The New Journalists

Laura Poitras, Rachel Grady, Marshall Curry, and Meredith Vieira


It was the topic of conversation that drew Brooke and I to the most recent fundraiser for the Maryland Film Festival: “Are Documentary Filmmakers the New Journalists?”

If the answer is yes, then the next questions are, “Whatever happened to the old journalists? Whatever happened to the patient newsmen, forged in stoicism and objectivity, who made an honest attempt to be our trusted conduits for information? Did such a breed of journalist ever really even exist?”

The deepening commercialization of network news along with the decline of print and surge of online media outlets is drastically changing the way that information is disseminated. Maybe the better question to ask is what do the new information channels look like? Traditional journalists are still around though they’ve been joined by a host of bloggers, filmmakers, digital media enthusiasts and a growing population of citizens armed with smart phones and all manner of documentary gadgetry. The truth is that we’re approaching an age when all of us have the potential to harness the attention of an audience and deliver any message they’re willing to accept. The question then becomes what happens to the notion of objectivity?

The Maryland Film Festival provided an excellent opportunity to hear from accomplished filmmakers and journalists on the subject of the current state of media and where it is going. Here’s what we learned.We asked veteran journalist and co-anchor of NBC’s Today Show Meredith Vieira about her feelings on the subject of the news organizations who seem to feign objectivity and the bloggers, filmmakers and DIY publishers who don’t seem to be beholden to the concept at all. Her response was, “as long as you know they aren’t trying to be objective I think it’s fine. What’s scary is when something pretends to be objective and they’re pushing an agenda.”

“When I was growing up you went to Walter Cronkite and now people go to Jon Stewart. He’s a comedian who’s becoming the journalist of choice for a lot of young people. I don’t know whether they don’t trust the news anymore or they’re not sure if what they’re hearing is the truth. I think sometimes they rely on outside sources and that may be a failing of the networks.” –Meredith Viera.

Personally, I believe organizations like Fox News have single handedly sealed the fate of the 20th century television news model. Their commentators have the right haircuts and don the same suits and ties that traditionally framed the guise of respectable anchors though it seems their purpose is not to inform but to manipulate. What’s worse is that Fox News may have inspired other news organizations like MSNBC to borrow their warped version of journalism thus fulfilling the right wing’s expectations of a biased liberal media. I identify with Keith Olbermann as much as the next forward thinking American but I would rather have him run for office than try to hard sell his opinion wholesale as the most recognizable face of a news agency. No one plays the role of angry American zealot better than Bill O’Reilly and to try to match his rancor while injecting intelligent discourse only muddies the spectacle of O’Reilly’s rants and thus diffusing its idiocy if only ever-so-slightly.

John Waters and Richard Chisolm

Rachel Grady

Having made a film accused of pushing an agenda, Rachel Grady has first hand experience in the debate over objectivity. In 2006 she released Jesus Camp, a controversial film that gave the world a glimpse at an organization that was indoctrinating children into religious zealotry.

What’s interesting about the claim of bias, in this instance, is that many of the most compelling moments in the film are scenes that captured common situations that occurred in the camp. Behavior that seems perfectly acceptable to the subjects of the film is the very conduct that much of the world found disturbing. In this example, the camera actually operates at a level of objectivity that editorial is incapable of. The need to expound upon what we see isn’t necessary.

“My personal position is you should try to stay as true to the story as possible,” stated Grady. “It’s about being really honest with yourself and when things are pushing the edge in an uncomfortable way you have to police yourself and make sure you’re sticking to your own personal ethics.”

After the release of the film, Jesus Camp closed due to the public outcry. I’m going to be completely biased and say, right on. Incidentally, Rachel Grady was also one of the directors of one my favorite documentaries, The Boys of Baraka

Marshall Curry and Laura Poitras

“To me the journalistic standards are about being accurate and about being truthful and not taking things aggressively out of context.” –Marshall Curry

“I think with documentary filmmakers, they go in to learn things. Often times there is a change in my perspective once I begin the process and then that unfolds. It’s a bit of a fiction to imagine that journalists don’t have a point of view. There is an effort to be accurate but there is always an underlying point of view.” –Laura Poitras

Jed Dietz Director of the Maryland Film Festival

If I had to guess at what differentiates documentary filmmakers of today from other modern journalists I would say that it seems that they experience a deeper level of intimacy with their subjects. These story tellers aren’t only living inside their films as they’re being shot, they’re also raising money and dealing with all of the things that could classify them as an entrepreneur, to a certain extent, though they stop short at maximizing profit. Instead the payoff seems to be the illumination of whatever it is filmmakers feel passionately about sharing. You have to respect that.

In an age when the power to deliver information is being hijacked for profit and manipulated to do anything except uphold the truth, documentaries are still a place where a story can exist independently and for the sake of honest exploration.

Skizz Cyzyk and Richard Chisolm

Incidentally, we ran into two documentary filmmakers who weren’t on the bill but are producing films locally. Though I haven’t seen either of their latest movies I fully intend to. To find out more about what they’re up to just click on their names. This is the part of the story where we plug the hell out of whatever we want.

Steve Schwartzman – MMF Board Chair, Daniel Karches, and MFF Operations Manager Rhane Alexander.