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July 25, 2004

Orwell Rolls in His Grave

In the wake of the controversial Federal Communications Commission decision to allow further media consolidation, several documentary films have emerged to explicitly or implicitly challenge media deregulation. Perhaps the most prominent (and problematic) recent example is Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed, which sought to uncover Fox's distortions of the news. However, I left my screening of Outfoxed somewhat unsatisfied (despite my original positive review). By focusing solely on FoxNews and Rupert Murdoch's media empire, I felt the other Big Media companies (Time-Warner, Viacom, etc) essentially were handed a "get out of jail free" card. I'm well aware that Fox wears its Republican agenda on its sleeve, and it's necessary to crticize Fox for its distortions, but criticizing FoxNews actually plays the game they want to play, allowing them to spin CNN and network news as "liberal." In a sense, it gives FoxNews a permanent home field advantage.

In that sense, I found Robert Kane Pappas's documentary film, Orwell Rolls In His Grave (IMDB) to offer a far more important and powerful critique of media consolidation. Grave is a much more somber, serious film than Outfoxed, and instead of targetting a single media organization, Pappas's film takes on the media system in general.

Pappas underlines his arguments using concepts taken from George Orwell's 1984, which I'm embarrassed to note I haven't read (although I can talk about it in vague terms). Using the Orwellian concept of double-speak, Pappas takes on the language used by many mainstream media outlets to re-frame how audiences will perceive certain news events. Perhaps the best example of this is the sequence in which Pappas traces the coverage of Bush's repeal of the so-called Death Tax, which was portrayed as effecting middle class families when only the wealthiest 1-2% of all estates pay any tax. However, Bush portrayed the estate tax as the state ransacking small business owners and middle class families of their small savings.

More importantly, he discusses the ability of mainstream news media to bury news events that might be harmful to the interests of the corporation that owns the news network. Grave illustrates this ability using the example of the 1980 version of the "October Surprise," in which people working for Ronald Reagan's election team secretly met with the Iranian government to negotiate a delay in the release of American hostages until after Reagan's election was secured. Pappas also uses Greg Palast's (blog) important research on the nightmarish election controveries during the 2000 election in Florida (including, but not limited to, the conflict of interest represented by Katherine Harris's positions as Bush's campaign manager and Florida's Secretary of State).

Perhaps the major weakness of the film is that it is a little too soft on Democrats, as this excellent review by Ron Kaufman points out. After all, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which gutted media regulation, was passed on Bill Clinton's watch, and many Democrats have helped pass legislation that was supported by lobbyists from the National Association of Broadcasters.

The film's argument that the problem is systemic is effectively supported by interviews with media scholars Mark Crispin Miller and Robert McChesney, as well as Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders and Center for Public Integrity founder Charles Lewis. Orwell Rolls in His Grave is an important film and desreves to be seen more widely. Unfortunately, this film will not likely receive the publicity given to a star vehicle such as Fahrenheit 9/11 or an anti-Fox screed (and I mean that in the best possible way) such as Outfoxed. Orwell is playing right now in a few major cities (including Washington DC's AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center). I had the good luck of seeing the film at a special screening here in Atlanta organized by Georgia for Democracy, and it was great to connect with others after the movie over coffee, ice cream, and other goodies at Ashtons, where the screening was held.

Update: It's also worth noting that the Big Networks will only be showing just a few hours of coverage of this year's political conventions. Talk all you want about cable broadcasts or lower ratings for the conventions, but this is important stuff. Lots of people can't afford cable or choose not to subscribe. I refuse to pay for cable or satellite TV, and getting access to news about the conventions is going to be more difficult for me as a result. We're about to elect the leader of the most powerful country on the planet, and a large perceentage of the U.S. population is only going to have access to just 3 or so hours of made-for-TV coverage from each convention. [End rant.]

Posted by chuck at July 25, 2004 11:59 PM

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