Three years ago, Beth Herst and I published an article about investigative journalism films predicting that the sheer volume of investigative journalism about the Trump Administration’s malfeasance and misfeasance would engender a renaissance of that subgenre. So far, we are wrong. However, a major new investigative journalism film, She Said, has just been released. It mentions Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape at the outset but focuses on The New York Times’ investigation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and assault.
Applying the Fable
I am approaching She Said as a researcher and teacher, rather than a film reviewer. In our article, titled “Beyond ‘Woodstein’: Narratives of Investigative Journalism,” we identified 14 recurring structural elements of a fable about investigative journalism that we used to analyze six films encompassing both successful and failed investigative journalism. (The article was published in Journalism Practice. Here is a link to an earlier blog post that provides instructions for accessing the article online or invites you to email me for a download of it.)
Writing the article was like statistical research in the sense that you develop a model based on data. When new data emerges you test whether it is consistent with the model. Our investigative journalism fable, in essence a model, is based on the films Spotlight and All the President’s Men (the successes), Good Night and Good Luck and The Insider (partial successes diminished by conflict between journalists and corporate managers), and Truth and Kill the Messenger (the failures). Is the fable consistent with She Said, the new data point?
Long story short, very much so. Weinstein is investigated by a team of two New York Times journalists, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (element 1). Editor Rebecca Corbett and Executive Editor Dean Baquet are completely supportive of the project, giving Twohey and Kantor the time and funding (for example, a generous travel budget) necessary for the project (elements 2 and 3). Twohey and Kantor interview a network of victims of Weinstein’s abuse (element 4) as well as sources within Weinstein’s company who know about Weinstein’s behaviour (element 6). Weinstein is aware of the investigation and sends his lawyer to threaten the journalists, but their conversations with the lawyer also provide information (elements 5 and 8). Documents are difficult to find, especially because Weinstein signed nondisclosure agreements with women he had assaulted, but eventually documents are made available by other sources (element 7).
The film mentions at several points that Ronan Farrow at the cross-town rival The New Yorker is also working on the story, so the entire team at The New York Times feels pressure to publish first (element 9). The film gives considerable attention to Kantor and Twohey’s personal lives, as both are young mothers. The round-the-clock demands of investigative journalism often conflict with their family responsibilities, and they rely on supportive husbands (element 10).
Their big story about Weinstein is carefully vetted by The New York Times’ lawyers and the editors show a draft to Weinstein and give him 48 hours to respond. Weinstein’s admission in the article that he is taking time off from the company is recognition of the unassailability of the reporting (element 11). The text screens at the end of the film mention the impact of Kantor and Twohey’s journalism in leading to greater societal awareness of and action to stop sexual abuse (element 14). It might have added that Kantor and Twohey won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting (elements 12 and 13) but perhaps the screenwriter assumed the audience would know this.
Though I feel some satisfaction that the story material used in She Said aligns very closely with our fable, it is more important that I could advise a student interested in doing investigative journalism that this film as well as our article provide a template to understand what is involved.
A Week’s Work to Prepare a Two-Hour Class
In my narrative and management course, I already use Spotlight. (Here is a link to a blog I posted when it was released seven years ago.) She Said would make a great counterpart the following week. I would introduce the movies by observing that sexual abuse, especially of children, is a repugnant, if not sick-making, topic. But it is real, and more widespread than we know. Films about journalists investigating sexual abuse are more palatable than films about abuse itself. The journalist’s story can be inspirational, and the victims can be presented as having the agency to fight back by working with the journalist.
To teach a film for the first time requires a full week of preparation. (The second and subsequent times would take much less preparation.) I would watch it a second and perhaps third time on a computer screen taking detailed notes, something that is impossible in a darkened cinema. Because She Said is based on Kantor and Twohey’s book, I would read it, not necessarily looking for discrepancies between it and the screenplay but looking for what the film does and doesn’t emphasize. (A recent article in Slate argues that the movie was true to the book.)
I would also research She Said’s impact on public discourse, something that isn’t immediately apparent. At this point, all we have to go by are reviews and the first weekend’s box office. In a year, we will have better indicators of its commercial success and critical reception (award nominations and wins). I will also search for its presence in discourse, for example op-ed columns that mention it or use it to launch a discussion. I will also look for critical and fan discussion of the film in social media forums. Weinstein’s current trial in Los Angeles and possible appeal of his New York conviction might also stimulate discussion about the film.
The films could be fruitfully compared in terms of plot, characterization, and cinematic devices. The investigative team in Spotlight had to prove that sexual abuse by priests was more frequent than people realize and that Cardinal Law was complicit; the team in She Said had to prove Weinstein assaulted numerous women. What evidence was required for each team to publish?
In Spotlight, four of the five members of the investigative team are male; in She Said, both are female. Are there gender differences in how investigative journalism is done? (Hint: empathy.) Other roles could be compared, such as the two executive editors, The Boston Globe’s Marty Baron and The New York Times’ Dean Baquet, and the malefactors, Cardinal Law and Harvey Weinstein. (Hint: the cardinal had more friends in high places.)
Procedural films that deal with social processes necessarily involve many people, and therefore lend themselves to ensemble acting rather than bravura leading roles. The Spotlight team required an ensemble performance; She Said had two starring roles, but critics have already applauded its supporting performances.
How does a movie about sexual abuse seize the viewer’s attention at the outset? Both films chose to depict the impact of the act on its victim in their opening sequence.
Films about investigative journalism rarely provide opportunities for attention-grabbing visuals. Spotlight uses Boston’s numerous Catholic churches as an ominous background for many of its scenes. On first viewing, She Said has nothing comparable.
It’s important to end a class with a thought-provoking wrap-up. My penultimate discussion question would be “which film did you prefer and why?” I would have the students vote and then ask students in each of the two camps to explain. My final discussion question would be “what did you learn from these two films?” In a journalism class, the answers might be predictable, in a management class more wide-ranging.
Investigative journalism is immensely important in a democratic society, and it is essential that every few years a new film is made about it to spark a discussion of the issue being investigated and the process of investigation. She Said has done that with urgency and eloquence.