A Sobering Documentary Shows the Fourth Estate Under Strain

June 15, 2022 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography

 Via Variety

June 14, 2022

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's potent new HBO doc finds frightening evidence of the free press — and democracy — in multinational decline.

By Dennis Harvey

The resurgence of neo-fascist movements and authoritarian rule around the world has unsurprisingly coincided with a ramping-up of hostility against press freedom. Assassinated U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the most notorious single example, but hundreds in his profession have been murdered in recent years, with many more assaulted, detained, harassed and so forth. Telling the truth has become a dangerous business in an era where politicians now frequently stoke anger towards "fake news," as they often brand any reportage that doesn't flatter them. All this is occurring at a time when professional outlets and standards continue to diminish, their existence eroded by competition from newer platforms where opinion and rumor often supplant factual reality.

That escalating crisis gets its pulse taken by "Endangered," the latest documentary feature by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, whose stellar collaborations to date have tackled diverse subjects from U.S. evangelicals ("Jesus Camp") to broadcast maverick Norman Lear ("Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You"). Executive produced by Ronan Farrow, this urgent yet admirably cool-headed look at an increasingly heated issue launches on HBO and HBO Max June 28, two weeks after its Tribeca festival premiere.

After an opening-credits montage of meaningful free-press moments in the 20th century's second half (notably Watergate), we begin meeting the film's principals. Each is embroiled in covering national politics in a climate where the more conservative leaders and supporters prefer to combat negative stories by "shooting the messenger," sometimes literally.

In Sao Paolo, newspaper reporter Patricia Campos Mello attends a rally for Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a nationalist strongman who frequently directs his fervent followers' rage towards the Fourth Estate. Having exposed fraud within his election campaign, she's been a regular target for his often crudely sexualized attacks: She isn't kidding when she says, "To half the Brazilian population, I am a whore who trades sex for information." Finally deciding to sue him for slander in order to "send a message," she provides "Endangered" with a rare encouraging development here, when the court duly awards her monetary damages.

In Mexico City, purple-haired photojournalist Sashenka Gutierrez is in an even more perilous position, noting "Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist, A lot of my colleagues have disappeared or been killed." Their casualties are minuscule, however, compared to the estimated 3600 women murdered every year in a nation where misogynistic violence seems to be an epidemic. (That death toll is about twice as many as in the U.S., which has nearly three times the population.) "My mother taught me not to be afraid to tell the truth," she says, wading with her camera into protests where fed-up women take a stance just as aggressive as the police who arrive in full riot gear to meet them. Despite this brave attitude, however, there's undeniable tension underlying her daily work. When we see her arrive at home alone at night, we brace for the kind of unpleasant surprise that happens in fictional thrillers.

Such professional peril, more common to war-zone reportage, as yet seems a remote risk Stateside — but that may change. Covering a Black Lives Matter protest after George Floyd's murder, Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste records the heavy-handed police response, his images becoming evidence as local law enforcement files false reports of their actions. On a similar occasion not long after, cops appear to actively target press persons for harassment, tear-gassing and strong-arm treatment.

Juste and reporter Oliver Laughland, who writes about American politics for the U.K. Guardian, actively feel infrastructure as well as popular support for a free press eroding around them. At Trump rallies, his base (often urged on by the man himself) demonstrate the venomous flipside of their adulation by spewing insults at the journos in the rear. When Laughland asks individuals how they feel about a variably shrinking and biased media landscape, he gets responses ranging from "I'm not gonna buy a newspaper that doesn't reflect my view" to citing of YouTube videos as a better information source. Such deteriorating relations reach a logical climax when we see January 6 insurrectionists destroying the equipment of media personnel they've already forced to flee.

After introducing these main figures at some length, "Endangered" intercuts between them to find increasing parallels, particularly once COVID descends — and far-right voices spread related disinformation. In Mexico City, officials deny an emergency exists even as a hospital worker tells Gutierrez that her facility's patient death rate is 90 percent. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro lies, "The whole coronavirus thing is a fantasy."

Framed by an early-1960s U.S. broadcast program exalting the role of a free press in democracy — as specified in the Constitution — "Endangered" views so much open antagonism towards accurate reportage as a dire sign of decreasing institutional accountability in general. Every dictatorship begins in earnest with the forced dissolution of media that doesn't parrot the administration's talking points. A fifth major interviewee is Joel Simon, who comments on such trends as executive director (a post he left last year) of the NYC-based watchdog organisation Committee to Protect Journalists. He notes issues that formerly only arose abroad are now relevant here in the States, given rising public distrust towards the profession, and the growth of "news deserts" where no truly local newspapers still exist.

The prognosis looks bleak for "moderators of fact and falsehoods," as Juste calls fellow journalistic practitioners. But Ewing and Grady deliver that bad news with a tonal emphasis on obstinate resistance, and a briskness that lets the darkening view register without succumbing to hand-wringing or nihilism. The complexity of unfolding events (and of a reporter's job in interpreting them) is nicely captured by frequent use of split-screen imagery, the clarity of that busy editorial approach abetted by terrifically sharp photography credited to three DPs.

A concise call for awareness towards what's already a considerable emergency, "Endangered" is too disciplined and focused to simply hit the panic button. But you can tell the filmmakers, like their subjects, are struggling to suppress a scream.

---Exhibition opening July 1 at Monroe Gallery of Photography: Imagine a World Without Photojournalism

Tags: documentaries freedom of the press journalism photojournalism press freedom