“I’m the slime oozin’ out from your TV set” – Frank Zappa
Tis a shame that Zappa passed away prematurely in ’93–for one thing, he would’ve been a great source for Shadows of Liberty, a mass-media documentary now playing at the Bloor. The mother of all Mothers of Invention was a staunch critic of censorship, famously naming his 1985 album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention in response to the ridiculousness of the PMRC. Alas, while this Canadian-directed doc isn’t about music, it largely deals with the issue of self-censorship by major media conglomerates, painting CBS in a particularly bad light. Hey, I’m sure the songwriter of “I’m the Slime” would have something to say about the news today–if nothing else, he’d have made a more authoritative subject than Danny Glover, whose inclusion I found puzzling.
Alas, while “I’m The Slime” was written and recorded in ’73, it hardly seems dated, as many of its lyrics ring true today. By the same token, many of the examples used in Shadows of Liberty were from events that took place in the mid-to-late 90′s–which isn’t to say they don’t still hold water. Then again, it’s probably pretty hard to get active reporters to denounce the parent company on camera, even if similar docs, such as Outfoxed, were able to dig up more modern material. (I take it Fox News doesn’t have a very high retention rate…)
Nevertheless, it’s still pretty impactful to get the straight goods from the source’s mouth; in this case, sources like Roberta Baskin, whose story on Nike sweatshops was swept under the rug after Nike dangled major sponsorship dollars towards CBS’s coverage of the 1998 Olympics. In fact, the network backpedaled so hard that all its correspondents wore jackets emblazoned with a highly-noticeable Nike swoosh during the Nagano Games. Also running afoul of The Eye in that era was reporter Kristina Borjesson, who had received some evidence to suggest that the tragic TWA Flight 800 might have been shot down by a U.S. Navy missile. But CBS, which was then owned by Westinghouse, a major government contractor, quickly handed the evidence over to authorities, who would later state publicly that there was no evidence to show a missile had hit the plane.
Shadows of Liberty also touches on the tragic tale of Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter who broke the story of a Nicaraguan Contra cocaine smuggling ring supplying crack to the streets of L.A. Being that the Contras were backed by the CIA, this was a pretty contentious piece, which was initially discredited by major news organizations, and eventually by the Mercury News itself. Never mind that the Hitz Report later confirmed Webb’s findings–he was shunned by the journalistic community and unable to find work as a reporter. According to the documentary, this led him to take his own life in 2004.
But while these three somewhat-dated examples show how mainstream-media self-censorship can cost investigative journalists their careers, the film doesn’t deliver as strongly when it moves on to other topics. For instance, after a long preamble on how the Iraq war was a total shamble (which isn’t exactly news to anyone by now), the film suggests, almost as a footnote, that public support for the war was strongly influenced by the uncritical coverage of the Bush Administration’s testimony by several high-profile New York Times reporters. Not only are they lacking the strong primary sources for this piece (inside perspective comes from just one former NYT editor), but they don’t even present evidence as to how influential the Times really is, aside from some statements by a couple of media studies professors/fair-reporting foundation heads. Now, I may be as Canadian as Shadows director/writer/producer Jean-Philippe Tremblay, but as I recall, Operation Iraqi Liberation wasn’t an incredibly popular war, so I think the point was somewhat lost.
Likewise, a vignette about how the NBC series “How to Catch a Predator” drove an assistant district attorney (who reportedly had a thing for young boys) to his death, while certainly tragic, seems somewhat misplaced, as the overall narrative to this point doesn’t dwell much on “infotainment” news. There are some earlier clips showing coverage of Anna Nicole Smith and some Fox News doofus asking Sarah Palin about ordering a frosty at Wendy’s–but aside from the Dateline bit, we don’t really go down that road. Also, the film was clearly completed before any of the News of the World news broke, so while some are suggesting the film has been given a boost by the latest major media scandal, there is really no rapport between phone-hacking and this documentary.
With all that being said, I think Shadows of Liberty would’ve benefited from a tighter focus. The fact that large corporate conglomerates control the mass media isn’t really new or shocking to most people. It’s how they suppress critical reporting and investigative journalism, in particular contentious pieces pertaining to the government or major advertisers, which is the real story here. A couple more timely examples (hey, I heard CNN recently made major cuts to its investigative reporting team) and we’re golden. Just don’t expect any Oscar nods, cuz, y’know, that’s all controlled by major corporations, too.