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Documentaries: The Last True, In-Depth Journalism

In 1996, Congress opened the door for media mergers. It has led to a plethora of independent newspaper, magazine, book, recording, radio, television, and film companies being dragged into what are now five major media/entertainment conglomerates: the Walt Disney Company , News Corporation (now News Corp & 21st Century Fox), Time Warner, CBS Corporation, and Viacom. As mergers continue, other conglomerates are forming.


Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen

Over the 10 years following passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996—as I watched from my news editor’s position with Back Stage, a New York trade paper—I began to witness a stifling of information’s flow and limiting of journalists’ ability to investigate and provide in-depth news coverage. It has now reached the point of corporate control where even Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen had to tell The New York Times he was including a censored story in a new book. Learning this, the Times decided to report the story it had held and refused to publish, a move only to save its embarrassment. The Obama administration is now threatening Risen with jail if he doesn’t reveal his source for the story about the Central Intelligence Agency—basically spitting on the Constitution and press freedom.

Witnessing the vastness of corporate takeover and information control, I also realized America and the world possess four remaining sources for independent news voices: independent book publishers, Internet blogs, low-power radio, and primarily documentary film.

Why primarily documentaries? Two reasons:

  1. The world, and particularly the younger generation, appears to be reading less. Rather than carrying books around, although surely the newer generations access eBooks, they primarily grasp iPhones. They rely on listening to music and sharing brief texts and summaries rather than reading longer documents which connect dots; prefer acquiring news from the Internet quickly, rather than reading in-depth analysis; flock to YouTube and Hulu for music and entertainment. Also graphic novels—comics presented in book form—have become highly popular.  The middle-aged and older generations still gulp their TV news—now designed primarily for entertainment—but also clasp their iPhones for calls and text communication. Low-power independent radio currently only draws small audiences of limited interest.
  1. Our society’s tendency to be in a hurry, to prefer the fantasy of entertainment to the reality of hard news, requires a special medium that can catch and hold the distracted mind. And this society’s distracted mind has been weaned in film: incessant TV commercials and ease of access to feature films.

So, to me, it seems the one savior for attracting the distracted and clarifying what’s truly going on in their world—the reality—is this: documentary films. Independent documentary filmmakers are necessarily dedicated to covering subjects in depth, to take chances, even imitate “Star Trek” on earth by going where man has never gone before. They can stimulate while they inform, and capture the attention and imagination through the reality of the visual image. And, perhaps most important: hold the memory.

KonTikiI still recall being introduced to my first documentary film when I was eight years old. My mother worked at The Prospect, a neighbohood theater in Little Rock. It briefly featured “Kon-Tiki,” which recorded Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl crossing the Pacific Ocean—from Peru to Polynesia—on a balsa wood raft called “Kon-Tiki”, along with five inexperienced crewmembers. Images of the black-and-white adventure film—which won an Academy Award—stay with me today.

It’s just one example of how documentaries record humans living, and even surviving or dying, in their environment, and hold us with these true images. And documentaries can do more—primarily by connecting dots of experience, imagination and dreams to show us realities of our essence, our history, our present, and our future possibilities.

Perhaps no film has done this better than “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” Carl Sagan’s 1980, 13-part science documentary which follows the origins of life to our current existence, and to visions of what might lie ahead. Its power led his student Neil deGrasse Tyson to pay homage by updating the series in 2014.

I’ve also been drawn to two other documentary series, one dealing with our artistic essence, and one with our insane capability to suffer and perhaps annihilate ourselves:

With the splendid 2007 four-part “This is Civilization” art critic Matthew Collings traces human evolution from ancient Egypt to modern day through our art. He shows in Part One the turn from Egyptians—carving on rocks their images of gods with bird heads and human bodies—to the Greeks, molding three-dimensional sculptures of gods who look just like humans, while asking of their civilization, “How shall we live?” Collings answers that in Part Two by showing revolutions in nations and in art, primarily through the work of the French Revolution’s artist Jacques-Louis David and the Spanish painter Franciso Goya.


John Ruskin

Part Three honors John Ruskin, the insightful, impactful 19th century British art-and-society critic. Collings explains how Ruskin saw, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the beginnings of civilization’s devolution: a turning from dependence on God and nature to an addiction with greed, money, and subservience of modern society. It was then, Ruskin saw, and Collings seems to agree, that we turned from humans who cared for our souls to machines, that don’t care about our spirit. Collings titles that episode “Save Our Souls.” He believes Ruskin still may have the key on how to do that. In Part Four, Collings explores how our art today shows us centerless and in search of who we are.

CNN produced a documentary of great impact in 1998, before the corporate control of news really took hold: “The Cold War”. In January, the network surprisingly re-aired this dedicated, exhaustive look at humanity’s destructive nature ranging from World War II through the rest of the 20th century. I’ve repeated this belief: the network should re-air it often, and also distribute its 24-hour, six-disk DVD package internationally to schools.

This vast reporting effort paints the clearest picture—through both news films and interviews with eye witnesses—of man’s senseless inhumanity to man, as well as the sadly laughable insanity of nuclear weapons and the arms race. It is the apex of how a documentary series should inform humanity.

There are, of course, as many subjects for documentaries as there are humans. Valuable films reporting of news and history, such as American Coup. Produced by Matador Films and directed by Joe Ayella, the 53-minute film traces the Central Intelligence Agency’s 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democracy, the U.S. effort to regain control of Iranian oil for the British, leading to the forming of British Petroleum.

USA - Politics - Economy - Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson

Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson

The gutsy “Frontline” news series—aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS)—consistently produces responsible hard-news documentaries, probably none better than 2012’s “Money, Power, and Wall Street.” It’s a four-hour exhaustive, detailed effort to connect the bones of America’s 2008 mammoth financial-meltdown skeleton: a yeoman’s effort, piecing together a chronology to the economy’s collapse and the major factors involved. The producers also lined up an extensive gallery of players ranging from Wall Street execs, bankers, politicians, lawyers, and economists involved in the quagmire.

There is Shane Salerno’s startling documentary simply titled “Salinger,” which seems to be the only word you need to introduce a film about an author whose novel Catcher in the Rye has been read by millions of people worldwide over five decades.

I could go on and on about powerful documentary work covering biography, history, science, politics, war…the list seems endless. It is, I believe, what makes documentary filmmaking the last true, in-depth, and most accessible journalism.



Roger Armbrust

Roger Armbrust's articles and columns have covered labor and management, Congressional legislation, and federal court cases, including appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He formerly served as national news editor of Back Stage in New York City, where he also taught a professional writing course at New York University. His recent book of sonnets -- oh, touch me there: Love Sonnets -- is available from Amazon and other book sites. He is an associate curator of The Clyde Fitch Report. He is also co-founder and co-curator of reality: a world of views.

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1 Response

  1. Bill Howell says:

    Thank you again Roger – possessor of one of the sweetest jump shots!

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