When the Media Fails: Documentaries Post-9/11 – Merle Streck

Merle Streck is a third year History and American Studies undergraduate at the University of Manchester. She grew up in Hamburg and moved to New York just prior to 11th September 2001.

When the Media Fails: Documentaries Post-9/11

Put in its simplest terms, there’s really only one thing people want from the news: the truth. But when the media fails to report the truth, who will step in?

Whether its viral videos of Jon Stewart and Russell Brand humiliating CNN and Fox News anchors for their unprofessional and biased reporting, or gun enthusiast Alex Jones’ temper tantrum on Piers Morgan Live, US media outlets have often been a common target for ridicule. We can laugh about these videos now, but in fact, history has proven that the issue is more severe.

The unbelievable rise of political documentary films after 2004 was no mere coincidence. Films such as Fahrenheit 9/11(2004), Why We Fight (2005) and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004)while vehemently criticized by some for their “manipulative” and “dishonest” nature – aim to expose the truth about events leading up to and following the US invasion of Iraq.

Scholars and political scientists have pointed to the early 2000s as the time the media faced its most serious crisis. Jeanne Lynn Hall puts it mildly stating that the media at this time suffered a “dereliction of duty.” Call it what you want, but the point is, someone messed up.

The corporate media, namely those media outlets owned by large corporations such as NBC/General Electric, CBS, or Murdoch’s News Corporation, has been known to promote the interests of those institutions that own them. It just so happens that the interests of Murdoch-owned Fox TV and print outlets include advancing the right-wing agenda of the Bush administration contributing to the rise of what Douglas Kellner (2005) refers to as the “ever-growing right-wing Republican media machine”.

The failure of the media also takes centre stage in Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. As the film’s narrator, Moore describes how Bush’s friends at Fox News more or less secured a victory for Bush, by prematurely declaring him the winner of the presidential election in 2000. Throughout the film, Moore accuses the Bush administration and the corporate media of manufacturing a state of fear in American society in order to justify its military occupation abroad. Consequently, a narrative was constructed that contrasted the liberated West against the “uncivilized” Middle East. In promoting this image of the Middle East, the Bush administration was able to justify policies enacted during the War on Terror and America’s invasion of Iraq.

Even though Moore allegedly received a 20-minute standing ovation at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival where the documentary was first shown, critics were quick to rear their heads. Nevertheless, the film led to an outbreak of documentary films dealing with the 9/11 era. “We owe it all to Michael Moore”, claims Director Jonathan Demme, who praises Moore for proving that documentaries can provide an entertaining experience.

Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight (2005) is a more conventional, quiet documentary compared to Moore’s temperamental and louder film. In that sense, the two films almost complement one another. As the title suggests, the film sets out to answer the underlying question in 2003: why is America fighting and what is it fighting for? The beginning shows multiple sequences of different people of various ages being asked this exact question. Their answer: We are fighting for freedom. Jarecki wasn’t happy with this answer and attempts to set the record straight. The film goes on to make it abundantly clear how misinformed the American public was at the time war was declared on Iraq.

The success of these political documentaries says it all. Fahrenheit 9/11, the most watched documentary of all time, grossed at a staggering $222 million worldwide. Of course, this success also signalled that American public in particular, were looking for alternative ways to inform themselves post 9/11, when the media failed to uphold its duty. 9 out of the 10 most successful US documentaries of all time were released after 2000, an indication once again towards the growing significance of political documentaries and their proliferation. According to producer and filmmaker, Lorie Conway, documentaries appearing after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq “filled a press vacuum” adding that “filmmakers have become a source of alternative explanation for the war in Iraq and the news coverage of it, as well as critics of the administration’s policies”.

If Moore revitalized the significance of documentaries in mainstream Hollywood, then filmmaker and founder of Brave New Films, Rupert Greenwald is responsible for spreading the word at a more grassroots level. Releasing and promoting his documentaries on websites such as MoveOn.org, Greenwald made his films available to the general public at a very low cost. Highly critical of the right-wing Rupert-Murdoch media machine, Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism was the only one of his films to receive a theatrical release.

Not only were American filmmakers tired of the mainstream media’s misleading news broadcasting, but they sought alternative avenues to communicate their political message. Greenwald and his associates organized screenings of documentary films, inviting union organizers and civil activists to speak at these events. The filmmaker has therefore proven that political documentaries can and must be seen as a source of social activism.

Of course, what also sets these documentaries apart from news broadcasting is their ability to entertain. Moore determined from the outset of his filmmaking career that traditional documentary films had the tendency to be too dull, running the risk of boring the audience. He states mockingly: “We need more documentaries made by people who hate documentaries”, highlighting filmmakers’ need to excite and the audience’s desire to be captivated. An informative feature-length documentary simply wouldn’t cut it.

So maybe my assumption was wrong. What people want from the media and the news isn’t just the truth, but also entertainment. Like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, Moore recognized that a combination of satire and education constituted the perfect tools to inform the American people.

With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves: is the media, and more specifically, news broadcasting facing a crisis when these programmes on Comedy Central – though extremely clever and educational – become a more reliable source than some mainstream news outlets?

Moore certainly recognized a crisis in the 2000s. Whether his way of attempting to expose the truth was “manipulative”, even childish according to some critics, is still up for debate. There is no doubt, however, that the success of documentary films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 have dramatically shaped the way political ideas can be conveyed on the big screen.

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