The documentary Shadows of Liberty opens with many earnest academics wringing their hands over the concentration in media ownership that is strangling American democracy. Important stuff, but pretty dry.
And then it gives you the juicy specifics that will be crucial to making the film anything more than hand-wringing, and you may wish director Jean-Philippe Tremblay had stuck with the talking heads. Some examples seem straightforwardly damning – in the 1990s, CBS News failed to pursue its coverage of Nike’s off-shore labour practices after the shoemaker became the network’s sponsor for the 1998 Olympics – but others venture off without caveats into twisted tales that are the subject of conspiracy theories.
How is the viewer to judge brief accounts of such complicated cases as TWA Flight 800’s mysterious crash in 1996? Tremblay alleges CBS reporter Kristina Borjesson was fired because she failed to accept the official explanation of mechanical failure and continued to pursue the witnesses who saw something streak up through the sky and hit the plane. The viewer can’t really know whether she was a victim of a complicit media owner with arms contracts at stake buying the government line or just an obsessive reporter who wouldn’t accept it was time to take a new assignment. Worse yet, she appears on a beach strewn with clothes and luggage. Presumably this is one of the re-enactments to which the film confesses in a brief end-note, but if your subject is media manipulation, it might be better to stay clear of improbable staging.
Explaining how the nation’s founding journalist, Thomas Paine, drafted a constitution that guaranteed freedom of the press, Tremblay argues that American democracy was historically guaranteed through the proliferation of newspapers bolstered by subsidies but unimpeded by censorship. It’s a golden-age theory that conveniently ignores the rabidly political press of the 18th century and the yellow journalism of the 19th: Bad journalism is nothing new.
The filmmaker is much stronger on more recent political history, charting the mechanics of media concentration including president Ronald Regan’s relaxation of ownership laws and the Federal Communications Commission’s sad inability to distinguish corporate interests from public ones. Tremblay builds, very rightly, to The New York Times’s shameful role in the Bush administration’s weapons-of-mass-destruction hoax.
Media concentration is a real problem and one that is difficult to cover honestly in the mainstream media, but it is often a case not so much of heavy censorship, grotesque conflicts-of-interest, wrongful dismissals and dramatic lacuna so much as self-censorship, cozy relationships, lazy reporting and a lack of diversity. Tremblay’s who’s who of interviewees (including Dan Rather and Julian Assange) rightly complain of a media echo chamber, but subtle pressures don’t make for dramatic footage.
As it indicts, the film barely considers possible solutions. Tremblay is a Canadian but never looks at public broadcasting as the obvious counterweight to corporate media. The reality that the CBC and BBC are not immune to some of the political pressures he is observing might be reason to open up his thesis. Meanwhile, dwelling on cases of the 1990s, he gets around very belatedly to the subject of the Internet.
Assange makes his pitch for WikiLeaks and Tremblay offers Internet neutrality as a wondrous panacea threatened by government inaction, while never explaining the term is actually a slogan in what is a complex debate over how to regulate traffic on the Net.
One of the last cases Tremblay considers is NBC News’s grotesque work on To Catch a Predator, a series in which it entrapped men in Internet chat rooms by offering sex with someone posing as a 13-year-old boy and then lured them to a sting operation. Will crusading netizens force the American media to eschew such manipulations, work harder at getting real news and be more transparent about their conflicts of interest? We can all hope so, but as long as millions choose To Catch a Predator over PBS Newshour the problem will not be easily resolved.