This isn't a newsflash when I publicly declare that we're constantly bombarded by the noise of politicos professing their strategic talking points, super-coiffed cable news anchors revealing the next in the never-ending tale of salacious details on the celebrity scandal-du-jour or seeing another splashy headline on the newsstand or by way of a tweet sent to your feed courtesy of your most reliable, go-to media outlet.
What we may not realize (or refuse to admit it) is that most often than not, it's all orchestrated chaos brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood multi-national corporation.
This is exactly what director Jean-Philippe Tremblay revealed in his debut documentary Shadows of Liberty. After having done the global film festival circuit Shadows of Liberty finally landed in Toronto as part of the acclaimedHot Docs Film Festival.
And it's quite the debut.
Hailing from Quebec, Tremblay hones in on the mammoth American sound bite-driven mainstream media world. A world that's now a bullhorn for blue-chip corporations, government policies and hold high regard for the dollar. A world where five companies (yes you read that right -- five!) own 90 per cent of American media.
Shadows of Liberty tells this story by skillfully threading together media's game-changing moments from the Founding Fathers' declaration of its freedom in the 1st Amendment, all the way through the decades, as media morphed from one ideology (dictated by government deregulations and the profit margins of global conglomerates) to the next. The "Knowledge is Power" idiom is endlessly redefined to ensure that it holds the best interest of the corporate backers and their political power players at heart.
Mainstream media is today's propaganda maven.
Shadows of Liberty is one part history lesson and two parts, true, uncensored investigative journalism of an irretrievably broken media system of these United States.
The film includes actual footage from unseen reports, candid recollections by journalists who battled for the truth with their bosses and corporate entities and valuable insights from leading notables from the "independent" media world as well as activists, including news icon Dan Rather, Editor-In-Chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Democracy Now's Amy Goodman.
A meaty presentation, which shows that today's round-the-clock news coverage aren't as random as it may seem.
When Tremblay started working with DOCFACTORY, a UK-based production company, he wanted to keep with the company's mission of making "movies that matter". While searching for the perfect project for his first film, he chanced upon a book, The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian, which detailed the complicated courtship between the global conglomerates and American media. He knew he was on to something when at the exact same time, in 2007, the FCC announced a series of cross-country town-hall type public hearings to listen to local citizens' concerns about the state of media ownership. It was media manna from heaven. Tremblay and his team filmed all of the FCC hearings, which spanned for over a year and a half. They were witnessing first-hand testimonials from irate consumers who expressed their frustration at being fed news, which were thickly coated with corporate, and government spin. "That was really was what set us off," Tremblay noted. "We were able to hear people talk about the media and see the conflict as well."
This set the foundation and for the next five years, Tremblay and his team worked towards building it. Shot by shot. Stat by stat. Story by story. Shadows of Liberty finally hit the international film circuit in February 2012.
The true grit of this film is Tremblay's ability to zoom in on six American journalists who candidly recollect battles with bosses over specific news angles that flew in the face of corporate interests of the media outlet. Often leaving their story on the cutting room floor and them without a job.
Each tale would reveal the sordid details on what would happen once the story hit a wall of resistance from the upper echelons of the outlet's management. These aren't small town-buried-in-the-back-of-the paper type of articles. They were major revelations with national and often global impact. In the mid 90s, CBS's handling of the NIKE child labor controversy in Vietnam, and their coverage (and government aided cover-up) of the downed TWA plane, which crashed mid-flight en route to Paris from New York, set the tone. Then there was the remarkable journey of The San Jose Mercury News' reporter whose own investigation revealed ties between the crack-cocaine epidemic in the US and the American-backed Contras during the Nicaraguan war in the 80s. The latter two instances were even more astounding as not only was media in the pockets of corporations (literally) but they were glaring examples of the American government's hand in using the media as an instrument where their version of "the truth" were to be conveyed. The grand-daddy of all examples of media playing the part of the government's echo-chamber was during the hard sell to go after Saddam Hussein and his WMD. Remember? Exactly.
Prime time propaganda perfected.
The Power Of Silence
Tremblay recounted instances, when word got out that the media monopoly by Corporate America was the focus that he was honing in on, the reaction was also worthy of it's own screenplay.
Tremblay recounted the journalists' initial reaction when invited to talk on camera, often prompting them to ask, 'Do you really want to do this because you will put yourself on our side of the line?'. They lauded his intention but still wanted to make sure Tremblay knew what he was in for. Not everyone was eager to go there however. "We talked to a lot of journalists but they abstained from talking to us because they were scared of losing their jobs, putting their jobs at risk or putting anyone else around them at risk."
And when it came to gathering footage and research, well the hurdles just kept popping up everywhere. Tremblay understood that the innate part of being a filmmaker was the ability to problem-solve, however nothing prepared him for the roadblocks he would encounter when doing a film directly aimed at America's corporate powerhouses, who pretty much ran the show. Even a simple run-of-the-mill request for footage proved to be not as "black and white".
"They know the footage exists. It's a run-around scenario 'I'm sick' or 'I'm not in today.' Then you ask yourself 'What's going on here?'."
The most deafening noise was the silence. "They have the power to ignore." Tremblay puts it. When the film was ready to be submitted to various global film festivals the noticeable silence by the American festivals was hard to ignore. "We weren't invited by any main or even medium sized film festival in the US." Tremblay explains. "Then you ask, 'Why were we invited by some of the biggest film festivals in the world, Hot Docs here in Toronto, IDFA in Amsterdam, Sheffield in the UK and other festivals on every continent in the world? No one comes out and says that 'Your film is too political' but you start asking yourself this question. There is this strange vibe in America and you start asking yourself 'Are we living the story -- or the nightmare -- that we are putting up on the screen?' Probably -- yes."
The 'Freedom Of The Press' Façade
The peculiar downplaying of the 1st Amendment (Freedom of the Press) as compared to the current off-the-wall passionate pleas for the 2nd Amendment (Right to Keep and Bear Arms) has not been lost on Tremblay. The "Freedom" reference in the American constitution is specifically aimed at the government, banning it from interference or censorship. However since the 80s, the American government has been very strategic in using media for their message, deliberately ensuring that the public doesn't know too much. "The less we know about what corporations do and the less we know about what the government does, the more they are able to maneuver for their political goals and profitable goals." Notes Tremblay. As the film reveals, the statistics speak for themselves. In 1996 when The Telecom Act was signed into law by then President Clinton, it cleared the way for media conglomerates to go on a shopping spree, snapping up any media outlet (be it print, television or radio), forever changing the media landscape. That year, Disney and ABC merged, valued at $19 billion USD. Three years later, Viacom and CBS merged at $80 Billion USD and just a year later, in 2000, AOL and Time Warner merged at $182 billion USD making it the largest merger in history.
And in a slick Quid Pro Quo move, the film also noted, that between 1998 and 2005, $400 million USD was doled out by media giants, on lobbying and political contributions.
So it's safe to say that the once revered 1st Amendment was sold to the highest global bidder.
The Fate Of 'True' Journalism
The frontier of real truth and real journalism lies in the hands of the growing world of independent journalists. The internet is the new safe haven for real news devoid of any corporate spinning, damage control or government pruning. Social media plays a heavy hand as the world now has access to different media viewpoints, most notably Al Jazeera's skyrocketing global popularity during their live stream coverage of Arab Spring is an obvious example. And the public backlash which erupted when this past summer Time Warner dropped Current TV from its roster just hours after it was sold to Al Jazeera is another example on the citizen's awakening of their thirst for varying global perspectives.
The recognition of this 'independent' journalistic community and that real news does exist is what Tremblay hopes people will recognize and support when watching his film. "That's why we did this film, so people can become aware and start gravitating towards [those] who actually practice journalism and aren't putting a political or financial agenda ahead of the truth. It does exist. But other challenges are there. These corporations spend a lot of money to make sure that their laws benefit them and give them a lot more control. We can either sit back and be passive or actually participate in some way and spend our money on independent media as opposed to mainstream media."
Shadows of Liberty is being screened at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival with plans to screen in Ottawa and Montreal.