Shadows of Liberty: Q&A with Jean-Philippe Tremblay
SHADOWS OF LIBERTY rallies the right-on troops against the mass corporate consolidation of media in the United States since the 1980s. Inspired by the Ben Bagdikian book “The New Media Monopoly”, the film pummels its audience with repeated examples of corporate owner interests interfering with journalists trying to cover stories from Nike sweatshops to plane crash cover-ups to drug links to the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua. The results are predictably chilling.
Yet for a film about journalism, SHADOWS OF LIBERTY doesn’t try to take a journalistic or even a balanced approach to its argument. It simply goes on the attack, assuming that we’ve all been brainwashed. It’s similar in part to the dilemma climate change discussions have in the mass media. The journalists want to present a two-sided debate whilst the science suggests it’s anything but. This lack of balance makes SHADOWS OF LIBERTY hard to swallow for anyone who doesn’t already agree with it.
SHADOWS OF LIBERTY rightly wants consolidated media ownership smashed, but it remains coy on the alternatives…
British audiences should take note of the Thomas Paine quote in the title of the film. One of the more radical Founding Fathers of the United States, Paine was a thinker and a journalist who wrote the influential pamphlet “Common Sense”. SHADOWS OF LIBERTY is about the changing face of mass media journalism specifically in the United States with all its idealism and delusions of impartiality which lead back to Paine, the revolution and guarantee of a free press in the first amendment.
By contrast, British newspapers have always tended to hold an overt political stance, giving readers at least some clue as to why they might favour certain stories. We’ve always expected the owners of our media to have an agenda, from Rupert Murdoch to Robert Maxwell to Lord Beaverbrook. However, as the ongoing Leveson Inquiry over phone hacking and the near-miss with Murdoch’s BSkyB bid show, if anything this has lead us into an even deeper pit.
SHADOWS OF LIBERTY rightly wants consolidated media ownership smashed, but it remains coy on the alternatives in the digital age, where smaller news outfits simply can’t afford to operate. Despite the disruptive intentions of WikiLeaks, for example, it received proper coverage only when the big outfits picked up its stories. Currently it seems that the only way for a news organisation to properly cover news on a global scale is to be government funded (like the BBC), to be increasingly commodified as entertainment (as in the case of the Daily Mail or Fox News) or to be a specialist wire service.
Amusingly for a documentary about media control the makers of SHADOWS OF LIBERTY wanted to control when an interview about the film would appear. The PR firm handling the press wanted to arrange something near the film’s UK release later in the year. The following transcript is an abridged version of the question and answer session run after a screening at the Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012. In attendance were the film’s director Jean-Philippe Tremblay, editor Gregers Sall and composer Tandis Jenhudson.
Question: Why did you just cover the media in the United States?
Jean-Philippe Tremblay: We based it on the States because it’s the biggest democracy in the world, the most powerful country in the world. I guess part of this film is that by following the example of the United States, we can start a conversation about what is happening here in this country. We can notice that it’s the same kind of news corporations and the same governments, who basically have a political agenda.
“We went to all of those hearings and heard the people who were basically fed up with the media in the United States.”
Question: Did you try to approach CBS or the big news outlets in the US to try and take part?
JPT: I didn’t try to approach them. I guess that part of the reason behind that was that, if you want to hear what CBS journalists presently working at CBS have to say, they have an outlet 24/7 on many different channels, on many different radio shows, on all sorts of platforms. Here we had 93 minutes to give you what I think is an alternate point of view, and to let these sources show for 93 minutes because they’re always brushed aside by those reigning powers. I hope the documentary did a good job of trying to balance out even without having those pundits.
Question: How long was the process from your initial idea to do the film through to the finished cut?
JPT: The process for the film took five years. We started doing research in the United States in May 2007 and there were Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearings going on throughout that whole year. Originally we went for four nights and ended out staying for a year and a half following the FCC hearings. The FCC hearings were about media conglomerates and media ownership. We went to all of those hearings and heard the people who were basically fed up with the media in the United States. At the end of the hearings the FCC commissioner, Kevin Martin, actually deregulated the rules and gave more power to the conglomerates to hold more media within their communities. So that’s how it started five years ago.
“A couple of times I was refused from going into the United States.”
Gregers Sall: It was a complex edit because it’s a very complex subject. As we started working through our stories and trying to make it not about media but about people, how people were living through media, it became quite difficult. It was about finding additional material and finding archive and working out what you really want to think. So additional interviews were done, additional stuff was done to fit our stories and it didn’t come at once because it is complete and utter jungle. As soon as you start talking about media, and media regulation, and media trust ownership, and media this and that, you’re done filmically. It was about working out how and why those media matter to you as individual people.
JPT: It was a great challenge. We edited it for about a year and half.
Question: As a filmmaker did you feel vulnerable going after these big corporations? Are you liable to be sued, and if so you do you protect yourself?
JPT: When you go through customs at the United States and you are asked these questions about what are you coming into the country for. You tell them you’re making a documentary. A couple of times I was refused from going into the United States. It was a problem I have now and again whenever I enter the United States.
[Jean-Philippe Tremblay is a Canadian citizen]
You can also see some of the journalists here in the documentary. Julian Assange has a website WikiLeaks which can’t fund itself on public funds. All the major corporations like Visa and MasterCard and PayPal and Bank of America have taken away the possibility to use their methods of payment over the internet. Yet you can use their cards to fund a whole bunch of other organisations whether it’s these terrible organisations like hate groups, pornographic sites and all that kind of stuff. It just shows you the priorities of these massive corporations. That’s where the bottom line is, profit. People do become vulnerable no matter how well known they are or how big their outlets are.
“… we have the most amazing tool that we’ve ever had which is the internet, bringing us information that we’ve never seen before …”
Question: You spoke to various journalists who lost their jobs because of being outspoken. How did they feel in retrospect looking back at what had happened to them?
JPL: These are people that one day they had their jobs. They were journalists. Then the next thing that happens, because they reported something, is they’re brushed aside and basically forgotten. The ultimate example was Garry Webb [a US journalist who committed suicide]. That’s what’s happening to these journalists when we meet them. They want to tell these stories. They want to bring them out into the open because all the time they’re just brushed aside and hopefully this film does something to keep those stories alive and to keep sharing them.
Question: What can we do in the media to keep our work in the public-interest rather than that of the big corporations?
JPT: We have examples of journalists who trying to fight against these corporations and bring new information that is completely contrary to what the government and these corporations report. I guess that the main thing is that we have the most amazing tool that we’ve ever had which is the internet, bringing us information that we’ve never seen before, organisations such as WikiLeaks or Democracy Now. There’s a whole bunch.
They fight to bring that information to the internet. They work on telling us what’s happening in the government, what happening on those news outlets, corporate news outlets and at the same time what’s happening is that the same corporations have dominated print, broadcast television and news, obviously they’re coming in and trying to do the same thing to the internet. There’s a lot of organisations out there and that’s how I guess journalists can try and bring us real information via the internet. You’ve got to fight to keep it open.
“… people talk about the golden era of broadcasting [...] but actually when you start looking at it with today’s eyes you find this blatant government propaganda.”
Question: What do you think the agenda of the media companies is?
GS: Profit! One of the interesting things about making documentaries and documentary films is that you find out alot of things that you never knew. You get to see Wicker’s World in Hong Kong from 1973 and stuff like that. So that’s always absolutely delightful and completely irrelevant. But one of the things that comes true is that people talk about the golden era of broadcasting. The 1950s and Walter Cronkite and it was all so wonderful. But actually when you start looking at it with today’s eyes you find this blatant government propaganda.
You kind of realise that in a way as fucked as the media is right now it’s no more fucked than it’s ever been because it always belonged to the people in power. And the people in power have always been using it for their own agenda and that’s it. End of story. It’s very depressing but also at the same time completely fantastic that they haven’t quite managed to shut down the internet as JP was talking about. But they’re worked hard at it and there’s no doubt about it that they will get it.
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