Hello, Big Brother
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The one unmitigated triumph of the Bush reign has been a liberal artistic efflorescence. Not only has publishing been rescued from the quasi-literate stranglehold of the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters, with every Bush-bashing book flying off the shelves, but the documentary film as a genre has taken the leap from the higher numbered channels on the cable box to the actual theatre.
Fahrenheit 9-11 , Outfoxed, Bush's Brain , Control Room and Danny Schechter's WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) all deal with different facets of our increasingly Orwellian world, and it is no surprise that so many of them draw on the vocabulary of George Orwell's 1984 to describe what is happening.
In Orwell's seminal novel, Big Brother and the party control the past, because by doing so, they control the present and future. Enemies become allies overnight, and all evidence to the contrary is put down the memory holes in the Ministry of Truth, and new archives written to back up the current version.
Robert Kane Pappas's documentary, Orwell Rolls in his Grave , offers an overview about the reason for the resurgence in reliance on Orwell: that Bush and his supporters would spin all the way to graves, twirling on everyone else's on the way.
Pappas tries, with some degree of success, to show the skull beneath the skin of the modern media world. It is not just that Bush has excited such opposition from so many people, but that never before has that opposition been so muted in the media.
In effect all those angry people are buying in books, seeing in the cinemas, and buying as DVDs what it is increasingly difficult to read in newspapers or on the cable and broadcast channels: critical coverage of what is easily the most partisan and doctrinaire administration of our generation.
The first theatre screening for Orwell Rolls in His Grave was at the Angelika in Greenwich Village in July 23. There were no red carpets, no velvet ropes or cloud-illuminating floodlights, and the director, Robert Pappas, only turned up towards the end – in obligatory baseball cap rather than black tie. Which is just as well really, since just a few minutes of exposure to the performance, with pixilation and bad synching, had him as indignant as a thought policeman whose telescreens are on the blink. It was the equipment, they decided after subsequent tests. He pledges clean copies for future viewings, of which there should be many.
The film's thesis, laid out carefully and dispassionately, connects the 1980 election's October Surprise and its effective burial by a deferential media by easy stages – via the stealing of the Florida electoral college results – to the performance of the Federal Communications Commission under Michael Powell, who has tried to take the monopolization of American media even further than it has already achieved. The implication is that the media are returning the favor.
Orwell shows how words become their opposite in the hands of the perpetually braying party line. It was indeed a chilling foretaste of Fox- and MSNBC-style news. On the Scarborough Country show, Scarborough recently denied point blank that the US had ever supported or condoned Saddam Hussein's barbarities during the Iran-Iraq war – condemning the mere suggestion as unpatriotic.
Of course, a quick look at the archives will give lie to his assertions. But a lot more people look at his type of show than go moseying around in archives, whether paper or electronic. In fact, Big Brother was intellectually superior to George W. Bush. He worried about history and reshaping the past while W. neither knows nor cares about it, confident that the constant torrent of skewed media coverage will enhance the contagious amnesia that already affects so many American viewers and voters.
Pappas' film connects the way in which events disappear from public view with the corporate control of the media and its values. In effect, as deregulation has concentrated media ownership, its power has grown unchecked. It will not, of course, report on itself with any objectivity, and not only has deregulation weakened any government controls over it, the power of the media over political careers has led to a disastrously unhealthy and incestuous combination between them.
Since deregulation ended even the appearance of balance, direct intervention by proprietors in newsrooms, even in music selection, has now become unsubtle and obvious. Pappas shows how the media consensus effectively killed the full enormity of the stealing of the Florida election results, just as they buried the strong evidence of Republican collusion with the Ayatollahs over keeping the hostages until Carter had lost the election.
A perennial problem with low-budget documentaries is how to escape from the talking head format – and another is to find new talking heads. Michael Moore, who has made a film or two himself, appears in Pappas' film, along with many of the people who are ubiquitous on panels on the future of the media – Danny Schechter, Bob McChesney, John Nichols, Mark Crispin Miller, and more.
That said, however, what these heads are singing becomes a swelling chorus, and Pappas points out that his film has been out there, at festivals under construction, even before many others in the current crop. "You could say it's the sharp base of the pyramid," he smiles.
In fact he began the film several decades ago, when as a film school student he took his camera in to interview the city editor of Murdoch's Daily Post, Michael Mitchelmore, and discovered that, serendipitously, it was his last day on the job, and so he was accordingly outspoken about the direction the paper was taking.
The other reason for talking heads was an outcome of the very process the film illuminates. He had hundreds of hours of B-roll, but getting permission, even paying it for it from the Fox TV's of this world would have been a difficult task.
The people who claim fairness and balance would litigate "fair use" into a corner for what he proudly claims is a "basement film." He adds "That's literally where I made it." It is of course a problem that has beset many recent documentary makers working on Bush.
Perhaps the most chilling scenes of doublethink and duckspeak are of the proceedings of the Federal Communications Commission when Michael Powell and Kathleen Q. Abernathy, stone-faced, claim a first amendment right of free expression for monopolies to control the airwaves, although Joe Klines of Fox News was almost as spooky with his knowing leer as he discusses news values. I checked up on Abernathy, who does a creditably robotic imitation of a Stepford GOP party host, and found that her concern for free speech did not stop her waxing paroxysmic at the glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple.
Let me quote her: "Americans should not have to tolerate such a gratuitous display of nudity. Broadcasters should have more respect for their viewers and exercise a greater degree of social responsibility than what was shown last night. I am pleased that this Commission is opening an immediate investigation into last night's broadcast. I hope that we can be responsive to the concerns raised by the American people by addressing this matter expeditiously."
This is a woman who, as Pappas' film shows, could ignore the unprecedented hundreds of thousands of objections to handing Murdoch a potential media monopoly, who can watch with equanimity as the small stations are newspapers are swallowed up and harnessed to a swelling tide of xenophobia and war. And a nipple worries her?
Pappas ends with a warning. The Internet offers an alternative. But for how much longer before the FCC, under the guise of deregulation hands it over to the same people who control the cable, broadcast, TV, radio and print media?
Orwell is indeed the right reference for how chilling such collusion between politicians and the media moguls. "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever," is indeed scarier. But much more effective and dispiriting for human progress is having a Scarborough, or a Limbaugh, or an O'Reilly, braying lies on your screens – forever.
Ian Williams' work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Nation, and Salon.