Under William Paley's presidency of the Columbia Broadcasting System, the news department of the Columbia Broadcasting System had always had a high priority and been regarded within the industry as a model for integrity in public service programming. In 1948, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and radio producer Fred Friendly formed a working relationship to create a now-classic series of audio recordings for Columbia Masterworks Records called I Can Hear It Now. The first release was on 78-rpm records, with a later re-release on 33 1/3-rpm LPs. That partnership would last for twelve years, well into the television era, and soon produced such journalistic landmarks as Hear It Now, See It Now and CBS Reports.
But Ralph Engelman's new biography of Fred Friendly makes note of the fact that, on more than a few occasions, Friendly was not above doctoring sound material that was passed off as the real thing.
Veteran CBS foreign correspondent Robert Trout recalled in 1999 two such "enhancements" by Friendly in radio programs about the war against Japan. One involved John Daly's famous words on December 7, 1941, "We interrupt this program for a special announcement . . . " telling the American public of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But for I Can Hear It Now those words are said to have been taken from a recording of Daly's announcement of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Friendly apparently then placed the words in the middle of a 1941 New York Philharmonic concert-which Friendly felt added gravitas to his presentation of the original event.
Trout remembered a second example in more personal terms. The quality of the original sound recording of his radio announcement of Japan's defeat on August 14, 1945 was poor. Three years after the war ended, Friendly asked Trout to come into the studio and re-create a slightly altered rendition of that 18-second announcement that would better meet the technical quality standards of Columbia Records.That flawless recording is the one that turns up in many documentaries on the subject-but both versions now reside in the Media History Archive of the University of Texas, Austin.
Reporter David Schoenbrun was another subject of Friendly's perfectionism. Friendly had asked Schoenbrun to ask Charles de Gaulle to re-record his historic broadcast in 1940 calling on the French people to resist the Nazi occupation. When de Gaulle refused and belittled the correspondent for even making such a request, Friendly was furious. He shouted over the phone that de Gaulle was a nit-picker, a purist, and a holier-than-thou fanatic. After listening to this tirade with no seeming end to it, Scheonbrun finally hung up the phone.
Such efforts to improve on original events are not limited to the United States. When the Israeli army stormed the gates of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, that historic event was very well documented by Israel's combat camera crews. But when the government realized that all the coverage was on 16mm black-&-white footage, they ordered the troops out to do it all over again, this time with glorious 35mm color film stock.
Another example of wartime combat footage that caught the public's fancy was NBC's popular Victory at Sea series. When film historian Peter Rollins asked producer Henry Salomon to name his favorite segment for a new book on television history, Salomon did not hesitate. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had occurred at night and there was no film footage whatsoever of that encounter. Instead, they searched the archive, choosing shots of big guns going off in the darkness, men racing around the deck of a battleship in low key lighting, close-ups of water rushing past the prow of a ship in near darkness, and so forth. Rollins reported that Salomon appeared very proud of this re-creation of history which never actually existed except through fabrication.
In 1983 Bill Moyers broadcast a 58-minute program on PBS in his A Walk Through the 20th Century series. It was called The Reel World of News, exploring a popular form of motion picture journalism that most Americans then under 40 had never seen in a theater-the newsreels. For more than 50 years they had entertained us with fashion shows, poodles and flagpole sitters, but they were also the only place one could see authentic action coverage of fires, floods, world leaders shaking hands, Adolph Hitler opening his new autobahns, and later the London Blitz and World War II troops in action. (Although all five major newsreel companies were subsidiaries of large Hollywood film studios, for purposes of this review they are here subsumed under the overall genre of the "documentary.")
Moyers talked with veteran newsreel announcers and film editors but, most revealingly, with that fast-fading breed of cameramen-entrepreneurs who vied with one another for a scoop about a movie star at poolside or celebrities out nightclubbing. Most saw themselves as entertainers, not journalists, and therefore they had no compunction about the frequent faking they engaged in of "news" events that might give their footage more popular appeal than that of their competitors. Yet it is their narrowed perspective on natural disasters, on political events, and of small wars in remote places that has now become our documents of record. It was their vision that constitutes today's moving image history of times past. And it is that same footage that we see being used over and over again in today's documentaries as the authentic representation of an earlier reality.
These examples raise two important questions about the ethics of journalistic communication: (1) How did these sins of re-creation become so embedded in our thinking about the way documentaries are made? (2) Does it really matter, since many of those alterations might seem to be relatively minor?
In searching for those answers it is important to recognize that, unlike many professions, there is no code of ethics for those who work in the movie industry. From its inception with the nickelodeon
While Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) is recognized as the first "documentary," it too was screened in movie theaters and valued for the appeal of its exotic setting. Although it was shot in a distant location using non-professionals as actors, in some respects its production style was not unlike that of fiction films. As historian Peter Bukalski observes, "Despite the fact that the film is perceived as a factual record, it depicts an Eskimo lifestyle long gone, staged events for the camera without acknowledgement, and puts its human subjects in unnecessary danger during filming." Thus faking certain events and re-creating dramatic action for the camera were standard practices borrowed from Flaherty's movie studio brethren even in this earliest of documentaries.
Today, in this writer's view, we differentiate documentaries from traditional theatrical films by four factors that place limits on how they are made. To gain audience credibility, makers of documentaries strive to:
USE REAL PEOPLE-not professional actors
DOING WHAT THEY NORMALLY DO-not what a "reality show" screenwriter dreamed up
AT THE TIME THEY ACTUALLY DO IT-not doing it again for the camera
IN THE PLACE WHERE IT ACTUALLY OCCURS-not in a studio cut off from the real world.
How then does one report the history of the 20th century without resort to chicanery? When the key people are long gone from the scene, vintage photographs often serve as a credible alternative to dressing actors up in costumes. The Canadian documentary City of Gold pioneered that technique more than 50 years ago in telling the real story of the Klondike gold rush with photos of real people, doing what they did, at the time and in the place where they did it. To many young filmmakers that technique has come to be known as "the Ken Burns approach," but it had been going on for three decades before Burns began to imitate it.
When we speak of "docudramas" we are describing a genre little different from the conventional theatrical film. The only thing they have is common with documentaries is that both deal with the same people or events. Although they claim to be "based on" something that once happened, docudramas employ professional actors, they are often shot on a studio sound stage, and they are free to introduce new characters and to re-write events as they wish in order to heighten the drama of their story.
Yet as recently as the 1960s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences included "re-enactments" in identifying
those works eligible to compete for the annual Documentary "Oscar." For 17 years, Rule 12, Section 1 defined documentaries as:
Flms dealing with signifcant historical, social or economic subjects, either photographed in actual occurrence or re-enacted[emphasis supplied], and where the emphasis is more on factual content than on entertainment.
Little wonder that people working in non-fiction films have sometimes felt confused about where their loyalties lie, and what techniques are available to them in telling their stories. Are they, like newsreels, a part of the movie business, or do they identify their journalistic aspirations as paramount?
If further evidence is needed of the consequence of mixing news events with show business, one finds it in abundance in Ray Fielding's definitive book on the history of the newsreel. The entire third chapter is devoted to "Faking the Early News Films." Page 24 contains a photograph of a Biograph Film Company technician holding a watering pail used to put out the famous San Francisco fire as he towers over a scale model of the city just after the camera captured it burning to the ground. In another example, footage of the 1895 Spanish-American War was also faked by producer J. Stuart Blackton with miniature ships filmed in a tub with fake clouds and great plumes of cigar smoke wafting over the battlefront. In those days, camera lenses were so poor that they resembled the bottom of a Coke bottle, so audiences believed that they were seeing the real thing.
One of the great bits of showmanship with news footage was done by a British newsreel company in 1940. It showed the historic scene of Hitler prancing up the steps into the railroad car at Compiegne (in which the Germans had to sign the armistice ending World War I) to see the French having to sign a similar armistice document 22 years later. The editor ran the film backwards and forwards repeatedly and scored it to the popular "Lambeth Walk" dance tune. That satirical piece-largely created in the editing room-provided much needed relief to Britons in a time of great peril to the country.
As documented in Fielding's book on The March of Time, impersonations of real people were commonplace on the sound track of these popular news programs heard on the radio and screened in the theaters. Time, Inc. was most proud of the man they frequently used to deliver statements purporting to come from President Franklin Roosevelt because he imitated that voice so well. But when Roosevelt heard things being attributed to him that he had never said, his staff complained to Roy Larson, the producer of the series. By 1937 the protests grew so insistent that their "star" impersonator was reluctantly dropped from the announcing team.
When people who make documentaries work together with experts in other fields their collaboration can sometimes be a stormy one. A case in point is the history of what has come to be know as the Visual Anthropology movement. In 1942 anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson studied cultural patterns of natives in Bali at a time when note-taking and record-keeping were an onerous but necessary part of scholarly research in that field. When they substituted a movie camera for a pen and notepad they found themselves liberated from much of that tedium.
For anthropologists, cameras have become a tool to improve their efficiency in preserving a record of a way of life before it becomes extinct. Their goal is to advance the study of culture. For filmmakers, cultures are but the raw material needed to communicate important messages about societies to a larger public. Scientists are compelled by a need to know things. Filmmakers are driven by a need to tell others about them. Each side needs the other yet they pursue divergent outcomes. The tension between these competing forces often leads to a product that both groups see as watered down. Flaherty's Nanook illustrates that frustrating dilemma. It is also the reason why people who make documentaries sometimes feel justified in going beyond simple facts if it helps convey a larger meaning about the importance of their story.
We have seen some of the factors that, at times, can motivate makers of documentaries to push against the boundaries of what is "real." The question of a higher order is: Do these deviations really matter? The most truthful answer must be both yes and no.
In Fielding's book on the newsreel, mention is made of a research study done at the UCLA Journalism Department in 1961 (pp. 245-246). It deals with the ethics of events that are caused to happen (i.e., staged) by virtue of the filmmaker's intervention. The findings suggest that such cases of manipulation are most acceptable to both journalism professionals and to laymen when (1) the incident doesn't involve "hard news" and (2) presumably no one is hurt by the changes that are made. It also concludes that (3) instances of the "organized, intentional insertion of political propaganda" are not acceptable and are therefore unethical.
Without getting into the philosophic fine points of what is "real" and what is "true" or how we define "propaganda," it appears that ethical judgments may be influenced, at least in part, by the intent of the communicator. The photographer thinks: If my intentions were good, then I should be seen as ethical. It also implies that the importance and the consequence of the event being manipulated help determine how we see it on an ethical scale. Here the photographer thinks: If it's not too important, then its probably ethical. And, if nobody gets hurt by it, why worry about how it looks to others? Such thinking would seem to place us on a slippery slope indeed.
Six examples of questionable journalistic practices were cited earlier in this article. Of those, three involved the outright fabrication of material, including the use of John Daly's voice announcing a breaking news story that had actually occurred three years and four months earlier. Was it an important hard news story? Without doubt it was. Was anyone hurt by that substitution? Did it "change history"? Probably not.
There were also three examples cited that involved re-creations of events that had occurred at a different time. Were the storming of the Jerusalem gate, the end of World War II, and de Gaulle's appeal to the French people hard news stories Absolutely. Did these blatant misrepresentations hurt anybody?Again, probably not.
Were these three historic events used repeatedly for propagandistic purposes by the countries involved? No doubt about it. Did their intentional and deliberate use hurt anybody?That is a matter that could be debated at some length. The word "propaganda" has been defined in many ways, one of them being the use of information that is always in the interest of the sender but not necessarily beneficial to the receiver. Is that ethical? Perhaps not.
In thinking about these issues of right and wrong I'm reminded of the career of the late Earl Warren, longtime governor of California. During his years as the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, following hours of grueling debate seeking a consensus about how laws should be interpreted, he would often infuriate his fellow justices with a question. "Yes, but is that right? Is it fair?"
Laws of the land are never an end in themselves. They are but a means to assure that justice prevails. They strive to provide a basis for what is right and what is fair.
So too, the field of ethics ultimately strives to help us determine what is right and what is fair. In the realm of documentary perhaps the dominant questions are not "is it real" and "is it true" but does it serve to further the more important objectives of seeking fairness and advancing justice?
References and Footnotes
1. Ralph Engelman, Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly and the Rise & Fall of Television Journalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009)
2. Engelman, p. 58, crediting Jim Widner's "Radio News Broadcasts- World War II: John Daly Pearl Harbor Broadcast." Old Time Radio Newsgroup, March 17, 2000.
3. Engelman, p. 58, footnote 22, referring to Elizabeth McLeod, "Radio News Broadcasts-World War II: Farewell to Studio 9/Pearl Harbor." Old Time Radio Newsgroup, July 13, 1999.
4. Peter Rollins, "Victory at Sea: Cold War Epic" (pp. 103-122) in Television Histories, Gary Edgerton & Peter Rollins, eds. (The University Press of Kentucky, 2003)
5. Don't confuse the Hollywood "Rating System" with ethical standards, since it was created by the industry not to regulate behavior, but to ward off outside pressures for censorship.
6. Peter J. Bukalski, Some Milestones in the History of Documentary (3rd International Documentary Congress,1998)
7. Ken Burns' first epic historical documentary, The Civil War, was released in 1990.
8. Ernest D. Rose, "In Search of Documentary" Parts 1 & 2 in Arts in Society (Madison: University of Wisconsin, Fall 1960, Vol. 1, pp. 78-79 and Spring-Summer 1962, Vol. 2, No.1, pp. 114-132). The original wording, written by fiction and short subject filmmakers in the mid-1940s because there was no Academy branch for documentary makers, was not changed to the quoted version until after my "What is a documentary?" was published in the December 1960-January 1961 issue of the UCLA alumni magazine. The quoted revision remained in effect for more than two decades longer.
9. Subjects in a non-fiction film presumably have no more right to control their stories than do the subjects of a newspaper story, especially when about a public figure or celebrity-as long as the film is factual and was obtained without violating privacy rights, a rather imprecise legal term.
10. Raymond Fielding, The American Newsreel 1911-1967 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972)
11. Raymond Fielding, The March of Time 1935-1951 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)