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Did Durst Filmmakers Do the Right Thing?

DurstIn HBO’s riveting documentary “The Jinx,” the filmmakers are seen wrestling with how to handle damning evidence they’ve uncovered about millionaire Robert Durst in the course of their research. Do they turn it over to the police? Or do they keep quiet and risk the chance a suspected murderer may escape justice?

For most journalists, it’s an easy choice. A reporter always wants to avoid any appearance of working hand-in-hand with cops. It’s not the role of a journalist to act as an investigatory arm of law enforcement. It’s essential for journalists to preserve their independence and not try to second-guess the impact of their work, until it is made public.

Of course, there are gray areas. And the Durst filmmakers were stomping all over the gray areas, as they wrestled with their film. They were dealing with someone they believed was a murderer. He was also a rich murderer who had already shown a willingness to don disguises and run from the law. And they also knew that their actions could inadvertently impact the investigation, making it even harder to convict a guilty man.

In a round of interviews after the final episode aired — and Durst had been arrested, –filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling said detectives had reviewed key parts of the series “months” before it aired. Jarecki is shown in the series stashing the so-called “cadaver” letter, a key piece of evidence, in a safe deposit box. But the filmmakers were clearly afraid their silence could have repercussions and chose to let detectives see at least parts of the series before it aired.

Jarecki told the New York Times:

“We need to be careful about how much we describe about the details of the case, so what we’ll say about that is we provided the relevant evidence to law enforcement some months ago, and it’s been in their court. And obviously they’ve got their own timetable for how to address it.”

Once the series started to air, the filmmakers confronted a new set of fears, Jarecki said. They weren’t sure how Durst, a man they believed was capable of murder, was going to react to the series.

From the interview with The Times:

“We were obviously glad that they made the arrest. We were concerned that Bob was floating around, and we knew that Bob had been upset about Episode 5. We had anticipated he would be upset about Episode 5. The truth is, we had reached out to law enforcement to try and get color about when they planned to arrest him. Because as civilians, one always assumes that law enforcement is going to move more quickly than they naturally do. We understand why they have to be cautious. We understand they have obligations that filmmakers don’t have. But we were nervous. We had security.”

Now that the case is back in the legal system, Jarecki and his crew are entering murky waters. They are filmmakers, not journalists. They created a compelling study of Durst, but it is a TV series, a piece of entertainment, including ominous music and nightmarish re-creations. The filmmakers are artists telling a story, using their evidence for dramatic impact.

Durst’s so called confession at the end of “The Jinx” made for a spine-tingling conclusion to the series, but it was hardly a smoking gun, in a legal sense. The filmmakers had already documented his strange self-dialogue, which could easily be written off as the babbling of a doddering old man. After all, Durst admitted to cutting up a man with a saw and dumping the remains in the Gulf of Mexico and still managed a not guilty verdict.

The handwriting on the so-called “cadaver” note is more compelling evidence. But a jury under the influence of Durst’s well-paid legal team may find that slim evidence, if the prosecutors still can’t physically place Durst at the scene of the crime. The filmmaker’s handling of this key piece of evidence could become a central point of contention. O.J.’s lawyers made the chain of evidence into an elaborate conspiracy.

Durst attorneys will certainly use the series against the prosecution. Can Durst get a fair trial? Anybody who has seen or heard of the documentary will almost certainly have a pre-conceived opinion about his guilt. With it’s haunting music, skeptical tone and ah-ha dramatic moments, the series screams “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”

If the case goes to trial, Jarecki and Smerling are going to face intense scrutiny from defense attorneys. In court the filmmakers will certainly seek to receive protection from identifying their sources, editing choices and investigation techniques, just like other journalists.

But this is dicey territory. Some courts have not recognized independent filmmakers and bloggers as journalists, even though they are often producing cutting edge investigators, revealing stories untouched by traditional media.

The filmmakers are facing a barrage of legal questions. Will they turn over raw footage? What about their notes? Will they testify for the prosecution?

Jarecki and Smerling might regret their early interviews, when they fanned the flames, calling Durst’s audio “chilling.” Soon after the final episode aired, they clammed up, noting in a statement, “we are likely to be called as witnesses in any case law enforcement may decide to bring against Robert Durst.” Whether they like it or not, the storytellers are now a big part of the story.

Kevin Brass has covered media for the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Magazine and the Austin Chronicle. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.

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The Real Reason Brian Williams is Toast

Brian Wlliams nightly newsNBC anchor Brian Williams may have survived lying about his war record in Iraq, if it was simply an offhand remark to David Letterman. News anchors are habitual blow-hards who often inflate their stories to help create their own self-myth. Telling a little white lie on a talk show is almost expected, part of the job of promoting the nightly news.

If it was nothing more than a talk show gaffe, Williams could have shrugged off the revelation that he really wasn’t flying in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War. He might have tossed it aside as simply a late night slip, one of those things that comes out at the wrong moment. A quick apology, a few mea culpas, some hearty laughs about bad memory, and Williams would be back on the air.

But as soon as he incorporated his little white lie into a news story, he was toast. Reporting the incident on air as actual news separated Williams’ hubris from the realm of stupid party boasts. He crossed the most sacred of journalism lines and now he must face the consequences.

There is no way Williams “misremembered” the helicopter story. You don’t forget that you were actually in the helicopter that was not hit by a rocket, instead of the one that was actually hit. We’re not talking about an event from ancient days; it was 11 years ago. Some newsmen can remember what they had for breakfast 11 years ago. There is no quick explanation for why Williams thought he was in the helicopter forced down in the desert, unless he is delusional in a very dark manner. If Williams was willing to fudge the truth on the Iraq story, then it is completely reasonable to question what else he fudged over the years.

Yet, before we burn him at the stake of the righteous, let’s keep in mind he was a news anchor and news anchors are typically creations of illusion and truth stretching. They are presented as serious news personnel, toughened reporters who can be trusted with your news. But most anchors are nothing more than news readers, capable of looking good on camera and enunciating with flair. They provide a hint of a frown at the right time; maybe the rise of an eyebrow. Their journalism is relegated to punching up their scripts and standing where the producer tells them to stand.

The networks spend millions creating images for these anchors, which may have little connection to reality. Anchors don’t need to be reputable reporters, but they do need to be able to act like one.  “The remarkable thing is not that [Williams’] war exaggerations have been found out, but that he’s managed so confidently to pull off the network anchor role for so long,” Michael Wolff wrote in the Hollywood Reporter.

“He is America’s most prominent newsman but never has reported the news. He is the managing editor of a news organization, once among the largest in the country, that has been stripped down to the barest bones. He has assumed the mantle of network anchorman, as though it is a job that still commands the greatest stature and gravitas, but which, everyone understands, is mere relic now. He gamely continues the conceit that the network news broadcast is one of the primary sources of news for most Americans — at best a nostalgic, if not comical, notion.”

Williams’ main role was as “an in-house, all-purpose corporate face and moderator,” for the corporate owner of the network, Wolff notes.

As a corporate spokesman, Williams could have overcome the fallout from his lie about his war experiences. Anchors are all built on little white lies. But there is no way NBC can present him as its icon of credibility and trust after he so clearly lied in a news story. No amount of makeup or snappy commercial spots will clean up that image.

Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world of celebrity journalism.