As soon as I have an opportunity, I plan to go see Sicko, Michael Moore's new documentary. I figure with all the conservatives who claim they won't be going, I should be able get a pretty good seat.
Sicko is Moore's fourth major documentary. The first three, which made Moore a very rich man, were Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.
Are Moore's documentaries biased? Of course they are. They certainly do only tell one side of the story. On the other hand, documentaries historically do tell a story that isn't being told; and the people on the other side, usually the rich and the powerful, generally have been telling their story for a very long time, maybe not to us but certainly they've been telling it to Congressmen and Senators, and maybe even to Presidents. Besides, documentary makers have an easy out when it comes to telling the other side of the story. All they need do is invite the people on the other side to come and be interviewed. They may accept, but if they do they will certainly be confronted with some of the very embarrassing situations that are likely to be profiled on the documentary and asked some questions that there is no good answer for (the truth would be about the worst one they could give.) They could decline (in which case you will hear a line about how 'so and so was invited but declined a request for an interview,' or they did not respond-- and still have that noted.) Of course Moore used a third option in some of his earlier documentaries, literally hounding and peppering with questions people who weren't willing to be interviewed otherwise.
Why is Moore making documentaries?
That's easy. Because the people who should make them, the major news networks, have quit doing their job. Documentaries are supposed to bring us the stories that aren't being told, they should be the media getting behind the scenes and giving us the picture that someone else would rather that we not see. Years ago, there were some great documentaries made by CBS, ABC and NBC. The best examples are Harvest of Shame, the 1960 gold standard by which all documentaries are measured, in which Edward R. Murrow profiled the plight of migrant farmworkers, and Hearts and Minds, the 1974 documentary directed by Peter Davis about the Vietnam war that largely provided a new framework for how we talk about war, especially guerilla conflicts.
Were those documentaries controversial? Absolutely. Were they biased? Perhaps, though (like Moore) they provided raw facts and first hand footage, not edited to make it easier to swallow or sugar coated so Aunt Sophie wouldn't lose her appetite.
But today, the major news networks hardly ever make anything that could be called a 'documentary' anymore. So Moore (and last year, Al Gore who inconveniently for the right stepped in when Moore was taking a year off putting together 'Sicko') are merely filling a niche that has been vacated by the news media who should be guardians of the news, and who should be telling the untold stories.
So the real question isn't about Michael Moore, it is why have the major networks quit making documentaries? Is it because they are afraid of controversy? Maybe, although they certainly don't seem to have a problem with controversy when it comes to pushing the envelope with how much sexual innuendo they can put on TV, or if it is of the Jerry Springer/Montel Williams variety. Is it that they don't have the staff to do it anymore? Perhaps, but then why do they have so many reporters devoted to telling us every detail of what is going on with Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Tom Cruise? Is it because they aren't cost effective? Maybe, and it is true that it costs a lot more to send a reporter and film crew to some small town in the jungle someplace than it costs to film another vapid sitcom in studio 17-B. But Moore has made a ton of cash from people plonking down their money to see his documentaries, which suggests that the networks could get some decent ratings and turn a profit from them if they wanted to.
I think though that the real reason why the news networks have gotten out of the documentary business and left it to Moore is because they are no longer independent corporations. CBS is owned by Time-Warner, ABC is owned by Disney, NBC is owned by General Electric and FOX is part of the corporate empire of Rupert Murdoch. The truth is, while for the most part the corporate leadership doesn't interfere with the news divisions in any of these companies, when it comes to influencing public policy they do. A good well put together documentary can do a great deal to influence public debate and policy on an issue (as Harvest of Shame did, and as Hearts and Minds, which was finished too late to influence Vietnam, has influenced the way we think about civilian populations and modern warfare. And the truth be told, the corporate titans really don't want to rock the boat and influence public policy other than by their own very deliberate lobbying and campaign donations.
Now they are probably thinking, if they could just figure out a way to buy Michael Moore....