Sunday, July 23, 2006

Unbalanced Perspectives or Unsullied Opposition?

Although the CSMonitor published “In ‘docu-ganda’ films, balance is not the objective” on June 2nd, I just read it today, so this post is a bit behind the curve. The article discusses how there is a new type of film out there getting tons of press, viewers, influence, and generating heaps of discussion.

Those films, docu-gandas or op-ed documentaries, are a genus of films masquerading as documentaries when, in reality, “[t]hey fail to meet the Oxford Dictionary definition, in that they editorialize, and opine far too much.” These are films started with Michael Moore’s commercial success “Roger & Me” in 1989. Moore has followed with even more successful films of this nature as have others.

I think they’re good because they get people discussing the issues. However, when I watch them, I watch with a critical eye because I know that they’re presenting only one side of the issue. Also, while watching, I sit there and I poke hole after hole in their arguments or perspectives. I’d do the same for any op-ed documentary I see. I just don’t pay to see many of them because I know I’m going to sit there the whole time thinking of counterpoints and different perspectives to the story they're selling me.

That’s the thing that worries me. The anti-Bush sentiment here in South Korea is very high. When “Fahrenheit 9/11” was at the peak of its popularity I had tons of people asking me if I’d seen it, and then launching into a whole spiel about the war in Iraq. Eventually, I did get around to seeing it. While I agree that the Iraqi War is an embarrassment and a travesty, I didn’t really like the film or agree a lot of what the film had to say.

I had a similar feeling about “Super Size Me.” I liked it more, but Morgan Spurlock’s girlfriend is a vegan chef! If that doesn’t light up the neon “big bias” sign, I don’t know what does.

Doesn’t everyone know that if you eat McDonald’s food everyday for breakfast, lunch and dinner your health will take a serious nosedive? I do, and I doubt that knowing that fact requires a huge amount of intelligence. If at all, I’ll eat at McDonalds every once in awhile. Even then, I avoid most of what’s on the menu. I agree that McDonalds is a huge marketing machine. I also agree that making it a regular part of your diet is suicidal.

However, as the article points out, what about a reality check?

I’m from South Central L.A. which is known for being a mostly ethnic and low income neighborhood. I was lucky because my daddy worked and, because of that, my mom had the luxury of choosing to be a stay at home mom. We could afford and I came home to nutritious, home-cooked meals.

But what about those on a low or limited income who work and who don’t have time to cook? The reality is in South Central there are no vegan or vegetarian restaurants. There are no Italian restaurants. There are no neighborhood coffee houses. There are no malls with food courts. There are no take-out counters with fresh, homemade food. There are no delis where you can get a salad and fresh sandwich for cheap. In South Central L.A. there are only McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFCs or other fast food joints, fortified with bullet proof glass, where you can get a meal for under $5.00. Usually, you can get a special for much cheaper than that.

I notice that there is still a huge difference when I fly home and drive to my old neighborhood to visit. If you take the Harbor Freeway to Manchester Boulevard and head in the direction of Inglewood, there are tons of fast food restaurants all along that corridor. There was not much else in terms of food establishments. That’s the reality of where I grew up.

So tell me, how much harder is it going to be for someone in that neighborhood to wean themselves off of a fast food diet?

I’m not bashing Spurlock, as I understand and essentially agree with his message in “Super Size Me”. I am merely using his film as an example because these were some of the exact thoughts going through my head as I was watching his film.

There is great a need for films like this because, prior to their success, the only people who had the money and power to push films like this were a handful of people in Hollywood. Now Hollywood sees that it's in its interest to fund and promote these films. However, even if Hollywood doesn't support an op-ed documentary, it can be seen by many anyway via the Internet, private screenings, videos and DVDs. That's wonderful because the American electorate needs more debate. A lack of debate is the exact reason why, politically, we're in such a fix right now. So op-ed documentary film makers, keep bringing it on!

I just believe that, just as people are quick to be critical of the other side, you have to be critical when you watch op-ed documentaries. The purpose is not just to inform the audience. You have to realize that they are meant to influence the audience. These films aren’t made to be fair and balanced.

That’s not a problem if the people watching realize they’re only getting one side of the story. My problem is when I have discussions with people who are moved by these op-ed documentaries is they sound just like the film. That shows me they haven’t been critical of the information. Thus, they’re probably not going to go home, hop on the Internet and try to get more information on the issue. At most, they’ll go to the film’s website where they’re fed more one-sided information.

Again, I’m not bashing the filmmakers. I’m just pointing out that the onus is on us to know how to look past the spin to get as close as we can to the facts on both sides. That way we can form our own opinions.

The advent of such films does not mean that people shouldn’t see them, but rather that viewers should practice critical thinking…
That quote from the article, I think sums it up nicely. Thus, when you watch an op-ed documentary, be ready to question what you’re shown and told.

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  1. I think we have to practice critical thinking not only in their feild, but in the news and current affairs area also.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    Well, yes, you’re right, as that was my ultimate point ;-) So thanks for a streamlined and efficient restatment!

    We have to look at all of these films critically because they all connect back to politics, the news and current events. They’re inherently political as the point is to sway viewers to their point of view. They’re also newsworthy. They’re also hugely popular and, therefore, the hugely successful ones became cultural phenomena. I would definitely say that’s the case with Moore’s films and Super Size too as I chose to mention only the really popular ones, but the linked CS Monitor article mentions others.

    That’s just to point out that it’s not a separate argument where it’s critical thinking only in one area and not in others. They're all connected.

  3. Hi, thanks for the comment! They are always nice to get. Sorry it took so long for me to answer. I've been working on getting my paperwork ready for Korea. I like your blog by the way. Very good indeed. The Gollum Rap rocks!

  4. Hopefully these films will teach people to consume all media with a critical eye. I like that about these sorts of films and news organizations - they don't drape themselves in the flag of "balance", but openly argue for a position. I mean, isn't that the point of public speech? What good does it do us to hear "person A said this, but person B said the opposite thing" in the same article with absolutely no indication as to which of them was right or if they were both wrong?

    Fact is, if you really spend time engaged in reporting on a certain subject, you naturally form a point of view. To paraphrase Michael Berube in a recent post he had on "academic bias", when you express a point of view that you've formed during your investigation, especially if you back it up with some argument and reporting, that's not bias, it's a considered opinion. The problem with much popular media that claims to be balanced is that it panders to the ignorance of its audience. Of course to somebody coming in with NO knowledge of history and NO knowledge of the details and workings of certain situations, it would seem "fair" to hear from both "sides". It's highly problematic that very often (especially nowadays) on one "side" are scientists, experts, community leaders, and people affected by the situation, and on the other "side" is some or government spokesperson or ideologue.

  5. You're right. You definitely have to look at all sides critically. I chose to focus on these sorts of films because, at least here in Korea, I had person after person going on and on about Fahrenheit 9/11, but it seemed like the only knowledge they had was from that film.

    So, that's a great start, particularly if you don’t know much about the topic. However, follow it up with research on the net, which these days takes just a few seconds.

    Like I said, these films are serving a great purpose because they're inspiring folks to talk about the issues.


Hey there! Thanks for visiting my blog. It's my first blog, and I'm glad folks are still stopping by even though I'm no longer living in South Korea. Feel free to comment. If you want a personal answer, leave your email, and I won't publish the comment. Nasty comments and spam links will not be tolerated.