New documentary about town of Morocco in Indiana tries to tell ‘honest’ story

A few years ago I started making documentary films, which has been a new experience for this longtime newspaper reporter, with one exception really. It also is not a lucrative pursuit.

I’ve done more than just traditional print over the years (decades). As a war correspondent in Iraq, I filed stories, photos and video from the field. I did online chats from the battlefield of Fallujah, with my portable satellite positioned just so in the dirt. Even though I’m not a digital native, like many Gen X-ers, I am completely comfortable crossing platforms and have done that over my career.

Moroccan filmmaker Khalid Allaoui films children drawing their idea of what the Indiana town looks like. (Photo by Jackie Spinner)

For me, a documentary is just a different way to tell a story. I still try to do it objectively and fairly.

My latest documentary, Morocco, Morocco, which airs on Chicago’s PBS station on May 5 and will also be available to watch on the website, is about the town of Morocco, Indiana. I spent nearly three years getting to know the people who lived there as we unraveled the mystery of how Morocco got its name. We also filmed in the kingdom of Morocco to connect the two places. It cost thousands of dollars to make, much of it raised through grants, including from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which also partners with Gateway Journalism Review. In the end, I almost wasn’t able to broadcast the film on PBS because I couldn’t afford the insurance required. (Pulitzer fortunately covered it.) 

The film started as a point of curiosity, which is basically the genesis of all good feature stories or investigations no matter the platform. How did this little town in Middle America come to be named after the kingdom of Morocco? I have three Moroccan-born sons, and my oldest two–the third joined our family during the pandemic–were puzzled when we visited for the first time in 2109. “Where are all the Moroccans?” my then 4-year-old asked as he jumped off a merry-go-round at the playground we have since visited numerous times. He couldn’t understand why this Morocco didn’t look like the Morocco he knew.

His question started me on a journey that was the basis for the short film. It was the ultimate reporting project in many ways. It also required me to do something I’ve always had to do as a journalist on these kinds of stories. I had to convince people to talk to me. Even though Morocco, Indiana, is not too far from Chicago, I was the big city filmmaker who arrived in town with a crew of strangers and cameras to ask questions, filming people at the bowling alley, at the farmer’s market, at the diner and at the Methodist church. Most everyone was incredibly gracious, including the town president who made introductions and really made it possible for us to film as much and as long as we did. 

As I talked to people, I made sure to point out that I also was Midwestern. The town has deep ties to the US veteran community, and some of our crew are combat veterans. That helped. 

We didn’t come with too many preconceived notions because so many of us are from places just like Morocco, Indiana. We explored and asked questions and found ourselves endeared by and to the characters we met. Some of them became friends.

I was surprised then by the reaction of one of the people we featured when I emailed him that the film was finally finished and would be shown on TV. “Ever regretted answering a phone call or responding to an email?” he replied. “I hope this is not one of these times.”

Though I was initially taken aback, it reminded me how vulnerable people are when journalists–or filmmakers–show up, especially with all the rhetoric in recent years about our intentions and our ability to tell honest stories. People hand us their history and their dreams for the future and have to trust that we will do right by them.

Of course, my job as a journalist or filmmaker is not to go out of my way to make people look good. That’s a different profession. The town officials will likely be disappointed that we dealt with some of the issues around race that people brought up, inevitable in a mostly white town in Middle America. Longtime residents shared the struggles the town has had with economic development, even as it has attracted new business. The town is far from dying. But we didn’t make a marketing film.

In the end, we told a good story, an honest story, and we had a good time doing it. That’s what matters to any journalist, no matter the platform.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Opinion: Mike Wallace documentary reminds us of importance, power of TV journalism

For many of us who have spent our careers in print journalism, it’s easy (though grossly unfair) to blame TV news–and particularly its pundits, for the credibility crisis we find ourselves in. 

TV needs slick visuals. TV needs drama. TV has its watcher-in-chief who also likes to tweet, and those tweets make for good TV (as well as ink.) Television news, we console ourselves, is the problem, made worse by the fact that nearly half of all Americans still get their news from it, according to the Pew Research Center.

But a new documentary about the late “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace is reminder of how important and powerful TV journalism is to our political discourse and to the reckoning it provides for our leaders and policymakers. “A nation’s press is a good yardstick of a nation’s health,” Wallace tells us in archived footage in the film. 

I watched “Mike Wallce is Here,” an hour and a half documentary about the news legend that opened this summer and is playing in select theaters, for a peek inside and perhaps a history lesson. I got both. Director Avi Belkin offers us clips from some of Wallace’s most memorable interviews, including Martin Luther King Jr., Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Vladimir Putin and even a young Donald Trump.

But the documentary from Magnolia Pictures delivered much more than that. “Mike Wallace is Here” is a call to all of us in the business to keep asking the tough questions, to be relentless and to do our jobs even when people second-guess our motives. (Wallace, a former cigarette pitchman and TV actor, spent his remarkable career in journalism constantly trying to prove himself, long after he had anything to prove). 

Recent attacks on the press dehumanize us and make us into the other. And this doesn’t just happen at the national level. It’s found a way to make us feel distant in small communities. Our children may go to school with the children of our readers, we may worship in the same place, we may shop in the same place, but somehow the adopted and distorted narrative is that we are different, less American, tainted by our profession.

Mike Wallace, who died in 2012 at the age of 93, could be a jerk in Streisand’s words; the film makes that clear. But he also was a man who lost a son in a tragic accident in Greece, a grief we experience, not from him, but through his interview with a tearful Leona Helmsley. Wallace battled depression and admits to “60 Minutes” colleague Morley Safer, after repeatedly denying it, that he tried to take his own life. As I watched this human form of Wallace emerge on-screen–and yet off-screen because of the unprecedented access Belkin had to CBS archives, I couldn’t help but wonder how our vulnerability could connect us better with our readers. What if we turned the cameras and the pages onto ourselves a bit more, not to make ourselves the story, but rather to explain how we got the story? Could we do a better job of showing our readers that we are also part of the communities that we cover, that there is a mother or father or child or taxpayer or patriot behind the byline?

(Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

It’s easy to demonize us when we don’t make it clear to our readers what is at stake and why we chase tips and stand up and question when a government body insists on conducting public business behind closed doors. On behalf of the public–a point that is often lost, we ask the uncomfortable questions as Wallace shows us time and again in his unfiltered style. When he interviews Eleanor Roosevelt, he tells her that people hated her husband. “They even hated you,” Wallace says. “Why?”

“Mike Wallace is Here” didn’t set out to be an all-encompassing film about TV journalism or even about journalism. But in many ways, with Wallace as our pinhole, it does offer us both commentary and lessons on surviving our critics. One is simply to outlast them as CBS and Wallace do when retired Army Gen. William Westmoreland brought a $120 million libel suit, accusing Wallace of “executing me on the guillotine of public opinion.” The suit, which dragged on for several years, settled in 1985 before it went to trial.

Another is seen in Wallace’s battle with the network to air his interview with tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. As big as his star power was, Wallace tells us that he was well aware that his power to get the story broadcast was limited. If he had walked in protest, he would be replaced. Maybe, maybe not. But more important for young journalists, it’s a reminder that star power is fleeting and that all of us are owned in some way by the people who pay us.

These stories collectively or even individually don’t tell us how we got here, to this disrupted place where journalism is so quickly labeled “fake news” by people who disagree with it. But they certainly tell us how to move forward.

“Is it hard to ask the tough questions?” Wallace is asked at one point in a documentary largely told through his own words and interviews.  “Not at all,” he replies. “I’m nosy and insistent. And not to be pushed aside.”

If there is a lesson for journalists in 2019, that would be it.

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

Pulitzer filmmakers offer behind-the-scenes look at how they brought publisher to life as a ‘wake up call’ for today’s democracy

Joseph Pulitzer was one of America’s great newspaper publishers, but few people today know much about him. When we first decided to make a documentary about the 19th century publisher and American media icon – Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People (which aired on PBS in April, 2019), we were faced with a daunting task. Filmmakers depend on images and there were only a handful of Pulitzer images for us to work with.  Aside from the eponymous prizes, Pulitzer was the publisher who took on a popular President and who defiantly helmed the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

We had to recreate his paper The World in ways we couldn’t have imagined–to give a sense of how Pulitzer and his editors produced the most modern of newspapers and gave the paper the lively appeal that it had when the eye swept down, over and across the page. We wanted dramatic camera moves and stillness, moves into focus on musicians playing a favorite Schubert composition for Pulitzer even as he despaired over the loss of his favored daughter Lucille on New Year’s Eve of 1898. 

But it was challenging figuring out how to put these pieces together and where to start. We knew, in making the film, that we had to take an old story and meld it to the breaking news of today – the politics that demand that we connect the storms and world-changing events of a bygone era.

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

It started with a conversation between Bob and me in 2013 and then with interviews with a small band of excellent talkers/thinkers – Pulitzer’s biographer James McGrath Morris – who knew every nook and cranny of material about the man and his paper,  and an interview with author Nicholson Baker. Baker wrote Doublefold, about the assassination by microfilm of nearly all of our nation’s newspapers. He also personally saved the last paper copies of Pulitzer’s World and dozens of other significant newspapers from destruction when the British Library auctioned them all off to the highest bidder. We also got help from author Chris Daly, whose book Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism, succinctly and elegantly told the story of our newspapers and Pulitzer’s central role in modernizing the newspaper. And author and professor Andie Tucher articulated with great enthusiasm how Pulitzer’s daily became the immigrant paper, the people’s paper. 

We met Chris Daly at his home in the Boston area in early 2015– with a few lights, a camera and mics. The intimacy of our shot put Daly at ease. Not certian this would be the real shoot rather than a warm up, he was spontaneous in describing the world of Pulitzer. The natural light streaming into his living room was perfect for the tone of the film we were looking for. 

For Baker’s shoot, we went to his home in Maine in the fall of 2015 and also filmed in the warehouse near his home, where Nicholson preserved Pulitzer’s paper – photographing it himself with a large format camera– all work that ended up in his and his wife Margaret Brentano’s masterly The World on Sunday (Bulfinch Press, 2005), another  prime source for the film. The same personal attention that Baker and Brentano gave to the newspaper is what we tried to give the couple as we sat and listened to Baker, an  eloquent talker and writer who effortlessly spun out the story of why he loves Joseph Pulitzer, why he and Brentano took the time and trouble and enormous expense to create that wonderful book and why Pulitzer’s paper was such a huge success. The newspaper brilliantly and incisively explored the political stories of the day but also had sections on home etiquette, on sports, and on the daily lives of immigrants.

While our early work was completed with a skeleton crew, we recognized when to bring in the big guns and hired one of the best in the business, Wolfgang Held, for our shoot at the Duke Archives. That’s where Pulitzer’s paper – a 30-year daily run of it – is housed in temperature and humidity controlled archival preservation mode. Wolfgang brought in a full crew, two cameras – and the assistance and accommodation of the staff at the Rubinstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library made it [the shoot] all possible. Baker flew in to describe the newspaper page-by-page – to note the political thunderbolts  and the intimate idiosyncrasies – such as the Roly–Poly’s – cut out action figures for kids — sheet music of the era’s hits and dress patterns that made the nickel Sunday paper  indispensable to New Yorkers and, soon, the entire country. 

By talking to and filming interviews with our cast of characters – intimate, lengthy discussions – and by reading all the books we could find to illuminate the story, we were on our way. We collaborated with editor Ramón Rivera Moret, whose thoughtfulness and nuanced storytelling gifts gave us the backbone of a through-line and who made the second-by-second decisions in which every transition made sense. 

We took trips to St. Louis where Pulitzer got his start and where we filmed at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch –Pulitzer’s first English language paper and first great success— and then interviewed (on the cutting room floor) photographers David Carson and Robert Cohen and photo editor Lynden Steele who enlarged and updated the Pulitzer saga with their wrenching 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning photographs of the protests following the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri.

We relied on the archival work of a half dozen superb researchers, Pru Ardnt and Susan Hormuth and our associate producer Clare Redden, who found images that brought to life Pulitzer’s foreign travels with hand-tinted color postcards. The archive in Pulitzer’s hometown of Mako sent us evocative images from the turn of the century, and the filmmaker Borka Péter provided footage of Mako today. Andras Csillag, a Hungarian scholar of Pulitzer, filled in details of his early life. 

But our story still lacked vitality and visual substance and drama. We needed a big set piece to truly set the story in motion and a way to tell the story of a dead man with only twenty or so images. Despite some ambivalence about recreations, one day our researcher tilted his head at an angle just as I was looking at our meager number of stills and it struck me that he looked exactly like a young Pulitzer, down to the shading and shape of his beard. Aha! Daniel Witkin became our young Pulitzer and we decided to film him getting a 19th century eye exam with our optometry expert Daniel Albert. The results of this shoot convinced us to try another with Pulitzer reading Dickens to learn English, then playing chess against himself and then writing a love letter to Kate Davis, his bride-to-be. Master calligrapher Ted Kadin lent his talents to recreating the love letter.   We filmed as Daniel Witkin sat poised with the moving pen. The excellent results of these shoots – expertly shot in a hurry by Wolfgang— led to our biggest gamble. 

Producer Andrea Miller started looking for a yacht to film, that was period accurate and close to the mammoth size — over 300 ft. long (only JP Morgan had a bigger one) — to film and which we could afford. The generosity of Robert McNeil who had restored a steam yacht called the Cangarda provided a way to visually extend our story – giving Pulitzer an emotional life embodied by an actor our casting director Adrienne Stern found.  In his first role – Paul Grossman, a writer and teacher in New York, nailed it. We spent two days in Maine with Grossman (silently) playing an older Pulitzer look-alike, along with his secretaries, and a quartet of musicians on-board. Sounds simple, right? Until you figure in plane travel, ferry schedules, changeable weather, and multiple period costume changes. Then there was the issue of recreating 1890’s newspapers so that you could hold them in your hands without them falling apart – thank you  fabricator Renate Spiegler. And loads of equipment and trunks of clothing expertly selected by Asa Thornton.  

It goes without saying that there was  nothing in our original budget for this budget-breaking extravagance. But, as filmmakers around the world know, a film makes demands on the director just as a director makes demands on a film. 

The weather cooperated as did all members of the crew, and Robert McNeil had us all stay in his guest house in Isleboro, Maine, with his personal chef and boat captain at our service. There were multiple mini-dramas  – drifting off in a rowboat into an impenetrable fog, sun, tides and changeable weather. But we persevered.

Only days before our yacht shoot we realized the overwhelming significance of the Panama Canal story to our film – The drama of a lone blind publisher taking on a President become exceedingly relevant – Pulitzer used the term “fake news” 100 years ago – the first use of the term we found, though of course fake news is as old as The Odyssey, we suppose. 

Then we added voices of superlative talkers – authors David Nasaw, Elisabeth Gitter, Hasia Diner, Dan Czitrom, Nancy Tomes, David Redden and others such as optometry historian Daniel Albert who himself played a role in our recreations, using the tools of the 1880’s to diagnose Pulitzer’s detached retina. 

Later Liev Schreiber signed on to eloquently speak Pulitzer’s words with an immigrant’s accent.  Tim Blake Nelson evocatively recreated Teddy Roosevelt – and our other superlative actors added their own distinctive talents – Adam Driver as the narrator, Rachel Brosnahan as Nellie Bly, Lauren Ambrose as Kate Davis, Hugh Dancy as Pulitzer’s secretary Alleyne Ireland and others. 

The film, which took five years to complete from that initial conversation Bob and I had, was funded through contributions from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Carnegie Corporation, Roxanne and Scott Bok as well as the Berk Foundation, Norman Pearlstine and Jane Boon and other individuals and American Masters and PBS gave their invaluable support. 

The film took 18 months to edit, with friendly (mostly) arguments over words and structure and music, requiring the writing and rewriting and rewriting of sentences to give meaning and nuance to one man’s incredible life journey. 

In the end, Pulitzer proved to be that most contemporary of stories, a slap in the face reminder of how history repeats itself and a wake-up call for the need of a free press to preserve our quite fragile democracy.

Oren Rudavsky is the director of such films as Hiding and Seeking, Colliding Dreams, The Treatment and A Life Apart: Hasidism in America. Robert Seidman is the writer or co-writer of Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, Margaret Mead, A Life Apart and the recent novel Moments Observed. Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People has just been nominated for an Emmy Award.   This story first appeared in the summer print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.