- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

“Orwell Rolls in His Grave,” a topically challenged documentary feature booked exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, invokes the George Orwell of “1984” as a cautionary voice against totalitarian political conformity.

Not exactly a bold gesture at this late date.

However, the Orwell who excelled at polemical and critical journalism might be acutely steamed at the inability of Robert Kane Pappas, an alternately inquisitive, absent-minded and righteously indignant filmmaker, to sustain a coherent thematic emphasis. Or recognize the near cartoonish one-sidedness and special pleading in his own political outlook. How clever to speak of a great writer rolling in his grave when your own methodology is riddled with grave-spinning defects.

The ostensibly useful segments of the movie rely on interviews with a handful of people — journalist Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity; Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent congressman from Vermont; and academic Aurora Wallace. They argue that the concentration of media ownership in the United States has narrowed to a point that’s both culturally and politically alarming. News content has shriveled as packaging, marketing, public relations and ratings have been glorified. Countless stories that merit public attention never get reported, or are reported in superficial, transitory respects. The illusion of choice in the cable and satellite era is contradicted by the facts of ownership, with networks, radio and television stations, newspapers, publishers and entertainment companies nestled into the vast holdings of a few corporations.

Mr. Lewis (formerly an ABC reporter and then producer for CBS’ “60 Minutes”) in a calm way, Mr. Sanders in a crusty way and Miss Wallace in a sunny way draw attention to the pitfalls in this state of affairs and embody methods of criticizing and perhaps arresting the drift. However, it becomes apparent when Mr. Pappas turns to other grievance-nursing camera subjects — pundit-professors Mark Crispin Miller and Robert McChesney, former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and successful filmmaking colleague Michael Moore — that media concentration alarms him only inasmuch as it empowers politically conservative proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch and aids the election prospects of Republicans.

The big — and I imagine undying — grievance in “Grave” is President Bush’s “theft” of the Florida electoral votes in the 2000 presidential race. However, this sore point is given an additional stab-in-the-back twist when Mr. Pappas asserts that Ronald Reagan stole the 1980 election by orchestrating the return of U.S. hostages from the Iranians. Gary Sick, the former State Department official who claimed that the Reagan team had concocted an unscrupulous “October Surprise” to deny President Carter a second term, comes closer to being the real spiritual mentor of Mr. Pappas, who also seems to mistake himself for a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. He even dares to take a rare swipe at a Democrat on this issue; former Rep. Lee Hamilton is scorned for chairing the congressional committee that found no merit in the Sick charges.

It’s not at all clear that Mr. Pappas made any effort to talk to the public figures he regards as public enemies of one magnitude or another. For example, he’s content with a Sanders characterization of Mr. Murdoch as, essentially, a brilliant menace.

Although it’s obvious that Mr. Pappas would heave a sigh of relief if there were no conservative media outlets of any consequence, maybe he owes the historical record an encounter with Mr. Murdoch — or at least with Roger Ailes, the mastermind of the Fox News Network who’s also fingered as an evil genius with a long rap sheet.

By and large, Mr. Pappas wants to hear that liberals are disarmed and defenseless. So much so that they need a new regulatory crusade that will correct the strange, insidious imbalance that allowed conservatives to create such innovations as think tanks, lobbyists, radio commentators and news organizations. I think there’s a lot to be said for hearing more from the most knowledgeable participants in Mr. Pappas’ lopsided survey. Yet the argument for giving Mr. Pappas a prolonged hearing is terminally weak.


TITLE: “Orwell Rolls in His Grave”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Produced, directed and edited by Robert Kane Pappas. Written by Mr. Pappas and Tom Blackburn. Photography by Mr. Pappas and Alan Hostetter. Music by Eric Wood

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes


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