Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
~A. J. Liebling
One of the most fascinating and important scenes in Watkins nearly 6 hour (the shortened version) masterpiece La Commune (Paris, 1871) is when the established press (print) discusses with the burgeoning Commune TV* crew about the nature and goals of journalism. They argue over the nature of television news and its relationship to the worker’s uprising and the establishment of La Commune de Paris (the temporary socialist/anarchist government that ruled Paris in mid 1871).
The question on the table is why the television team doesn’t dive more deeply into the issues and, in particular, focus on the debates raging within the new government about its policies and procedures. The short answer is that serious debate just isn’t appropriate to the nature of television. This is the same concern we have today.
At its inception Commune TV was all enthusiasm. They had taken/stolen some television equipment and started covering the revolution like some community television crew – great ebullience and limited technical knowledge.
Here the two reporters, male and female (as apposed to the single male reporter for national television), introduce themselves. Alongside them stands a representative of the revolutionary press.
Commune TV gets many of its ideas from the press. In some ways they become a kind of mouthpiece for the revolutionary newspapers, but they also back away from getting too deep into the issues. Their goal is to primarily give voice to the citizen revolutionaries. So they provide lots of individuals’ opinions and talking heads without a lot of organization.
The national television station provides the “official” perspective on the revolution. This perspective represents the traditional bourgeois and ruling class interests. Its format and style is much more professional and apparently reasonable, conveying ideas and perspectives in a droll monotone as though they are merely unarguable facts.
And here is the scene in which the revolutionary press argues with Commune TV about how they cover the revolution and why they don’t present some ideas critical to the raging debates about the new government and its direction.
The answer given by Commune TV is essentially two parts, 1) They don’t want to cover anything that isn’t import, thus censoring their coverage based on what they like and don’t like, and 2) They don’t like long, drawn out debates, rather they like short, exciting pieces that keep people interested. In this way Commune TV provides a kind of in-the-trenches, embedded revolutionary news while following some of the assumptions of the national news about the television medium itself. Thus, what we find is that both the national television news and the commune’s television news provide limited and distorted perspectives on what is happening.
La Commune (Paris, 1871) is a remarkable film. It is a far more important film than its largely unknown status might indicate. It will never be widely popular because it does not fit the mold of popular films, but it is both mesmerizing and challenging. By raising the questions of what is the role of news and, in particular, what is the role of news in a time of revolution (war), this film calls us to re-evaluate the present. We are in a time of revolution. There are those today who, with unprecedented corporate power and military might, are seeking to shape the world according to imperialistic philosophies of power. This is truly revolutionary. And the mainstream media plays along. I would argue that we need another revolution, one that is not based on imperialism, “might equals right”, corporate greed, or nationalistic patriotism – even if the words freedom or democracy are attached.
If this is brought up in polite conversation many will say, “I just don’t see it.” At least that has been my experience. But we are often like fish in water when it comes to our own culture. I think of it like the visual puzzles that look like one thing, but if you stare long enough, and maybe with someone guiding your vision a little, you begin to see the “buried” image hidden within. Look behind our popular media and you will find amazing and troubling things.
That is why I like Democracy Now.
Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now.
Democracy Now is just one outlet, but a great one for alternative news, and this is not an endorsement, just a statement of fact. Other outlets include The Guerrilla News Network and Truthdig.
What then is the role of independent news? The following video is one of the most powerful examinations of how the media and the Iraq war have and continue to go together like hand and glove. Without an independent media, without other sources of news, how are we to know what is really going on in the world? How are we to realize that when we think we understand even the basics we too easily don’t?
*Just in case your were wondering, television had not yet been invented in 1871. Watkins uses this creative device to draw comparisons with that era and ours, and the to highlight the relationship of news media to truth.