Movie review: Obit. (2017)

Obit. takes a look at the world of obituary writers at The New York Times. The documentary delves in their world. Various writers are interviewed and accompanied through their daily tasks.

Rather than a leisurely job of writing about interesting people, obituary writing is a hectic fast-paced job of writing about interesting people. Anyone who had an impact in the world could be fair game for an obituary. And their obituary must go out in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

For this type of work, people need to be called, facts tracked down, news clips gathered. Yes, news clips. The Times has a department devoted to news clips of people and events. Thousands of drawers in filing cabinets contain files on individual people. A team used to maintain these files. These days one person oversees the department. When a writer is assigned an obituary about a newly deceased person, they wander to the morgue (i.e., morgue file department) to gather information.

Writers search for the odd fact or interesting tidbit that speaks to a narrative that they are crafting about the deceased. On occasion they write advanced obituaries for famous people who may be at the end of their career or life that can be pulled when they die. Usually though the writers are scrambling to gather the facts and craft a narrative in time for the 6 pm newspaper deadline.

Oh yes, and before then they have to check the facts. They must call and track down people to corroborate items. But of course, Murphy’s Law. Mistakes happen. And corrections must appear in the following day’s paper.

The documentary covers some people for whom obituaries were written. Some you may know. Some you may not. Kinzler who saved Skylab. (Did he really or was this a family myth? The answer is the former. He really did save Skylab.) Pete Seeger and the photos they had on file (in the morgue) when he was a small child. The bass player for Bill Haley and the fight to keep in the obituary the fact that his father was a hog butcher. (It helps define his life, the writer argued.) Or Stalin’s daughter and her life as an ex-pat after Stalin’s death.

Why, one writer explains, are women and minorities often missing from obituaries? Obituaries are retrospectives, a reflection of the times 40, 50, or 60 years previously. In the past, the movers and shakers tended to be white men. But now women and minorities who had an impact during the civil and women’s rights movements are now passing away. Equality increases with the passing of time.

Obit. is an interesting look into the obituary department at The New York Times. The writers have the unique opportunity of learning about lots of people who led interesting lives and had an impact on the world. In their role, they occupy a fascinating seat to witness and celebrate the passing of history.

Movie review: The Post (2017)

The Post was one of those movies that I looked forward to watching. It did not disappoint.

The movie, which covers a well-known event—the publishing of the Pentagon Papers—is never dry nor dull. The crafting of the movie pulls viewers along, as if they are experiencing the events as they unfold, not sure how things would play out.

The Washington Post has been a long staple of excellent reporting, an icon in the world of newspapers and investigative journalism. But it was not always that way. The Washington Post was an outstanding local newspaper, long in the shadow of The New York Times. This movie covers the moment when the newspaper went from local paper to the big times.

I think of Katherine Graham who owned the paper as a commanding presence, a woman in firm charge. But the movie makes clear that this wasn’t always the case either. The newspaper was started by her ancestors and run by males in the family. The paper was given to her husband to run because, well, that’s how things were done during that time period. Men were in charge, even men who married into the family.

And Katherine was quite content with this. But then her life took a turn she didn’t see coming. Her husband committed suicide and suddenly she was in charge of the paper. She, with no employment experience, had to step in to ensure that her family’s paper survived. She relied on the board, lawyers, and Ben Bradlee who was the executive editor.

From a wealthy family, Katherine ran in the elite circles in Washington DC, which meant that she hobnobbed and was friends with people in high positions in government, like Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense. These are the same people that newspapers like hers investigated and reported on. Things got uncomfortable for her, to say the least.

The movie depicts Graham as a somewhat sheltered wealthy woman. She could have easily retreated into her life, stepped away from the newspaper, and not seized the historical moment. But instead, she seized the moment—and it transformed her. And with her, the newspaper.

In 1971, the newspaper found itself in possession of what later became known as the Pentagon Papers. To publish articles about the content or not publish. The New York Times published articles about the papers and found itself the object of a court injunction to cease publication about the top-secret government documents. What would The Post do? To publish would be in defiance to the court order. Graham and Bradlee could end up in prison.

In addition, Graham was putting in jeopardy the public offering of stock for her newspaper. To keep the newspaper solvent and invest in its future, Graham was pursuing taking the newspaper public. Legally, institutional investors could pull out and the deal would crumble if anything catastrophic happened. The newspaper being sued and Graham going to prison could be considered a catastrophic event.

Against the advice of board members and lawyers and putting the public offering of the newspaper at risk, Graham gave the green light to publish. The movie emphasizes that it was not an easy decision or one that was taken lightly. It ultimately was a pivotal moment both for Graham and the paper—the two of them came into their own through her decision. Graham was now a defender of freedom of the press and head of a respected national paper. The Washington Post, which defended itself before the Supreme Court, along with The New York Times, was now on equally footing with The Times.

The movie is full of top stars. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play the leads Graham and Bradlee, but the entire movie is peppered with veteran actors, some of whom I recognized and others that I did not realize were in the movie until I saw the credits.

At a time when maligning the media has become commonplace, The Post is an inspiring movie to watch. It leads to questions about the role and purpose of the media, what defines the media, and how newspapers differ from non-traditional media sources. I couldn’t help ponder the differences between the publication of the Pentagon Papers and all the leaks posted by WikiLeaks. One seems like journalism, the other not so much. What makes one journalism and the other not?

The Supreme Court decided that an injunction against publishing the Pentagon Papers was a violation of the First Amendment. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black succinctly articulated the point of the press: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

This is still a good goal of the press. Some modern media have strayed far from this guideline.