Shadows of Liberty is a documentary indictment of America’s media echo chamber. The film’s title is inspired by a quote from American revolutionary journalist Thomas Paine, “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.
Canadian Director Jean Philippe Tremblay’s film has methodically analyzed the crisis of democracy that is the dearth of actual news reporting in the American corporate media.
Cautionary tales from the corporate media
Shadows of Liberty begins by telling cautionary tales of three journalists whose careers were destroyed when they refused to let go of stories their corporate masters wanted spiked.
Roberta Baskin reported for CBS and broke the story of corporal punishment at NIKE sweatshops in Vietnam. After that story put the massively profitable NIKE on the hot seat, she got in closer with the assistance of a Vietnamese labour organization. But then CBS and NIKE made a deal over the Olympics, and her story has yet to see the light of day. Instead CBS sports reporters wore parkas bearing the Nike swoosh on camera during that Olympiad. Baskin left CBS soon after.
The second story involves another CBS reporter, Kristina Borjesson, who was tracking the story of TWA flight 800 which went down in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island in 1996, killing all 230 aboard. The 747 passenger jet may have been downed by accident by the US Navy, who were engaged live fire exercises in the area where the plane went down. Numerous witnesses reported a missile fired from the surface striking the jet, and US Navy forces sped away from the crash site rather than assisting. According to the film, CBS spiked the story at the request of the FBI. Borjesson lasted about another week at CBS.
The third story of reporters being undermined by the corporate news media is the most poignant. Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. He meticulously documented the story of the connections between Nicaraguan ‘Contra’ guerrillas and the start of the crack epidemic in the United States. This was one of the first stories to be broadcast online with all of its supporting documentation. Because he was reporting from a paper in San Jose, the print gatekeepers the Washington Post and the New York Times did a hatchet job on the story and Webb himself. Even though a CIA report eventually verified Webb’s assertions, his own paper turned against him. He was unable to find another reporting job and eventually committed suicide.
Media and the military-industrial complex
Another revealing aspect of Shadows of Liberty is that many important stories simply never get told. FBI whistle blower approached various news outlets regarding the fact that a US government official was being investigated for selling nuclear secrets. Even in the era of WMD obsession, she was ignored. Finally she had to turn to Daniel Ellsberg (who had blown the whistle on the manufacturing of consent for the Vietnam War by releasing the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times), in order to achieve just enough publicity to just protect herself.
The nexus of the military-industrial complex and the news media is very accurately laid out in Shadows of Liberty. The deregulation of policy restricting media ownership began under Ronald Reagan, a former spokesperson for GE, a defense contractor. Westinghouse, another defense contractor, bought CBS. And while Colin Powell was making his case for invading Iraq to find Iraqi WMDs, his son was in charge of the Federal Communications Commission and busily deregulating the last rules limiting media concentration. As consent was being manufactured for the Iraq War Michael Powell went as far as to call the news reportage “thrilling”. So much for a concern for the public interest.
The concentration of media caused 35,000 reporters to lose their jobs. That’s 35,000 less people looking to add to the information that is the lifeblood of democracy. The Internet and citizen journalism was seen by many as the way to fill this vaccum, but this is not likely to happen. The free Internet is not expected to survive this decade. The corporate news media are also the five biggest internet service providers, and they are in the business to make money and not informing citizens.
The decline in the diversity of media sources started under Reagan, continued under Clinton, and is not likely to slow under the Obama administration whose promises of maintaining net neutrality appear to be empty. Shadows of Liberty ends with a call to action to protect the Internet which, like documentary film and comedy, is among the last forms of media where information still flows free.
Beautifully shot and replete with artful graphics and animation, Shadows of Liberty stands on its own as a beautiful artifact. The musical score by Tandis Jenhudson is hauntingly industrial and a perfect accompaniment to the story of the production methods for today’s news product.
The talking heads — Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Ellsberg, author Chris Hedges — are well selected and edited for a concise presentation of their thoughts.
Artistry, cinematic or otherwise, and clear-eyed political vision rarely come this close together. Shadows of Liberty as a film, and Jean Philippe Tremblay as auteur are both definitely newsworthy. Stay tuned.
Shadows of Liberty screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, which runs until May 6.
Humberto DaSilva is a union activist whose ‘Not Rex Murphy’ video commentaries are featured on rabble.