NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

****Below the Fold

Written by RG Belsky – This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television.

Clare has a wittily cynical, self-deprecating take on her job and the events and people around her, and the novel begins with her musing on why some deaths—those of blonde white females—matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time.

Clare runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the reporters and staff hammer out which stories to feature that day, absent any even bigger story breaking. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend time on, a fifty-four-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge, they discover, over time, just how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.

The first glimmer there may be more to the homeless woman’s story than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar opposite—young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker—is brutally murdered. Beside her body is a list of five names, five people who appear to have nothing in common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list is Dora Gayle.

Through Clare’s investigative journalism, Belsky expertly rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder? Potential victims? In the process, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed lower Manhattan.

Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York.

It isn’t a spoiler to say that, in the end, the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”

Image by Michal Kryński from Pixabay

The Exploitation of Tigers–by Writers!

Western writers have exploited the tiger, says Aditi Natasha Kini in a Literary Hub essay, that goes on to illustrate the interplay of literature and wildlife mismanagement.

Authors have been mesmerized by the elusive tiger’s beauty, stunned by its cunning, and fascinated by its ferocity. Whereas a lion is social and, according to no less a wildlife expert than Gunther Gebel-Williams, tends to want to get along; tigers don’t care about you, not even about each other at times, as the recent London Zoo tragedy attests.

Alas, our fascination has been deadly for the tigers. “Do you want to kill them because you are afraid—or because you covet their power?” Kini asks.

Hard to believe in this era of heightened consciousness that a New York Times South Asia bureau chief “a few months ago,” Kini says, started writing admiringly about the hunt for a tiger deemed menacing to Indian villages. Despite the editor’s “several breathless articles,” certainly this writing did not generate the bloodlust of a century ago, when an estimated 80,000 tigers were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925.

Kini draws a connection between this murderous spree and the vilification of tigers in literature and popular culture. They came to be portrayed as evil, monstrous, and murderous. Jungle creatures, “especially sinewy marvels of evolution with massive jaws and impressive, though cryptic abilities, became a vivid metaphor for the wild—and the colonial drive to conquer it.”

The near-extermination of wild tigers becomes another environmental depredation that naturally devolves from what Kini calls “the narrative of human supremacy.” Now, one legacy of that narrative contributes to global warming, and the habitat loss likely to result will provide a further threat to the species.

The World Wildlife Fund’s estimate that more tigers live in U.S. backyards than in the wild has received fairly wide publicity. Nevertheless, four states—Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—have no laws at all about keeping dangerous wild animals as “pets,” including this week in an abandoned Houston garage. The reduced circumstances in which many of these animals live is the exact opposite of the iconic creatures of fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing tragedy.

I highly recommend John Vaillant’s page-turner of a book about the Amur tigers of far eastern Russia, The Tiger. It’s non-fiction, and the action is heart-stopping. For the latest on this subject–Dane Huckelbridge’s February 2019 book, No Beast So Fierce.

Tiger photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

Hollywood Investigates Journalism: 2019 Edition

While a bright line has traditionally separated news and entertainment media, that line is getting a little blurred around the edges. In a presentation this week at the Princeton Public Library, entertaining film historian Max Alvarez showed clips of real newscasters playing their professional selves in television dramas and fictional newscasters appearing on real news shows. You have to wonder whether this is a good idea when the media are under a constant “fake news” assault.

Since the early days of Hollywood, the industry has wanted its products lauded and its stars burnished and its scandals muffled. It loves news coverage that manages that. Likewise, the print media likes movies that portray journalists in a positive light, and it has withheld coverage of movies that didn’t, letting them sink into obscurity.

Fictional news outlets, reporters, and issues are one thing, but what happens when Hollywood tackles reality? Since the 1970’s, stories about real journalists at real newspapers have had extra punch because they were rooted in real events. Top of mind: The Washington Post and Watergate in All the President’s Men (1976), and The Boston Globe and child-abusing priests in Spotlight (2015), two films similar in making the tedium of reporting—the phone calls, the notes, the record checks—dramatic and compelling, Alvarez noted. In them, the journalist is romanticized as a seeker of truth, despite the political pressures of corporate owners, advertisers, and the legal department.

The Post, Meryl Streep

Those pressures are front and center in the biopic, The Post (2017), which focused on a pivotal decision by Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. The 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck. portrays the conflict between veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In both films, the journalist is the hero.

A film about a real-life journalist that did not put the news media in a good light was the aptly titled Kill the Messenger (2014), which perhaps you’ve never heard of (trailer). In 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, developed a series about links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and the crack cocaine flooding the United States. The big papers, perhaps incensed at being scooped, attacked his reporting, then him. His paper withdrew its support. Fed up, Webb quit and wrote the book Dark Alliance. (Note that subsequent revelations have vindicated many of his claims.) Television news people aren’t all heroes either. The Insider (1999) detailed how CBS agonized about whether to air a 60 Minutes segment with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Although the editorial decisions in these films—whether to attack Joe McCarthy or the tobacco industry or whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or continue investigating Watergate or claims of priests’ sexual abuse of children—may seem obvious in retrospect, these films do a service by showing how difficult they really were. You can imagine similar soul-searching under way in newsrooms around the country today faced with the pressures of imperfect information and relentless attack.

Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing

In The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger talks about nations’ pervasive and growing uses of spyware and malware to achieve their ends. According to Paul Pillar’s review in the Times, Sanger’s book is “an encyclopedic account of policy-relevant happenings in the cyberworld (that) stays firmly grounded in real events.”

It’s not a question of keeping the stuff out of our electric grid, the controls of our nuclear plants, our military establishment, our government. It’s already here. And a piece of spyware in our systems—watching, waiting—can turn instantly destructive on command.

While U.S. companies, utilities, and some government agencies would like to reveal how much they know about these intrusions—“hey, we’re looking at you, too, so watch it!”—the clandestine services argue against it, because they don’t want others to know that we know and what our detection capabilities are, much less guess our offensive capacity. If you were suspicious of that improbable string of fizzling North Korean missiles last year and wondered “could it really be . . ?” you were right.

Sanger’s riveting journalism covers the woes Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its power grid, a seeming test-bed for attacks on the West; it reviews the Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel, which exceeded its mission of damaging Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to emerge in the wild; he covers the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations; and he describes more recent threats. Across at least three Administrations in Washington, the responses to the size and potential scope of this threat have been paltry. “The clock cannot be turned back,” he says, and it’s up to all of us to hear the ticking.

The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

****Yesterday’s News

Ace Atkins, motorcycle

(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.

In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.

Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.

The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.

Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.

This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.

Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.

The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.