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March 1993


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 3 Mar 1993 16:00:54 -0600
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In-Reply-To: Your message of Wed, 03 Mar 93 10:04:17 -0500.
             <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Wed, 03 Mar 93 17:00:39 EST
This discussion of Subjectivity/Objectivity seems to have gotten far off
track from its original focus on documentary film. As a result, somethings
have gotten seriously muddled. For me, documentary refers to all non-fiction
film. In non-fiction literature, there are a range of different modes of
writing, some speaking from a personal voice (such as a personal essay),
others from a collective voice (such as a manifesto or a catalog or a
corporate press release), some from an explicitly subjective voice (such
as an editorial), others from an explicitly "objective" voice (such as a
newspaper report.) The same, surely, must be true for non-fiction film or
documentary. The fact that a large percentage of documentaries in this
country are made by the Network news division should not lead us to reduce
documentary to journalism -- even by analogy. ROGER AND ME, for example, makes
no pretense of objective journalism; it is a personal essay which comments on
contemporary developments in the filmmaker's home town. HARVEST OF SHAME, to
cite another example from the discussion, merged newsreporting with explicitly
marked editorial. There is no way to read the closing moments of that film
as objective journalism and Murrow made no pretense of objectivity. The case
of HIGH SCHOOL is more complicated since Weisman's technique involves an
explicit repression of the marks of narration, while never-the-less constructing
 an argument about the nature of institutional society. Much of the
discussion, it seems to me, tries to impose journalistic categories on these
documentaries without recoginizing that the analogy to essay writing is
perhaps more apt and appropriate. People use the word, SHOULD, a lot here and
I think that "SHOULD" in this case is the institutional voice of a particlar
school of journalism that may not be appropriately applied to these films.
Now, all of this fails to address what I see as a seperate question: whether
objective documentary is in fact possible, viable, desirable, etc. I happen to
fall into the camp that sees "objectivity" as practiced by American journalism
to be larger a matter of rhetorical structure and self image rather than
of practice. As a former journalist, I quickly learned the conventions for
constructing news stories, conventions which went well beyond the inverted
pyramid and the 4 Ws and included particular narrative formulas which definitely
 shaped the news that was presented and a sense of what stories would get
editorial approval and which wouldn't. I am not convinced those conventions
result in more "objective" accounts. I would rather see us encourage a critical
interpretation of all nonfiction writing, which recognizes generic differences
in rhetorical style and attempts to locate institutional perspectives and
filters. I don't see this as a lowering of standards but an attempt to awaken
critical intelligence. But, frankly, this whole line of argument doesn't
interest me very much. As a journalism undergraduate almost two decades ago,
these issues were already run into the ground in the responses to New Journalism
 (Tom Wolfe) or Gonzo journalism (Hunter S. Thompson), both of whom were
ultimately essayists rather than journalists.
--Henry Jenkins