Saturday, April 5, 2003

20 Years of Documentary Filmmaking at Your Fingertips

You can only watch so many cable documentaries about aliens and ghosts before you start to question the educational value of their programming. But you can't really blame cable networks. They have to cater their programming to the lowest common denominator to earn their pittance of the Nielsen's ratings. And among their dreary prime time programming, a few kernels of quality intelligent programs do sometimes surface. More often than not, however, I'm simply too tired, and my time too precious, to wait for it.

It's at times like these that we turn back to PBS, that much debated and oft-threatened bastion of British comedies, Yanni musical spectaculars, Dr. Who marathons and, of course, quality documentaries. Premier among them, the least biased and most consistently well produced, directed, and executed series on public television: Frontline.

Since 1983, Frontline has been PBS's flagship public affairs series. Television's "the last best hope for broadcast documentaries," Frontline has survived two decades in which television programming has become further commoditized and homogenized. Frontline programs ask uncomfortable questions, chronicle difficult and controversial subjects, and weekly probe the human experience better than any program on television today.

This year Frontline celebrates its twentieth anniversary on the air. As something of a birthday gift to us all, thirteen episodes of the award -winning series are available online, in full. Among these are some of the show's most recent and most celebrated documentaries. Among these, two episodes which best exemplify the depth of the show's coverage and style.

"A Class Divided", a classic Frontline documentary originally aired in 1984 and among the series' most praised titles, is a terrifying case study in the simple mechanics of human bigotry. "A Class Divided" shows us an Iowa schoolteacher who, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in 1968, gave her third-grade students first-hand experience in the meaning of discrimination – turning the children against each other based only on the color of their eyes. The episode follows up with the children as grown-ups, in 1984, and demonstrates a similar manipulation of adult Iowa corrections officers at a day-long seminar.

"The Man Who Knew" is the tragic and frustrating story of John O'Neill, the FBI's leading expert on Al Qaeda. In the years preceding the 9/11 attacks, O'Neill repeatedly warned the FBI of the terrorist originization's reach and intent. Ostracized and disregarded by an FBI more concerned with job security than national security, O'Neill left the FBI in the summer of 2001. In September, he took a new job and died as head of security at the World Trade Center.

The best documentary series on TV is now online. Check out some of the thirteen shows available for online viewing, among them "China in the Red", a two-hour look at the civilian level-effects of China's aggressive economic restructuring, "The Merchants of Cool", a look at the tricky game of marketing to teenagers, and "American Porn", a disturbing look into America's thriving pornography industry.

You might just learn something. fb

What's Missing from the Antiwar Argument

An editorial cartoon illustrating the confusion in America's antiwar movementCredibility, consensus, consistency.

First and foremost, this is not an editorial in support of or in opposition to our war with Iraq. This is an editorial written out of frustration. For weeks before Allied troops crossed the Kuwaiti border, the hawks eloquently spoke in Pentagon press conferences, on shows like Meet the Press, and, despite your opinion of their argument in favor of war, never strayed from their consensus agenda. The doves – suffering, no doubt, from the defection of Collin Powell – increasingly became a camp of celebrities, cowardly politicians and hippie protestors wielding giant puppets and irrelevant signs. Their argument was fractured and incomplete.

I've never understood the political fervor of Hollywood's limousine liberals. Regardless of the genuine nature of their beliefs, Hollywood suffers from a severe political-credibilty problem (blame Regan, Arnold, or Fonda for that one). Are the Dixie Chicks and Susan Sarandon the greatest political voices the entertainment industry can offer up? If so, than woe to tinsel town. Texas Country radio listeners and Florida's United Way have spoken – we don't care what you have to say.

And why should we. America should look to men and women who know the issues and know war – our veterans, analysts, and critical journalists like Tim Russert and Aaron Brown – long before considering the half-educated notions of million-dollar thespians. I love the movies, and no one makes them as well as Hollywood, but I don't value John McCain's opinions on Movie of the Year (no offence to the senator, but he does lack industry street credibility) anymore than I do Barbara Streisand's attitude toward Washington politics. Actors are just people, like you and me. They only have the benefit of a platform.

When Michael Moore – the Oscar winner for his documentary film, Bowling for Columbine – took the stage at this year's award ceremony he railed against the president and the war: a "fictitious election" has produced a "fictitious president" who is leading us into a "fictitious war". Let him speak – more than most people in Hollywood, he knows politics (though apparently not the electoral college system). It seems most Americans saw the Oscar debacle coming, though, and spoke their minds with their remote controls – this year's award show had the smallest viewer audience (30 million) since Nielsen's began tracking in the early 70's.

And France. Oh, France. I really like France and I am normally proud of my French heritage (though I'm a little tight-lipped about it now), but Jacque Chirac is a huge jackass. When he's not bullying Eastern European nations, trying to inflate his country's waning influence, or waging war in former West African colonies, it appears that he is more interested in protecting his nation's valuable Iraqi oil arrangements than upholding UN dictates. Russia and Germany are in similar circumstances (though, as a BBC columnist recently acknowledged, the world whould much rather face down the problem of German pacifism than German militarism).

US politicians have been noticeably quiet– with the exception of Tom Dachle's schizophrenic position on the war (it seems to depend on how the battle is going, minute-by-minute). Seems most Americans support the current conflict. That ends the argument for most of our esteemed representatives.

And the protestors.

I am a huge advocate of freedom of speech and public demonstration. It is the right most precious and unique in our country. It is, therefore, an unfortunate truth that a group driven to protest is often a group too poor to afford a lobbyist – and therefore have a real effect on our government.

But more than any other aspect of the antiwar movement, the organized protestors have missed the point. Carrying signs that decry "No blood for Oil" and "Stop killing Iraqi children", the protestors have marginalized themselves by not addressing the stated point of the conflict. Even a remedial education in economics and natural resource industries would have shown them the irrelevance of the first point (the US oil industry has, in fact, very very little, if anything, to gain from a war over Iraq's oil fields). One has only to look to the Iraqi regime itself to answer the second.

The real problem lies in the nature of the hawks' argument. They are saying that they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. And, for whatever reason motivates the doves, a "Save Saddam" campaign is not desired or acceptable. So what can they say?

There never was a real debate between the hawks and the doves because they never meet on the same page. And in the end, the hawks won because their agenda and their proponents were more credible and their argument more consistent. They got the troops moved into position and no one could put together a compelling and popular reason to say no other than, "We don't want to..."

The anti-war movement should keep the pressure on but it should find a real voice. Instead of blocking intersections in San Francisco, abusing their celebrity, or threatening to cooperate politically in the future, doves worldwide should find an argument that addresses their real issue – whatever that turns out to be. fb

The Dept of Homeland Panic

Where were you when the proto-Homeland Security Department announced the Homeland Security Advisory System. If you're like me, you were probably watching the news (or the Daily Show, whichever) and made that little scrunched up face we all get when our minds scream "Whaa?"

Okay. Ready? As of this writing, we're at threat level orange. What do you do? How do you feel? Do you even know what threat level orange means? I'll give you a hint's not quite bad enough to justify taping your house shut with plastic and duct tape. But, ironically enough, orange alert is about as effective as taping your house shut with duct tape – it's a PR and marketing joke.

And while I remain certain that the duct tape and plastic survival strategy has more to do with the Home Depot lobby than with any science surrounding chemical and biological weapons, I'm sure the Homeland Security Advisory System is a direct result of the Pantone Color System lobby.

The system is poorly conceived, from an information design perspective. And while red is generally conceived of as a "bad" color, the five color gradation from green to red is not an obvious value scale for "everything's okay" to "Oh my God!" And the text descriptions are little better. Tell me, without looking, which is worse: "Guarded" or "Elevated"? The fact that our current threat level is written, on the government sites and in the media, as Orange/High illustrates the department's understanding that we don't understand their threat system.

And even if you can keep the colors and names straight (without being a Homeland Security employee or terrorist – both likely know the system by heart) can you tell me what an Orange/High alert means? Just so you know, here's the answer, according to the DHS:
  1. Low Condition (Green). This condition is declared when there is a low risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Refining and exercising as appropriate preplanned Protective Measures;
    • Ensuring personnel receive proper training on the Homeland Security Advisory System and specific preplanned department or agency Protective Measures;
    • Institutionalizing a process to assure that all facilities and regulated sectors are regularly assessed for vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, and all reasonable measures are taken to mitigate these vulnerabilities.
  2. Guarded Condition (Blue). This condition is declared when there is a general risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Checking communications with designated emergency response or command locations;
    • Reviewing and updating emergency response procedures; Providing the public with any information that would strengthen its ability to act appropriately.
  3. Elevated Condition (Yellow). An Elevated Condition is declared when there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Increasing surveillance of critical locations;
    • Coordinating emergency plans as appropriate with nearby jurisdictions;
    • Assessing whether the precise characteristics of the threat require the further refinement of preplanned Protective Measures;
    • Implementing, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans.
  4. High Condition (Orange). A High Conditionis declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Coordinating necessarysecurity efforts with Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies or any National Guard or other appropriate armed forces organizations;
    • Taking additional precautions at public events and possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation;
    • Preparing to execute contingency procedures, such as moving to an alternate site or
      dispersing their workforce;
    • Restricting threatened facility access to essential personnel only.
  5. Severe Condition (Red). A Severe Condition reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks. Under most circumstances, the Protective Measures for a Severe Condition are not intended to be sustained for substantial periods of time.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Increasing or redirecting personnel to address critical emergency needs;
    • Assigning emergency response personnel and pre-positioning and mobilizing
      specially trained teams or resources;
    • Monitoring, redirecting, or constraining transportation systems;
    • Closing public and government facilities.
So that should really clear up everything, right? Just remember to remain diligent and watchful (and whatever you do, don't ask questions!)

If the DHS was really interested in keeping the public informed and involved, it should reinvent the system to meet two requirements:
  1. It should be obvious;
  2. It should require no explanation;
Now should that be so hard? No. The military has had a system for decades upon which to model a better civilian threat warning system. You may not, after all, know what "elevated" alert means, or how worried you should be when the nation goes "yellow", but I bet you've some idea how bad things have gotten when Cheyenne Mountain announces that we've gone to DefCon 2.

Holy crap!

You don't need to know at which DefCon level the B2s take off to know that level 2 (of 1 through 5) is as bad things get before global thermonuclear war in old Mathew Broderick movie reruns. Were the Homeland Security Advisory System to adopt a more conventional system which could be intuitively understood by the public – and activated by less seemingly arbitrary standards – I think the new department would find itself better understood and more respected.

Here's our suggestion:
Cloudjammer Studio National Security Advisory System (CloudCon)
Level 5 Feelin' Fine
Level 4 Start watching more news
Level 3 Re-evaluate your trip to Kabul
Level 2 Buy the canned food and bottled water
Level 1 Holy Crap!
That should clear everything up. fb