Wednesday, March 1, 2006

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: One Reporter Makes a Killing in Broadcast Radio

As a reporter, how far would you go to get your story? Lie or cheat? Walk into a spray of bullets? Kick someone's ass?

Two recent films raise those questions—though they provide two very different answers.

In Philip Seymour Hoffman's breakout film, Capote, the title character travels the infinite distance from martini-drenched Greenwich Village to Holcomb, Kansas to chronicle the lives behind a series of brutal murders. Using his prodigious memory skills—as well as blend of flattery, cunning, malice and sheer mendacity—Truman Capote produced In Cold Blood, one of the great literary works of the twentieth century.

Capote combined his gifts as a fiction writer and a reporter, and through a process in which he lost first his soul and then his marbles, he created a new literary genre, the nonfiction novel. Capote found a new way to put readers at the heart of a news story.

Capote's accomplishments were built upon the groundwork laid by one of his predecessors, Edward R. Murrow, who, through radio, and then television, put his audience in the forefront of the news of his day. As a foreign correspondent for CBS, Murrow traveled to London to witness the London Blitz first hand—at a time when most others who could were leaving—and flew along on enough World War II bombing raids to make onlookers wonder if he had a death wish. A decade later, he took on the Washington establishment, giving Senator Joseph McCarthy a deep and proper ass kicking, as depicted in Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

Cut from the cloth of adventurer-heroes from all ages, Murrow had the added benefit of being in the right place at the right time. For example, he happened to be in Vienna on March 12, 1938, the day Nazi troops entered that city. The next day he offered a live radio report on that military action and the local response to it. On that day, historians agree, broadcast journalism was born.

That, and the series of broadcasts that followed, made him an overnight celebrity. When Murrow returned to the United States in 1941, he was received like a national hero. Archibald Macleish offered the most eloquent of many tributes, in which he said, "You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it. . . . You have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all."

As The New Yorker's Nicolas Lemann reported, "[Murrow] seemed to experience life with a special intensity and empathy, and he could capture those qualities in his reports. . . . Murrow was among the first to use ambient sound in radio journalism, and he also called more vivid attention to the plight of Londoners, as well as to himself."1

Another film, made six decades ago, also studied the inner machinations of an investigative journalist's evolution. Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) drew attention to reporters like Murrow who risked their lives to bring Americans news of the war in Europe. Ostensibly a propaganda film, Foreign Correspondent is unusual in that it has aged quite well. In fact, if Good Night and Good Luck is a sock in the eye to corporate journalism of today, Foreign Correspondent is a wake-up call to the fourth estate, writ 60 years in advance.

Foreign Correspondent followed the travels of an energetic—if naïve and unexamined—reporter named Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) sent abroad to cover the impending war in Europe. Frustrated with the boilerplate dispatches wired in by lazy and unadventurous professional correspondents, his editor sent him overseas with the mandate to report on what people and politicians are really thinking. "Johnny Jones", it turned out, wasn't a suitable name for him, so his editor suggested changing it. At first, he suggested Richard Harding Davis, but rejected it, reminding his visitors that Davis—a real-life reporter—was "one of our greatest war correspondents forty years ago." The so-called Richard Harding Davis tradition embodied the type of reporter who traveled abroad, engaging in escapades and adventures. Instead, Jones was rechristened "Huntley Haverstock" and boarded the Queen Mary, bound for England and points beyond."2

In short order, the newly minted Haverstock shed his naiveté, transforming into a courageous investigative reporter of the first rank. By film's end, as bombs fell around him, "Haverstock" delivered a live radio address from London, combining eyewitness reportage, unabashed patriotism and showmanship that clearly would have reminded 1940 audiences of Edward R. Murrow's on-the-scene dispatches.3

Like Murrow, "Haverstock" seemed to "experience life with a special intensity and empathy." These qualities made him—and the real-life heroes on whom he was based—an attractive character study for Hitchcock, whose films are so often occupied with living life with its full intensity—a pursuit that means facing death and pain with equal gusto as embracing pleasure.4

And here, once again, is where a Hitchcock film went beyond clever sight gags and set pieces to deliver a sermon on how to live. More next month.

Joel Gunz is Principal of Gunz Communications. He has also written for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Northwest Palate, and other publications.


1 "The Murrow Doctrine--Why the life and times of the broadcast pioneer still matter," Nicholas Lemann, The New Yorker, 1/23/06

2 In The MacGuffin #16, August 1995, pp. 11-26, Ken Mogg writes: "Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916), invoked in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT's opening scene . . . had in fact been mentioned in the nominal source of the film, journalist Vincent Sheean's memoirs called 'Personal History' (1935), Chapter 6: 'The idea behind all my instructions had been, in brief, this: that I had not been sent to China to write about politics or the Chinese Revolution, but to engage in some kind of personal enterprise, capers or high jinks, that would carry on the tradition of romantic adventure (the "Richard Harding Davis tradition", it was called) to which my various employers insisted on assigning me.'"

3 Here is his full dispatch: "Hello America, I have been watching part of the world be blown to pieces ... I've seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends... {Bombing begins} I can't read the rest of this speech I had because the lights have gone out. I'll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear is the static. It's death coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don't tune me out. Hang on awhile. This is a big story and you're a part of it ... It's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come. It's as if the lights were all out everywhere except in America. Keep those lights burning! ... Hello America. Hang onto your lights. You're the only lights left in the world."

4 Hitchcock rarely introduced his films with any sort of prologue. Foreign Correspondent was an exception. Here is the introduction that scrolled up over a scene from New York City: "To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.... To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows.... To those clearheaded ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying.... To those foreign correspondents this motion picture is dedicated."

Joel Gunz

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