While it would be easy to claim that many mainstream news outlets are riddled with bias, the larger problem is one of allocation of investigative resources. It often seems as if everyone is chasing after the same lead, irrespective of the number of articles already published on the subject. All too frequently, the push is to be first, rather than different. That is the issue: the homogenization of information. Enter The 19th*, subject of the insightful new documentary Breaking the News, directed by Heather Courtney (The Unafraid), Princess A. Hairston, and Chelsea Hernandez (Building the American Dream), and written by Jamie Boyle (Anonymous Sister).
Conceived as an alternative to conventional journalism by Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, who worked together at The Texas Tribune, The 19th* (the asterisk is part of the name) strives to break the mold with a stated focus on gender, politics and policy through a truly independent lens. Unfortunately, it launched in 2020, just as the global coronavirus epidemic was getting under way. Nevertheless, in just three years, the site has succeeded far beyond those initially thwarted expectations, and is now a go-to source for a plethora of larger news organizations.
This is thanks to its intrepid team of mostly women and people of color, and at least one hard-hitting reporter named Kate Sosin. Joining Sosin in pursuing the latest, actually breaking news, is Errin Haines, whose intrepid efforts led to the widespread dissemination of the horrific details of Breonna Taylor’s killing, largely ignored until Haines looked into it. Even as the pandemic spread, The 19th* was on it.
The site’s name comes from the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. The appended asterisk stands for the work yet to be done for those still unrepresented and discriminated against in our ostensible democracy. It’s this mission that drives everyone involved.
One of the great beauties of this poignant film is how we get to see the challenges faced by those attempting to live by high ideals. Ramshaw and Zamora discover, early on, that their plan to celebrate women’s stories above everything else proves exclusionary to Sosin, who identifies as transgender and non-binary. Rather than retreat into self-defensiveness, they struggle to do better and acknowledge missteps. Much of this awkward deliberation happens in front of the camera.
In addition, there are the existential questions of money and sponsorship, eventually solved but frightening as they happen. And everyone must confront their own biases, as well, as Orlando-based reporter Chabeli Carrazana discusses in her pieces about abortion in the days before and after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. No sense mimicking the politics of outrage practiced by other papers and sites: the goal of The 19th* is to make a difference, but to do so while respecting journalistic ethics.
If, by the end, we feel hopeful, we should. It is possible for good people to do good things and inspire us all. So watch and then, perhaps, head on over to The 19th* to subscribe (at least for the weekly newsletter, which is what I did, though you can also support them through membership). Good journalism just might save the world.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston, Chelsea Hernandez; Breaking the News documentary movie review