Saturday, November 28, 2009

Documentary analysis

The assignment for the week of Nov 19 was to analyze a documentary. I was away at a conference, which is why I'm just doing the assignment now.

I decided to watch the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, directed by Alex Gibney and written by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (based on their book). I've been wanting to see this movie for a while, so our assignment provided a good excuse. The movie tells the story of the rise and fall of Enron, once the seventh-largest company in the US, which declared bankruptcy on December 2, 2001.

The film was awarded Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for an Oscar as well. I can see why: it is lively and engaging, and is structured as a compelling story with plenty of greed, tragedy, hubris, and even strippers.

One of the stylistic things that I think worked both for and against this movie is its use of supporting visuals. For example, when an interviewee talks about how Enron was gambling away all of its money, the film shows footage of dice rolling, or a roulette wheel spinning. This was mostly a harmless technique that prevented the movie from becoming just a string of talking heads, but I thought it was taken a little too far with extensive video of BMX bike racing (played over a discussion of how Jeff Skilling liked to take colleagues on adventure vacations); and quite explicit images of strippers accompanying the explanation of how Enron Energy Services CEO Lou Pai enjoyed strip clubs and eventually divorced his wife to marry his stripper girlfriend. I personally thought the story was plenty sordid without having to actually watch several minutes of topless pole dancing, but perhaps the filmmaker took the idea of "making finance sexy" a little too literally...

One of the main things that struck me while watching this was that, as much of a punchline as Enron became, and as much as everyone came to understand about the rampant greed and fraud and permissiveness that allowed it to do what it did, nevertheless two years after this movie came out we had our gigantic financial system collapse based on some of the very same issues. As Sherron Watkins put it (she was a vice president at Enron who was arguably the main whistleblower for the case), "It's all about the rationalization that you're not doing anything wrong." That kind of rationalization was rampant throughout the mortgage industry (and the investment industries precariously based on it) leading up to the fall of 2008, including deregulation, short-sightedness, manufactured demand, black-box accounting, and any number of other parallels with the energy industry at the time of Enron. And yet, apparently, nobody in a position to do anything about it actually learned from Enron. I guess they figured (if they thought about it at all) it was somehow an isolated case. And the people who did want to learn from it weren't the ones in a position to make any widespread changes.

It's all pretty disheartening, unfortunately.

Back to analyzing the movie: overall I think the filmmakers did an excellent job of interweaving interviews, news footage, archival photos, and limited narration to piece together the story of how everything that happened, happened. They make no pretense of being "even-handed": they show footage of people like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling giving congressional depositions, but they do not interview them separately for the film and it is clear that from the perspective of the film, they are mostly lying. I think this approach makes perfect sense, though, since by the time the movie came out there had already been various criminal convictions for fraud, conspiracy, etc., so bending over backwards to represent more of their side of the story would have seemed disingenuous.

I thought some of the most interesting material was about the corporate culture of Enron, how it was extremely aggressive and competitive (at least for a while, they had a policy of firing the "worst" 10-15% of their employees per year, just to foster a competitive atmosphere). The other really foundational thing that most amazed me was the concept of mark-to-market accounting, wherein (if I understood correctly) the company could base its financial statements on the profit it expected to make on some idea or endeavor, and completely disregard any actual performance. On the one hand this is astonishing to me, and on the other, it again reminds me of the recent mortgage crisis, partly based as it was on things like No Income No Asset mortgages...

Overall I would definitely recommend the movie, as an educational and enlightening view of how Wall Street can work, and as a reminder that our country's current situation is absolutely nothing new. By the end, I came to realize that the title is meant at least half-ironically: while Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, et al. were indeed very smart, and knew it, and people like Lou Pai got away with hundreds of millions of dollars, this "smartness" led to the perpetration of elaborate frauds and the ruination of thousands of people's pensions, savings, careers, and even lives. The movie is bookended with discussions of Enron executive Cliff Baxter, who committed suicide in January 2002.

We're also supposed to develop a short activity for students about documentaries. I would encourage students to choose some recent event at their school and propose two different documentaries about it, told from two different perspectives. For example, a change in lunch prices could be portrayed entirely from the perspective of disgruntled students (a protest against unfair charges), from the perspective of harried lunch workers (a protest against unfair student complaints), from the perspective of heroic administrators (a positive story on how the school is working to raise more money for its programs), or a more complex fact-finding news story (with various perspectives given essentially equal weight, and pro and con opinions voiced by each demographic). By considering how they would structure each "version" of their documentary, students would get a sense of how storytelling and editing play a role in documentary filmmaking, and how as filmmakers they have choices to make about what kind of story they are going to tell.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Local News Analysis

This week's assignment was to watch a half-hour local news program (5, 6, or 10 o'clock news) and to keep track of every story and commercial as well as how much time was spent on them.

Naturally, I put off doing this until the night before it was due (tonight), because I had a recording from back in September of an episode of news that I thought had something interesting on it. Lo and behold, I had made a mistake in my recording, so I only got the last 14 minutes of the program (from 10:18 to 10:32). I will have to analyze the first 18 minutes of a news broadcast another day, but for now I'll just report my findings for the segment that I had.

I watched an episode of the 10:00 news on KARE 11, our local NBC station. KARE 11 is owned by Gannett Broadcasting, which also owns things like USAToday,, and the Gannett Healthcare Group.

Here's how the evening progressed (and I apologize if you become as bored reading about it as I did watching it):
  • 10:18 - pre-commercial teaser for a story tomorrow about etiquette breaches when using electronics; teaser for post-commercial story about a baseball player getting hit in the head with a baseball
  • COMMERICALS - Dekalb crop insecticide, Crest toothpaste, Gander Mountain clothes, Acura cars, Hefty odor-neutralizing garbage bags, Bryant hearing & cooling system, Home Service Plus/Centerpoint Energy
  • 10:22-10:26 - National League baseball scores (visual only), anchor discussing baseball scores, Twins game summary (including the player who was hit in the head), Vikings rankings with clip of coach press conference, Wild game summary, two high school "atheletes of the week" with clips and interviews, and information about online "crowd-please" poll of what team viewers think KARE11 should film next week
  • 10:27 - banter among the anchors about online voting, pre-commercial teaser for story after commercial about a Fergus Falls newspaper "confession" and the night's lottery numbers
  • COMMERCIALS - Cadillac cars, Empire carpets, U of M Amplaz Children's Hospital, Comcast sports lineup, personal injury law firm, NBC - Tonight Show & Jimmy Fallon, - bipolar depression information, Twin Cities Hyundai
  • 10:30 - Anchors admit they don't really have the lottery numbers, "Before we go" segment about a photo in the Fergus Falls newspaper that ended up on the Jay Leno show
  • 10:32 - closing banter, ad for
Whew. All told, I calculate that I spent seven minutes watching the "news," such as it was, and seven minutes watching commercials. That's a pretty miserable breakdown, and I didn't even get to see the segment that I'd originally tried to record!

The only obvious connections I saw between who holds power over the station and what content was shown were the NBC programming ads during the second commercial break, and the Fergus Falls newspaper story about the Jay Leno show. I probably wouldn't have noticed the latter as being an NBC "product placement," so to speak, if we hadn't been doing this assignment.

On the subject of news, the death of newspapers, the 24-hour news cycle, etc., I just encountered a really interesting concept in a letter to the editor written to my alumni publication, the Pomona College Magazine. The letter writer, Betty Fussell (class of '48) of New York, NY, wrote (in part):

"Just as fast food is its own kind of beast, so fast journalism, with its gulp-it-down-quick-and-move-on news, does one kind of thing but not another. Slow Journalism recognizes the deep pleasure in lingering over double-page spreads, leafing pages forwards and backwards, letting fingertips respond to the texture of glossy paper, examining at leisure the significance of photos and illustrations... At whatever speed fast journalism moves in its takeover, it may displace but it can never replace the slow, any more than a Coke and fries can replace the experience of a slowly cooked and savored meal, where time is one of the essential ingredients."

I don't know if Ms. Fussell invented the term "slow journalism," but as soon as I read it it made perfect sense to me. This is the kind of journalism found in the New Yorker, the Smithsonian magazine, The Atlantic , etc. etc. Here's the link to an Atlantic story about the "journalism" behind some of the background stories about Justice Sotomayor when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. Just about any good investigative journalism (the kind people get awarded Pulitzers for but can't afford to work on anymore) qualifies as "slow journalism," and just about anything you get on CNN at the airport or on the news page does NOT.

Personally, I definitely find slow journalism more satisfying (the analogy to fast food can be extended with the point that fast journalism may be tasty to consume at first, but eventually gives you indigestion and has poor nutritional value). I think a lot of the stuff on NPR qualifies, which may be one reason I enjoy listening to it.

Anyway, back to our main topic: the assignment of the week. We are also supposed to make a list of all the media we generally consume during a week, and who owns it, the point being how few companies own so much of the content we consume. In my case, it breaks down something like this (and here's the handy-dandy website that is the source of a lot of this information):
- TV: various shows, mostly on ABC (Disney), NBC (GE), CBS (CBS Corp), Fox (News Corp), and USA (GE).
-Reading: Entertainment Weekly (Time Warner), Star Tribune (Avista Capital Parners[?]), books (Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, etc.)
-Radio: NPR (public, but with corporate & non-profit sponsorships announced on air)
-Internet: (GE), (Time Warner)

Finally, we are supposed to develop an activity "for teaching critical analysis of news." Inspired by the above-mentioned Atlantic article, I would have students pick one recent national story (e.g. the passage of the House health care bill; the Heene family balloon escapade, the aborted Afghan runoff election, etc.). Then I would have them compare as many news stories as they could about that one event: multiple examples of network news coverage, radio, internet stories from various sites, etc. I would have the students discuss how similar or different the stories and images are, whether they think the journalists did independent research or were all drawing from the same sources, and what those sources were.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Advertising Analysis

Our assignment this week had several parts: first we were to pick a specific type of advertising to analyze; then we were to create our own example of that type of ad (either a true example or a parody); and finally we were to develop a class activity for teaching about a TV or magazine ad.

Part 1: Analysis
I decided that it would be fun to analyze movie one-sheets (advertising posters), but I quickly realized that I had to drastically narrow the topic in order to do anything coherent. So, having been annoyed by recent advertising for the movie 2012, I decided to look specifically at one-sheets advertising end-of-the-world disaster movies. Here's my VoiceThread analysis:

Part 2: Example
Of course I had to do a parody here. I used GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program), which looks to be much more powerful than I have time for at the moment, but served my purpose anyway. I made a poster for a movie, trying to include several of the elements I discussed in my VoiceThread: blue color scheme, vertical compositional elements, a tag line, and familiar landmarks being destroyed. And Sir John Gielgud was just the least likely action star I could think of at the moment...

Part 3: Activity
For this activity I would have students choose some product that they like: a video game system, a type of food or drink, a clothing brand, etc. I would have them search for as many ads as they could find in a short time (10-15 minutes), including any medium. Once they have a collection of ads for their product, I would tell the students to analyze the messages of the ads. For example: Who seems to be the target audience for the ads? What values are the ads portraying? What do the ads promise to people who buy the product? Finally, I would have students think about why they like this product, and what relationship (if any) their liking has to the product's advertising campaign. Does analyzing the underlying messages of the advertisement change their opinion of the product at all?