Making a film for the first time takes a certain degree of finesse and fearlessness, but to make your first film a polemic against corporate run media takes a special kind of chutzpah. Director Jean-Philippe Tremblay (formerly of Canada, but now hailing from the UK) spent the better part of the last several years interviewing, researching, and documenting the links between corporate run news and television companies and their political overlords for his film Shadows of Liberty, which debuted to a packed house at the HotDocs International Documentary Film Festival this past Friday and runs again for a second sure to be packed crowd at the Lightbox today.
A man clearly unafraid of burning bridges, Tremblay brings up specifics and puts the names of the most biased offenders out in the open by talking to a wide selection of pundits and thinkers who have lived both inside and outside of the corporate media structure.
Dork Shelf caught up with Tremblay yesterday to talk about the links between American government and the media, what his thoughts are on the current state of the FCC, and just how hard it is to make your first film about such a huge, largely unspoken concept.
Dork Shelf: I think that everyone who works in the media has that one moment where it finally dawns on them that everything is somewhat corporatized. Going back in your own history, was there a particular moment when you realized this was the case?
Jean-Philippe Tremblay: I started working in media about 20 years ago, and it was always a dream of mine when I was a teenager to become a filmmaker and to make documentaries. I started in the industry as a grip, a gaffer, a lighting technician – that kind of thing. I started doing that in Ottawa and I did that for a few years and I worked on that pretty independently. At the same time I was always part of film co-ops and that sort of thing. Once I started getting stuck within the actual industry about two or three years into it, it was about it being a job where you have to join a union, and that sort if thing. I guess that was the first time where I noticed that in the media – and in any industry, I think – that there’s some kind of a structure that’s organized either by a type of governmental structure or a corporate structure. I think we all go through that, but that’s the moment that I really think of.
DS: It’s one of the things you don’t really learn about much in school when you decide to go into the media arts.
JPT: Absolutely. That’s one of the great questions. How are these schools set up, and what are they teaching you? Schools are kind of responsible for putting students out into the workforce, and they have to get them ready for the reality of the subject. So on the one hand, you have to get a job where there has to be a form of self-censorship, or on the other you can think that you do something that you can dedicate your life to and be passionate about. It’s always a bit of a mixed bag.
I think that when we speak of the media monopoly, it’s about the massive influence that they have on our society and our culture, and ultimately it effects everything from the news we get right down to our government institutions. It’s produced the world that we have today. If we look at the western world, and in England where I live today we are asking questions about News Corp. and what’s going on over there. We’re involved in wars where people still don’t know exactly what is going on. These are very narrow, very conservative governments, and on the other side of that we’re starting to see people protesting against that around the world. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens, but we’re living in that time now.
DS: It’s a part of this whole information war that’s been going on since the Nixon era, and especially during the 1980s with the cold war when the line between PR and news sort of disappears.
JPT: Yeah, and speaking of that time, in the film we have an example of how the Regan administration at the time was fighting Communism in Nicaragua, and there’s this case where the Contras are fighting alongside the United States to kind of take away the democratically elected government. A journalist names Gary Webb was trying to uncover how the Contras were involved in drug trafficking in the United States. So we do have examples of that.
DS: And that story is a good example of how a community can understand what’s going on when the rest of the media shies away from it, since the crack cocaine epidemic was kind of an extension of that.
JPT: Absolutely it was something that people in the community were aware of. There were protests all over the country. In Los Angeles, thousands of people were coming out. Maxine Waters, a congresswoman, was at the head of a lot of these rallies. Even one of the pundits we had in the film, Norm Solomon, had organized protests in support of Gary Webb and against the mainstream media. The people do know what’s going on. It was also very much an internet story, because it was one of the first to be really published where you could click on something and see how the research was done and see thousands of articles and court hearings that Gary Webb had accumulated to write this piece. It’s groundbreaking work, and it’s amazing how with the structure of media and government that they can still brush aside an integral Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who had written such an amazing piece.
DS: I think that’s something that ties into the rise of citizen journalism and blogging today because they are more in tune with that sense of community than a lot of mainstream outlets are.
JPT: I think that people are finally reacting to the media monopoly in a new way. People have been protesting since the beginning of time. In the film we show how in 1934 there was a telecom act that was signed that gives the airwaves away for free to corporations like NBC and CBS at the time, when before that the public owned them. Recently what has happened, and particularly with regard to the Iraq War, and how the mainstream media reacted to that, exposed blatant lies about what was being written about. It was information that could be so very easily uncovered, but it wasn’t allowed in a lot of mainstream press. That made people really stand up, whereas before they might have known about it, but the acting up around it wasn’t nearly as huge. Now with governments acting the way they are and following the economic crash of a few years ago, it’s making more people stand up. I think we will see right now with what’s happening in the UK with News Corp. and with the Wall Street occupation movement that’s happening and we can see that in Quebec with the students that have been protesting and they’ve been on strike. I was there for a week before we came here, and that’s all anyone is talking about.
DS: Your film talks a bit about the corporate and political interests of the FCC. Do you think there’s any way as it’s currently structured to save the FCC?
JPT: Well, the FCC was put in place to look out for the public interest. I think they try, but when it comes times to make changes and implement new rules they shy away. It’s a good question, because they’ve also always been there for the corporations in a way. A good example is how at the FCC hearings before the public to speak about media ownership, by a large margin people were standing up and saying how they were fed up with these monopolies. One corporation could own up to 80% of the news and television stations in a particular community, whether it was in Portland, Maine or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or Tampa Bay, Florida. I went to all these cities and heard all these people, and after a year of hearings at the time the FCC chairman Kevin Martin actually gave more ownership power to the corporations, telling them they could own the newspaper, the radio, and the television stations in one market. That’s a rule that’s gone back and forth, actually. Even before Kevin Martin’s time when Michael Powell was there. I think they should be looking at the public interest, but they kind of fall short in that mandate.
DS: Another thing that you touch upon in the film is that the media has seemed to dumb down their coverage and what they think people can handle. Do you think that’s another huge problem when it comes to media’s relationship to special interests?
JPT: I think these media corporations would definitely prefer to have this dumbed down audience that’s trained to consume instead of these active citizens that are politically inclined and can make decisions for themselves. I think that’s a huge part of the media complex; to not ask very many questions so that people can look the other way. It’s quite amazing when we talk about the media monopoly, it’s staggering to think about the kind of businesses that these news institutions are really involved in. It’s amazing that these same companies could own the media, as well. There are conflicts of interest right from the get go when dealing with companies that are involved somehow with arms proliferation and nuclear armament.
DS: There also seems to be this climate where the media thinks that people can’t really handle the economics of things.
JPT: Yeah, which is terrible, because I think the population can handle anything, really. I mean, most of us know how to read and write and add numbers. There’s a political and social climate that’s different in every country, and when we go to the United States as opposed to Canada and some places in Europe you start to realize that maybe people there aren’t as socially and economically aware of what’s going on. I think that’s a product of the monopoly. Mind you, this same monopoly exists all over the world. I just think that It’s quite amazing how powerful it is there with comparison to other countries. There’s a lot of stories that are headlines that make news around the world that aren’t allowed to penetrate the echo chamber of media in the United States.
DS: Now when you go to make a movie like this and it’s your first feature length film and you’re going at a topic that’s so big, where did you choose to start from and how did you decide what you wanted to focus on?
JPT: Good question. Like I said, I had been in this industry for about twenty years, and this opportunity to make a feature film came up and we were first inspired by a book called The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian, but it was a massive subject. Here’s the biggest superpower in the world, the United States of America, and backed by these massive corporations who have been existing for decades with all this power in the very field we are trying to work within. It was an amazing subject to take in, and you just start investigating what was in Ben Bagdikian’s book. That’s the challenge of this whole film. Yes, we have this information, but how are we going to relate this to an audience.
At the time when we started back in 2007, the FCC hearings were happening, so that was something that was serendipitous for us, so we started following those hearings around and we got to spend time talking to these people in these communities who were speaking to the FCC at high schools and community centres and in front of selected panels with members of the government and journalists, and that was a really great introduction for me to see what the United States was and how they felt about their media.
What I also wanted to include were journalists who were actually experienced in working within the media monopoly and knowing what its like to try and report on an important story dedicating their time and effort out of their lives as both journalists and citizens, and when it comes time to publish that report or broadcast it they get stopped by a certain power, be it by the American government or by the corporations they are actually looking for. We have six examples of that in the film where these journalists lives are turned upside down.
DS: Is there anything that you would have liked to have included that didn’t get a chance to make the final cut of the film?
JPT: That’s another good question. I’m extremely proud of the film we’ve produced, and there’s always that part of you that thinks you can make all these adjustments well after the fact. You would love to just say you could make a five hour cut of it with all this information and research, but that’s kind of endless. But then again, you have to follow the structure that’s proceeded us. A film is about an hour and a half to two hours and we didn’t want to get too far from that with the amount of time that we were given and the stories that we had. We wanted to try to make the most powerful film possible. Something we believed in. Something that would honour the people that contributed to this film, because most of the 38 pundits that we talked to are mostly award winning journalists that have dedicated their lives to independent news. We wanted to honour them and the work that they’ve been doing, and create something that actually has a chance to bring about changes.
Come back later this week for another special interview with media critic and Shadows of Liberty featured pundit Jeff Cohen for his take on the film and his own personal experiences inside the American media complex.