Dimitri Devyatkin on Sat, 19 May 2001 08:17:41 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> DV Journalism

Report on the Pew International Journalism - Columbia School of Journalism

May 10, 2001

By Dimitri Devyatkin

I just came off two days, May 4 & 5, at the prestigious Pew International
Journalism conference, dedicated to international news coverage and
especially use of the DV (digital video) camera and the Web, themes close to
the heart of video makers everywhere.

The venue was Columbia School of Journalism, in Manhattan, a bastion of
liberal journalism, and the institution that prepares brave reporters to go
forth in the name of truth, justice and American journalism. This conference
was Columbia's and the Pew's big hoopla splash of seriously coming of age
for DV small camera video journalism and Web-based distribution of content.

Speaking at the conference were figures of great influence in our world,
such as Tom Bettag, Executive Producer of ABC's "Nightline" and David
Fanning, Executive Producer of WGBH's "Frontline", who gave the keynote
speech. I was duly impressed by the big guns, and how well spoken they were.
However, I felt a distinct drift on a number of issues. The executives were
"hip" to the new technology and its possibilities, but they seemed to be
trying to minimize the democratizing features, not allowing new voices and
new points of view into the editorial decisions. The low cost of DV cameras
was stressed, but no one ever mentioned that these cameras could serve a
different constituency.

The DV revolution was described and glorified, but all in the context of
"We're the Big Boys, and if you don't work with us and work the way we do,
you're left out." There was no mention of IMC (www.Indymedia.org),
www.FreeSpeech.org or any other non-mainstream news organization. The main
advantage of the new equipment is it makes staff downsizing easier. Instead
of parachuting in a crew of 20 for a hot news event, like covering the
Marines landing on the beach in Somalia, now a single camera operator can be
parachuted in to achieve the same results. They don't even need to pay for a
sound person.

News producers carry these little DV cameras with them, and capture
off-the-cuff footage that gets included on the nightly news reports. For
example, a reporter woke up in her hotel room to the shaking of an
earthquake, and the footage she recorded on her mini-DV camera made the
evening news. There is no questioning the accepted catechism of focusing
only on sensational stories.

The old bugaboo of unacceptable technical specs of handheld cameras, a major
barrier to freelancers in the early days of portable video, is now a thing
of the past. Today there are no technical requirements except that the image
is viewable.

As for questions of distribution, all presenters came from large corporate
systems, all supported by advertising revenue, so that was the only possible
means of distribution conceived of. When told of the service
www.webwasher.com that provides software to "wash" all advertising off your
computer screen, speeding the downloads of your web pages, one journalist's
response was, "Well, I have to pay my mortage somehow." No one complained
that we're hearing the very same voices on all those varied platforms. Soon
we'll have Chicago Tribune reporters' voices coming out of our toasters, and
nowhere a contrary word. They'll own stations on every TV, cable, Internet,
newspapers and radio wherever you turn. Their sharpest investigative
reporting using all their possibilities came up with a scathing
multi-platform, highly promoted special on an issue affecting every citizen
in the country, airport delays.

Nightline's Tom Bettag described how "Foreign news used to be dominated by
white rich guys" for whom a foreign assignment was a perk among Ivy League
school buddies, and they edited their stories to match. As a working class
guy, Bettag told how he was originally put off by international stories, but
said, "It's a myth that the US public doesn't care about foreign news.
American television is off the mark." As journalists, ABC News claims a kind
of moral high ground, showing "objective" material, which they verify as
true. They prefer to get a story before its cut, to see the raw footage and
make a vetting assessment.

The closing workshop, with Tom Kennedy from the www.WashingtonPost.com photo
portal and Mike Moran of www.MSNBC.com was the most informative. These two
sites are leaders in integrating interactive multimedia, text, animation,
video, sound and photos, even e-mail Q&A's with experts. MSBNC has
integrated videos and animated sequences right into the text of their
articles. Washington Post on-line has exclusive photo essays, for example, a
moving tribute to Robert F. Kennedy, narrated from a eulogy speech by his
brother Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The message in the conference regarding content was momentously status quo.

Here's the predominant spin offered on two historical issues: 1)
Globalization protests, 2) Yugoslavia

1) Globalization: There were a number of sample programs shown about
globalization and the issue came up often in the presentations. For example,
in the Showcase Screenings section, I watched a segment of "Raising a
Ruckus", produced by Josiah Hooper and Katie Galloway for KQED San
Francisco, documenting protests at the World Bank meeting in Prague in 2000.
I didn't get to see the entire program, so my remarks only concern the
segment shown and the producer's words afterwards. The program shows the
Prague demo's, with breathless, on-the-fly interviews, and peaceful,
constructive demonstrators, with a sprinkling of red-lighted shots of
windows being broken for visual stimulation. The program spends an
exorbitant amount of screen time listening to World Bank President James
Wolfensohn and his new "comrade" Bono, of the superstar rock group "U2".
Bono made some valuable remarks, about how 80% of the world is living worse
than before, as opposed to the top 20% who seem to be benefiting from
current policies. Then his buddy Wolfensohn said he understood the demands
of the protestors. He said he has befriended Bono, in an attempt to bridge
the yawning gap between the World Bank and its critics.

The overall effect on the viewer after watching such mutual admiration
sessions is to think, "Well, the World Bank can't be all that bad if the
President can make friends with a rock star and they both favor reform." If
you believe that, you might as well put away your gas masks and helmets. As
Walden Bello speaking in Prague suggested, instead of submitting to the
"disamament" of so-called "reasonable dialogue" and "frank consultation"
with those who benefit from the status quo, demonstrators should attack the
"fortresses and earthworks" of the global economic system, but that was not
in this tape.

I asked the question of whether the producer found any respondents who made
the connection between globalization and imperialism, to see the historical
context that World Bank and IMF might be seen as the same forces as US
Marine gunboats. The producer quickly cut me off with a denial, saying they
interviewed every articulate protestor and found no one with such a point of

The keynote speaker, David Fanning of "Frontline" presented an exquisitely
shot segment of an upcoming program shot by Frontline's David Murdoch with
journalist Bill Finnegan, of "The New Yorker". The program lovingly
documents a village in Bolivia, where the people built wells and water
systems with their own hands, but are now being forced to pay for home water
use, because the government privatized the national water system. Villagers
throughout the country launched angry protests and a harsh government
crackdown ensued. The new foreign entity, to which the peasants have to pay
for water is named "International Water". An activist from the US in Bolivia
showed people how to use the Internet to find the owner of International
Water. It is the American firm, Bechtel.

Hwever, this Bolivian story is told only in the context of Bolivia and the
particulars in that country. I asked the pesky question about whether the
connection would be made with Bechtel's long time role as a US military
contractor, particularly in Vietnam and other countries. The answer was
"No". I asked Fanning directly whether content decisions on Frontline are
ever influenced by interests of the funding organizations, and got a brisk
denial. At least 7 people in the audience later came up to me privately and
thanked me for the question, openly stating their disbelief of Fanning's
last answer about funding. For example, Chubb Insurance Group is a major
Frontline supporter, and it is not hard to imagine that they or their board
members might be Bechtel stockholders as well. Frontline is by far the most
distinguished, best-funded and most visible social issue documentary series
on American TV, producing excellent, hard-hitting programs. However, they
stop short of confronting the class system and leave the audience with a
sense of frustration and dissatisfaction, without any proposal for action
after viewing the calamities presented.

2) Yugoslavia was the No.1 dramatic story for budding international
journalists of the last 5 years. Young, tech-savvy stringers, with promises
of airdates from Nightline or similar broadcasters, have used DV cameras to
shoot high risk documentation of young Serbians flaunting the Milosovic
regime in its dying days. Whatever your particular take on Yugoslavia might
be, it seems most journalists would want to depict what both sides are
saying, and make note that about half the population of Yugoslavia supported
the central government.

You would not have known it from the numerous reports presented at Columbia.
Every journalist came back with sympathetic reports on young dissidents,
with nary a word about the rest of the population. Nancy Durham, a video
journalist from the CBC (Canada) edited her clandestine nighttime shooting
of hip young Albanian protesters in their preparations for demonstrations
with a thudding homegrown rock music track. That elicited a comment from Tom
Bettag that such editing is discouraged at Nightline, because it breaks down
the barrier between pure objective journalism and partisan sympathetic
reporting. They only allow the former, eschewing the latter.

Freelancer Joe Rubin described how he got up-front cash and an air ticket
from Nightline to go to Serbia, in the role of a naive tourist, with his
high tech DV camera disguised as home video gear. His program is titled
"Belgrade's Winter of Discontent, Standing Up to Slobodan Milosevic." He was
delighted all the young protestors spoke such good English, as it made his
work much easier. Asked if he spoke any Serbian, he replied no. Then I asked
how could he learn what any of the other people in the country think? His
reply was he hadn't encountered anyone of a different point of view (all
were anti-Milosevic), being escorted everywhere by the young protestors.

(Prediction: Before leaving the theme of Yugoslavia, I personally recommend
to any adventurous young DV video journalist reading this, the next
Yugoslavia-level news story for the coming five years is the destabilization
of Ukraine and Belarus. A former industrial giant crippled with corruption,
Ukraine may divide into Western Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russian-speaking
Ukraine, each "finding" reasons for dispute in the near future on Russia's

- New York City-based Dimitri Devyatkin (Devyatkin@earthlink.net) has been
an independent video producer since 1971, whose work has appeared on ABC
stations, PBS, French and British television. He was a TV producer in Moscow
for 5 years; until recently worked for a streaming media company in
Amsterdam, then New York.

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