If embracing Gawker’s rebels as soldiers at the frontlines of the culture wars protecting freedom of the press is a bridge too far for some viewers, two documentaries from First Run Features offer encomiums for some of modernity’s more celebrated and influential writers. Kirk Simon’s The Pulitzer at 100 includes a biographical profile of Joseph Pulitzer, Hollywood stars providing dramatic readings from prize-winning literature, and interviews with journalists who have been awarded their profession’s highest honor.
Simon, who describes himself as an avid reader, cited a combination of literary craftsmanship and personal courage when describing the qualities that linked the dozen or so prize-winning journalists he interviewed. They are “people I very much respect,” the director said in an exclusive interview. A self-effacing recipient quips in the film that the Pulitzer is normally awarded to the story rather than the journalist, but Simon notes that award-winners are rarely the only ones covering the story for which they are best known. He mentioned New York Times journalist Sheri Fink and famed Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein as two examples of journalists who exemplified the “excellence” that the Pulitzer is supposed to inspire and recognize.
The stories these journalists are most known for reporting—Hurricane Katrina, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Watergate—generated lots of media attention. But, as Simon points out, even when the public is inundated with media coverage “one set of stories stand out.” Simon said he believed the film “shows we need our great journalists” because “there are ways to dismantle [freedom of speech, which] is really the heart of American democracy.”
Barbara Kopple’s Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation also provides an historical overview of some of American journalism’s finest moments. The Nation, which Rachel Maddow calls “a lefty North Star,” was actually founded by Republicans—abolitionists who wanted to expose and challenge the immoral practice of slavery. Over a century and a half, however, it has come to be known as a leading voice of progressives.
Like nearly all newspapers and periodicals, The Nation faces challenges remaining financially solvent as its labor-intensive industry’s infrastructure crumbles. Hot Type’s shadowing of editor Katrina vanden Heuvel drags a little as she tries to navigate the periodical through those challenges, but the film shines as it follows reporters on the road and underscores just how much time and effort goes into tracking, investigating, and reporting important events. Few if any of these reporters will ever attain the name recognition and awards of their peers in The Pulitzer at 100, but they share with those colleagues a passionate commitment to disseminating the truth, whether that means long drives to interview draught-plagued Texas farmers or trips to Haiti to document the devastating effects an earthquake has on an already impoverished nation.
Although it is likely to be the least-viewed film of this group, Shine Global’s The Wrong Light may ultimately be the most powerful reminder of the value of investigative journalism. Directors Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams travel to Thailand to draw attention to human trafficking and profile Mickey Choothesa, the founder of COSA, a nonprofit refuge for at-risk girls. When one of the film’s subjects refutes Mickey’s story that she was sold into slavery by her family and rescued from a brothel, the filmmakers dig deeper, and the profile shifts into an exposé. Ultimately, COSA’s biggest supporter, Hands Across the Water, severs all ties with the organization and accuses Choothesa of defrauding donors of over $750,000.