Separating The Sheep From The Goats

The Message: A Casualty of Turf War

When all seem lost, a surgical look into our ways is the only logical answer…

In Brief

  • Directed and produced by Jean-Philippe Tremblay, Shadows of Liberty reveals the truth behind the news media – censorship, cover-ups and corporate control
  • The film features renowned journalists, activists and academics, giving insider accounts of a broken media system where freedom of information is a mirage
  • Key takeaway lesson – this film serves as inspiration for journalists to start demanding the right to do our jobs unhindered by our media owners

“If we’re to address the most fundamental issues of the 21st century, we have to stop and recognize that our media is in crisis, and ask ourselves: ‘what is the media that we want?’” John Nichols, The Nation

Shadows of Liberty

DocFactory, 2012

Running Time: 89 minutes 03 seconds

Directed & Produced by: Jean-Philippe Tremblay


How deep in the sand should our heads remain buried? The familiar saying of course alludes to the ostrich, which is believed – incorrectly – to bury its head in the sand when it sees danger approaching.

I have lived and worked in countries where this special bird is either commercially bred or roams freely in the wild, and I have never seen one of them bury its head in the sand. In fact, their tendency is to fight and defend their turfs. They are also much smarter than most humans I have interacted with… smart enough to identify which fights they can win and which require flight instead.

So, should we wish to bury our heads in the sand or under blankets or anywhere else, let’s leave out the smart ostriches…

I didn’t intend to review this film. I didn’t even know about it. When a dear friend first brought it to my attention, I simply intended to watch it and file its contents in my mind for future reference. It was to be an empowering adventure, I thought; after all, information is power. But mid-way through the first viewing, I stopped everything to check out when it was actually produced… 2012!

2012! Why was I only learning of it two years down the production line? Clearly, I had been deceived by the very corporate greed in our media that the film is trying to explore.  ‘If it has not been talked of in the mainstream media, then it must not be worth seeking out.’ That seems to be the mentality. How late was I! But that didn’t matter anymore; I had it now and felt a deep conviction that I had to share it with those who have not yet heard about it.

Media in Crisis‘If it has not been talked of in the mainstream media, then it must not be worth seeking out.’

Tremblay may not have set out to be a top-notch Hollywood film director - his studies in law and film are clearly depicted in this cinematic masterpiece. Because Shadows of Liberty is a masterpiece; and it’s also the one film most mainstream media would love to have shelved away. It is not a film for newsrooms only, but for living rooms as well. People have the right to be informed about the sausage factories we call newsrooms. This is a film that would make the public rise up and demand their rights, principally the right to all information obtained in their names.

The film opens with words from an American philosopher, linguist and logician whose works I have always used as a sounding-board whenever I venture into those tricky territories that require immediate judgement calls and have to do with issues of self-preservation versus the public’s right to know. This is Prof. Avram Noam Chomsky: “Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the US media.”

These words come from Prof. Chomsky’s 1985 book, Turning the Tide. So what was happening in the world during that period? Why would dictators admire the complacency of the American media?

1985 was the year:

  • Nelson Mandela rejected an offer of freedom from the Apartheid regime
  • Julion Maria Sanguinetti was sworn in as first democratically-elected president of Uruguay after 12 years of dictatorship
  • The Apartheid regime ended its ban on interracial marriages
  • The Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior was bombed and sunk in Auckland Harbour by French external intelligence agency, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure
  • Senior US Administration officials were secretly facilitating the sales of arms to Iran despite an arms embargo (what later became the Iran-Contra Affair)
  • Italian crime reporter Giancario Siani was killed by Mafia crime syndicate Camorra

And this was only the tip of the iceberg. There was certainly plenty of dirt in the Land of Opportunities. The East-West divide was at its worst. Dictators would only be regarded as dictators if they aligned themselves with the opposing side. Mobutu could plunder the resources of his people, but as long as he danced to the tune of the powers that mattered, whoever occupied the building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC would not be bothered and the American media would not touch him.

The world’s dictators surely were aware of this. How else would we explain the retention of icons like Nelson Mandela on the Terrorist Watch list? In fact, Madiba remained on the list until 2008 – that is the unreleased ‘movie’ we may never get to see in our lifetime.

The film explores the commercialisation of the flow of information. Tremblay’s production boldly reveals what some of us already know and have been living with without blinking – the fact that freedom of information is just a mirage. Those committed to the dissemination of information which should be free, often pay a heavy price: some have lost their places in society, others have lost families, and many have lost their lives.

Shadows of Liberty shows just how easy it has been for corporations to gain, own and take control of our ideas and imaginations. The corporations acquiring our newsrooms are not primarily interested in any possible profits derived from dispensing news and information; it is certainly not a profitable industry.  What they are interested in are the production units, so that they can control what information gets to flow through the taps. Their decisions remain unquestioned by scribes who have accepted their roles as nothing more than factory workers. Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News rightly described some of our newsrooms as being like assembly lines.

And those of us who remain silent and allow this slow but sure takeover of our responsibilities to prevail, are complicit.

This film is not about governmental suppression of information, but about how the corporations and the ‘pillars of industries’ have embedded themselves into this previously noble profession. Our objectives have been changed; information must now be guarded with multiple locks. And we, the journalists, have become the locks. We are the goats, pretending to be sheep. We are the fuel that powers this corporate greed. We have turned news into entertainment.

Tremblay has documented several stories with which most newsmen and women would quickly identify with. We get the impression of a nearly-broken man crying for help to resuscitate a profession he seems to love and cherish. There is so much that has gone wrong within the profession that he must have had a tough time choosing what to fit in within the eighty-nine minutes that the film runs.

Nike by other namesNike, Inc. This multinational sportswear Corporation has its tentacle in everything sporty apart from sports cars. Conservatively valued at over $10billion, the company provides tens of thousands of jobs around the world. When I was a schoolboy, sports were considered hobbies. Now, thanks to corporate monetisation of sports, those hobbies have become professions. Kids no longer dream of being doctors, teachers or engineers, but of becoming sports celebrities. And every kid who wants to emulate a celebrated sportsman or woman demands Nike-branded sportswear.

What has repeatedly been concealed from the consuming public is the Corporation’s ability to align itself with sporting bodies and personalities who seem immune to the word ‘corruption’, as well as the lengths to which it will go to have every negative issue ignored by the ‘media’. When the Corporation dangles its dollar signs, we all bow in submission.

CBS was privileged to have the services of the multi-award winning investigative journalist, Roberta Baskin. When she exposed the abuse perpetrated by Nike at their Vietnamese sweatshops, the Corporation entered into a deal with the broadcaster that saw the latter’s reporters covering the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics Games adorned in Nike-branded jackets and in return, the intended follow-up by Baskin was spiked (canned).

The result of this corporate deal was that the network’s reporters covering the games were turned into ‘human billboards’, as Baskin described them. Or what brand guru, Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed, would call ‘ingenious product placements’. When Baskin protested to CBS management on behalf of her seemingly-submissive colleagues, she was demoted.

Interestingly, over a decade later a simple online search of ‘Nike-Corruption’ returns over three million results (depending on what search engine one uses).

Here Baskin relates her experience at CBS to DemocracyNow’s Amy Goodman during a 2005 Urbana-Champaign hosted conference.

In telling Baskin’s story, Tremblay and his team appeared to have just been laying the groundwork. As I anxiously checked my feet to make sure I wasn’t wearing Nike sneakers, Shadows of Liberty moved swiftly on to recapture the shenanigans that surrounded the downing of Flight TWA800 and the subsequent fight by journalist Kristina Borjesson to establish the truth on behalf of the public.

With perfect cinematic timing Tremblay allowed the monster out of the bag: responsibility for the cover-up lay in the hidden hands of the corporate owners of CBS, The Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Would the Corporation dare have its insignificant reporter(s) jeopardize its publicly-funded multi-billion-dollar defence contracts? Borjesson’s investigation had to be nipped in the bud before it could conclusively establish the possible involvement of the US Navy in the mid-air explosion of the jetliner.

Our corporate owners call the shots and Shadows of Liberty is not slow to show just how they do that...

Our corporate owners call the shots and Shadows of Liberty is not slow to show just how they do that. This film gives you no room for taking a break to fetch popcorn or to refill your glass. As it moves compellingly on, we are forcibly reminded of the main corporations’ purposes in acquiring our newsrooms as well as the journalists who work therein: their goal is quite simply to make money. Not directly; we all know there is no profit to be made in the dissemination of information. Their main desire is to control what information reaches the masses. He who controls the water tank, can determine when and what we get to drink.

So this is the black hole in journalism…  the no-go areas determined by our owners.  If a corporation cannot tame its nosey journalists, then there are many other more-cooperative journalists waiting in the wings to take their place. That’s the reality Tremblay has dared to expose. David Simon, the founder of The Wire expresses it well: “Capitalism is not the best judge for what is good for society.”

But it is a cop-out to blame everything on our owners. Tremblay shows how we journalists are our own worst enemies and by extension co-conspirators in the suppression of the free flow of information. He examines the story of Garry Webb, a journalist who developed a passionate interest in investigating government and private sector corruption.

Remember the movie Beauty and the Beast where Gaston tells fellow citizens of his village, “If you are not with us, you are against us”? There’s little doubt in journalism today that if you are not with the mainstream media then you are surely against them, and they will happily forget their usual competition for those exclusive scoops, to join forces to deal with you.

Webb was a casualty of this unspoken code. For more than a year, he investigated the involvement of Contras, a Nicaraguan rebel group, in the smuggling of crack cocaine into Los Angeles with the backing of the Central Intelligence Agency – the CIA. He published his exposé in the San Jose Mercury News, a little-known Silicon Valley newspaper, which was never considered part of the major league. his story also broke news grounds; the first piece to be reported in print and online.

The CIA could comfortably sit back and let the mainstream media destroy him.

The list of Webb’s hit squad read like the Who’s-Who of the media world. All the publications that journalism students dream of working for one day  - The Washington Post, The New York Times, The LA Times, Chicago Tribune - were all united in the attack.

Webb’s matter has been documented in the 4th Edition of Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media, revised and edited by Fred Brown and other members of Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee:

“The L.A. Times’ three-part condemnation of the series covered six and a half pages – more than the Mercury News’ original pieces. In its 5,000-word attack, The Washington Post called the series ‘weak on evidence.’ Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser wrote that the Mercury News series was ‘seriously flawed … reported by a seemingly hotheaded fellow willing to have people leap to conclusions his reporting couldn’t back up.’ Overholser also called the Post’s attack a ‘case of misdirected zeal,’ however, and concluded that ‘the Post (and others) showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”

While his comments were carefully diplomatic, Overholser failed to demand of the Post that it tells or shows how wrong Webb was. With pressure mounting on Webb, Jerry Ceppos, his editor at the Mercury News, threw him under the bus, saying: “I believe that we fell short at every step of our process in the writing, editing and production of our work.” Ceppos went further, and reassigned the story to other journalists. [How often has such happened in our newsrooms?]

“If we’re to address the most fundamental issues of the 21st century, we have to stop and recognize that our media is in crisis, and ask ourselves: ‘what is the media that we want?’” John Nichols, The Nation

Speaking from the graveWebb was drummed out of the newspaper industry, for no greater crime than having investigated and reported on a story the mainstream media had failed to consider. He later died in an apparent suicide in 2004. It was to take another nine years (June 2013) for Jesse Katz, a former L.A. Times reporter who had played a leading role in ruining Webb’s career, to publicly (but posthumously) apologize to him. Katz’s apology could be as suspect as his earlier zeal to hunt Webb down: he is to play a role in the upcoming film, Kill the Messenger, which is due for release in October 2014 and chronicles the life and times of Gary Webb.

As good public relations gurus reassure their clients, the lifespan of news is quite short. So no-one paid much attention when just less than two years after Webb’s public humiliation, in an address to Congress, the CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz made an admission that left no doubt that Webb had been right all along.

Hitz was recorded as admitting; “CIA worked with a variety of people to support the Contra program. These included CIA assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others. Let me be frank about what we are finding. There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”

The Editor of ShameMembers of Webb’s hit squad never bothered to offer any apologies. In fact Ceppos, the editor who had been too afraid to stick by the truth, later became the Dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at theUniversity of Nevada, Reno, a post he held for just over three years before joining Manship School of Mass Communication in the same capacity. [Ceppos did not respond to our request for an interview].

The world may have forgotten about such sins of omissions and commissions, but thanks to Tremblay, his team at DocFactory and his film Shadows of Liberty, the wider context has been clearly stitched together.

The records that have been packed and unpacked by Tremblay make Shadows of Liberty a must-have film for every newsroom around the world. Every journalist who dares to sit through the entire 89 minutes would surely be compelled to give it a second, third or even fourth watch – I have watched and re-watched it many times. If this film fails to empower us to demand of our owners that they let us do our work unhindered, we may as well recognise that we have killed the profession and start looking for some alternative gigs that would accommodate lickspittles or what the Greeks call ‘akolouthos’.

As former CBS’ Evening News anchor, Dan Rather confessed to Tremblay: “…we don’t have news anymore, all we have is entertainment… we are in the entertainment business…” Before we vilify Rather for this statement, let’s have a look at the prime time news bulletins. News has become a cutthroat operation. It is not even about those scoops we used to fight for; it’s all about which broadcaster can afford the best sets and studios and who can sign-up the most attractive model for a news anchor then fit them with earpieces so they can follow instructions from behind-the-walls operatives dictating what questions should be asked of the guests.

We journalists should seriously consider these warnings made by those who clearly care more about this soon-to-be-endangered profession:

To acquire a copy of the DVD for your newsrooms or living rooms Order Now.

See Editorial with Jean-Philippe Tremblay