It’s the job of the press to keep politicians and the rich and powerful on the hot seat, something the powerful don’t enjoy but should realize is a vital counter-balancing force in democracy. Sometimes their roles, as now, get reversed, and we see the powerful putting the press on the hot seat.
That’s the view of “investigative cinematic journalists” exploring Indie Documentary Journalism at a TalkBack panel Saturday, part of the 16th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival.
Director Brian Knappenberger’s film, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” explored the tangled story of the gossip blog Gawker’s publication of an explicit sex tape of pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan and his suit against the blog, which won him $140 million in damages. It was revealed that the suit was financed by billionaire Peter Thiel, who was outed as gay by Gawker in 2007. The suit caused Gawker to go bankrupt and out of business.
The film explored the covert purchase of Nevada’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a Republican bankroller and biggest donor, at $125 million, to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Showing many Trump anti-press video clips, Knappenberger excoriated Trump’s “bizarre political rise,” much of it based on “attacking and threatening journalists” and branding them as “an enemy of the people.”
He added, “He has demagogic tendencies in that regard … but I’m optimistic. Journalism had gotten too cozy (with the powerful). There is nothing like a common enemy to invigorate the media.”
The film’s message is that antagonists with unlimited money can buy desired outcomes regardless of the factual stories the press tries to publish.
"Fake news" is nothing new, said Knappenberger, and was seen in green-lighting the Iraq War. “The beast is a multi-headed monster. We’re being fed it by a dark group, outside of political groups and we don’t know anything about them. Not enough people are talking yet. The Citizens United decision threw open the floodgates for dark money. It’s gone from limited to unlimited cash … We believe in transparency but we can’t have it without controls on campaign finance.”
Knappenberger noted the threat of such “systemic changes, that are eroding democracy … The media represent the people, but polls show the media is hated by the public. There has to be a reawakening that it stands for the people,” and Trump is working against that.
Panel members said indie investigative journalism serves a purpose that’s more in-depth and longer-lasting than the press, but is hampered by the fact that changes are so fast that a film, which takes a year or two, can be out-of-date by the time it’s released.
Cullen Hoback’s “What Lies Upstream” explored West Virginia’s massive stream pollution, enabled by lax laws and oversight, with scores of dangerous industrial chemicals (many from the coal industry) being released, but in such small amounts as to stay off the radar screen. If barred from putting them in the air or water, the film said, they would surreptitiously dump them on land — however, they were soon washed into streams by rain.
The story came to a head when one exotic chemical made water smell like licorice and no one would drink it. As the movie neared completion, the story of dangerous tap water in Flint, Michigan, blew open, and Hoback was able to incorporate its problems and politics.
With recent political changes, the lax nature of pollution controls in West Virginia have become similar at our national levels, “putting big business over the health of the people. It’s unabashed recklessness and they don’t care now if we see the relationship between corporations and the government. West Virginia is a reflection of what America is about to become.”
Hoback added, “At the national level now, anything that could harm them (politicians), they will lie about it or cover it up. The system is really changing people, instead of people changing the system.”
Hoback says he would love to see a return to transparency in government because it would restore people’s faith in democracy.
Kirby Dick, an AIFF alumni filmmaker, noted an “element of urgency,” adding that, since the election, the documentary film has displaced the art film on the ladder and “politics is in everything.”
Texas filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez, who is filming the impact of tightened rules on undocumented immigrant families, showed clips of mothers expressing their shock and worry over the Trump election.
“He is an abnormality, not a traditional Republican, and no one in media or politics was behind him,” she said, “so I see the role of documentary films is to prevent normalization of him, with rights being taken away … Fake news makes this a dangerous time … and we have to find ways to combat it.”
Panel moderator Carrie Lozano, director of the International Documentary Association’s Enterprise Documentary Fund, observed, “The bureaucracy, Democrats in Congress, the media — if three or four of them, including some Republicans in Congress, happen to push the needle, I have a lot of hope in the young, that they don’t want this bull----.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.