The Supreme Court spent the day Tuesday grappling with the question more and more on everyone’s mind these days: What is journalism, anyway?
At issue is whether “Hillary the Movie,” a 90-minute film sharply critical of Hillary Clinton, was correctly subjected to campaign laws during the fall election season. The film had been blocked by a federal court from running ads or airing on cable TV or video-on-demand during the campaign because it was made with some corporate funds and the group behind it, Citizens United, did not want to disclose its backers.
The election has come and gone, and the film already has aired in several theaters and was released on DVD, which are not subject to campaign finance laws. A decision is not expected until June -- but the case is being watched closely as important for the growing field of political documentaries.
Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued for Citizens United, calling the movie a "long discussion" that "informs and educates" interested people on Clinton's qualifications and record. Olson said the documentary was “the very definition of robust, uninhibited debate about a subject of intense political interest that the First Amendment is there to guarantee."
Sounds like journalism -- and you’d think there would be some evidence of Olson’s “discussion” and “debate” in the movie’s trailer, which has now found a second life on YouTube and the Citizens United site. But you’d be wrong. The trailer makes “Hillary the Movie” look like some scary combination of the school bully and the head mean girl.
For sure, the definition of journalism has expanded in the digital era, with more room for opinion and point of view. But the method of this trailer, at least, is simply to bury its subject in vitriol and damning character judgments.
There are no opposing views to be found -- nothing in it feels like “robust, uninhibited debate.” At one point, over unflattering photos of Hillary, we hear only, out of the mouths of various experts like Dick Morris and Ann Coulter these words in quick succession: “ruthless” “vindictive” “venal” “sneaky” “ideological” “intolerant” “liar, is a good one” “scares the hell out of me.”
The trailer at moments runs images of newspaper pages through holes in a black background forming the name “Hillary” -- as if those pictures of newspapers will somehow rub off and make what’s going on in the voiceover into journalism. But if the trailer is an accurate advertisement for the film, it would be a stretch to call “Hillary the Movie” journalism.
Strangely, perhaps, an attempt at actual dialogue would have been a more powerful documentary technique -- and might have made Clinton look even worse.
Even Michael Moore, as proudly partisan as a filmmaker can get, knows you make a bigger impact when you let your subjects hang themselves by their own rope.