‘Democracy on Deadline’

The power of the media as a make-or-break element in a functioning democracy sets the foundation for a journalist’s struggle to seek out and report the honest truth. But how does the role of a free press factor into the vitality of a free society?

These concepts are examined vividly in the exceptional documentary, Democracy on Deadline by director Calvin Skaggs (Go Tell it On the Mountain) and co-producer Jed Rothstein. The documentary puts the audience in the position of several of the world’s finest journalists, complete with candid interviews and not-seen-before-in-America footage that is in one way reminiscent of Control Room, the 2004 documentary on the Arab-language satellite network, Al Jazeera International.

The filmmaking and production of “Democracy on Deadline” is outstanding, mixing uniquely regional experiences with candid exchanges and graphic footage over the course of two hours. In one memorable instance, the audience is literally in the back seat of a car driven by Ha’aretz correspondent Gideon Levy, delayed at a checkpoint at the West Bank border crossing. This is not business as usual, we’re assured, when Levy gets on his cell phone, enraged that the border guards were not previously notified and waiting for him to cross with American journalists in tow.

“Democracy on Deadline” examines issues and struggles regarding press freedom around the world through an examination of six unique (and high-profile) case studies in progress. The film profiles various journalists in different settings — all taking relatively radical approaches to reporting and exuding a vociferous enthusiasm for their responsibilities as guardians of democracy.

In one segment, Dana Priest of the Washington Post is followed by a camera as she works security insiders (watch quicktime video) at what appears to be a press event regarding the status of detainees in December 2004. We watch Priest at her desk taking notes as she digs deeper and deeper for dirt on her CIA black prisons article, nearly a year before she would publish the core piece in her package that landed her a Pulitzer.

In the case study of Sierra Leone, multiple media organizations band together to mobilize the citizenry to participate in the country’s first elections in the wake of a brutal civil war. Oftentimes when a nation — especially a democratic ones — endures an election wrought with indications of fraud and worse (i.e. 2000) — either a public run-off ensues or at the very least independent election monitors , yes, even the U.N., is summoned for future elections. Its not just a Michael Moore moment. In a true democracy should we accept a bureaucratic vote from a panel of 9 along partisan lines to decide and then witness potentially worse fraud in the next election, i.e. 2004?

The Russian segment is a virtual day in the life biopic of the heroic journalist Anna Politkovskaya, seeming entirely willing to give her life to her cause — that of being the only Russian journalist to report the Chechnyan side of the Chechen War. Months after her interview, she was indeed killed in cold blood in her apartment, allegedly by a hired assassin.

In Afghanistan, we’re witness to the courageous reporting of the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall (watch quicktime video), visiting hospitals and reporting a touching element of the human rights disaster that envelops the nation, even 5 years after the Taliban was first driven from the capital. Gall’s story, however, was merely relegated to the back of the Times’ A section, with the headline alluding to “Immolation” instead of plain and simple — and righteously shocking — terms like “burning themselves alive.”

In “Democracy on Deadline,” McClatchy correspondent Jonathan Landay speaks of a bizarre paranoia of feeling alone in the media in outwardly questioning the Iraq-WMD story, in spite of having extensive evidence that the WMD assumption was highly questioned, if not doubted completely, by intelligence sources. The documentary showed text of the White House Official statement to the public, which stated with near outright certainty that Iraq had WMD and then showed text of the Oct 2002 NIE report, which was distributed to Congress, and stated quite the opposite — evidence of WMD was sketchy at best. Landay, along with his co-author Strobel and deputy editor John Walcott were finally “recognized” for their work a year-and-a-half later in an article by Michael Massing, which in a sense excoriates the media for not jumping on Landay and Strobel’s coattails. The Web version (06Sep2002 | 13sep2002 | 08Oct2002 | 27oct2002) of these stories tell have the what-we-now-know headlines that were merely subtext to the bolder, larger typeface of the print editions which stated the Bush Administration’s bogus claims as fact.

Whether the U.S. media or society as a whole is to be held accountable for allowing the world’s model democracy to be run by a suspect and highly secretive, closed government is one of many questions that come out of “Democracy on Deadline.” One theme of the movie that is hard to argue with is that there is no such thing as activist or partisan journalism if what is reported is the truth. As the admirable publisher of Israel’s independent daily Ha’aretz newspaper Amos Schocken said in defense of his reporters’ (Gideon Levy and Amira Hass) dispatches from Gaza, “Telling the truth is always part of our main business and there are no questions about it. I just don’t see questions about it.” But the media — and society — must be active to effectively preserve and promote democracy.

“Democracy on Deadline” airs November 21 on PBS channels nationwide, as part of an ambitious new PBS series titled “Independent Lens.” The series of documentaries on global issues and culture is presented as “a film festival in your living room.”

“Democracy on Deadline” is dedicated to the late Anna Politkovskaya and I believe this dedication may as well extend to all journalists who have given their lives for the sake of reporting the truth. On Friday, Brad Will, an independent journalist reporting on the public push for Mexican democracy was killed in Oaxaca. According to the Indymedia Web site, Will was shot in the chest while documenting an armed, paramilitary assault on the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. Read one of his final dispatches from the fighting. R.I.P.

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