Two documentaries about independent journalism: the first chronicles the life and career of the maverick opinion columnist Molly Ivins; the second celebrates a variety of reporters working outside the mainstream, all of whom have been inspired by the legendary investigative journalist I.F. Stone.
Molly Ivins was a Texas journalist who gained fame for writing a popular syndicated opinion column in the 90s and early 2000s. Her acerbic wit took aim at powerful politicians, which made her many enemies but even more fans. Her death from cancer at age 62, in 2007, inspired widespread mourning among progressives and independent thinkers. Now there’s a documentary about her, directed by Janice Engel, called Raise Hell: the Life and Times of Molly Ivins.
Interviews with Molly’s sister and brother tell of her upbringing in Houston, daughter of a well-to-do oil company executive who was a strict conservative. In the 1950s, journalism was still considered a disreputable profession by many, and certainly a rare one for women. Her choice of career, along with her views on civil rights and other issues, led to estrangement from her father. She went to Smith College and spent a year in Paris, which opened her mind to a world far more interesting and diverse than she had known in Texas.
Her initial employment at the Houston Chronicle saw her relegated to so-called “women’s news”: fashion, cooking, and so forth. She left to work for the Minneapolis Tribune where she got a taste of real reporting—a series that she did on local radicals inspired some hate mail, and she discovered that newsrooms were fond of what they called “objectivity” and what she called “horse pucky.” An offer to work for The Texas Observer, an independent journal based in Austin, brought her back home in 1970. Her sharp reporting on the Texas legislature got the attention of the New York Times, which hired her in ’76, but even though they liked her wit, they also wanted her to tame it, which is of course a contradiction. Ivins tells a funny story about how in a piece about a New Mexico festival involving the killing and eating of hundreds of chickens, she referred to it as a “gang-pluck.” That did not endear her to the Times publisher. She ended up going to the Dallas Times-Herald, which gave her creative freedom, and that’s when her biweekly opinion column took off.
Molly Ivins was an imposing person, six feet all and big boned, who refused to be intimidated by anyone. When George W. Bush won election as Governor, she pilloried him without mercy. When he ran for president, she warned the country that bringing Texas politics to Washington would be insane. She wasn’t wrong. She was famous for her quips as well. One example was when she said a right wing speech by Pat Buchanan at the ’92 Republican Convention “probably sounded better in the original German.” The film doesn’t shy away from her problems, notably her decades-long bout with alcoholism. But ultimately the impression one gets from Raise Hell is, surprisingly, of a vulnerable, even insecure person, who nevertheless excelled at courageous truth-telling.
If Raise Hell piques your interest in the subject of independent journalism, I have another movie for you. In 2016, Fred Peabody, himself an award-winning journalist, made a film called All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. I.F. Stone was an investigative reporter, connected with left-wing causes in the 30s and 40s, who was then blacklisted in the 1950s after reporting that the government’s explanations for the Korean War were false. His response was to self-publish a newspaper called I.F. Stone’s Weekly which defied the odds by becoming widely read by the public.
The film skims lightly over Stone’s career, mostly just citing him as an inspiration for independent journalists working today, including John Carlos Frey, who reported on a mass grave of undocumented immigrants discovered in Texas (a story the mainstream media wouldn’t touch), Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, a daily news show that, on a shoestring budget, presents more information in one day, I would think, than you’ll find on the networks in a week, and many others. The indictment of corporate media is devastating—we are reminded again how the news outlets marched with a steady drumbeat to the War in Iraq. We also see numerous examples of how the media is more interested in entertainment than real news—in one notorious instance, an MSNBC anchor breaks away from an interview with a State Dept. official to tell us a breaking story about Justin Bieber. All Governments Lie is a wake-up call for a country that needs a truthful press to counter the official spin from the rich and powerful.