“All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone,” an unfocused, somewhat sloppy, but important documentary about the significance of independent media as it relates to cultivating a healthy and informed democracy, opens with journalist John Carlos Frey investigating a mass grave full of the skeletal remains of hundreds of bodies. You’d guess that he’s reporting from a third world country where a terrible genocide is taking place, but no, the grave was found on the Texas-Mexico border, and is full of illegal immigrants trying to cross into the United States in order to find a better life. If all of the information you’re ingesting comes from mainstream news, it might come as a surprise that such an atrocity, one we always associate with poor, “barbaric” countries, was taking place in our own backyard.
Frey passionately relays his frustrations with the mainstream media to the documentary crew; he tried to get this story on the air repeatedly, and got rejected each and every time. He was told by one network that they’ve already done a border story the previous year, meanwhile, mainstream news outlets step over one another to cover Kim Kardashian’s every move, and openly participate in the long con perpetrated by the media and Donald Trump, where the Cheeto King gets billions of dollars of worth of free advertising from the news, only to then tell his uninformed and willfully ignorant base that he’s being taken down by the same forces that propped him up in the first place. In order to make its point, ‘All Governments Lie’ doesn’t forget to include that now infamous recording of CBS President Leslie Moonves admitting that Trump might be terrible for the country, but is great for CBS.
So how did we get to a point where critical thought and real journalism evaporated from the mainstream news cycle? The interview subjects of the doc, from renowned independent journalists like Matt Taibbi and Jeremy Scahill, to opinion leaders like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, present a fairly simple theory: if a news organization is beholden to governments and corporations instead of the people, they can never be independent and unbiased, since they won’t be able to be critical towards the government and corporate teat they’re suckling from. Chomsky himself gives a crash course on his theory of “manufactured consent,” which uses the media instead of physical force to keep people repressed. If this small section on Chomsky inspires the viewer to seek out the terrific 1992 documentary “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,” I’m all for it.
The doc’s proposed cure for this problem lies in the nurturing of independent media, funded by the people and run by truly unbiased reporters. The theory is that if a news organization doesn’t accept any support from governments or corporations, why would they think twice about criticizing them? I.F. Stone, the legendary father of independent journalism, who’s name checked in the title, knew this all the way back in the 1950s, when he published “I.F. Stone’s Weekly,” a subscription-based paper that wasn’t afraid to go after news that the mainstream media was too afraid to follow up on, from the evils of the McCarthy witch hunt, to the futility of the Vietnam War. Stone is described as “the first blogger,” and it’s hard to disagree with that portrait of the free thinker who never linked himself to the mainstream.
Stone is a fascinating and important figure who deserves his own documentary. Unfortunately, even though his name is in the long title, ‘All Governments Lie’ doesn’t spend much time on his life and accomplishments, opting instead to cover the various achievements of contemporary independent media that might be inspired by Stone’s work. The doc’s scattershot focus takes in everything from Carl Bernstein talking about the Watergate scandal, all the way to a significant chunk of the runtime being devoted to the 2016 election season, which might make it feel fresh now, but will eventually date the film horribly.
There have been plenty of documentaries in this vein, from the aforementioned Chomsky doc, to recent examples like “Mad as Hell,” an examination of the independent news organization The Young Turks (read my review here), who are briefly examined in ‘All Governments Lie.’ So there’s nothing really new or special here, and a doc more centered on Stone might have been a more original and intriguing choice. Instead, we get occasional talking head-interviews with media figures praising Stone’s achievements, before wandering into another short segment about specific contemporary issues.
This is director Fred Peabody’s first documentary feature. He comes from the world of television, and his bite-sized approach to cramming every aspect of his subject matter into a 90-minute doc represents this fact. If the original attempt was to cover Stone’s life and every aspect of independent journalism through the years, a mini-series instead of a feature might have been the best way to go. That being said, Peabody creates a briskly paced doc that cleverly uses interviews and archive footage in order to distill this complex subject into an easily digestible viewing experience. It won’t offer anything new to viewers who already devoured similar and more comprehensive documentaries on the sad state of contemporary media, but it’s an appropriate first step for those who are new to the concept of independent news. [B-]