Ken Silverstein wrote an important piece earlier this week about the detestable behavior of Mother Jones, which gave a pass to pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. If there’s a place in Hell for journalists who let evil slide, this story by MJ is a one-way ticket for author Tim Murphy.
Of course, this is the tip of the iceberg of misery that publication has loosed upon the horizon like the Plagues of Egypt.
Along with being the gatekeepers of pwogwessive political opinion, consistently corralling activists and organizers into the base of the Democratic Party despite its perpetual move rightwards, it has done demonstrable, incalculable harm to American arts and cinema by being the sole party that is responsible for giving us…
For those who have no idea about this, let’s take a short jaunt back to the good ole’ Reagan Daze and recall the birth of a media monstrosity that shows no sign of letting up…
Back in 1986, Moore was hired as an editor by MJ. Clearly things did not pan out as was hoped because he was fired four months later, allegedly over an article written by the ever-annoying Paul Berman. Berman has spent the past 30+ years being a reactionary bore whose lazy scribbling, lacking even the most superficial research on any topic, is a case study of the low bar liberal journalism sets for itself. The New York Times (itself a dubious player in this matter then and now) wrote the following summary:
The editor, Michael Moore, said he was dismissed in early September, after four months on the job, in large part because he opposed the publication of an article critical of the Government of Nicaragua. [Magazine co-founder] Adam Hochschild…said that Mr. Moore was asked to give up his post because of inadequate job performance that had nothing to do with ideological issues. But senior staff members also say that Mr. Moore was so rigidly ideological that he opposed publication of a legitimate article because of his disagreement with its conclusions.
Then, as is the case now, the American government was waging a war on the people of Nicaragua via a series of covert actions, including the despicable Contras, a reactionary conglomerate of mercenaries that had support from the Reagan White House and specifically the repulsive Elliot Abrams.
”I think there is a conflict between the modern democratic left and a few Neanderthal remnants of the 30’s, and the Neanderthals are afraid of an open public debate about political values,” said Paul Berman, a Village Voice columnist who wrote the article Mr. Moore opposed. The article refers to the Sandinistas as Leninists and describes human rights and economic lapses of the Government, although Mr. Berman said he remained a supporter of the Sandinista revolution. Mr. Moore said that he opposed the article because it was untrue, not because it was critical, and because its appearance in Mother Jones could be used by the Reagan Administration against the Sandinistas.
(Incidentally, the Sandinistas have never been an ideologically homogeneous group, let alone Leninists. Hell, they were anti-abortion and rolled out the red carpet for the hard-line anti-Communist Pope John Paul II!)
Moore sued MJ for wrongful termination, eventually settling out of court for $58,000. That provided him the seed money for his first picture, Roger and Me.
And here our trouble begins…
These days, television is filled with documentary shows, be they the season-long reality series, short-subject news magazine programs like Dateline or 20/20, and the extended broadcasts from directors like Ken Burns. Netflix and other streaming video services like Amazon and Hulu have created cottage industries for this kind of programming.
But back in 1986, documentary cinema was a genre where innovation, experimentation, and intellectual depth were common currency. Unlike narrative fiction film, which caters to the lowest common denominator within the confines of a 90-120 minute allocation of celluloid, documentary was where artists could go be artists. While the McCarthy years and the Blacklist had forced fiction films to embrace militarism, anti-Communism, and other variations of reaction, nonfiction films became a safe haven for political radicals.
And this was especially important because, as a cumulative effect, these pictures were an important part of the agit-prop for movements opposing nuclear arms proliferation and the Vietnam war or promoting the liberation of Blacks, women, LGBTQQIA+, and other minorities. While John Wayne was producing the ghastly Green Berets, Emile de Antonio released In the Year of the Pig, which hit home in graphic detail and candid interviews what an abject horror the war on the Indochinese peninsula actually was.
What Moore did to documentary was a kind of double-edged sword. On the one hand, he demonstrated that documentary conventions could be used to appeal to a mainstream audience. But on the converse, he also set a mold and pattern that very few directors can break free of if they want to produce documentaries that get the big funding. Moore created a standard and a set of expectations requisite for success. Alongside Ken Burns, he homogenized something whose heterogeneity contributed to some of the most important political and civil rights victories of the past century.
Their combined successes dumbed down a genre that needs to be intelligent precisely because of the important role it plays in civic discourse.
These days, Moore is a reliable talking head for the Democratic Party, making his split from Mother Jones basically meaningless. Whenever he is confronted with these sorts of discussions about documentary, he takes on a condescending, anti-elitist attitude, claiming he’s just some blue-collar Joe six pack and that people who ask these questions about the genre are Ivory Tower prigs, perpetually insulated from the proletariat his works speak to.
Nevermind that he is a cheerleader for the political party that is dedicated to the immiseration of the working class. The proles are probably too stupid to figure that out by Moore’s calculation…