Do you make it? Should you?
Every time you shoot an event you establish your viewers’ point of view–their POV in industry jargon. Like the old Outer Limits TV show, you take control of their television sets. You control not only what they look at, but how they see it.
Your choice of camera placement and focal length can determine whether your subject appears important or not; your juxtapositions can determine whether he seems sincere or dishonest. Your reporter can elicit sympathy or antipathy for the subject depending on the words she uses.
Some think it chic to call this disguised propaganda. “You think you can shoot a more objective report than television news? Hah! You also will push the audience into a point of view.” For them, any POV runs against objectivity.
One media critic, John Hartley, tells us that videomakers ought to abandon the very ideal of objective reporting. There’s no such thing, never was, says he. Producers have used the objective veneer only to disguise the real bias of every video report. We might as well give it up.
But this surrender can turn on you. You say you’ve made a powerful documentary exposing abuses in a mental hospital? Those were abuses only from your POV. Your attempt to show them as objectively bad manipulates my POV. So the story goes. Giving up objectivity also means giving up any rational claim on the audience’s attention. But that’s of no concern to such as Hartley.
In his book Tele-ology he prefers propaganda. Propaganda, he thinks, never pretends objectivity. It’s an honest statement of a limited POV. Honesty’s what counts when opinions fill the void where truth once stood. So, our TV de-constructor finds himself on the side of such media masters as Goebbels.
Herr Goebbels ran propaganda for Hitler. He was the Newton of the science, discovering such core principles as the law of the Big Lie. You know: if the lie is big enough and you repeat it often enough, people will believe it. Goebbels’ films are nothing if not powerfully honest statements of his point of view. If he were making them today, should we use them as news sources? Would we want him to replace Dan Rather?
When we cover an event, whether it’s a wedding or a Presidential convention, we do establish a point of view. You’d have to remove all sight and sound from a video in order to get rid of it. POV is built into the medium the way thoughts are built into thinking.
If POVs stand only upon sandy subjectivities, Hartley would be right. The only thing a videomaker could make would be propaganda. Suppose, however, that facts and a few truths do remain solid. Then the videos we make trying to discover them would dance toward objective reporting. The videos we make trying to distort those facts and truths would slouch toward propaganda. The pursuit of objectivity could be the best harness on video’s power to manipulate.
Objectivity is a hard taskmaster, however. It dictates, sometimes: cut the phony footage you staged though it looks great, and work harder to get the real thing. Or imagine, after shooting for two weeks to establish a POV, a new fact flies in your face and threatens your own earlier opinion. Do you cover your eyes and keep shooting? Maybe it’s just easier to make propaganda; maybe that’s its allure.
The trouble with network news, need anyone say it? has not been an excessive pursuit of objectivity. A new generation of videomakers, however, just might go for it.
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.