By Belinda Acosta, Fri., May 21, 2010
Last week was the beginning of upfronts in TV land – the time when TV networks begin announcing their summer and fall TV seasons to the press. In turn, we're supposed to report all the cool stuff not to miss. But I have a habit of veering from the herd. (See " Our Town," for some Austin-related news announced at the ABC upfront presentation.) In this case, I'm doing so because of the return of a series that I think just keeps getting better and better: The IFC Media Project. This year, the documentary series has shaken up its original format to present a four-night "docuseries" titled The IFC Media Project Presents Fear, War, Greed and Disaster.
The project has an impressive pedigree; it was created and produced by Meghan O'Hara (Bowling for Columbine, Sicko) and Nick McKinney (The Daily Show, Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days). The show's commitment to looking at issues in new ways – its slogan reads "Reporting Gone Rogue" – continues in the new season, but with a twist. Instead of featuring long-form documentaries as in years past, the series is now broken down into the aforementioned themes, with each episode lasting 30 minutes and presented on four consecutive nights.
Award-winning journalists Max Blumenthal ("Fear"), Nir Rosen ("War"), Charlie LeDuff ("Greed"), and Andrew Berends ("Disaster") are the point persons for each theme. The four appear at the top of each episode, where the lead reporter for each topic offers an introduction, after which the segment is shown, followed by a discussion by the panel at the end. If that all sounds like the same-old same-old, it is – and it isn't. Because each of the reporters comes to his topic from angles rarely seen in mainstream media and because each of them are seasoned, thoughtful, and accessible, the topics not only seem fresh but informative and, amazingly enough, in depth. What they manage to share in a compact 22 minutes or so is far beyond what conventional media – particularly 24-hour cable news – has been able to muster. This series really makes you wonder: Why won't conventional media do better?
The series begins with "Fear," Blumenthal's look at the tea party movement. He travels to Alabama to meet some tea party members on their home turf, then later gets to the bottom of their grassroots movement. What he discovers is that it's not a grassroots movement at all, but driven by GOP-leaning pressure groups pumping money and resources to organize rallies and, more importantly, train tea party activists.
"War" is examined by Rosen, who travels to Afghanistan to unpack U.S. efforts at reconstruction as a means for winning the war. His approach is simple: follow the money. In doing so, Rosen reveals that while billions of U.S. tax dollars have been poured into Afghanistan since 2002, the results veer from miserable to useless. What gives, he asks, and why is New Jersey-based Louis Berger Group, the top recipient of reconstruction contracts, still on the U.S. payroll even though its results are mostly inefficient, overbudget, or just plain don't work?
The rock star of the group is LeDuff. Passionate, funny, and driven, the former New York Times reporter returns to his hometown of Detroit to get an up close and personal look at the recession in the episode titled "Greed." He bypasses stories driven by "recession porn" to get at the real issue of how the financial services industry has destroyed the middle class and, moreover, how the media assigned to cover Wall Street overwhelmingly doesn't understand what it's covering.
In "Disaster," photojournalist and documentarian Berends finds himself in Haiti just after the massive earthquake earlier this year. He talks to other journalists and photographers to discuss what it takes to cover disasters, dissecting the traditional journalistic stance of being a "passive observer," and how reporters must move beyond the "sexy" reaction stories, followed by the conventional survivor stories. As one Haitian photographer points out, "when the press leaves, that's when the real stories start."
While one critic called The IFC Media Project a "hip, progressive, youth-oriented 60 Minutes," I think it's more than that. It's what you wish the nightly news looked like.
The IFC Media Project Presents: Fear, War, Greed and Disaster airs Monday through Thursday, 7pm, May 24-27. Check local listings for additional screenings.
As always, stay tuned.
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