Political Realities

Documentaries rush in to fill journalism void

Jessica Clark

This election year, documentaries have broken free of their film festival ghettos. Progressive documentary films like Super Size Me and The Corporation have been packing theaters all summer, and by mid-August, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 had grossed $115 million. DVDs are being screened at house parties” organized by MoveOn​.org and offered as premiums for donors to progressive media projects like Alternet and Buzzflash.

Organizations on the right have simultaneously tried to fight back, unsucessfully tarring ads for Moore’s film as electioneering” and promoting such bilious fare as Disney’s America’s Heart and Soul. An upcoming pro-Bush documentary, The Big Picture, wades right into the roiling controversy over who’s connected to campaign communications: Director Lionel Chetwynd, a friend of Karl Rove, also is working on two films to be screened at the Republican National Convention. [NOTE: The day that this article went online, Chetwynd’s publicist called to deny this last point, originally printed on August 4 on the Variety Web site.]

Several of the recent documentary projects dissect the failure of America’s mainstream media to adequately cover Bush’s rush to war in Iraq. In These Times sat down to speak with two directors whose films on media and war are making an impact. Robert Greenwald is director of Outfoxed and Uncovered, both now in theaters across the country, and executive producer of two forthcoming films, Unprecented and Unconstitutional. Robert Kane Pappas wrote and directed Orwell Rolls in His Grave, which details the toll that media consolidation takes on American democracy; it opens in San Francisco and Portland this weekend.

Pappas: I enjoyed Outfoxed very much. In it, you talked about the use of language like flip-flop,” where candidates (in this case Kerry), concepts or issues are reduced to little two-word little segments. When the media reduce everything ot the shortest sound bites we could ever imagine, what is the effect on the public?

Greenwald: I think that’s why we’re seeing so many books become bestsellers — because they go into depth — and why, say, your films and others are really reaching a wide audience, because they crave the information to help them navigate through these times. The primary media is not doing it, because they’re doing 30-second soundbites. I think they have underestimated the craving people have for substance.

Pappas: Like you, I covered lost history in my film, such as the October Surprise.When reporters go into stories like these, they’re risking their career. I would like your comments about the lost history I sense now with regard to the newest enemy and the changing rationales for war. The networks are not providing context. How can we help them?

Greenwald: I think, during the buildup to war when you looked at the networks, the debate was: Should we bomb them, or go in by land?” That was the spectrum of views we got. And any general who’d ever been in the Army was on television, when people who had dissenting opinions just could not get on. 

But, again, I’m encouraged because there’s so much good work going on at all levels of the media. There’s Bob McChesney’s work on the corporate control of media, which is structural. Then there’s the alternative media: Alternet, Buzzflash, LinkTV, Air America, The Nation, In These Times… There’s really a variety of those alternatives that we need to support. And then in what I call the middle ground, there are the folks monitoring the media, from FAIR to David Brock’s new group, Media Matters, which is terrific. 

I think that the monitoring people will play an increasingly important role because we’ve essentially left that ground to the right. They were, as Eric Alterman says, working the refs” all the time. But now, with MoveOn coming into the picture, which is a critical component, I don’t think the networks will be able to get away with it in the same way as when they were only worried about hearing pressure from the right. We can write letters, we can make phone calls, and, as I say all the time, liberals also buy cars and soap. It’s just nuts in an evenly divided country for us not to have our voice at least equally heard. 

Ambassador Joe Wilson, who was in Uncovered and who’s become a friend and advisor, said to me a while ago: Greenwald, do you know the problem with you liberals? You’re too damned nice.” (I’m cleaning up his language a little bit) He says, You gotta use sharp elbows with these guys,” and I think this is absolutely right. And I think we’re seeing it, from Michael Moore to Al Franken to a series of people on our side. There’s no point in playing nice with these guys because they’re ruthless.

I’ve now come to understand from working with David Fenton [Chairman of Fenton Communications, a public-interest PR firm], who’s quite brilliant at much of this, that part of it is finding a way to get these stories back into the news cycle. I think sometimes on our side we have a tendency to give them too much power by saying that they shut out our ideas because they’re political. Sometimes they shut out our ideas because we do a lousy job of presenting them. 

If we’re going to play within this game, which is a system of media run for profit, we have to get better at playing by the existing rules. Hopefully we’ll change the rules over time, hopefully we’ll change infrastructure. But while we’re here, part of our job is figuring out how to do it, and Fenton and MoveOn and Michael Moore have been brilliant at doing some of that. 

Pappas: You directed fiction films before, correct?

Greenwald: Yes. That’s what I’ve done all my life. I’ve done about 54, 55 works of fiction and just started documentaries two years ago. I was reading some article with the Bush administration talking about programs for weapons of mass destruction, and I got very upset because I figured, Oh they’re going to be able to convince us that they found a program, which is a whole hell of a lot different than a weapon.” That started me down the road to Uncovered, because I felt that I could tell that story, and remind people emotionally — even though they knew intellectually — about the level of fear that had been instilled in us about a weapon,” not a program.”

I immediately thought of doing it as a documentary, and because I’d worked actively with MoveOn and had met John Podesta of the Center for American Progress by then, I reached out to both MoveOn and the Center to become my partners.

In These Times: One thing that happened with Outfoxed was that Alternet announced this lawsuit against Fox in conjunction with the film’s opening. This in turn played on a longstanding back-and-forth. Fox sued Al Franken last year for using Fair and Balanced” in his book title.

I’m seeing a lot more of this synchronicity. One of the reasons I wanted to have you two speak is because as people who are interested in the same issues, we need to be rapidly working together and creating the sort of infrastructure that the right has created.

Greenwald: Right, you make a very good point. This was all by design, and here’s where learning from my previous films. I worked very closely with MoveOn and with Don Hazen at Alternet. He had told me about the lawsuit. I said, Let’s wait and coordinate the activity.” Similarly, with Bob McChesney’s work at Free Press—they wanted to go out with a petition and some stuff that FAIR was going to do. 

So, we commissioned a study from FAIR for the movie, and then we absolutely organized it so that we had the film, and then we had the petition, and then we had the lawsuit, and … there’s more to come by the way, but I can’t talk about it yet. 

The film is really the center for creating more attention for change. I love making films but it’s not enough in this case. If you go to our Web site, you’ll see 10 or 12 of the media groups all listed, all linked, so that the film can be contexualized, can be part of the change we all want.

In These Times: The National Media Reform Conference in November might have been the linchpin, the place where people could see each other face to face all at once and realize, being over here in my isolated world scrambling for funding is just not doing the trick.”

Pappas: I screened Orwell Rolls in His Grave at that conference, and a lot of very smart people were thinking the same way. But you, Robert, have been so clever in making them cover it. My hat is off to you.

Greenwald: Well, I’ve had a lot of help, and part of it is good old-fashioned organizing: getting all the media groups together; knowing when the film is coming out; working with the Center for American Progress, which was going to have a conference on media, which they did on same day; working with the American Prospect, which put out its article on media consolidation at the same time; having MoveOn go out with the petition. That’s working, so that we’re all organized, so that one plus one equals five.

If McChesney and those guys had not been out there for years and years on this issue, we wouldn’t have been able to have this effect.

Pappas: In my interview with him, McChesney talked at length about the think tanks. In the early 1970s, just a couple of industrialists got together and said: We’re going to start putting a lot of money into philosophical warfare. We’re going to get our side of the story out, and we’re going to keep pounding it out.”

Greenwald: They were very smart, and we weren’t. And now we will be. Again, we’re certainly as smart. We don’t have as much money, but we have other kinds of resources. But we are guaranteed to continue to lose on the larger issues of social justice if we don’t look at them from a long-term structural point of view.

All too often, our side wants a knight in shining armor; we expect a politician to come and save us. It’s not going to happen. We’ve got to be strong enough and organized enough on the issues, from the environment to civil liberties to terrorism to jobs, so that whoever the candidates are, they advocate our issues. When they’re in power, they’re not able to change their opinions.

Unlike with Clinton, when many progressives fell asleep because they thought we’d all be taken care of, I think everybody is aware that we have work to do under a Kerry administration, strong and important progressive work, again, around the issues so that we’re not candidate-dependent.We can’t get hooked on that heroin. We have to make our issues and our organization and our infrastructure, from Free Press to In These Times, Alternet, etc. Then we will win over the long run. But it’s not immediate.

Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).
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