Is Judge Russell Engebretson participating in the mediacracy by attempting to shape public opinion through this review?
"They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality…and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening." George Orwell, 1984
1984 is no longer a date in the future.
The central thesis of this documentary is that the media system is now just a subsidiary of transnational corporations. From that perspective, filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas explores the ramifications of concentration and vertical integration of the media and asks several questions. How is news reportage affected? How much influence do media lobbyists have over federal communication policies? Does the corporate media reflect public opinion or create it? As one might expect from the documentary's title, the answers are highly critical of what is sometimes referred to as the mediacracy.
The filmmaker does not try to dazzle the audience with fancy camera work and exotic locales; the film mainly consists of a series of talking heads, along with inserts of newspaper headlines and occasional footage of Washington DC locations (Congressional hearings, Congress, exterior shots of the White House, and so forth). There are also edited tapes of speeches given by filmmaker Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) and BBC journalist Greg Palast (author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy). Pappas gathers together all the facts and figures to support his narrative, and then attempts to engage the viewer's intellect by interviewing knowledgeable media critics. Two of the more notable interviewees are Robert McChesney (author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy) and Charles Lewis (former 60 Minutes producer and director of the Center for Public Integrity). McChesney is an expert on the history of American media and one of its sharpest critics, while Lewis draws his media expertise from years of working in the broadcast industry. What they say about the corporatized fourth estate is depressing and frightening in about equal measure.
"The most powerful special interest in Washington today is the media," says Charles Lewis, "because not only do they lobby and give money…but they of course control whether or not a politician's mug gets on the tube. Now that's power. That's the ultimate power in the political realm—controlling perceptions." Lewis also mentions in a 2003 interview that corporate media lobbyists spent $11,000,000 to keep free airtime provisions (free airtime for politicians during campaigns) out of any legislation that went before Congress. Their efforts were quite successful. Robert McChesney covers the free airtime issue in more depth in his additional commentary on the disc's extras. He illustrates what a weak reed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has become by discussing how Congress dealt with FCC chair William Kennard in the late '90s. Kennard proposed a modest program that would provide free campaign time for candidates on the air prior to elections, so if they couldn't afford advertising, they would at least have a chance to reach the public. He broached the idea that perhaps "we should have free campaign time as a condition for having a broadcast license, since they're getting these valuable licenses for free." Kennard said he traveled around the country in his first few months in office, and wherever he raised the subject in any sort of public group, he received enthusiastic response across the board. Regardless of political outlook—liberal or conservative—people felt that it was a great idea. But he said that after he announced his intentions in Washington, it was "as though I had set off a neutron bomb." Members of Congress told the FCC to back down from its attack on the broadcast industry's biannual cash cow, or the FCC would face full hearings on whether it deserved to remain in existence. He was taken to breakfast by a couple of (unnamed) old friends who were powerful in Washington and told him that if he continued, it would end his career. "Isn't this ironic?" says Kennard. "Something that, once you leave Washington, everyone loves, but as soon as you're in Washington big money so controls the reins of debate that it's not even an issue you can raise. It's simply off the table."
The foregoing is a good example of why so many people distrust the government today. Lewis states that in the '60s three in four Americans trusted their government. Today it's one in four. He says, "The level of secrecy and the amount of money in our process is greater than it has ever been…People sense, I think, that the financial elites and the political elites have become one and the same, and that the people themselves have no voice in Washington or in their state capitols—that they are somehow being left behind." This documentary asserts that a watchdog media, with journalists committed to investigating the ties between government and powerful moneyed interests, is vital to democracy; making institutions accountable for their actions would help to renew public trust in government. Instead, in America today we have media outlets owned by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Sony, and the Disney Corporation, beholden to nothing but the bottom line. Five or six corporations own all the media: television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and the movie and music industries. The seeming multiplicity of choices, the hundreds of magazines to read and television channels to watch, are owned by a handful of super-rich individuals. That kind of monolithic ownership is a recipe for corruption in any industry, but a media monopoly is fatal to a democratic society.
As for the DVD, sound and picture are completely acceptable for a documentary. The dialogue was easy to understand, even in the 1980 black-and-white video footage of a Pappas interview with New York Post city editor Peter Mitchelmore. The extra features are simply extended interviews with many of the film's participants, but they are an excellent source of additional information. They run for 75 minutes, which brings total film time to just over three hours.
Some of the publicity I read about this DVD made much of Michael Moore's appearance, implying that he was a major player in the film. In fact, he is not even interviewed. A few clips from a speech he gave are scattered throughout the movie, primarily for entertainment value. Moore is an entertaining commentator who has done a couple of good films, but this documentary is more serious in tone and diverse in its voices than the typical Moore film, so don't rent this if you're only expecting the latest Michael Moore film. On the other hand, don't avoid it just because you dislike Moore; his presence is quite minor. In the end, the documentary is a fine journalistic investigation of media journalism. A blurb on the back of the DVD keep case sums up the film succinctly: Orwell Rolls in His Grave explores what the media doesn't like to talk about—itself.
This DVD is a must-see for anyone interested in how the media creates and shapes public opinion. It presents a vivid and troubling picture of how U.S. public policy and democratic principles are subverted by the mediacracy for private gain. For a detailed history of the failed battle in the 1930s to keep the airwaves noncommercialized, I recommend Robert McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. His book includes a great deal of information (covering the 1930s to the late '90s) that could never be presented in a visual medium, but it perfectly complements the Robert Kane Pappas documentary.
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