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She Said, a film that follows two New York Times reporters as they hunt Harvey Weinstein, debuted in October to rave reviews. Variety described it as “tense, fraught, and absorbing.” The Washington Post deemed it “engrossing, even galvanizing.” The New York Times gave its imprimatur by designating the film a “Critic’s Pick.”

She Said should have been All the President’s Men for millennials: an indelible Hollywood commemoration of upstart journalists who challenge corrupt power, vindicating the values of a rising generation. Instead, in its first weekend, the $55-million film earned a paltry $2.25 million, becoming one of the greatest box—office flops of all time.

Trade publications pointed to the decline in filmgoing since the pandemic, waning interest in prestige films, and exhaustion with #MeToo. It is not surprising that the commentators failed to acknowledge another possible factor: the declining prestige of journalists. Between Watergate and the 2020s, the great institutions of American journalism have lost the trust of the American people. In 1979, Gallup found that 79 percent of respondents had a great deal or quite a lot of trust in newspapers. In 2022, only 16 percent of respondents felt the same. Either the venerable conceit of the free press—that it is crucial to a democratic republic because it makes power accountable to the people—no longer moves the American people, or the American people no longer believe that our established papers embody it.

A based-on-true-events procedural drama in the vein of All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015), She Said dramatizes Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s memoir of their work on the Weinstein story. Their reporting on Weinstein for the Times, along with Ronan Farrow’s contemporaneous reporting for the New Yorker, is credited with touching off the #MeToo movement in the fall of 2017. Kantor and Twohey’s work has one distinct advantage over Farrow’s: In its auto-mythologizing, it is not obviously delusional or careless of facts. (Times media critic Ben Smith produced the definitive critique of Farrow’s Weinstein reporting and memoir—illustrating the paper’s sense of itself as the source for responsible #MeToo fodder.) Yet She Said, like All the President’s Men and Spotlight, partakes of a broader fallacy: the notion that legacy journalism is a foe, rather than an extension, of unaccountable power.

These films try to position their protagonists as scrappy outsiders—an awkward task, given the prominence and power of the institutions that pay the protagonists’ salaries and publish their exposés. The films reconcile this contradiction by personalizing it, attributing qualities to the protagonists that suit them for their iconoclastic assignments and distinguish them from the establishment of which they are obviously a part.

All the President’s Men makes much of the youth of its heroes, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who seem to embody the energy and idealism of the baby-boom generation. They may blunder at times, but on the whole their inexperience is an advantage. They aren’t accustomed to the bad old ways of doing business, and they defy groupthink. At one point an editor at the Washington Post proposes reassigning the story of the Watergate break-in from the young reporters to more seasoned hands: “I’ve got some pretty experienced fellas sitting around.” To which the reply comes: “And that’s all they do, sit.” One editor points out that few other reporters in Washington seem interested in the Watergate story and asks sarcastically, “Where did we suddenly get all this wisdom?” In part, the movie answers, from the unspoiled youth of Woodward and Bernstein.

Spotlight likewise sets its heroes apart from other men. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the newly appointed editor of the Boston Globe, is viewed skeptically by some: “So the new editor of the Boston Globe is an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball?” But the very things that make Baron unclubbable also prepare him to challenge settled ways. His first act is to insist that the paper devote serious resources to investigating priestly sex abuse, a topic that it previously had treated in a desultory way.

Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer who represents alleged victims of sex abuse, explains the source of Baron’s strength. “He comes in, suddenly everybody is interested in the Church. You know why? Because it takes an outsider. Like me. I’m Armenian. How many Armenians do you know in Boston?” The most powerful man at the city’s most powerful paper thus becomes an underdog.

Even more than these precursors, She Said stresses the personal lives of its protagonists. Their work on the Weinstein story heightens and reflects their awareness of the particular challenges facing women. The film devotes a great deal of time to domestic scenes, showing that Kantor and Twohey are not only professional women but wives and mothers, bearing their daily loads in canvas totes and baby carriers. Early in the film, Kantor (Zoe Kazan) smiles at a woman holding a child on the subway, sharing a passing moment of solidarity. Upon arriving in the office, she shares a similarly encouraging smile with Twohey (Carey Mulligan). These are the happy moments of sisterhood. A grimmer one comes when Twohey responds to an importunate man at a bar with a deeply felt “F*** you!,” garnering the approval of a female colleague.

In each of these films, zealous journalists are presented as plucky individuals taking on established norms and powerful institutions. The fact that the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and New York Times are themselves mighty institutions recedes into the background. When the power of these papers is acknowledged, the audience is assured that they are independent of outside influence and above corruption. In Spotlight, Bernard Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) tries to charm the newly appointed Baron: “I find that the city -flourishes when its great institutions work together.” Baron coolly replies that in his view the paper should “stand alone.” Easy for him to say, since by the early 2000s the Globe was a more influential Boston institution than the Church.

One central Spotlight case, featured in the film, was that of the “street priest” Paul Shanley. The evidence against Shanley, which consisted of the inconsistent and uncorroborated recovered-memory testimony of his accusers, was dubious on its face and arguably should have been ruled inadmissible under the Daubert standard for scientific validity. Instead, Shanley was convicted and sent to prison. JoAnn Wypijewski, writing for The Nation, exposed the deficiencies of the Shanley prosecution but failed to influence the trial’s conclusion. He had already been found guilty by the mainstream press, which, as Wypijewski later noted, functioned in that case as an “arm of the state.”

All the President’s Men likewise simplifies a complicated story, concealing unaccountable power while pretending to expose it. Supposedly it resided exclusively in the person of one Richard Nixon and his henchmen. But as Christopher Caldwell explains (“Regime Change, American Style,” June/July 2022), Nixon was opposed by his own FBI, and Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) was no honorable whistleblower but a passed-over bureaucrat with a vendetta. Felt’s tale of bumbling corruption, which contained nothing very remarkable by Washington standards, was presented as sensational by the Post and received eagerly in the nation’s power centers, on and beyond Capitol Hill. The prospect of impeaching Dick Nixon, whose wife wore “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” held out the promise of settling who gets to choose the regime—the people or the elite, elected politicians or unelected “civil servants”—on terms favorable to the latter. Far from a tale of power being brought to account, All the President’s Men is propaganda on behalf of a power with far less accountability than any president.

Like these precursors, She Said fails to consider the power and complicity of a great paper. At the film’s outset, reporters at the Times are charged with investigating “all workplaces where sexual harassment might happen.” Later, one Weinstein accuser, the actress Rose McGowan, tells the reporters that she is unwilling to talk to the Times because of the way the paper has treated her. “I believe the root of it is sexism,” McGowan says. But the reporters do not pursue this claim, nor does the film. We are told that “the wrongdoing in Hollywood is overwhelming.” We follow the reporters as they “interrogate the whole system.” But there is no confrontation with the fact that the paper—with its $2 billion in annual revenue and tremendous political power—is part of that system.

Worse, though the film shows Twohey, Kantor, and their colleagues going to great lengths to make sure that their story is accurate, it is fundamentally unconcerned with facts. This becomes clear at its conclusion, when a series of somber title cards appears. “In the following month 82 women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault,” the screen reads. “Kantor and Twohey’s work helped ignite a worldwide movement against sexual misconduct.” The film celebrates these myriad allegations without acknowledging that even one of them might be false.

Evidently, the people behind She Said care less about the truth or falsity of any particular claim than they do about a general narrative of predation. This is understandable for filmmakers. It is less forgivable in journalists. And yet Twohey, Kazan, and Dean Baquet, the former editor of the New York Times, all smiled for the cameras at the film’s red-carpet premiere. To the extent that they ignited the #MeToo movement, they enabled the telling of lies as well as truths.

In She Said, as in its precursors, all institutions are suspect, corrupt, and in need of critique—except for the media. Neither political nor religious authorities are worthy of trust—but the paper and its band of heroic reporters is. Public sentiment may have endorsed that conceit when All the President’s Men premiered, but no longer. Gallup’s finding that only 16 percent of respondents now express a great deal or quite a lot of trust in papers is well below the rates for organized religion (31 percent) and the presidency (23 percent).

These numbers reflect the low confidence institutions of all kinds now enjoy. Journalistic exposés of alleged malfeasance—governmental, ecclesial, or otherwise—have undoubtedly played a role in this decline. But far from “standing alone” in the public mind, newspapers are viewed in the same light as other organizations.

To understand why, it is helpful to consider another film released recently, to less fanfare but stronger box office performance than She Said. Based on a Balzac novel of the same title, the French film Lost Illusions follows the aspiring poet Lucien de Rubempré from the provinces to the decadent, cynical Paris of the 1820s. He soon abandons his high ideals to join a newspaper. The paper champions liberal ideals, but it is first and last a money-making and power-wielding institution, a financial and political venture characterized by “interests, shady dealings, and compromises.” Politicians “make ‘arrangements’” to avoid being attacked in the paper, as do theater-owners in need of positive reviews. The paper claims to be speaking the truth, but “the only truths that mattered [a]re sales figures.” It challenges monarchy by creating a world in which “money [is] the new royalty.”

This is a dark view of the news business, but one that reflects reality more accurately than the Hollywood heroics of Woodward and Bernstein. Even on the silver screen, the mythology of the free press—that it stands apart from unaccountable power, that it speaks for the downtrodden against the domineering—has become hard to believe.

Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.

Image by GGAADD via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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