May 2, 2003

Battling Weapons of Mass Deception: A Filmmaker Armed Only with The Truth

From Jon Alpert's film 'Bridges to Baghdad,' which aired on WordLink TV on March 24. Photo courtesy of DCTV.

Jon Alpert may be the bravest filmmaker I've ever met. Like most documentary filmmakers, Jon finds himself drawn toward untold truths. And in the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq, anyone who was watching the news knew there wasn't a whole lot of truth to be found. The networks scraped for any bit of information, and the drumbeat of an impending war seemed to drown out any chance for deliberation, discussion or reflection.

Perfect fodder for Jon, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker—a 12-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, and former NBC correspondent. He then moved into long-form docs and became one of a handful of filmmakers to work time and time again for Shelia Nevins at HBO. His Life of Crime was a raw, honest, not-entirely-easy-to-watch documentary about a culture of crime and the people who live in that desperate culture. 

In 1991 Jon managed to weasel his way inside the lines of the Gulf War and record pictures of carnage, war and destruction that were unlike any images you've seen from that conflict. He returned with the story, and expected that any number of networks would race to put it on the air. But it didn't happen. Why? Hard to say. Some broadcasters don't like airing pictures that aren't shot by their people, some probably didn't like that Jon had some feelings about the pictures he took, making him less than objective. But Jon learned a lesson-don't expect the truth to find a way on TV during wartime. It may not be "in the national interest."

Which brings us to March 16, 2002. That's the day that Jon and some of his co-workers at DCTV arrived in Baghdad. The lesson Jon learned in 1991 was never to give up, to try harder. To get the truth out.

What Jon pulled off was remarkable by any measure. He was able to bring six college students from the US and six college students from Baghdad together, with war on the horizon, and create a dialog. It was hooked up live, via satellite, without an Iraqi censor. And not only was there an open and honest dialog, but he was able to spend time with the Iraqi kids in their homes, at their schools, with their friends and parents, without minders! As the US networks found themselves unable to get access or get to "real Iraqis," Alpert had gained extraordinary access and remarkable human stories. As a filmmaker, he did what the networks could not.

 Then he returned to New York and began the process of looking for a network to be his broadcast partner. He'd decided that he'd be more successful showing networks a finished show, rather than try to generate interest in something that would be difficult, maybe impossible, to pull off.

But now he had a journalistic coup—a rare and important film that chronicled the debate and discussion between Iraqis and Americans. It was a slam-dunk.

Only it wasn't. He tried all the networks. He tried cable. He tried music, teen, even public television stations. The reasons were different, but the answer was always the same: This didn't fit the "agenda."

When the Defense Department announced that it would provide a mechanism to "embed" journalists, anyone who cares about the First Amendment should have felt a chill run up the spine. We know what happens when you let the newsmakers set the rules for how they're going to be covered. Stories that fit the agenda get through the filter, stories that don't are sifted out. In principle, networks can say that yes, they've had to make some compromises with the one guy who's been "embedded," but they'll make up with balanced reporting from their other voices. In practice, that doesn't happen. No one at Defense would have wanted to see Iraqi kids on TV, putting a human face on the enemy just days before a war. And no network wanted to risk airing a dramatic and emotional piece of material that could risk the relationship with the military.

Finally, brief segments of Bridge to Baghdad were shown on Good Morning America and MTV's TRL.

Of course, I don't know this for sure. What I do know is that everyone who saw Jon's film was gripped by it. 

Jon's story is disturbing...and memorable. But I've got 20 more—of filmmakers who feel that being an independent (non-embedded) reporter could mean risking their lives; of networks that pull out their own correspondents, but count on freelancers to get the story out; and of public events at which more than 100,000 average citizens show up to exercise their democratic rights to free speech, but the media focuses on the 22 counter-protesters who stand on the sidelines hurling insults and threats.

Remember the story about how to boil a frog? If you put the frog in boiling water, he hops out. But, if you put the frog in warm water and slowly turn up the heat, he doesn't notice until he's boiling.

Footnote: WordLink TV, a satellite  channel, reaching over 19 million homes, did agree to air Jon's film on March 24, as a launch for Chat the Planet, a series that is currently in production in New York, South Africa, Jordan and Australia. Executive producers of the series are Laurie Meadoff and Kate Hillis of NextNext Entertainment, with funding from the Shei'rah Foundation, which co-produced and funded Bridges to Baghdad.

 

Steve Rosenbaum's company, Camera Planet, has hired a number of non-embedded journalists to cover the war. He can be reached at steve.rosenbaum@cameraplanet.com.

Tags: