Monday, February 25, 2008

Democracy v. Capitalism - Discovery Channel Takes Taxi to Dark Side

Anchorage folks had the opportunity to see this year's Academy Award winning feature documentary , Taxi to the Dark Side, before it was released to theaters. The Anchorage International Film Festival showed it here in December.

It was my choice for best documentary, but an arctic themed movie won that title here.

But while Taxi beat out Sicko for the Oscar Sunday night, it turns out director Alex Gibney has sold the broadcast rights to the Discovery Channel because they told him, “Look, we love this film. We’re going to give it a broad and very prominent airing.”

Now they are putting it on the shelf because it is "too controversial." Below is an excerpt from a Democracy Now interview (where you can get the whole interview) earlier this month:

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, it turns out that the Discovery Channel isn’t so interested in discovery. I mean, I heard that—I was told a little bit before my Academy Award nomination that they had no intention of airing the film, that new management had come in and they were about to go through a public offering, so it was probably too controversial for that. They didn’t want to cause any waves. It turns out, Discovery turns out to be the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil channel.

AMY GOODMAN: They bought the rights, though.

ALEX GIBNEY: They did.

AMY GOODMAN: So they own it.

ALEX GIBNEY: They own the rights for the next three years. They own the broadcast rights. It’s currently playing in theaters, where people can see it, but we had hoped that it would have a broad airing on television. And indeed, you know, one of the reasons I went with Discovery was because they had told me, “Look, we love this film. We’re going to give it a broad and very prominent airing.”

AMY GOODMAN: But if they still own the rights, can they just not air it for three years and keep you from airing it anywhere else?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yes, they can. That’s their right, because they paid for it. Now, we’re hoping that they’ll agree to sell it to somebody else, you know, maybe for a profit, if they need to do that. But I’m hoping at the very least that they’ll allow somebody else to take it on so it can be shown to the American people.

While this appears to be a strictly business decision -

"that new management had come in and they were about to go through a public offering, so it was probably too controversial for that. They didn’t want to cause any waves"

- there's a real possibility that Taxi never had a chance to get on the Discovery Channel, because Discovery also owns the Military Channel which joined with the Department of Defense program "America Supports You." From a news release dated October 10, 2007:

America Supports You recognizes and facilitates citizens’ support for our military men, women and families, and communicates that support to members of our Armed Forces at home and abroad. The Military Channel and America Supports You first worked together in support of the 2006 Freedom Walk in Washington, D.C. to mark the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 and honor veterans, past and present.

“We are so pleased that the Military Channel has joined the America Supports You team,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber, architect of the America Supports You program. “With their capacity to reach large audiences on an ongoing basis, the Military Channel will help broaden national awareness about America Supports You and connect many more people to the ways they can support and serve the troops and their families.”

The Military Channel brings viewers compelling, real-world stories of heroism, military strategy, technological breakthroughs and turning points in history. The network takes viewers “behind the lines” to hear the personal stories of servicemen and women and offers in-depth explorations of military technology, battlefield strategy, aviation and history. As the only cable network devoted to military subjects, it also provides unique access to this world, allowing viewers to experience and understand a world full of human drama, courage, innovation and long-held traditions of the military. Visit the Military Channel online at

While I thought that Taxi did a good job of taking "viewers “behind the lines” to hear the personal stories of servicemen and women," somehow, I don't think Taxi to the Dark Side tells the story that the Defense Department wants large audiences to see.

The idea of wealthy people and organizations buying silence for ideas they don't like, or buying accolades as Exxon did with the Anchorage Concert Association last Saturday, is contrary to the free and open debate of ideas that our Constitution was intended to promote. In Confessions of an Economic Hitman we also heard about how the author was paid very well NOT to write a book about what he knew.

Thanks to Battlefield of a Peaceful Warrior for the link to this story. Peaceful Warrior also provides a link to the Discovery Channel to urge them to air the movie. (Beware, you have to fill out a lot of information first and it is really designed to get questions about their current shows. Trying to find other ways to contact Discovery proved difficult. The corporate website is impenetrable - its a very slick, but real-information-free site. You can read about the various corporate officers (26 listed, five women, none in program related positions). But there is no contact information at all. No business information.)

However, the America Supports You news release does give us phone numbers and email addresses for two Discovery Channel employees.
Jill Bondurant
Discovery Communications, Inc.
(240) 662-2927 or
Kate Hawken
(240) 662-2947
The idea of buying a film or book of current political relevance and then locking it away so no one can see it (not quite the situation here since it is in theaters now) is clearly in conflict with the idea of free speech. One could say that Gibney didn't have to sell, or should have had a clause in the sale that gave him back the film if it didn't get airplay. But Gibney is a film maker, not a business man or an attorney. People who have great skill in one field, usually don't have the time or aptitude to develop skills in other areas. But given his film topics, he is politically savvy, but still got taken in here.

What would you do if you were offered $1 million for rights to your important political work? (I have no idea what Discover paid, the million is purely hypothetical.) Would you just take the money? Or would you stick by your principles?

I recall when a friend got hired by Alyeska Pipeline. They paid him way more money than he'd ever made before. But there was an expectation that they were buying his loyalty and silence too. How many people get that kind of job, then get subtly pressured into moving to a better neighborhood and living a spendier lifestyle? To the point where they are now just getting by, even at that much higher income?

That's when you become ethically susceptible - where the loss of your job jeopardizes your mortgage, your health insurance, your kids' college education, or even just the glitzier life style and the new 'friends' that come with it. If you buy into that, then they can get you to do things that compromise your basic values, compromise what you deep down know is right, to protect your new life style. If you've been coopted cleverly enough, you might actually believe it all.

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