An Inconsistent Truth

The election of Donald Trump supposedly ushered in a new era of “fake news” and “post-truth” politics. Democracy would die in darkness, we were told, unless we renewed our subscriptions to the traditional organs of real reporting. After all, it was the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe—the venerable old institutions of the Fourth Estate—who brought us those investigative stories, which Hollywood now loves to celebrate: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Spotlight investigations of Boston’s archdiocese and beyond.

But the truth was never really so neatly packaged in newsprint bundles. We tend to forget the decades when the New York Times didn’t seem so noble. We likewise forget the days when people like James Comey, Robert Mueller, and other representatives of three-letter government organizations were responsible for suppressing—rather than revealing—our nation’s unseemly secrets. In order to restore a healthy sense of civic skepticism, we bring you a tale of two truth-tellers:

James Risen is a newspaper guy with a masters in journalism from Northwestern. He spent years covering the auto industry in Detroit and writing business stories in Los Angeles. In 2006 he won a Pulitzer Prize for the NSA domestic spying story that his paper, the New York Times, hadn’t wanted to publish. Now, as a a national security reporter for The Intercept, Risen’s revisiting his own history with the Times and the limits of the Grey Lady’s glory.

Errol Morris is a moviemaker who Roger Ebert bracketed with the cinematic titans Hitchcock and Fellini. As a former private investigator, Morris brings careful scrutiny to the craft of documentary film. His 1985 documentary The Thin Blue Line reversed the Texas murder conviction of a drifter on death row. He would later win an Academy Award for his 2003 film, The Fog of War, which draws out the rueful memory of the Pentagon chief through the Vietnam War, Robert S. McNamara. In between these masterworks, Morris also interviewed Donald Trump—more than a decade before he entered the White House—about his two favorite movies: King Kong and Citizen Kane.

Morris’s new movie for Netflix, Wormwood, is a 6-part serial murder mystery and an essay on truth and how we find it.  The film focuses on Eric Olson, a man who has been assembling clues virtually all his life—from his father’s dug-up grave to the Oval Office of President Gerald Ford in the White House — all to verify his suspicions that his father was killed by the CIA. 

Guest List
James Risen
senior national security correspondent for The Intercept and author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration
Errol Morris
documentary filmmaker and director of Wormwood

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  • Pete Crangle

    And another American Hamlet: Erica Garner RIP (1990 – 2017)

    An excellent discussion — a pendant to the Daniel Ellsberg nuclear arsenal command and control discussion. Thank you Chris, Mr. Risen, and Mr. Morris.Wormwood was superb.

  • The teller told me the two most important things in the development of human consciousness.

    The teller said:
    A man went over a hill and saw game. He returned to the group and reported:
    ”I saw no game.”
    I was asked what this represented, the first time it happened.
    I said: “It was the first lie.”
    The teller said:
    ”No, it was the first time man changed reality.”

  • Potter

    This is a very potent discussion, increasingly as it moves from Risen to Morris. I am still thinking on it but so grateful. The notion that the source is more important than the story also leaves me perplexed but not because the source is less or not important. I wonder if Snowden himself feels that way or rather rests with his unjust exile feeling the consequences were bearable and he would do it all over again: perhaps his point of view. From ours we can feel that the story was important, perhaps more, and the example Snowden set would and did inspire. My feeling lately is that collectively we are less (now) than the sum of our parts…not united. We latch onto maybe desperately our greatest individuals as examples of who we really are, to identify with to be able to feel love of this country, of humanity, to endure this period, to rise. But the truth is all that we are experiencing now that we are in Trump time, reflecting back on how we came here. The way forward can’t be seen before we see where we really are more clearly…every day. Sigh. I am not a pessimist either.

    I thought I would listen again before I would write so much…just a thank you!