How a Press Indictment in 'The Insider' Indicts the Press
There's a nice scene in Michael Mann's great 1999 movie, “The Insider,” which is about “60 Minutes,” the Big Tobacco lawsuit, and intrepid journalism. The movie is essentially “All the President's Men” for the '90s.
In the scene, the “60 Minutes” team, led by producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and newsman Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), are trying to fathom what information their reluctant insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), might have against Brown & Williamson. Here's the quote that I keep coming back to:
What that is, is tobacco's standard defense. It's the “We don't know” litany. “Addiction? We believe not. Disease? We don't know. We just take a bunch of leaves, we roll 'em together, you smoke 'em. After that, you're on your own, we don't know.”
It's the media mocking the false innocence of Big Tobacco.
I keep coming back to this scene because it increasingly reminds me of the way the media presents its news to us:
Climate change? We don't know. We just quote these two scientists—one of whom believes and one who doesn't. After that, you're on your own, we don't know. Trump's latest claim? We're not sure. We're just repeating what people in power are saying. We don't know.
Objectivity is not stupidity but too often the media makes it so. There's often no attempt to follow up, not much of an attempt to even do what Jon Stewart did—see if the people in power are contradicting what they said 10 years ago, or five years ago, or last year or last week. It's stenography. And it has to stop if we're going to survive as a democracy.
Some of the press has gotten a little better at it: The “Trump Accuses Obama of Wiretapping, Cites No Evidence” kind of thing. Trump is actually helpful in this regard. He's such a psychopathic liar he's forcing the press to own up to what the facts are. But I don't think Trump would be where he is, destroying our country, if the media had simply done a better job covering the 2016 election.