Monday, February 25, 2013

Media Malpractice

Shortly after the 2008 presidential election, Libertarian radio talk show host John Ziegler produced a documentary chronicling what he saw as the biased news coverage that propelled Barack Obama to the Presidency.  I had this documentary in my Netflix cue for probably two years.  I avoided it for two reasons. One, I knew watching it would bring back all my frustrations and anger about the news media's behavior in 2008.  Two, I didn't want to watch an overly partisan, echo chamber-style documentary.  But since President Obama's reelection, the news media has been on my mind a lot, and I decided to give the film a tumble (unfortunately, it's no longer available streaming).  I use the term documentary loosely.  I still remember those innocent days when we assumed documentaries were by nature objective, or tried to be.

But for good or for ill, Michael Moore changed that and filmmakers of all political persuasions have followed his lead.  I actually don't mind politically oriented documentaries, but I think they ought to be called something else.  Too many people hear "documentary" and assume an unbiased enterprise.  Can anyone really say Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11 are unbiased ?  Hollywood makes this distinction, but only when the documentary's bias suits them.  For example, Davis Guggenheim produced and directed An Inconvenient Truth, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2006.  Guggenheim is a big liberal.  Last year, President Obama tapped him to direct his 17-minute reelection film, The Road We've Traveled.*  But not even Guggenheim, the man behind the Magna Carta of left-wing environmental doctrine, was safe when he dared to wander off the liberal reservation.  In 2010, he produced and directed a truly outstanding nonpolitical documentary, Waiting For Superman that was critical of, among other things, teacher's unions as a barrier to educational reform.  If you haven't seen it, stop here and go watch it right now and decide for yourself.  It's currently available streaming on Netflix.  Despite near unanimous praise from critics and viewers from all over the political spectrum, WFS wasn't even nominated. Why?  There were alleged inaccuracies.  Interesting that the Academy was suddenly so scrupulous in vetting its documentaries.  Did they run Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Inconvenient Truth through the fact checker before nominating them?

Back to Media Malpractice.  I'll start with the negative.  It's a pretty low budget documentary, not that it needs a lot bells and whistles.  It's made up almost entirely of news footage and a few interviews.  But the music is kind of rinky-dink and seems out of place at times.  There's several segments of Ziegler's media appearances to promote the film's release that are totally unnecessary.  But the biggest problem is the inclusion of an interview with Sarah Palin that is the centerpiece of the film.  The interview is really not necessary and in my view, works against, or at least distracts from the purpose of the film.  A few words about Sarah Palin.  I'm not a fan.  I  don't dislike her.  I just think she is an ineffectual and distracting voice in the Republican Party.  It's not entirely her fault.  The media has made her into such a toxic and divisive figure, she can no longer be effective. And in my view, she has made it worse in the intervening years by becoming a pundit, publicly inserting her opinion into every issue and embracing her celebrity among the right.  There is no doubt, as the film, documents, the media savaged her unfairly, but her presence in the film, reacting to footage she has never seen, and trying to explain her poor performances in interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson makes her look like a victim.  And even though I felt bad for her, the fact is that in politics, looking like a victim, even if you are one, makes you look weak.  And that's what comes across in the interview.   It was uncomfortable at times, watching her react to some of the cruel and outrageous things said about her and her family, but distracting.  The film would have been more effective without her (and shorter).

Having said that, the film still largely works because it relies primarily on news footage, and aside from narration to give context, it lets the media speak for itself.  Most of the film is designed to show the contrast in news coverage of Barack Obama versus that of John McCain and Sarah Palin.  But it also shows how the news media attacked liberal heroes like Bill Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro when they dared to criticize their chosen one.  In other words, the bias went far beyond adoring coverage of Obama.  It repeatedly covered for him when he came under criticism, sought to diffuse or ignore any damaging information that surfaced.  Another thing that is clear from the footage is how little vetting of Obama there was.  Any mention of potentially damaging actions, quotes, relationships or associations from his past were met accusations of racism, dirty politics, or focusing on things that don't matter.  Whereas with Palin, nothing was out of bounds.  Hordes of reporters descending on Wasilla, AK.  Her family, her wardrobe, her every word was the object of scorn and ridicule.  And what of Joe Biden's almost daily gaffes and idiot prone behavior?  Nothing. Even after four years, it's shocking.

The films ends with a series of interviews with twelve Obama voters chosen at random from a voting precinct on election day.  The director asks a series of questions about the the different candidates.  What the results showed is that the voters knew every negative, even petty thing about McCain and Palin, but little or nothing of the issues, and were virtually unaware of any story that reflected negatively on the Obama-Biden ticket.  The purpose of the segment was not to show that Obama voters were somehow stupid (one was a Cal Berkeley grad), but that their knowledge of politics was a  perfect reflection of what the news media offered.  It's an effective scene.

For what it is, it's a decent film, and worth watching if for no other reason than to remind us why we need a press that behaves professionally and has some regard for fairness, objectivity and accuracy.

* Narrated by the reassuring baritone of Tom Hanks, The Road We've Traveled is the gospel of Barack Obama as told by his apostles.  In this gospel, Obama, a man only in the scientific sense, single-handedly saved us from the abyss in 2009, and gave us four years of unprecedented virtue and prosperity.  And if we're brave enough; if we as a nation can bring ourselves to be worthy of his leadership, he is willing to be our President for another four years.

No comments: