Naomi Wolf has been a bit of a favourite of mine ever since I used her as a source in a paper I wrote at university, way back when…
She has consistently written well, with a combination of down-to-earth humour and good sense. I have always enjoyed her articles and found them to be great examples of clear thinking and logical yet insightful analysis.
Here is another very good piece of writing from her. Significant to me because it directly addresses a prime consideration I have.
The Guardian, Monday 19 January 2009
Every once in a while, a culture shifts. That is the experience I have been having recently, as my book The End of America has been turned into a documentary.
Can political documentaries make a difference? For someone who lives mostly in the dimension of words, it is an exciting and scary question.
The End of America details the 10 steps that would-be dictators always take in seeking to close an open society; it argued that the Bush administration had been advancing each one. I took the message on the road, and one of those early lectures – at the University of Washington in Seattle, in October 2007 – was videoed by a member of the audience. Even with its bad lighting and funky amateur vibe, this video, posted on YouTube, has been accessed almost 1,250,000 times.
This was a humbling lesson. While a polemical argument in prose may reach tens of thousands of the usual suspects – the video version reached far beyond that audience.
Everywhere I went, from the gas station to the nail salon, I ran into people who would have been unlikely to read a book of mine, but who were passionately supportive of the argument from having watched it on YouTube. The medium really is the message, in this case. For any opposition to be real, we would need hundreds of thousands from all walks of life to become outraged.
My humbling experience of the limits of print was taken one step further by a team of documentary-makers, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. As they worked on their film of The End of America, I experienced something incomparably fascinating for a non-fiction writer: sources I had quoted at length from the written record – and felt close to, for that reason, but abstractly – were interviewed in person, with all their humanity and quirkiness. These voices came to life with surreal vividness. I also saw the power of news footage, both archival and contemporary, to move the emotions in a way that my poor computer could never do. It is one thing to invoke in prose, and another to see.
Could writing alone – an outraged editorial – have managed that these days? Very unlikely. At a time when investigative print reporting is withering, through shrinking newspaper budgets and readerships, when journalism schools are turning out fewer and fewer investigative reporters for that reason, one could argue that documentaries are becoming our main source of investigative journalism.
But remember: Gore brought out his film along with his book. For all the power of video and film, I am not giving up my pen. I am just much more likely to try to link essays to webcasts or videos. The best way for these two media to move forward, to inform and make change, is in tandem; together they are more than the sum of their parts. Documentary film without nuanced journalistic sourcing risks being sensational, tendentious or broad-brushed. And these days, print without a dimension of imagery risks being flat, especially to a younger audience. So while we need not despair about the future of investigative journalism, or the power of print alone to drive change, we writers should accept the inevitable: those damn film-makers have tools we need to adapt to, and, wherever possible, appropriate. Wherever we want to turn out the deathless prose of political polemic to drive great change – well, we just have to smuggle out the video footage to go with it.
I have to concur.
Much as I might be a bookworm by instinct, if I want my message to actually reach a meaningful audience, I will also have to reach out through TV.
( luckily, that’s where I now work… )