Film Review: All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. StoneAgitprop denunciatory takedown of corporate news doesn’t do justice to I.F. Stone’s wit or insight; catnip nevertheless for Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore fans.
If you take everything in Fred Peabody’s screed All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone at face value, then you might as well cancel your New York Times subscription. Don’t read the Washington Post either. PBS’ “Frontline” and CBS’ “60 Minutes”? Garbage, the lot of them! That’s the takeaway from this narrowcast documentary, which takes a valid critique of the deadening effect corporate-government synergy can have on mainstream media’s ability to truly afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and undercuts it with poor logic and simplistic argument.
A slasher-film opening montage sets the mood, interleaving doom-laden music with shots of Washington, D.C. landmarks and a roll call of politicians ignominiously challenged by the truth (Colin Powell testifying at the United Nations, LBJ lying through his teeth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and so on). Pride of place is given to the first talking head, Noam Chomsky, whose 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media serves as almost more of a guiding principle for the film than its stated intention of summing the muckraking spirit of I.F. Stone.
It’s no surprise that “Izzy” Stone would be a hero for a film suspicious of the cozy backscratching in the Manhattan-Beltway nexus of career-hungry elite media and message-pushing administration officials. In Stone’s years of reporting, particularly in the weekly investigative newsletter he published between 1953 and 1971, he loved nothing more than digging into a pile of documents and uncovering all the government lies and balderdash that would often be passed on unwittingly by a stenographer-like mentality at the major newspapers and TV news outlets.
Unfortunately for Peabody’s unwieldy and often unconvincing film, which volleys from Chomsky to Ralph Nader and Michael Moore without much structural intent, Stone’s shoe-leather diligence and puckish wit are little in evidence. In a poorly executed attempt to show examples of modern-day muckrakers, Peabody relies too much on personalities from outlets like the “Democracy Now” channel and the “Intercept” website. The former’s Amy Goodman and the latter’s Jeremy Scahill certainly produce some good work on stories not getting a lot of coverage in the mainstream press. But the film does such a poor job of hiding just how satisfied many of them seem to be with how supposedly anti-establishment they are that it threatens to turn into an uncritical cheerleader for these outlets (much like Jehane Noujaim did for Al Jazeera with 2004’s reverse-propagandistic Control Room). Additionally, using Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi as Stone’s supposed modern-day heir doesn’t quite pass muster, unless one confuses snark for wit. Too little time is spent with reporters like Carl Bernstein or Mother Jones’ David Corn, who serve as finer examples of journalists able to speak truth to power without falling prey to ideological assumptions
The film does an even worse job, though, when it layers a blanket denunciation on all “mainstream media.” Using as little nuance as a Fox News shouting head, the argument is made over and over again that corporate-owned media will only push empty-calorie stories about celebrities or government-issued talking points, particularly during the run up to military conflict. If Peabody had pursued a tighter objective here, he could have made a strong case. The examples he uses of CNN bringing on retired generals to spout Pentagon propaganda just before the Iraq War began, or Cenk Uyger (of the web channel “The Young Turks”) being told during his brief MSNBC stint that he needed to go easier on the network’s friends in Washington, is damning stuff.
However, by swinging too large a scythe, All Governments Lie needlessly demeans an entire profession in the interest of championing a few would-be Izzy Stones. It ignores just about every blockbuster, history-changing piece that the supposedly useless mainstream media has reported on, from the Washington Post’s Watergate series to the New York Times Pentagon Papers to Seymour Hersh’s damning My Lai Massacre reporting for The New Yorker. Peabody’s interviewees look right past the fact that the very same Edward Snowden revelations that the film trumpets as having been released by “The Intercept” were also eagerly investigated at length and in the face of strong government opposition by numerous major media outlets.
By hewing to such a simple-minded dichotomy, Peabody’s film skates perilously close to being what it denounces: a lie.
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