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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism


By definition, the word anonymous means, according to Merriam-Webster Online, “not named or identified,” “of unknown authorship or origin,” and “lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability”. These are three fundamentally different definitions, and the first two raise problems for journalists. 


When anonymous means “not named or identified,” a reporter knows the source’s name, credentials, or other vital information, but the source chose to remain anonymous for important reasons that include personal safety, job security, classified information, political affiliations, etc. The reasons are not always nefarious nor do they reflect the authenticity or accuracy of the information itself. If information from anonymous sources is accurate and credible, a reporter may owe this anonymity to the source if the reasons are justified. When anonymous means “of unknown authorship or origin,” a reporter does not know the source’s name, identity, credentials, or other vital information. This type of anonymous source should raise caution flags; however, those flags don’t automatically mean the information is unusable. If reporters investigate the information and find it credible and accurate, it still may be publishable.


Tagged as: annonymous, sources
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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007
by Mark Bowden

Just about 10 years ago, when I was working to present a 29-part serialization in The Philadelphia Inquirer of what would become my book Black Hawk Down, we had some discussions about presenting the story at the same time on the paper’s Web site.


At the time, it seemed like a fairly simple task. To the extent I thought about it at all, I figured it meant we would just display the text of the story each day online, along with the rest of the paper’s offerings. That was when Jennifer Musser (now Jennifer Musser-Metz), a young woman who worked for the online edition, stopped by my desk to ask me what sort of research material and documentation I had for the project.


I had been working on it for years at that point, and had piles of audiotapes, notes, documents, radio transcripts, photos, etc.


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Monday, Jun 18, 2007


This is clearly a week to thank your favorite higher power of choice for the existence of a company called Criterion. If you had to rely on the standard studio DVD decision makers, you’d get nothing but second tier theatrical titles and usually unnecessary ‘special edition’ cash grabs. Since their inception almost two decades ago, the cinematic artform’s number one advocate has been doing its best to preserve important films while introducing unknown and forgotten movies to the post-modern audience. More importantly, they understand the value of context and do their best to fill out their packages with as many explanatory extras as possible. On 19 June, this dynamic distributor will deliver three prime examples of their production policy. One is a renowned work of ‘60s social commentary. The other two introduce a new voice to the ever increasing motion picture mix. In all cases, the results defy standard digital convention and provide an approach to film rarely seen in your standard release.


If…- The Criterion Collection


The English boarding school system is a setting ripe for motion picture allegory. Therefore it’s no surprise that Lindsay Anderson’s class conscious metaphor of youthful rebellion taken to extremes remains a strong socio-political statement. In fact, it more or less fell out of circulation once the awful events of Colombine suggested a vague, virtually indirect connection. But no matter the pundits’ position, this is one incredibly strong motion picture. Trading on star Malcolm McDowell’s inherent wickedness (it was something that moved Stanley Kubrick to cast him in A Clockwork Orange) and the closed knit, good old boy network nature of British education, Anderson argued that the sins of the father – or in this case, the Establishment – will always come back to revisit him/them. It also complains that pain, not power, is the instigator for most violence. Thanks to Criterion’s insight-heavy treatment, the real intention of the film can be debated for decades to come.

Other Titles of Interest


Bridge to Terabithia


Disney, ever desperate to jumpstart their waning live action fortunes, teamed up with former animation giant Gabor Csupo (Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys) for this mostly successful adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s award winning children’s book. It’s not just the fantasy sequences that work here – and they’re indeed magical. This is the rare family film that has both heart and head to spare, resulting in a richly rewarding experience for young and old alike.

Miss Potter


When did Renée Zellweger become the mock Brit du jour? Granted, her work in the Bridget Jones films proves she can pull off the proper UK accent, but do the English really appreciate a born and bred Texan taking over their favorite female leads. Case in point – this rather syrupy story of Beatrix Potter, famed author of the Peter Rabbit books. Thankfully, Chris Babe Noonan makes it all go down with minimal schmaltz. 

Reno 911 – Miami


The list of successful small screen (TV) to big screen (film) translations is minute, to say the least. In the case of this Comedy Central COPS parody, the jury is still out. True fans will enjoy seeing their favorite characters cavorting in and around the South Florida setting, unencumbered by the burden of basic cable censorship. Others will wonder why efforts that manage to perfectly conform to one medium try to broach another. 

Sweet Movie – The Criterion Collection


Those preservationist experts at Criterion are apparently desperate to introduce the work of Yugoslavian surrealist Dusan Makavejev to the uninformed segment of world cinephiles. In one of two releases available, we are drawn into his world of weird juxtapositions, interpersonal propaganda, and outrageous irrelevance. Be prepared for hardcore imagery, narrative indecipherability, and self-important postulating. Clearly, these will be ‘love it or hate it’ offerings, even for the most adventurous film fan.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism – The Criterion Collection


It’s supposedly about sex. It also claims to be about politics and imperialism as well. Somewhere inside Dusan Makavejev’s half fact/half fiction take on female genitalia and fascism is a really evocative take on how we allow ideology – personal and political – to thwart our basic humanity. Or it could all be just some elaborate in-joke on the part of the director. Perhaps Criterion can clear it all up. Or perhaps not.


And Now for Something Completely Different
The Abandoned


To call the 8 Films to Die For After Dark Horrorfest a hit or miss affair is to state the stunningly obvious. At least four of the films were outright rejects (Wicked Little Things, Dark Ride, Unrest, and Penny Dreadful) while the other four offered varying levels of cinematic success. This visually dazzling offering from Spanish wunderkind Nacho Cerdà (famed for his necrophilia short Aftermath) may not be the best (that right is reserved for Grudge helmer Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation), but it definitely builds on the basic delights of The Gravedancers and The Hamiltons. In this tale of an American movie producer haunted by her past, we get mountains of atmosphere and dread. Too bad then that the story is little more than a movie macabre molehill. What could have been epic ends up simply eerie. However, in a genre desperate for anything remotely terrifying, Cerdà’s semi-success is greatly appreciated.

 


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Monday, Jun 18, 2007

After the death and possible revival of Arthur, we have to deal with yet another casualty in the zine world.  Apparently, stalwart publication Punk Planet (a truly inspiration zine that wore its heart on its sleeve and encouraged action and passion in its readers) is folding up shop.  For details, see their website.  Sad news indeed and hopefully their site will at least maintain some semblance of a community there.  I don’t even wanna think which zine might be the next one to go down.


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Sunday, Jun 17, 2007


Get ready. It’s coming. And it’s gonna be LOUD! You think the outrage caused by Fahrenheit 9/11 was bad? You think the pro-NRA responses to Bowling for Columbine were bad. Well, fellow citizens, it’s safe to say that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Michael Moore is back, and with a little less than two weeks before his latest example of “docu-ganda” (as his critics would call it) hits theaters, the groundswell of hyperactive handwringing is already in full flummox mode. For those who are unaware of the filmmaker’s latest screed, SiCKO tells the woeful tale of America’s medical insurance crisis. Not from the perspective of those without coverage. No, they’re the real lost causes. Moore isn’t after the easy target this time. Instead, he has taken aim at the bloated bureaucracy surrounding the nation’s numerous health care and pharmaceutical companies, and how it harms – and even kills – many of its supposedly indemnified customers.


As a result, pundit power is already working overtime debunking the film. Of course, that’s kind of tough to do when it’s yet to see a wide theatrical release (you had to go to Cannes to see the most recent screening). But in what many are calling a grandiose publicity ploy on the behalf of Lionsgate, the full length feature somehow was ‘leaked’ to Internet file sharing sites (or P2P protocols as they are known), giving anyone with a bitTorrent program and a relatively fast DSL line the opportunity to bootleg it. Add this to the already tenuous position taken by the Federal Government over the filmmaker’s last act trip to Guantanamo Bay and other points inside Castro’s Cuba, and you’ve got a mole hill waiting for the prerequisite media dung to help fertilize it into an untenable mountain. It won’t be long before the apologists and the activists get their prostylitizing panties in a nice big wad over the many inaccuracies, half-truths, and gross overgeneralizations the director determines are necessary to make his point.


Unfortunately, their fuel comes to an already raging inferno. Moore’s work post-Roger and Me is already a sideshow. Though many could have anticipated the carnival barker approach to its marketing, no one could have accurately predicted the unprecedented preparations to tear this man a new bash-hole. Naturally, it’s a division drawn down ideological lines (Conservative vs. Liberal, patriot vs. provocateur) and very much founded in a previous film that divided a nation. Fahrenheit 9/11 took on an incredibly popular President, argued against the leaders ‘security through force” scare tactics, and complained that America shouldn’t be invading a country that had no real designs on destroying us. Many called it treasonous and demoralizing to our fighting men and women. Even with the critical community under its belt, there were those who couldn’t cotton to Moore’s refusal to conform. What a difference three years makes.


Now, the focus is far narrower and more easily delineated. SiCKO centers its story on how the development of the HMO’s, and the privatization of medical care, created a crisis in coverage which literally destroys the lives of the very people it’s supposed to support. Horror stories of denied claims and wild, worst case scenarios are piled on top of already obvious dicta (insurance companies are in the business of making money) and governmental boot licking, resulting in a chaotic, corrupt system so steadfastly self-debasing that it really doesn’t need Moore’s help making it look bad. Indeed, what the filmmaker does here is basically call out the cads and have them readily admit their graft. The kicker is in the afterthought. It’s not that these companies commit these immoral crimes against human health. It’s that they do so with absolute – and in some case, law protected – impunity.


The second half of the film is a stroll through three competing socialized systems – Canada, England and France. Each one is presented like paradise on Earth, a place where no myocardial infarction goes untreated, where no late night fever lacks a free and easy cure. In the next few months, expect to hear citizens of these noteworthy nations debunking Moore’s many declarations. The Canadians are already up in arms (if ever so slightly) while Parisians in particular do not like the filmmakers definition of “average” (it’s in connection with a supposedly ‘middle class’ couple). By the time the Fall begins its annual blitzkrieg of cold and flu remedy commercials, the rest of the Westernized world will offer their two cents about universal health care and its many diverse elements.


But that’s not really the point with this latest round of rebuking. Moore, like outspoken auteur Oliver Stone, is a man better at the big picture than the multiple minutia that accompanies concepts such as facts and accuracy. No one is questioning the need to overhaul what is becoming a major financial, social, and emotional albatross around the neck of the world’s remaining Superpower. But because Moore makes his films out of theories first and statistics second, many like to undermine his truths without beginning to broach the core conceits. They somehow believe that if you can disprove some percentage of the veracity in Moore’s claims, the overall idea is invalid. Naturally, that’s bunk. The sky may not be purely blue (in fact, it is made up of many colors refracted and refocused by the moisture in the atmosphere – the tendency toward blue is the result of said reflecting), but calling it so is not a crime…at least, not inherently.


It’s like quarreling over semantics. Is France’s health care 100% free? Probably not. Do Canadians really have the wonderful, problem free universal coverage as claimed in the film? Most assuredly No. Is either system, from a purely fiscal approach to the patient, better than America’s cash machine mandate of money based acceptance/denial of coverage? Without a doubt. So why argue the potential faulty finer points? If you can agree on the foundation, do all the bricks have to be faultless as well? It may make for better debate, but since the opposition (the health care industry, the lobbyists, and politicians who kowtow to them) won’t be forthcoming with all their facts either, it seems only far to fight liar with liar. Yet it’s unreasonable to call Moore a fraud. In a country where expression is paramount among our rights, he is completely free to speak his mind. Equally, he must be open to those who will criticize and condemn his efforts, even when those assessments are more assertion than argument.


The current preemptive take on SiCKO is obviously a tactic taken from the unbelievable backlash experienced on Fahrenheit 9/11. In the case of the Republican Party, there was a need to protect a sitting president running for re-election. It was part of a strategy that guaranteed that no issue would set the campaign agenda unless the GOP were in complete control of it. In a far more damning documentary, Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s …So Goes the Nation, we learn that in the political trenches of each candidate, it’s war almost every second of every day. Anything and everything is fodder for advantage and opponent undermining. If, somehow, Moore had managed to gain enough credibility to sway the election, he’d have achieved a monumental democratic goal. Thanks to the massive machine in place, however, the movie had to settle for winning an international cinematic award. Toppling a soon to be unpopular war mongering President just wasn’t in the cards.


This time around, it’s all about money. Moore is doing to Aetna and Kaiser Permanente what he did to General Motors, except he doesn’t have to confront a bunch of CEOs to do so. He has hundreds of willing whistleblowers eager to expose the demoralizing practices they were part of just to earn a paycheck.  In this case, the effect is more obvious and potentially potent. We see bleary eyed citizens crying, good and decent men and women whose lives have been inexplicably altered by the big bad robber baron of the 21st century – the insurance company. It’s the motion picture equivalent of shooting puppies. It may be manipulative, but it’s effective as all Hell. And better yet, it’s the perfect visual soundbite for a nation that needs its problems pitched at a text-messaging level of meaningful or they fail to register. SiCKO is a striking, nauseating, heart-wrenching, reactionary masterwork. That can’t be good news for the people over at Pfizer.


That’s why the repercussions have been so immediate and incremental. SiCKO is going to stir some response. It’s going to solidify the many grass roots consumer groups into one big voice of the people. It will more than likely be a topic on the tip of every candidates tongue as we enter 2008 and prepare for another pointless changing of the Executive Branch guard. On the other side, there will be those so lost in the jingoistic stance of the last seven years that they’ll be unable to tolerate the constant mocking of the US system (those pesky foreigners, they just love to hate us for our many liberties). They’ll milk the complicit media for as much screed time as possible, and Moore will have to appear on various chat fests to defend himself and his artistic choices. This won’t stop the conspiracy theorists for blaming each other over the film’s web appearance, nor will it defuse those already waiting for the 29 June play date to pounce.


While the leak does go to a wholly different issue regarding piracy, copyright, and Hollywood’s hopelessly outdated moviemaking model (which technology still trumps, damn those scientists), in this case, it also stokes the raging coals surrounding Moore’s most effective film to date. If the government was wise, it would back down from the bully pulpit and let the filmmaker have his medical days in the Cuban sun. In addition, the capitalistic cranks should also tone down the rebuttal rhetoric. It’s not like the multi-billion dollar health care industry needs their defending. Its got the money, and the connections, to secure its position. No, what everyone should be concerned about is the power inherent within the moving image. SiCKO may start a real people rebellion that could wrest this issue out of the hands of special interests once and for all. It may only be a movie, but it’s already having an impact. Just wait until it’s actually released. 


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