There has been a major shift in media culture as most TV networks have abandoned long-form information programming. In these times, with Twitter playing a big part in disseminating news, TV has to be punchy, quick and visual. The age of media mergers has seen showbiz merging with news biz, and soundbites have become shorter as the newscast story count rises.
Significantly, the best TV criticism of these trends in the US appears in a nightly program on the Comedy Central channel. But ultimately, there is nothing funny about the way a media system – intended to bolster a democratic discourse – contributes to its decline.
News is increasingly becoming more about the image than the information – an approach to “coverage” that is at its core tabloid in its sensibilities, often intended for a memorable emotional impact that will boost media ratings and revenues. The race for “breaking news” is breaking our ability to understand the context of events.
This all happened as “the press” became “the media” – a time in which branding and on-air personality became paramount. I saw it happening during the 10 years I spent in television news, during which the multi-million-dollar anchors became more newsworthy than what they reported on.
Soon, the “big names” in media began focusing on the “big names” in politics. Landing hyped-up interviews with newsmakers became known – in insider parlance – as “getting the get”. News bookers began to see themselves like big-game hunters on an African safari.
When I started my career behind the small screen, each of the main TV networks featured a regularly scheduled documentary to expose wrongdoing and offer deeper analysis. CBS Reports was modeled on the tradition established by news legends like Edward R Murrow. NBC White Paper and ABC Close-Up all offered well-made in-depth programming until faster-paced segments on news magazines displaced the documentaries that were often poorly promoted and, as a result, poorly watched.
As these shows went bye-bye, independent documentary-making drew former journalists like myself, eager to do more substantive investigative work. Other, less political and artsier filmmakers – often graduates of film schools or refugees from Hollywood – brought their dedication to “look” and storytelling into a business that had once been driven by a sense of political mission.
A market slowly emerged on cable channels that went for lurid crime dramas, wildlife shows, adventure series and history programs mostly on scary bad guys.
And soon, a class hierarchy could be seen among independent filmmakers. American Public Television cultivated a small elite to produce mostly non-controversial docs for well-funded regularly scheduled series. HBO Documentaries were more mixed and commercial – some about news issues, others profiling personalities, and still others using Hollywood techniques to treat docs as non-fiction films. They became a profit center for a network known for movies. Economically, it is cheaper for cable channels to offer less pricey documentaries they can air over and over.
A proliferating number of film festivals – some market-driven like Sundance, or associated with stars like Tribeca – provided more venues and opportunities to show and sell films.
One of the documentary films I was associated with investigated the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. It took adding CNN’s Christiane Amanpour as a narrator to give it more credibility and get it on air.
Most independent filmmakers wanted to be in the major league, but only a few made it.
It was only after Michael Moore, a radical print journalist turned filmmaker, proved that documentaries could make money in theatres, that what is still a small but high-profile industry was born. This has brought hard-hitting films, of a kind that could rarely get on television, into theatres where producers hope they can at least recoup their costs.
A few bigger companies finance these films, but most filmmakers often have to spend years raising money by seeking grants, donations from friends and families or gifts generated by crowd-funding sites.
In some cases, wealthy business types become instant producers because they could afford to finance projects. I was a beneficiary of this type of largesse when a real estate mogul troubled by excesses in his industry, especially subprime loans, financed my film In Debt We Trust, which came out in 2006 warning of the financial crisis to come. At the time, I was dismissed as an alarmist and a “doom-and-gloomer”. But when the markets did implode two years later, my reputation briefly rose as I turned in some eyes from a “zero to a prophetic hero”.
There is no question that the small flood of films on the financial crisis that followed – including my follow-up Plunder on financial crimes – demonstrated that independent filmmakers had the guts and the gumption to challenge the greed of the big banks and corporate lobbies, and at the time show how complicit most of our media was in covering up crimes or simply not covering them. Thanks to many websites, these films were publicized and promoted, drawing audiences and encouraging activism.
This counter-culture may have started on the left, but now right-wing funders are encouraging conservative filmmakers to go after President Obama and even activist groups with aggressive undercover videotaping designed to embarrass radicals. This type of deceptive “guerilla filmmaking” led to the demise of the community organising group ACORN.
Making films is ‘easier’
Like television itself, filmmaking has become contested terrain.
Making films is often easier than marketing them. A field that was once the province of cause-related media activists has been turned into a profession that remains poorly underwritten, especially because well-known Hollywood personalities like Oliver Stone and many movie stars have become documentary filmmakers too. They have the name power and contacts to more easily sell their work. TV channels are quite willing to finance and promote them because of the power of celebrity culture that most independents detest.
The legal departments of networks often impose strict guidelines on work they commission or acquire. They want to own everything even when their budgets are low. Some want independent to “indemnify” them should anyone sue them. Buying archival footage is much pricier than what you get when you sell it.
I have often tried to persuade channels to pay me the same rate they sell footage for. It is usually a no-go, so much of the money you raise ends up going right back to the media companies you are often competing with or attempting to challenge.
I had been trying for years to do a series based on exploring who really wields power, a kind of institutional analysis to show “Who Rules America” based on the findings of sociologist C Wright Mills, who wrote The Power Elite and other books on the ways that real power does not rest in elected officials, but in the lobbyists and special powers behind them.
I was lucky because on a trip to a film festival in Iran, I met folks in the documentary department of Press TV, their state-funded broadcaster, who decided to fund it. The budget was very low, the time frame was rushed, and I knew it would attract no attention in the US although the “alternative” Free Speech TV will soon run it.
My international distributor sells my work more widely overseas, and so my docs get me invited on the air as a commentator – but rarely on the US channels I worked for. They prefer predicable politicians to feisty filmmakers. I may be better known for appearances on RT, BBC and Al Jazeera.
I just finished an hour-long piece on the fight for public education in a film on my Bronx high school, DeWitt Clinton, now more than 100 years old and known for its diversity. It was there that I started in journalism, editing the school newspaper. Even though the issue cannot be more timely, so far, I have not been able to place it.
Perhaps I will be luckier with my current project, a TV series made in South Africa on the making and meaning of a new movie on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It has movie stars and features unknown stories about one of the world’s best-known icons.
I know all the stories about filmmakers who spent years slogging away before they were “discovered”. So, there is always hope. I would not be fighting all the frustration that documentary filmmakers face if I did not believe in the value of my work, and, I guess, myself.