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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

The power of asking questions

Author Alice Sebold apologized to Anthony J. Broadwater

Author Alice Sebold apologized to Anthony J. Broadwater for mistakenly identifying him as her assailant in a 1982 rape while she was an 18-year-old freshman at Syracuse University. Credit: AP/Tina Fineberg

Best-selling author Alice Sebold heartfully apologized to a man last week for mistakenly identifying him as her assailant in a 1982 rape while she was an 18-year-old freshman at Syracuse University. Anthony J. Broadwater, now 61, served a 16-year prison sentence for the wrongful conviction. He graciously accepted Sebold’s apology.

A week before, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, now deceased, were exonerated for the 1965 assassination of fiery civil rights activist Malcom X at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Each man served a 20-year sentence for the crime.

Three weeks prior to that, Robert Durst, a scion of the Durst real estate empire, was charged in the 1982 disappearance of his wife Kathie Durst in bucolic northern Westchester County. Durst had been suspected of committing the alleged murder for nearly 40 years, in addition to two other homicides.

In all these cases, filmmakers changed the equation. Durst, apparently forgetting that he was still wearing a microphone while being interviewed for "The Jinx", an HBO series about his life that he himself encouraged, walked into a men’s room and mumbled, "I killed them all, of course." (Imagine his realization moment.)

Netflix’s "Who Killed Malcolm X?", released last year, highlighted major flaws in the case against Aziz and Islam — including the deathbed confession of a man who claimed to have helped falsely set them up for the crime — and a filmmaker seeking to bring Sebold’s 1999 memoir "Lucky" to the screen, hired a private investigator to look into the Syracuse case after finding inconsistencies in testimony. Broadwater was formally exonerated of the crime in November as a result of that inquiry.

These dramatic turns of events are encouraging as discussion about the future of journalism works itself back into the national debate. They demonstrate the undying power of questioning, even in an age of media mistrust and information oversaturation.

The explosive growth in documentary filmmaking arrived just as newsrooms around America were being gutted because of modern-day economic realities. This was hardly a coincidence, one suspects. Up-and-coming news reporters who can’t find work, and veteran journalists whose long form reporting has become too costly for some organizations thirst to tell stories, and there’s a growing market for documentaries as major new video platforms compete for fresh content. Compelling projects can be lucrative.

But they take a great deal of time to make, so they don’t solve the problem of shuttering or downsizing newsrooms in smaller market America. That continuing trend limits public understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in government, politics and industry.

It’s a major concern, and I say that as someone who’s fielded press calls on behalf of corporate and political clients for going on 35 years. Trust me, facts need to be checked. Keeps everybody honest.

The Biden Administration, and some New York State legislators, are now proposing public support for news organizations. Seems like a terrible idea to me. Journalists need to be as independent as possible. But the need for funding solutions remains. Truth needs to be lodged free sometimes, and only sharp questioning can unearth it.

Growth in the documentary film industry suggests that market forces might preserve investigative journalism in America in the long run. It’s a product we can’t live without, so it finds a way to thrive — and turn decades-old certainties on their heads.

We’re all better off for it.

Opinions expressed by William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, are his own.