As I work on Enterprising Fables, I realize that I should start it with a global spoiler alert. The plot trajectories of the texts I write about are an essential component of my analysis because they show how the texts’ creators have shaped their story material. Therefore I must present full plots, including their endings. In this, my work differs fundamentally from that of movie critics, whose job it is to assess the merits of a movie, and then tell their audience whether it is worth their while to see it.
Critics want to reveal enough of the plot so the audience knows what the movie is about, in particular its genre. We know that individuals prefer certain genres and abhor others. (The titles Governing Fables and Enterprising Fables should make clear my preferred genres). But critics don’t want to reveal the plot in its entirety, so as not to eliminate the aspect of suspense that it is a key component of the experience of watching a movie.
One movie I recently watched for my chapter on investigative journalism is Nothing but the Truth, which debuted in 2008, and went almost immediately to the home DVD market because its distributor went bankrupt in the Great Recession. This was unfortunate because the movie was excellent. One key aspect of its appeal is a surprise ending. So, in keeping with my practice of including spoilers, I will outline the complete plot and comment on the relevance of the ending to the investigative journalism fable that I’ve been discussing in recent posts.
Nothing but the Truth was inspired by the story of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who was imprisoned for refusing to reveal her source in the Valerie Plame Affair. Plame was a CIA agent outed by “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff in retaliation for her husband, a diplomat, producing a report that there was no evidence Niger sold uranium to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, a finding that embarrassed the Bush Administration. Though the Plame Affair has itself been the subject of the movie Fair Game, Nothing but the Truth focuses on the question of the conflict between public accountability and national security. Requiring reporters to reveal their sources will deter potential sources from providing off-the-record information. Though the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and of the press, the federal government has no shield law protecting the secrecy of reporters’ sources, and the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act explicitly makes it an offense for reporters not to reveal their sources in they work in national security.
Nothing but the Truth explores this issue with a very simple plot line. A failed attempt to assassinate the President leads to bombing of Venezuela, believed by the White House to be the source of the assassination attempt. A CIA agent (portrayed by Vera Famigia) goes to Venezuela to investigate and discovers that there was no Venezuelan connection. A reporter for a Washington newspaper (portrayed by Kate Beckinsale), using an initial leak that was confirmed by administration sources, writes a story that outs the agent. Just before the story goes to press, the reporter interviews the CIA agent on the grounds of the elementary school where their children are students.
As soon as the article is published, the Administration appoints a special investigator (portrayed by Matt Dillon) to determine the source of the leak. The reporter refuses to reveal her source, and the special investigator takes her to court; she is defended by a well-known civil liberties lawyer (Alan Alda) hired by her paper. The judge decides that she is violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and imprisons her for contempt of court.
During a year of imprisonment as she steadfastly refuses to reveal her source, the reporter’s life spirals downward, with violent bullying in prison and her husband separating from her. The CIA agent has become a liability to the agency, resigns, loses her protection, and is murdered by a right-wing fanatic.
After the murder, the reporter becomes even more resolute, telling her lawyer that the source “didn’t know what they were doing when I got the information” and “would be publicly saddled with the death of [the CIA agent] and that would mean the destruction of the person we’re talking about.” The judge releases the reporter after she has served a year for contempt, reasoning that nothing will compel her to identify her source; the special investigator immediately has her re-arrested and intends to prosecute her under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. They agree to a plea-bargained a two-year sentence.
The movie ends with a surprise, flashing back to a conversation between the reporter and the CIA agent’s eleven year-old daughter on a school bus; the daughter volunteers that her mother has just been “in Venezoola [sic] … working for the government … but you won’t tell anybody it’s me who told you, okay?”
Roger Ebert, in his review, did not include a spoiler, but did write that “what is deeply satisfying about Nothing but the Truth is that the conclusion, which will come as a surprise to almost all viewers, is not a cheat, is plausible, and explains some unresolved testimony.” From my perspective, this plot twist gives the movie another dimension, adding investigative reporting tradecraft to its consideration of the tradeoff between First Amendment rights and national security.
The reporter violated a canon of journalistic ethics, or any ethical system, when she took advantage of a child. Her end – public accountability – did not justify her means. Revealing her primary source would have, as she told her lawyers, destroyed the child, but – what she didn’t say – also would have destroyed her own professional credibility. Never revealing the source even to her own counsel makes clear her recognition that what she had done was unethical. Choosing to protect the child and preserve her own career necessitated staying silent and facing the criminal consequences.
Nothing but the Truth is therefore an instantiation of the counter-fable of incompetent investigative reporting tradecraft. The reporter’s ill-fated decision to use evidence gathering from an unwitting child led to a set of circumstances that hurt everyone directly involved. The reporter, acting to protect a child, serves several years in prison. The CIA agent who has been outed is murdered. The paper is saddled with large legal fees and a fine of $10,000 for every day the reporter spent in prison while held in contempt of court. The public interest was served because a White House lie was exposed, but that could have been done in less destructive ways. The conclusion is that incompetent tradecraft in investigative journalism hurts, and sometimes kills, people. Following Nothing but the Truth to that conclusion is a fascinating journey, and I recommend it. It can be purchased or rented from Google on YouTube.