Film Challenge #6: Wag the Dog

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The film Wag the Dog tells a dark yet witty story of the media controlling what society thinks due to political scandal. The title itself explains this, as we see in the opening credits of the film.

It is explained to the audience that while usually a dog wags its tail because it is smarter, but if the tail becomes smarter than the tail wags the dog. This is a metaphor for the media becoming smarter than the American people and controlling what they think, as we soon find out.

In class, we have seen many cases of the media manipulating the truth. For example, we were shown five photographs of hurricane Sandy that were actually manipulated, much to the surprise of the public. In addition to this, we’ve seen several situations in which word choice reveals media bias. However in Wag the Dog, the main characters do much more than simply choose biased words.

The main characters, an employee “spin doctor” on the president’s re-election campaign, and a famous movie producer are tasked to cover up a sexual assault scandal that the president is accused of. Along the way, they stage fake war scenes using actors and special effects, manipulate photos of captive US soldiers, and even hire an ex-soldier to act as a returning prisoner of war. They even stage a scene where the president appears to be in Albania (where the supposed war is occurring). These men do everything in their power to control what the media finds out, and in the long run what the public thinks.

While this may have been for the best in their opinions, it was without a doubt extremely unethical. These individuals may have believed that the president was the best choice for the next four years. In that case, it can be understood that they would do everything in their power to ensure his re-election. Regardless of their motives, lying to the public just to distract them is not what should have been done.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states, “seek the truth and report it”. While these government professionals were not in fact journalists, it should still be against anyone’s personal ethics to lie to the American public. In one scene, we see two of the individuals who helped fabricate the story get questioned. If more people, journalists in particular, investigated how true the story actually was, society might not have been lied to for as long as they were. If fabricated stories like this one go unpublished, it would lead to a world where no one would truly know if what the media says is true or false. It is up to journalists to seek the truth and let the world know it.

If I were in the same situation that this campaign “spin doctor” was in, I would not try to distract society with lies. Instead, I would address the problem head on and have the president give a formal apology. After all, if the president was indeed guilty of sexual assault, he is not a man I would want to be the leader of my country. I can be thankful however that to my knowledge that nothing like this has ever occurred, and am comforted by the fact that the Society of Professional Journalists has an official code of ethics for journalists and media personalities to look to for guidance.

Film Challenge #5: Smash His Camera


Above: Ron Galella on the street, following Jackie Onasis for photographs.


Smash His Camera is a documentary that follows one of the most dedicated paparazzi of all time, Ron Galella. By taking a look at the life and career of Galella, we are introduced to the controversies that are caused by the acts of paparazzi.

Most of what we see in Smash His Camera brings to question wether privacy or our first amendment rights are more important. Ron Galella was known to follow celebrities and do whatever it takes to get photographs of them. He would hide behind bushes, sneak into events, and snoop around to find out where celebrities lived.

He expressed the importance of his own freedom of expression to take photos in public places, and use said photos as he wishes. Ron Galella uses each photo he takes to sell to publications or companies for money; it is his career of choice. So when people started to discourage or avoid him, he faced problems with law suits.

The most known law suit Galella dealt with was against Jackie Kennedy Onassis. This free speech trial that took place in 1972 resulted in a restraining order requiring Ron Galella to stay at least fifty feet away from Mrs. Onassis. It is cases like this that gave Galella a reputation for obsessive and stalker like behavior.

While most of the controversy surrounding Galella happened many years ago, there are still similar cases that deal with privacy vs. freedom of speech today. In 2012, Kate Middleton sued Closer Magazine for invasion of privacy after publishing bikini pictures of Kate on vacation. So did the photographer have a right to take the picture from a public location? Or did he infringe on the privacy of the royal couple by zooming in and snapping these scandalous pictures to make money off of? In the end, the publication was condemned, so privacy took precedent.

It is cases like this that give many journalists a bad reputation. When it comes to free speech versus privacy, privacy tends to win against journalists. Paparazzi in particular look bad to the public eye because of their aggressive and eager mannerisms. This affects journalism as a whole, although it might not seem like it. Paparazzi are journalists of their own breed, and therefore must follow the journalistic code of ethics.

Photographing people in a public place is a part of the first amendment rights, but at what point do paparazzi like Ron Galella go too far? It is hard to say, with all of the gray areas that come with journalism ethics. I personally think paparazzi are entirely capable of violating privacy, and do more often than not.

Film Challenge #4: Shattered Glass

The 2003 movie Shattered Glass is probably the most controversial stories we have watched in a movie so far. The film’s main character, Stephen Glass, is a young ambitious journalist at the distinguished New Republic Magazine. Glass is constantly rising above his fellow journalists, only to fall far below them at the end of the film.

As if we were not already aware of this as journalists, making up stories and publishing them as factual is not allowed whatsoever in this field. This is exactly what Stephen Glass did. He was gaining journalistic fame and popularity among his co-workers all because of hard-hitting stories he fabricated. Stories about young republicans going wild in a hotel and an eccentric young hacker’s convention are only some of the stories Glass “cooked up” while writing for the New Republic, which was known for its factual commentary on political events.

This brings up thousands of large legal and ethical issues in both the journalism world and elsewhere. Not journalist is allowed to fabricate a story of any time. The only time a fabricated, or made up, story is allowed to be published is if it is clearly stated that it is so. In addition to fabricating most of his stories, Glass also went through great lengths to hide the fact that he did so.

In the film, we see many instances of Stephen saying, “it’s in my notes at home, I’ll go get them,” and going home for some time to presumably fill his notes with more lies and fictional instances to back up his stories. He went through such great lengths that he even created fake business cards, websites, and even used his brother to create a fake voicemail from Palo Alto, California.

The film also portrayed Glass as being a stickler for fact checking at his publication. He was in the fact-checking department; therefore he could easily get by with his own fabricated “facts”. In the end it was discovered by that nearly everything he wrote in his time at The New Republic was fictional, or at least stretched truth.

This resulted in Glass getting fired immediately, not just suspended. In class we learned that Glass is still struggling to keep a job today. He has been denied his law license multiple times, and is only allowed working as a clerk at a law firm in California. This goes to show that in journalism, there is nothing more important than telling the truth and nothing but the truth, because journalists shape public opinion whether we are aware of this fact or not.

Film Challenge #3; Nothing But the Truth

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The 2008 film Nothing But The Truth details the conflict that can arise from a reporter withholding sources. The film’s female protagonist, Rachel Armstrong, faces the wrath of the government when she reveals the name of an undercover CIA agent in a story for the Washington Sun Times.

This story lands Armstrong under investigation from a federal prosecutor to find out who her source is. The biggest question this film raises is whether or not it was worth it for Rachel to withhold her source and go to jail under contempt of court, or if she should have revealed her source to the government to be reunited with her husband and son.

There was one point in the film in which Rachel’s attorney started to ask her to reveal her source. It is at this point that I feel she made an extremely compelling argument. She stated that because she was a woman, she was expected to give up and go home to her husband and son and if she were a man it would be a different story. She decided to not give up the source and stay detained, much to the surprise of those around her.

As a journalist, Rachel promised her source anonymity. The reason the government was so desperate to find get her to reveal her source was because it is considered a treasonous offence to reveal the identity of a covert operative. That means that whoever her source was could be considered as a national threat. Rachel did not reveal her source throughout the entire film, until the end we find out that it was the CIA operative’s young daughter who revealed her mother’s identity.

The act of withholding this source landed Rachel in several trials, and ultimately prison. As we learned in the case of Branzburg v. Hayes, receiving information in confidence does not privilege a journalist to withhold the name of a source during a government investigation.

If I were placed in this position, I would be extremely torn as far as what I should do. I felt frustrated that she kept withholding the source at the beginning of the film. But once I realized who her source was; an innocent young girl who asked to stay anonymous, I understood why she was taking this so seriously. As a mother herself, she did not want to put that little girl in danger any more than she already had. If I had a source like that, I believe I would have withheld the source as well.

Cases like this impact journalistic decisions every day. Not only does this film question whether or not to reveal a source under a government investigation, it questions how to deal with anonymous sources. In this film specifically, both children and inebriated adults are brought into play questioning how to deal with sources who do not understand the consequences of what they are saying.


Film Challenge #2: Absence of Malice

The 1981 movie Absence of Malice brings about a lot of ethical questions that are still relevant in journalism today. The main character, a journalist named Megan Carter, finds an interesting lead about a man named Michael Gallagher and decides to follow through with it. As a journalist, I feel I would have followed suit in similar ways that she did with this story.

To get more information on the story about Gallagher, Megan met with a worker in the department of justice and looked at the files on his desk when he left the room. While it is illegal to look at government files unauthorized, getting sources from government files is protected by privilege, and no further sources need to be acquired.

Later in the film, Megan reveals personal information about a woman’s abortion in an article, to prove Michael is innocent. The woman begged Megan not to print it, but because she did not specify that it be off the record, Megan printed it anyway. In response to seeing that Megan printed the story about the woman who got the abortion, that woman killed herself.

From an ethics standpoint, Megan did no wrong by publishing this story. It was on the record, further proved Michael to be innocent. But from a moral standpoint, it would have been extremely hard to publish a story that was so delicate and important to someone. If Megan knew the woman was going to kill herself if that story was published, I do not think she would have even questioned publishing it.

Another thing Megan Carter did for this story was work closely with Michael Gallagher, the man she was reporting about. At the beginning, she only called him once with no answer and did not seek him out again. This enraged him, so he sought her out and she decided to take advantage of this relationship for more information.

At first, Megan and Michael’s relationship was strictly professional. They met from time to time for interviews, which gradually turned into boat rides and a deeper connection. Eventually, they grew intimate which caused a lot of controversy. A picture was taken of the two of them holding hands, which was incredibly careless of Megan.

When working with sources, a journalist must stay professional. As she was writing about his innocence, pictures came out of them holding hands making it seem like she was only writing those things because of their personal relationship. Although I agreed with most of her decisions, I would never have gotten intimate with the source of a story I was currently working on, there is too much grey area and possible conflicts that could arise.

This film portrayed a journalist facing issues of libel, source relations, and revelation of private facts. Reporter Megan Carter ended up fine, as most protagonists often do. She made some questionable decisions but I think overall I would have reacted in the same ways that she did. She worked hard to get a story no one else had covered, which is what any good journalist would have done.Source: google images

Film Challenge #1: All the President’s Men

In comm. 3404, our goal is to learn about media law and ethics through various films. The first film we watched is the 1976 film All the President’s Men. This film focuses on journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated the Watergate scandal, and stretched some ethical boundaries along the way.

We learned in class that the Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics stating that journalists must “Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable”. After watching this movie I noticed how Woodward and Bernstein did their best to stick to this code, with a few possible violations.

The two did seek truth, but given the serious nature of the story they were dealing with a lot of anonymous sources like “Deep Throat” which made it difficult for them to identify many sources.

Source: google images

As much as the journalists may have tried to minimize harm, their breaking of the story did result in the punishment of many government employees, but rightfully so in my opinion.

Woodward and Bernstein stayed independent, unbiased and unattached. As far as I saw in the film, they used no sources they had personal relationships with, but did ask co-workers to contact such sources.

Lastly, the two were accountable. As journalists often do when working together, they checked each others work constantly and held each other completely accountable. That is why to this day their names are attached to the breaking of the watergate scandal.


While this story would still be a huge story if something similar to it broke today, it might have broken sooner due to the technology advancements of our time. Social media has been known to break stories first lately, not to mention heightened security technology might have caught the Watergate burglars before anyone else.

Regardless, I think Woodard and Bernstein handled the overall situation well and got it out as soon as possible. They were both undoubtedly professional and dedicated. Given the vast and serious nature of the story they were working on, the anonymous sources and harming of the reputations of government employees  was absolutely necessary. Because everything they printed was true, it was not libel so the journalists had every right to publish the story.

The persistence of Woodward and Bernstein shaped the way Americans saw journalists and government officials for many years. The printing of such a big story that so few people knew about at the time made people aware that journalism could influence opinions and change the world. This also sparked an era of distrust of the government, especially among young people. Once all of this controversy and scandal was printed for the public to see, the government received no shortage of criticism and distrust for several years.