Shadows of Liberty, a film by Canadian Jean Philippe Tremblay, focuses on how media ownership is becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer global conglomerates. The film directly associates this trend with the corruption of journalism’s ability to provide information to enable ordinary people to govern themselves, the power of journalism held up by Tom Paine who influenced the writing of the US First Amendment protecting freedom of the press.
The film gives examples of journalists running into problems with their employers so that stories aren’t aired or investigations are blocked. An ex-CBS news reporter, Roberta Baskin, relates that her film about conditions in Nike factories was never shown once CBS agreed sponsorship from Nike during the 1998 Winter Olympics. A journalist investigating the 1996 TWA 800 air disaster and the possible links to an air strike by the American Navy is found to have obtained a piece of evidence illegally, which their employer CBS hands over to the FBI.
The film also includes David Simon discussing the fact that newspapers are run purely as businesses with product to sell, trying to achieve efficiencies by cutting numbers of journalists, and with no sense of public service in providing news, all themes explored in series five of The Wire. Further on, Shadows of Liberty looks at exploitative shows such as To Catch a Predator, which combined a film crew and police force carrying out entrapment activity to lure online paedophiles to a venue to meet with a minor. All the examples provided are cause for concern, but not necessarily always for the reasons given. The film tries to bundle them together as being caused by media ownership concentrated in the hands of a few conglomerates, but it can’t do that neatly. On the one hand there is the predictable quote from James Murdoch about profit guaranteeing an independent media. On the other hand, when the story of TWA 800 is covered, it is apparently CBS ownership by Westinghouse with its connections to large government contracts, that is the problem. Money, from either corporations or government, is problematic, and no solution is presented to this issue. The film harks back to the past when there were more owners of newspapers, and to before the US airwaves were first sold off, but there isn’t any attempt to portray this as a golden age.
It’s a shame, because the central idea of Tom Paine, of liberty, free speech, no issue undiscussed and debated, is sound, but it is as if we no longer really understand how to defend it, so we need to distract ourselves with a series of episodes at which we can boo and hiss. One audience member in the questions and answer session with Tremblay afterwards said the film could be shown as part of a Friday Night Horror Show.
Running throughout the film is a strong current which is completely at odds with Tom Paine’s belief in the good sense of ordinary people to be able to run their lives. This manifests itself in two ways. Firstly there are several references to people being controlled by the media in both thought and imagination. The media apparently want us to be mindless consumers. At the end of the film, quotations from Malcolm X and Noam Chomsky portray the media as all powerful and the main reason as to why there is no stable ideological opposition in the US. There is no question that as consumers we might wield some power and that the media might be desperate to find and keep audiences and readers. The fact that running newspapers isn’t very profitable, and taking over other areas and getting rid of the competition is typical business activity, whatever the business, is not explored.
Secondly, there is no discussion of politics, only of government. There is no differentiation between which party is in power, or any acknowledgement of political movements that have changed things in countries where media lockdown is far more total than in the US. The film mirrors the media it criticises. It contains a sense of a sort of ever present situation, unchanging, apart from slowly getting worse, although the only vague indication of where things started to get worse is a reference to the sell off of the airwaves. It also mirrors the stagnant political scene which is actually a cause of much of the seeming omnipotence of the media, and its desperation to actually engage us.
There is little broader context given, which is a shame, considering David Simon, who has made his career from showing the subtle interweaving of different institutional forces and their failure, is interviewed. So for instance, the example of To Catch a Predator could have explored the rising fear around paedophiles and overprotection of children which has come about as we have grown more isolated, suspicious of each other, and risk averse. The outcome of one particular episode of this series, the suicide of Louis Conradt who was relentlessly pursued by the filming team and police, is tragic, but the overly simplistic equation profit motive plus sensationalist media equals killing people, equally so.
Strangely enough for a film which starts off with a reference to pamphleteer and propagandist Tom Paine, its blurb on Hotdocs.ca asks ‘has our commercial world caused us to lose our one most precious commodity of all, unbiased information?’ This is the second bizarre aspect of the line of argument that the film tries to put across - that there is somehow a kind of neutral journalism of pure facts, unsullied by any partisan viewpoint, of which we are deprived because of corrupting commerce. The film covers its hostility to money under this fig leaf of wishing for beneficent neutrality for all our sakes. Of course, there has never been an age of pure objective journalism.
A better film would have made the case for unfettered journalism without being precious about who pays the journalists’ wages, recognising that journalism is part of freedom of speech, and that its expression of ideas that are not neutral contributes to wider political debate. There is actually a bigger problem at work than the concentration of ownership, or capitalism trying to achieve efficiency by making journalists redundant, and that is the undermining of freedom of speech world wide, and the resulting self censoring of the readers and viewers, which means we struggle, like this film, with defending journalistic freedom of expression in all its distinctly opinionated and argument causing glory.