Film “Capote” Raises Disturbing Ethical Questions

If there is a scandal in the making of the best-selling non-fiction book of 1966, it’s not about the facts contained in the 368 pages of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Virtually every detail about the brutal murder of the Clutter family has stood up to forty years of scrutiny. When it comes to Capote, the devil is not in the details; it’s in how he got to those details in the first place.

Capote lied to his interview subjects, defiled the corpses of the murder victims, arranged for legal representation for two cold-blooded killers, and may have even fallen in love with one of them. For Capote, the end justified his unscrupulous means, and he surely sent a message to some aspiring journalists over the years.

The film “Capote” hit theaters this winter just as The New York Times was parting with its reporter Judith Miller, largely over her inaccurate stories about Iraq’s weapons capabilities. Discredited journalists such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass have become household names, epitomizing the very worst of journalistic ambition. To some, the events portrayed in “Capote” represent the beginning of the end, the top of that slippery slope down which the profession of journalism has slid.

Capote, portrayed brilliantly by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, travels to a world both familiar and foreign to the Southern-born writer who had grown accustomed to the high life in New York. Hoffman does a dead-on Capote, with his high-pitched voice and a flamboyance that might even shock today’s more gay-friendly culture. It must have been downright unbelievable in the Eisenhower era. He and childhood friend Nell Harper Lee roll into Holcomb, a small Kansas prairie town, to report on the murder of a well-regarded farmer, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon. The murder has clearly shaken up the community, and soon Capote will shake things up further.

PETER W. KLEIN is the CanWest Global Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism. For the past seven years, he was a producer at CBS News 60 Minutes, where he won several awards including an Emmy. He previously worked as a producer at ABC News, and as a print and radio reporter throughout Europe.

He has a Masters Degree from Columbia University and Bachelors degrees in philosophy, science and economics from Pennsylvania State University. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and three children.
In the police station, Capote has a confrontation with a local cop, not over police procedure or access to information, but over fashion. Noting that the detective was staring at his clearly-out-of-town scarf, Capote boasts: “Bergdorf’s.” A few beats later, the officer tips his hat to the writer and says: “Sears Roebuck.”

But Capote really gets the police stirred when he confesses that he is there to portray how this murder has affected the community, not the search for the killers. “Oh, I don’t really care if you catch them or not,” Capote says to Alvin Dewey, the lead detective and a close friend of Mr. Clutter’s. “I do,” shoots back Dewey, portrayed matter-of-factly by Chris Cooper.

What attracted Capote to the small Kansas town in the first place was the affliction that affects all good writers, the pervasive hunt for the next great story. The movie, directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman, begins with Capote in New York scanning the paper and settling on the headline-grabbing tale of the Clutter murders. He phones his editor at the New Yorker and says he’s found his next assignment.

After having written Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and several successful films to his credit, Capote was looking for more. Making up characters and stories seemed, perhaps, too easy, but finding real characters with real stories brought an immediacy and truthfulness that the public was ready to devour. Shortly after the book came out, Capote told the famous editor George Plimpton that a “journalistic novel” was brewing inside him, “something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose.” He discovered what the rest of us real journalists figured out a long time ago – that fact can be far more interesting than fiction.

The film conveys Capote’s journalistic adventure. When Capote’s articles about the Clutters first appeared in print, as a multi-part series for the New Yorker, it was a sensation; readers were glued to the pages, and kept coming back week after week. Despite the success, the magazine’s legendary editor, William Shawn, reportedly hated Capote’s portrayal of the Clutter murders, and many prominent writers at the time agreed. Lewis Lapham, writing about this post-Cold Blood era of so-called “New Journalism,” called Capote and the writers who followed in his footsteps “a crowd of self-important Pharisees; the books (including In Cold Blood). . . I would name as the first spawn of the synthetic melodrama that leads, more or less directly, to Oprah and Geraldo.”

It is an appropriate comparison, given that, by 1959, Capote was a regular on the talk show circuit. What really distinguished the successful novelist and screenwriter as an up-and-coming journalist wasn’t so much his tenacity or his reporting skills, but rather his fame. Capote flashed his name like a press pass, gaining access to the two killers in prison that no other reporter could get.

With fame, though, came fault. At the party celebrating his friend Harper Lee’s successful movie portrayal of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Capote could think only of himself, and reveals one of the many cracks in his ethical code of conduct, lamenting that the two killers’ death-row appeals are delaying the ending of his book. Lee smiles, disappointedly, then turns away.

Lee is the moral centre of this film and, one can imagine, for the real Capote’s life. In Holcomb, she smoothes over Capote’s social faux pas. But while we see her doing much of the initial legwork in Kansas, it’s Capote who walks into the funeral home and opens the caskets of the dead family members, examining their severed faces which were blown off by the killer’s rifle. Lee keeps her hands clean; Capote gets them dirty.

A defining clue of Capote’s ethical barometer comes when he spies one of the two killers, Perry Smith, in a small cell in the sheriff’s quarters. Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr., asks Capote for an aspirin. The writer struggles with the request, but eventually brings him the pill. “I could kill you if you got too close,” Smith jokes, but Capote doesn’t blink. Soon, we see the writer feeding the young inmate baby food after Smith goes on a hunger strike in jail.

At what point Capote crosses that fuzzy line is unclear, but, by the end of the film, one has the distinct sense he has left it far behind. Does bringing porno to Smith’s more violent partner, Dick Hickock, constitute an ethical breach? What about encouraging Smith to keep a journal, knowing full well Capote planned to read it? How about hiding the transparent title from the two killers,leading them to believe he is writing about their unjust trial?

Despite Capote’s access to the murderers, neither man has told the writer any details about the murder. The author realizes he needs time to draw it out of Smith, the gentler of the two, so he tells stories of his own childhood, which is strangely similar to Smith’s. He even marvels at one point, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back.” At times, the film suggests Capote has a crush on the macho killer, and it seems oddly reciprocal. While he drops off smut magazines in front of Hickock’s cell, he brings novels to Smith, who looks forward to discussing literature with the illustrious author.

However, by the time Smith and Hickock are convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, Capote still doesn’t have a firsthand account of the night of the killings. So he arranges for some prominent lawyers to represent the two convicted killers’ appeal in a bald-faced attempt to delay their inevitable hanging, so Capote can get the “money quote”.

It’s hard to imagine that the New Yorker sanctioned this obvious breach of journalistic conduct, but Capote was no ordinary journalist. Just as Judy Miller got away with her front-page reports about Iraq’s supposed weapons, and Bob Woodward successfully hid his involvement in the Valerie Plame inquiry, so Truman Capote was apparently able to throw the weight of his name around and get just what he wanted.

People like Woodward once represented all that’s good in journalism, and Hollywood loved it. “All The President’s Men” was a big hit, and painted a picture of reporters as heroes. So did “The Killing Fields,” about a crusading foreign correspondent in Cambodia, and “Deadline U.S.A.,” in which Humphrey Bogart plays a heroic newspaper publisher (written and directed, oddly enough, by Richard Brooks, who made the film version of “In Cold Blood”).
Someone in Hollywood must have seen a recent Gallup Poll in which barely half of respondents said they trusted the media. “Capote” capitalizes on that distrust. Indeed, it seems to be the right time for this film.

Morals and the Media Black, White and Grey: Ethics in South African Journalism Review

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to the development of a global journalism ethic is the inherent complexity of the concept. Two recently published texts in journalism ethics, one written by Canadian Nick Russell and the other by South African journalist Franz Kruger, underline this problem. The goals of the authors are similar, but their approaches diverge tremendously.

Russell, writing primarily for journalism students in this second edition of his well-used textbook, uses an interrogative style to focus his readers’ attention on the practical issues of the day. Ethical philosophy is generally absent, ousted by more practical musings on untrusting (and hard-to-please) publics, demanding advertisers, and the looming “bottom line.”

Kruger’s text is written for the practicing journalists of a newly liberated South African press. Free expression is so novel that the central theme in Black, White and Grey is outlining the (possibly idealistic) truth-spreading, myth-busting responsibilities of free-press journalists. The commodification of news that dominates Russell’s text is minimized. Instead, Kruger addresses journalistic ethics in terms of the duties inherent in the profession, rather than the decisions journalists are forced to make by the practicalities of the industry. As a South African, he writes from a background of longstanding civil unrest and decade of racial hatred. His book “attempts to measure the traditional standards of journalism against the demands of a changing society.” It was born of a debate over national transformation, and he sees journalism’s role as vital in that social and national task.

Despite the great differences in style and tone, Russell and Kruger adhere to the same basic principles and standards of media ethics, but they disagree on how and to what degree these standards can be attained. Both Kruger, a university professor, and Russell, a former professor, have distinguished histories as journalists, and they have spent a great deal of time immersed in discussions over journalistic integrity. Kruger certainly believes in a global journalistic ethic that would link South African journalism to Europe and North America, and Russell embraces the idea that as more voices participate in news more news will be successfully transmitted. Fundamentally, both authors aspire to a journalism unbiased by monetary enticements, racial, social, or religious prejudices, or government interest.

But beyond this basic understanding, the ethics of the two authors – and perhaps the two nations – part ways. The economic interests that sometimes seem to blind Russell’s ethics are conversely a blind spot for Kruger. In this divergence, the authors lay bare the shortfalls of each other’s conception of the ethical ideal. Russell’s audience is a public sphere that encompasses diverse interests, all of which must be considered in order to maintain circulation levels. Kruger’s audience is charged with regrouping and rejecting biases, regardless of public resistance or financial hardship.

“Money dominates journalism,” Morals and the Media proclaims. This fairly narrow view dominates Russell’s assessment of media ethics. News organizations compete for audiences, are owned by large corporations, and subsist on funds from advertisers. Russell notes that this may be problematic, but it remains questionable as to how journalists can maintain the ethical high ground if, as Russell notes, newsrooms must divide their loyalty between the public and the paycheck writers.

Given its economic pessimism, Russell’s Morals is extremely useful as a depiction of the issues that face Canadian journalists. It addresses – at least cursorily – almost every ethical obstacle from sexual bias to public distrust to financial woes. Russell emphasizes the public’s response more than the journalist’s duties. Morals is less about the ethical decisions involved in news-making than it is about news-making decisions in light of public ethics. He is pessimistic about the financial pressures on journalists and news organizations, and he believes that public money decides the news agenda more authoritatively than reporters and editors do. He councils his readers to be sensitive to what the public is ready to see, in terms of gender issues, race issues, and violence. Economics, emotion, and media-public relations are at the heart of his text.

In light of that economic pressure, Russell’s ethics reflect a public sense of propriety, because papers that displease the community won’t sell. His chapter title sums up his position concisely: “Bitch, bitch, bitch: news consumer’s prime complaints.” The complaints primarily address accuracy, fairness, sensationalism, and sensitivity. Russell, perhaps wishing to stay detached from his subject, does not let on that he finds these complaints reasonable. Instead, he notes that journalists can never “get it right” for everyone, and someone will always be disappointed with coverage of an event.

Russell promotes the idea of community involvement to fill the gap between the public and the news media. Civic journalism, empowering the public to make news, is among the options (and the option he favoured in the book’s 1994 first edition). Also recommended are peer condemnation, codes, and journalism reviews. Traditional journalism cannot stand alone; there must be a multimedia response. This, Russell claims, will help mitigate the public’s distrust for news media. It was surprising that Russell does not address the other possible effect of civic journalism: elevating the level of debate on important social issues.

Kruger’s approach to journalism stems from the opposite standpoint. The purpose of journalism ethics in Black, White and Grey is to edify a socially and financially stratified nation that has only a burgeoning understanding of democratic principles. He addresses journalism ethics in terms of public needs rather than public desires. Kruger stresses the journalist’s ethical duty to help remedy race issues, combat misogyny, and disperse dangerous rumors. When the press plays such a proactive role in society, it changes the basis for ethical decisions. He exemplifies this in his explanation of film footage aired as apartheid was breathing its last. The footage showed “rebels” shooting two AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, South Africa’s white supremacist right-wing political group) members at point-blank-range when their car, affixed with the Nazi-like flag, was stopped by the Defense Force. Despite the harm to the men’s families, “the significance of the incident was such as to make it unthinkable to withhold the footage. The hapless AWB men were caught up in a historic moment, and their tragedy was no longer private.” This type of coverage seems to run counter to Russell’s ‘saying’: “If in doubt, leave it out.” The ethical issue is not a matter distasteful imagery but of a hateful regime overthrown.

Death is a reality to any South African old enough to remember apartheid, so squeamishness is ethically important for Kruger. When he addresses AIDS, he addresses the responsibility of a journalist with a sniffle to cancel an interview with an HIV positive patient. This is not the sensitivity of semantics, but the sensitivity of humanity. When Russell addresses AIDS, he breezes over the semantics of copy (the section starts with the journalistic history of the word “condom” and goes little further). In Russell’s chapter on dishonesty, he includes April Fools pranks. Kruger’s discussion of lying includes toddlers being raped after rumors spread that sex with a virgin could cure AIDS. Russell’s gender issues tends to center around bikini clad bunnies and lexicons of misogyny. Kruger’s confronts sexist laws, chauvinistic judicial rulings, and the marginalizing of black female reporters.

This is not to trivialize the ethical dilemmas that Russell presents, but to note that the ethical dilemmas facing journalists might be deeper than he implies and that his public might need more reality than they are presently “prepared” for. Canadian children are raped and murdered; Canadian citizen groups are marginalized; AIDS – while obviously less rampant than in South Africa – is a problem in Canada. Russell vividly depicts the media landscape from Canada where economics play a key role in any function of a capitalistic, democratic society. But that should not relegate the ethics of reporting to second place, behind business.

Testing the Limits and Consequences of Free Speech on University Campuses

The new editor-in-chief at the The University of Western Ontario’s Gazette, Canada’s oldest student newspaper, is starting the school year equipped with a clean slate of ethics and a fresh approach to campus journalism.

The paper, founded in 1906 at the London, Ontario campus, learned a grueling lesson on the limits of satire and free speech on university campuses after it published a contentious article in its April Fool’s Day spoof edition earlier this year.

For the past ten years, the legendary Gazette Spoof Issue has aimed to top the previous year’s edition by humouring and stupefying its readers with outrageously satirical articles.

“We had one or two controversial issues before but there has been nothing like this response,” said Allison Buchan-Terrell, who became editor-in-chief a month after the controversial article ran.

This year’s spoof edition made wild accusations about the university’s president Paul Davenport and other prominent staff, but an article called “Labia Majora Carnage” inspired an unprecedented degree of reader indignation.

The article portrayed a Take Back the Night march in which the actual London Police Chief Murray Faulkner rapes a fictional feminist.

“He grabbed the loudspeaker from Ostrich’s wild vagina and took it into a dark alley to teach it a lesson,” the unknown author writes.

At the time, the Gazette had not considered the shaky ethical and legal ground in was embarking on in using anonymous authors but naming real people — and calling them rapists.

Days after the article was published, critics accused the paper of fostering an unsafe environment for female students on campus and condoning rape. Protests broke out across the University of Western Ontario campus, petitions circulated, angry Facebook groups formed and a multitude of letters to the editor poured in to the Gazette.

The paper was walking a tenuous line, Buchan-Terrell admits, but she says it is often difficult to gauge whether readers will determine an article has crossed that line.

“This generation has a different kind of humour. It’s more dry and in your face, like Borat,” she told in a telephone interview from the Gazette office in London, Ontario.

Although reporters pitched and brainstormed ideas for the issue, said Buchan-Terrell, who was a reporter at the time, only three people oversee decisions to run final copy.

“The rest of us didn’t have a say. There was debate only among the deputy editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. And the possible angle was difficult to predict,” she said.

While an editorial board consisting of two male students and a female decided the paper’s fate on April Fool’s eve, the entire staff at the Gazette was painted with the same anti-feminist brush, said Buchan-Terrell. Despite the lack of consultation, the paper’s policy was to stand as a team, holding each staff member equally responsible.

The fact that the article was written by an anonymous reporter using the alias “Xavier” further blurred the ethical boundary.

Although there were calls to reveal the writer’s name, the paper’s editors considered it unsafe to do so because the paper was receiving threatening letters about the issue.

Nevertheless, Buchan-Terrell said she struggled with the decision to stand as a team.

“To be a woman and to be called a misogynist was tough. I’ve written articles on sexual assault and the lack of female faculty. It was hard because people were implying the paper was dominated by a jock culture, but there are a lot of smart women on the staff.”

Eventually, the national media picked up on the news at the restless campus.

Western’s president Paul Davenport accused the article of “attacking the safety of women.” The university’s administration was called in less than two weeks after the article ran to sanction the rogue paper.

At a town hall meeting on Apr.13, the Gazette staff and university administration agreed to a number of new initiatives to regulate the campus press including a new code of ethics and an advisory board comprised of journalism professors and professional journalists.

The Gazette’s new code of ethics, accessible on its website, gives the paper a unique status. Not only is it the oldest student newspaper and one of the only daily campus papers, but it is now one of the only university papers in Canada with an established ethical code.

The code, based on the Canadian Association of Journalists statement of principles, promises editorial independence and newsroom inclusiveness, in addition to staples like accuracy, balance and fairness.

However, the university was not satisfied with the motions passed by the University Students’ Council (USC). The Board of Governors (BoG) decided they needed more control to reign in the Gazette.

In May, the BoG passed a motion granting the university’s administration the power to withhold student fees to fund the paper.

It also recommended “that the distribution of the Gazette on campus be suspended, if they judge such suspension to be justified by an egregious violation of the Journalistic Code of Ethics.”

The BoG itself will decide whether any of the newspaper’s content violated journalism ethics, although there are no journalists on the board.

In the first issue of the Gazette’s 101st year, it announced it would comply with the university’s demands and more — its staff would also undergo formal equity training and the paper would launch a formal process for complaints.

The editorial staff admitted it had made a mistake. “We learned a hard lesson after the publication of the Spoof Issue about the power of the written word for good and bad and about the limits of good taste and free speech,” read an editorial in the newspaper. It promised that through practising responsible journalism the error in judgment would never happen again.

Buchan-Terrell says that doesn’t mean the paper will lose its independence or its edge. And she assures that neither the USC nor the BoG have any control over editorial content.

“We’re staying true to the tradition of the Gazette, we’re just improving it. We’ll tread carefully and make decisions based on our readership and based on good taste,” she said.

But the Gazette’s outgoing editor-in-chief Ian Van Den Hurk expressed concerns with the university’s reforms in an interview with the Queen’s Journal in April.

“I think it puts the paper in a tough situation. Does the Gazette feel afraid to run anything pushing the envelope now? What if the administration disapproves of something the student body has no qualms with?” he asked.

Neither editor, however, believes the incident has tarnished the reputation of the paper.

And the University of Western Ontario is doing everything in its power, including granting itself the unprecedented ability to withhold funding to the paper if independent attempts at ethics fail, to ensure the reputation of the preppy campus is unsullied in the scrutinizing eyes of the media, donors, alumni and potential students.

By Sunny Freeman

SUNNY FREEMAN is a contributing editor and writer for While completing her Masters at the UBC School of Journalism, she freelances for the Tyee, the Thunderbird,The Ubyssey, the Metro News and the Feminist Media Project. She holds an honors BA in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario and a BA in English/Cultural Studies from McMaster University. Her passion for politics and writing drew her into journalism. She focuses her graduate studies on politics in media, and the politics of media.