Arts + Culture + Media

Are Documentary Films Changing the World?

Tribeca Film FestivalMy colleague Josh Baran is on this panel at the Tribeca Film Festival this Sunday, April 24: "Are Documentary Films Changing the World?."

Josh and I have worked together on a few world-changing films (or those at least trying to). And nearly six years ago I invited him to speak to the Progressive PR Professionals (PR/PR/PR) on a similar topic: "Hijacking Pop Culture For Higher Purposes."

One could argue that Josh is the godfather of leveraging films and popular culture to raise awareness of an issue and compel audiences to take action. In the early 1980’s, he created and implemented a unique grassroots media campaign around the ABC TV network film The Day After. His efforts resulted in a huge increase in viewers both in the US and worldwide, spurring an international dialogue on the dangers of the nuclear arms race. The special is still ranked as the one of the biggest television-related events in history.

The Tribeca panel synopsis:

Documentary films unveil important truths, challenge assumptions, and often compel audiences to take action. Many of today's filmmakers are faced with an additional challenge—how do they ensure their film will have a significant impact on the public and on the policies their story highlights? The collaboration of filmmakers with NGOs and community groups has created a new distribution model, and the measure of success now reaches beyond sales to changes in public perception and policy.

Join filmmaker and activist Abigail Disney, Give Up Tomorrow director Michael Collins, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Impact Partners Dan Cogan, producer Cynthia Lowen of The Bully Project, Josh Baran of Baran Communications, and others for an insightful discussion on the new paths of distribution for nonfiction films and the ways filmmakers and their subjects are making their voices heard. Moderated by independent producer and Outreach Director of The Good Pitch, Sandi DuBowski.

'Gasland' Gets the 'Deadly Spin'

Gasland logo

Yesterday I posted that Gasland — which exposes the dangers of gas drilling through a process called "fracking" that can poison drinking water — was recently nominated for an Oscar. (Gasland is a client project.) And in an unprecedented move, an oil and gas industry front group sent a letter to the Academy saying that Gasland should be ineligible for best documentary feature, attacking it as "fiction" and claiming it is riddled with falsehoods. (Salon published a great piece about this "self-destructive PR move.")

A couple weeks ago the same group attacked an investigative piece on drilling pollution by ProPublica, the highly credible public interest journalism organization.

And just last week, T. Boone Pickens, the most visible promoter of fracking, went on The Daily Show claiming that he personally has fracked over 3000 wells and never witnessed any contamination cases, even when Jon Stewart asked him about Gasland point blank.

Deadly SpinIf all this sounds familiar, it's because it's the same playbook used to discredit Michael Moore and Sicko, which health care whistleblower Wendell Potter (another Antidote client) exposed in his recent book Deadly Spin.

Congress will soon introduce a bill banning fracking (as some states have, including NY). Congressional investigators recently called out frackers for pumping millions of gallons of diesel fuel directly into the ground, exposing drinking water sources to benzene and other carcinogens.

Expect these industry attacks to continue.

Open Letter to Journalists From 'Gasland' Director Josh Fox

My colleague Josh Baran and I worked on this mini campaign and together drafted this media statement. AN OPEN LETTER TO JOURNALISTS FROM GASLAND DIRECTOR JOSH FOX IN RESPONSE TO ATTACKS BY GAS INDUSTRY


February 8, 2011 — With the recent Oscar nomination of my documentary film GASLAND, Big Gas and their PR attack machine hit a new low in its blatant disregard for the truth.

In an unprecedented move, an oil and gas industry front group sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saying that the film should be ineligible for best documentary feature.

We are honored and encouraged by the Academy’s nomination. It is terrific to be acknowledged as filmmakers by the film world’s most prestigious honor. But perhaps more than that, I believe that the nomination has provided hope, inspiration and affirmation for the thousands of families out there who are suffering because of the natural gas drilling. The Oscars are about dreams, and I know that for all of us living with the nightmare of gas drilling the nomination provides further proof that someone out there cares.

Now Big Gas wants to take that away, as they have shattered the American dream for so many.

GASLAND exposes the disaster being caused across the U.S. by the largest domestic natural gas drilling campaign in history and how the contentious Halliburton-developed drilling technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, threatens the water supply of millions.

Fracking is a whole-scale industrialization process that pumps millions of gallons of toxic material directly into the ground. Thousands of documented contamination cases show the harmful chemicals used have been turning up in people's water supplies in fracking areas all over the map.

We stand behind the testimonials, facts, science and investigative journalism in the film 100 percent. We have issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the group’s claims (“Affirming Gasland”), posted on our website: (See PDF.)

It’s not just us they’re after. The gas industry goes after anyone who tries to punch a hole in their lie. A couple of weeks ago the same pro-drilling group, Energy in Depth (EID), attacked an investigative piece on drilling pollution by ProPublica, the highly credible public interest journalism organization.

And just last week, T. Boone Pickens, the most visible promoter of gas fracking, went on The Daily Show claiming that he personally has fracked over 3,000 wells and never witnessed any contamination cases, even when Jon Stewart asked him about GASLAND point-blank. He simply stated over and over again the industry lie, that fracking is safe. Not a single word of acknowledgement, or responsibility for the claims of thousands and the threat posed to millions.

The gas industry believes it can create a new reality in which their nationwide onshore drilling campaign isn’t a disaster. But no amount of PR money or slick ads can keep the stories of contamination coming from thousands of Americans from being any less true.

Recently, Congressional investigators called out frackers for pumping millions of gallons of diesel fuel directly into the ground, exposing drinking water sources to benzene and other carcinogens. This makes EID’s specious and misleading attack on the science and data in GASLAND especially ironic since Halliburton stonewalled Congressman Henry Waxman’s investigation into fracking, refusing to provide data on their use of diesel and other harmful chemicals injected in the fracking process.

There are major watershed areas providing water to millions of Americans that are at risk here, including the watershed areas for New York City and Philadelphia. The catastrophe has been widely covered not only in GASLAND, but also by hundreds of news stories, films and TV segments. This is a moment of crisis that cannot be understated.

Even before its release, the power of the film was not lost on the industry. In the March 24th edition of the Oil and Gas Journal, Skip Horvath, the president of the Natural Gas Supply Association said that GASLAND is “well done. It holds people’s attention. And it could block our industry.”

GASLAND was seen by millions and I personally toured with the film to over 100 cities. In affected areas, people came to the screenings with their contaminated water samples in tow. They came to have the truth they know shared and confirmed

As Maurice D. Hinchey, U.S. Representative (NY-22) recently said, “Thanks to GASLAND and the millions of grassroots activists across the country, we finally have a counterweight to the influence of the oil and gas industry in our nation's capital."

Big Gas is blocking the truth in their pursuit of hundreds of billions of dollars of profit. Their clear goal is to ensure our nation remains addicted to fossil fuels for the rest of this century. They seek to stifle the development of truly renewable energy.

They’re playing dirty in more ways than one, attacking the film and the testimonials and science in it instead of taking responsibility and addressing the contamination, destruction and harm that they are creating. I now know how the people in my documentary feel, to have the things they know to be true and the questions they are raising so blatantly discounted and smeared. It is truly unfortunate that the gas-drilling industry continues to deny what is so obvious to Americans living in gaslands across the nation.

Josh Fox Director, GASLAND

Media Contact: Josh Baran – – 917-797-1799

Josh Fox is based in New York City and will be in Washington, D.C. on February 17. He is available for interviews. DVD screeners for the media are available.

hijacking colbert

Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now!", was on "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central) recently. Of course it's on YouTube. She is truly a firebrand, as Colbert called her. I saw her speak at a Green Festival in DC last year and was moved, nearly to tears. She should be president.

But watching this segment (and a recent morning show appearance — don't remember which one — filmed outside with an audience in which her approach was pretty much the same), I couldn't help but feel for her. Her approach works great with the choir, but what about shows like this? If you get a chance to watch this segment, do you think she was effective? Are those that aren't already part of the choir going to consider the teachings of the church? If you were to coach her before appearing on the show, would you advise her to change her approach?

Colbert is liberal and the show is satirical, of course, but it's entertainment. Is there a better way to use pop culture?

I'm reminded of a Progressive PR Professionals event early last year with the ED of The Fortune Society, Joanne Page: "Working with the Media When the Topic is Not Warm and Fuzzy." She's gone mano-a-mano with O'Reilly and gave these pointers (quoted from the event summary):

On adversarial programs, such as "The O'Reilly Factor," representatives get their few minutes of say, but then the name of the game is to interrupt as often as possible to make your points. Her specific advice for these venues:

* Speak to the audience, not to the interviewer. * Build your case on "shared common sense decency perspective" to hook the viewing audience, who have not thought about your issue from that angle. * Shift the frame. "If you use their frame, then you're dead in the water." * Create the context. * Learn to speak in their rhythm, pace. * Try to make only three points and keep returning to them.

But what about programs that aren't truly adversarial but are in a satirical sense or are simply pop-culture fluff. How important is context in framing and delivering? Speaking to the audience applies, and when the audience is tuning in for entertainment, shouldn't you wrap the messaging with pretty paper and a bow?

the real world (at a glance)

How do you encapsulate a single moment on earth? How do you quantify the human experience that exists during that moment, creating a record of global human history? Telephone conversations, emails, love letters, business trends? How do you present it?

Artist Jonathan Harris pondered these big notions and drew some interesting, very contemporary insights. “Ultimately I decided that news photographs do the best job of summarizing the stuff that matters on earth, on a very broad scale, at any given moment,” he says. That led to 10x10, a curious piece of new media art that aggregates and analyzes the top 100 words and images in the world every hour and displays them in an interactive ten-by-ten grid. (You may have already heard about it; within days of its November 4 launch, it was the 10th most popular link on the web, according to one site. CNN and USA Today and others soon took it beyond the blogosphere.)

This information visualization project is a bit of Google News with a dash of Google Zeitgeist. It does what thousands of blogging news junkies do, but in a more structured and visual way. And more than just feeding the addiction, it puts this snapshot of our world into context, a larger – and with no human intervention, raw and objective – perspective. As the website points out, it’s “often moving, sometimes shocking, occasionally frivolous.” It’s reality – at least as reported by the global news media.

Harris' inbox has been flooded by emails from people around the world moved by 10x10's unique - and often upsetting - view of the world. One day in particular that moved the masses: the day Yasser Arafat died. "Most days, the grid is filled with a variety of images on all sorts of topics," he reflects, "but every now and then something so important happens that the whole world pauses and looks. Arafat's death was one such event, and for one day, 10x10 was covered almost entirely with pictures of him. Moments like that you know you're watching history being made, and I find that quite powerful."

[excerpted from my upcoming article in Photo District News (PDN), February print issue]