as the first significant film to deal with the Vietnam conflict; undeniably a John Wayne picture through and through, it took a typical “John Wayne” attitude toward the issue of communism, war and foreign enemies.   An essay by Michael Hammond featured in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood described The Green Berets as “a fairly traditional war film” and “thus, it exemplified and presaged the divisions in critical and generic expectations of the war film in the Vietnam era.” Though despite the freshness in regards the style and level of violence “…political divisions were brought into focus by the virulent anti-communist rhetoric of The Green Berets

From the beginnings of the Vietnam War in the late 50s to its unusual end in the 70s, America had undergone a radical change in the attitudes and in the collective mind of its youth; European art films had taken influence over even mainstream cinema, the civil rights movement had progressed rapidly into the Black Panthers, in many states Sodomy laws had been repealed, psychedelics had been and gone and cocaine had taken its place as the drug-of-choice.   More significantly here is the fact that once the conflict was over, no longer were soldiers hailed as heroes, but as pawns in state-sponsored aggression.  The draft had taken ordinary men from their everyday lives and flown them 8,000 miles to face combat with little more than a few weeks military training. And if we are to believe the filmic depictions that would occur over the next few years, many were a little too sociopathic for the experience or too irresponsible for combat.

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Essay: A Mild History of the ‘Western’

Your everyday cinema-goer has accrued such extensive knowledge of the cinema and its iconography that he/she can easily distinguish one ‘type’ of film from another: It is through the repetition of icons and images that gave birth to the Genre Film.   Characterising films into genres has been commonplace and so widespread for so long that it is rarely even thought about, except among film academics or movie aficionados.

As Hollywood became organised and began making pictures en masse, it became clear that characterising a movie into genres helped the studios to market and cater to the tastes of its audience.  As explained by Abrams et al: “Classification of films into genres helped the industry to organise production and marketing in terms of making use of available and suitable props, locations, actors and production staff, as well as promoting films as being a particular type.  Audiences in turn used the marketing description of films as a guide to what to expect”.

Once a studio found its niche, they increased production of the genre that served them best; MGM became known for Musicals and Universal made Horror, where as Warner Bros excelled with gritty and more social commentary Gangster films, and later Film Noir.  The audience’s identification of each genre is down to a bombardment and repetition of images and even though many of the themes and sub-texts of a particular genre may change and evolve over time, the conventions and iconography have so powerfully imprinted themselves upon the mind of the audience that even decades after its popularity wanes they can still recognise and categorise a film quite accurately.

One genre is a near perfect example of the evolution of cinema and of the genre film; that is the Western.  Westerns have long since passed the popularity of the 40s and 50s when Hollywood studios made thousands of them, but such is their effect on modern day culture that around the world that cowboy boots walk the pavements and checked shirts with Levis adorn glossy pages of fashion magazines.

In Hollywood, Westerns have a history nearly as long as cinema and have frequently been part-and-parcel of its artistic and technological advancements.   In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery, argued by John Saunders as “one of the first narrative films of any kind.” It was filmed on three reels rather than just one (which was the standard at the time). It was also the starting point of a regular feature of western style films, i.e. based upon actual event and people, albeit usually with varying degrees of sensationalism.  However, such is the nature of the development of many genres, at the time The Great Train Robbery was considered a Crime/Chase movie rather than a Western. The United States already had a preoccupation with tales of outlaws and bandits popularised in the many pulp-style Dime Novels and newspapers.  It seems natural that the stories the United States and Hollywood wanted to see on the Big Screen was that of the Old West and the infamous gunfights and robberies that were so widely read.  For example, Jesse James had long been a cult celebrity figure during his lifetime and an even bigger legend after his death, largely because of his representation in these novels.  (As of the end of 2008, the James Boys have been depicted on screen no less than 32 times).

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