December 5, 2018

The new movie about Gary Hart’s demise at the hands of the Miami Herald, “The Front Runner,” challenges media scrutiny of the personal lives of politicians as a distraction from what really matters.

Fair enough. I happen to believe the Herald did the right thing with that story, but it’s certainly a topic worthy of the debate the film is provoking.

But here’s a challenge to Hollywood: Isn’t it time you cleaned up your sloppy approach to the fiction embedded in films based on true stories and featuring the names of real people?

I recognize you’re in the entertainment business, not the news business, and that audiences increasingly demand high drama and neatly tied loose ends. It’s the muddling of history that bothers me, and I believe you could do less of that without sacrificing audience engagement.

It’s difficult to imagine a better time than now to pay closer attention to the facts of the matter — focused on real as opposed to imagined history — as we stumble our way through the fog of alternative facts and White House mendacity.

The Front Runner” has prompted lots of discussion about the relevance of a candidate’s sex life, comparisons with coverage of President Trump’s sexcapades, even the possibility of Hart being set up by a Republican dirty trickster. All good.

But it was the question of what’s real and what’s not that was on my mind as I took my seat in a downtown Boston theater one day last week to watch the new film based on the Herald’s 1987 surveillance of Hart and Donna Rice, the 29 year-old woman he invited to his Capitol Hill townhouse.

Some of the best and worst reflections of the “true story, real people” genre were illustrated with the “Spotlight” movie I viewed three years ago in the same theater. The Oscar-winning account of the Boston Globe’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse managed to capture several Globe staffers with uncanny accuracy. At the same time, it distorted the role of another, Stephen Kurkjian, and unfairly savaged the reputation of a PR guy named Jack Dunn.

Kurkjian was portrayed as a curmudgeon resistant to pursuing the story, skeptical of the abuse crisis when, in fact, he played an important role in the reporting that won the Globe a Pulitzer in 2003. Dunn was portrayed as a slimy cog in the Archdiocesan cover-up, a misrepresentation the creators of Spotlight acknowledged several months after the movie was released.

Two more examples of “sort of true” will arrive on Christmas Day. “Vice” is an apparently tongue-in-cheek dramatization of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency billed as “the untold true story that changed the course of history forever.”  “On the Basis of Sex” is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic exploring a landmark case she pursued early in her career.

My argument is not with historical fiction, a rich strain of literature that, done well, serves to move as well as inform. It’s the arbitrary mix of what really happened with what a screenwriter believes might better serve a narrative arc that leaves me holding out for something closer to just the facts, ma’am.

“The Front Runner” took its weirdest twist, at least for me, when actor Steve Zissis made his first appearance on screen as Tom Fiedler, the Herald’s politics reporter and columnist. I’ve known Fiedler for more than 40 years, beginning with three years working together in the Washington Bureau of the now defunct Knight Ridder Newspapers. Fiedler was the Herald’s correspondent there and I worked for the Detroit Free Press.

Steve Zissis as real-life Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler. (Screenshot)

The real Tom Fiedler at that time. (Courtesy Boston University)

Let’s just say that Zissis looks more like a 1970s version of me — bushy black beard, overweight and disheveled — than the clean-shaven Fiedler, a neat and careful dresser on his way to running a couple dozen marathons.

More significantly, the bumbling, uncertain bearing portrayed by Zissis contrasts sharply with the real Fiedler, who was awarded the Society of Professional Journalists’ top award for his coverage of the 1988 campaign.

Fiedler, who has served as the dean of the Boston University School of Communications since 2008 (he plans to retire in 2019), was invited by “The Front Runner” director Jason Reitman to view the film. He described the experience in a Herald op-ed headlined, “Truth is left on cutting room floor in movie focusing on Herald’s role in Hart’s downfall.”

Fiedler wrote:

“… When Reitman asked for my reaction just minutes after I walked out of the theater, I asked him why the character bearing my name made little effort to simulate historical reality.

With the strained patience that a teacher shows to an obtuse student, Reitman replied that I clearly misunderstand the actor’s job. He explained that Zissis’ assignment wasn’t to depict me as who I was at that time. Nor was it to replicate my actions in reporting the story.

Rather, Reitman told me, the sole objective of all the actors was to weave their individual roles into a broad narrative that left the audience to ponder several questions.

Which are these: Did the Miami Herald — in that story on that day — change forever, and for the worse, the way journalists cover political candidates? Did the Miami Herald introduce tabloid journalism into presidential campaign coverage by obliterating the unwritten rule that certain candidate behaviors, including philandering, could remain secret?

For those questions to land with the audience, my character needed to fit the stereotype of a low-life tabloid reporter, the unkempt slob going after the dashing, brilliant, though flawed, hero.

My fate was to become the villain.”

In addition to the differences in tone, the movie takes considerable liberties with what actually happened. All of which suggests an exercise for journalism classes everywhere (assuming the studios continue failing to do so on their own): A fact check of biopics that results in an annotated guide for viewers interested in knowing what’s true and what’s not.

Or maybe it’s a new category for PolitiFact to check. Either way, here’s some helpful background: a Buzzfeed collection of 21 surprisingly inaccurate movies that are based on true stories and a series of Tweets from the CIA in 2014 contrasting the “reel” version of the movie, Argo, with the “real” one.

The cover story in The Miami Herald about Gary Hart. (Courtesy the Miami Herald)

A couple of days after the Herald’s May 3, 1987 story was published, Free Press reporter Billy Bowles and I were given the uncomfortable assignment of assembling a tick-tock of our colleagues’ coverage and assessing the accuracy of their work.

Fiedler was candid in acknowledging that he regretted asserting in the story that Hart “spent Friday night” with Rice, the woman Herald reporters had followed to Washington. Since the Herald wasn’t watching both front and back doors all night, he said Rice could have slipped out of Hart’s townhouse before the night was over.

All things considered, though, our review showed the Herald story to be solid.

A few decades later, I was the only person left in the theater by the time the very long credits for “The Front Runner” rolled to the end.

That’s when I was provided with the framework for the 113 minutes of cinema I’d just experienced: boilerplate describing “The Front Runner” as a film based on a true story with some characters and dialogue that have been fictionalized.

I left the theater puzzled why the moviemakers believed a fictionalized version of what happened was somehow more dramatic than what actually occurred. And why not alert movie goers to the terms of engagement at the beginning of the film?

But I guess you could say my reaction was muted in comparison to that of Jack Dunn, the public relations executive who exited the same theater on Boylston Street three years earlier after he watched a portrayal of himself as complicit in the sexual assault of children.

As recounted by Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, Dunn stepped onto the sidewalk and threw up.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
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