Trust and Truth: A Reflection on a Trio of Films

I recently watched a trio of films that challenged me to think deeply about our current crisis of trust in America. While the films cover a wide range of subjects, they are all united in that they want to discover the truth of the criminal charges at the core of their story. Current world events surrounding police brutality, systemic racism, and covid lockdowns have most Americans asking for the truth at the core of those topics. Unfortunately, searching for truth in a world experiencing a crisis of trust is a recipe for polarized disaster. This became clearer to me as I reflected on a series of three films I watched over the last week.

When the search for true justice is abandoned for a feeling of justice, there is a breakdown of trust at multiple levels – this became clear as I was watching the film Just Mercy. Just Mercy tells the story of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s fight to get the sentences of Alabama death row prisoners overturned. As Stevenson investigates the case of Walter McMillian, we learn that local authorities were scrambling to find the criminal responsible for the death of a young white woman. After the case went cold, they used their leverage to force inmates to give false testimony against Walter – who was known in the community for having an affair with a white woman. 

To the authorities, this felt like justice: the family of the white victim feels like they got the perpetrator and the black man was punished for having an affair with a white women. What’s obvious to the viewer, is that these authorities have abandoned true justice for their narrow view that feels good to them. The film does a great job of demonstrating how the abandonment of true justice by the white police authorities sowed distrust and fear in the very communities they were meant to protect and serve. That distrust continues to shade relationships with authority to this very day. 

It’s a moving film, but it’s not the first to tell this story and to tell it well. I grew up watching stories like this (To Kill a Mockingbird, Mississippi is Burning, A Time to Kill, to name a few) and others where corrupt authorities abandon truth for their own pleasure and power. This is what made my viewing of the 2019 film Richard Jewell a bit shocking for my memory of the event at its core. Richard Jewell tells the story of the 1996 Olympic Park bombing and how the media and authorities pursued an investigation into the innocent Richard Jewell (the one who first discovered and reported the bomb) that lacked hard evidence, but fit a salacious story-line of the white lone “hero” bomber. The media scrutiny became so intense that the name Richard Jewell, innocent or not, became forever associated with the bombing.

When I first saw the trailer for this film, I instantly remembered the coverage of Jewell, but couldn’t remember if he was actually guilty or not. Let that sink in, I remembered that he was possibly the bomber, but couldn’t remember if he was an actual terrorist. Even if I had learned to have a healthy distrust of cops who could abuse their authority, I suppose I hadn't learned to have a healthy distrust of news media yet. As the film lays out, just like the white authorities in Just Mercy, there is intense pressure to on the FBI and the media to produce some kind of suspect. Rather than protect the privacy of Jewell (who was never arrested or officially charged), his name is leaked to the media by the authorities and his case is tried in public as the media sought any scrap of circumstantial evidence they could. 

Again, we see the abandonment of a commitment to true justice for a feeling of justice or rightness – we need a suspect and we need him now! Like the distrust sown when police authorities fail in their duty, when the news media demonstrates that they are willing to openly try and convict suspects (who haven’t been found guilty) because it sells (if it bleeds it leads) – then distrust and fear grows deeper. I was only thirteen years old when this happened, but the coverage was so strong that he was guilty and so light after he was cleared, that as a 36 year old man watching the trailer for the movie, I couldn’t remember the outcome. 

As I grew older, I learned to grow a healthy suspicion and distrust of news media. I also grew top lean fairly heavily conservative and in my college years I watched a lot of Fox News – mostly because there just weren’t many options available that was at least sympathetic to my political views. It was my learned distrust of news media that led me to discount the early accusations I heard about sexual harassment behind the scenes at Fox News. I remember seeing the trailer for the 2019 film Bombshell and how it portrayed Roger Ailes and I grew upset about it. From my memory of the situation as it happened in 2016, I had remembered that Ailes probably said insensitive things, but that it had gotten blown out of proportion and he never did anything actually physically with employees. Besides, the film was being made mostly by professed haters of Fox News. If history had taught me anything, these were the very people I shouldn't trust on something like this. I remember complaining to a friend after the trailer that it was liberal exaggeration again.

After watching the movie and doing research of my own, I feel embarrassed for not taking the accusations against Fox News’ Roger Ailes and other personalities like Bill O’Reilly more seriously. There are enough women with credible and coherent stories, and in the case of Gretchen Carlson actual recordings, that a certain level of harassment is not only worryingly plausible, but shockingly probable. The film isn't perfect, but it does a credible job at portraying the competing agendas and mindsets at Fox at the time and how easy it was to circle the wagons against perceived enemies. That could long as those within your camp didn't confirm that the accusations were true. I'm so thankful for those willing to do so.

After researching the issue, I wondered, "Why had I not researched this better before?" Ultimately, I think it’s a personal failing not to do my due diligence on the accusations when they happened. However, everything happens in context. None of us have the ability to personally investigate everything. We are all bound to have to trust others. It's easy to trust those who agree with you, it's hard to trust those who don't. As I thought about Just Mercy and Richard Jewell (which I had watched just a day or so prior) it struck me that one of the reasons I so heavily discounted accusations against Fox, was that I had heard enough stories of people abandoning true justice for their own feeling of justice against their perceived enemies that I began to discount them. Deep down, I had learned to distrust the news and those who saw themselves as the policers of Fox News. I had learned that they were interested in seeing their enemies fall: it would feel good ideologically and it would make good financial sense to sell their investigations in papers and news shows. 

I’m deeply worried that the major institutions (government, police, news media, health industry, clergy, etc) that are foundational to a free and healthy society have become so untrustworthy that we are fated to highly polarized fights that are dependent purely on tribal affiliations. We’ve all read, heard, seen, and personally experienced enough situations where authorities have abused their positions, lied, covered up, and taken advantage of those they are meant to serve. I see this reality heavily influencing the discussion of racial politics and police reform in the most current national discussions: news media, social media, random youtube experts, health experts, military generals, congressman, mayors, police...who do we trust to get at the truth?

I don’t have many practical answers in this blog, mostly a reflection on the current state of affairs. It seems to be that on nearly every level – policing as seen in Just Mercy, reporting as seen in Richard Jewell, and our own prejudices as seen in my pre-judgment of Bombshell – the abandonment of the search for true justice (who really committed the murder, who really committed the bombing, did Ailes and others really harass?) and substituting a narrower justice that feels right to them has been a contributing factor to our sad current state. Trust is difficult to gain and easy to lose. It strikes me that we all need a greater commitment to true justice – even if it hurts our current standing, calls for more patience, calls for more listening, calls for un-comfortableness on our part. A commitment to a healthy (not absolute, not knee-jerk) distrust of even our own tribal authorities and even ourselves, is necessary to overcome this propensity to narrow justice that makes us feel good.

Perhaps the best single lesson for me from this trio of films for today’s current political environment is really a question I should ask myself constantly: Is this true justice for all or just justice for you? I wish the authorities in Just Mercy, the reporters in Richard Jewell, and myself listening to the charges in Bombshell, had truly asked the question and committed to following its outcome with patience and diligence. I wish we could all do a better job of this in our current political discussions. It won't be perfect, it never is, but perhaps we can earn a bit of that trust back if we do.