‘Race Against Prime Time’: Television’s Cursory Coverage of the News

Originally published in Stepping Out, an independent monthly in Indianpolis, January 1987. One of the filmmakers contacted the magazine to thank me for the review. He said I was the only one who understood what they were trying to do. I was in my Marxist phase in university, so that might have had something to do with my perspective.

Most of the published commentaries about this hour-long documentary have been attempts to appropriate the videomakers’ subject matter — the news coverage of the 1980 Miami race riots in Liberty City — for each critic’s own personal use. For example, in an article dated December 8, 1985, New York Times television reviewer John Corry added his own analysis of the Miami events, detailing certain points that he felt the videomakers left out. He further expressed confusion about the purpose of the video’s coda. Likewise, Mohamed Hamaludin provided his own analysis of the riots and their causes in The Miami Times, rather than analyzing the video itself. More to the point, Paul Kerr of the British leftist paper The Guardian concluded that the video “has a lot of lessons for British television.” But each of these writers failed to recognize the real topic of Race Against Prime Time.

The documentary does specifically focus on television news coverage during the Miami eruptions and it analyzes how meaning is produced by the electronic media. But more importantly, the video counters that production by providing a framework, through its own structure, for future filmmakers to interrogate events and report information. The task for any media critic should be to show exactly how this is done.

Instead, and in spite of their best intentions, critics too often fall into the same trap that befalls so many leftist documentaries – speaking the language of the opposition and using it in an identical fashion, thereby failing to establish an alternative way to convey information while rebuilding the underlying structures that support the situation they intend to criticize. It is not enough to make a political film – the real task is to find a way to make a political film politically.

It is useful, then, to first show how traditional practices in television news gathering function to engender perceptions that are often misleading and even deceptive, and to contrast this with the way Race Against Prime Time presents information.

One of the video’s first contentions is that television’s riot coverage lacked a sense of history – Miami’s racial tensions were a product of a long series of conflicts dating back to the ’60s, based, in part, on an erosion of the economic and social structure in the black community in the face of an indifferent and prosperous white establishment. Many events leading up to the widespread violence had filled the black community with barely suppressed anger, but these events received only cursory coverage by the local television stations. Race Against Prime Time adequately cites such incidents and sheds light on an occurrence that the electronic media had “stripped bare of its historical and social context.”

Much of the video is devoted to coverage of viewpoints that are alternative to the ones which television news presented during the crisis. Community leaders as well as community members are interviewed; events that were inadequately reported are given more emphasis; gaps are filled concerning the presentation of facts by the local stations.

 

Help me out?

 

The way in which these gaps are filled is the video’s most significant achievement. The video’s coda, which is a simple manifesto of the videomaker’s intents and purposes as well as an admission of the limitations of the video’s own ambitions, appears superimposed without sound over a freeze-frame of the final shot. It reads: “Reliable sources have told us that TV images inescapably embody a viewpoint and that traditional ideas about ‘objectivity’ are false and misleading – we agree.”

Throughout the video, the point is repeatedly made that, despite one assignment editor’s feeling that “there are no rules” about what to cover and how to cover it, television news conventions do represent a theoretical approach, no matter how unformulated or invisible. Race Against Prime Time shows the consistency of this theory masquerading as “common sense” and “precedent” when it analyzes the remarkable similarity between the coverage by both the local stations and the national networks. All of this coverage tended to focus on the same images of violence and to emphasize law enforcement activities. In addition, both local and national television news teams chose the same types of people and often the same individuals as spokesmen during the critis, and in general helped present a unified image on the nature of the conflict to the eyes of the nation. In short, television news described a complex, diverse series of interrelated situations with roots in the past and ramifications for the future as an uncomplicated, simplified media event in the present. This monolithin description is metaphorically represented in the video’s opening shots of a wall of televisions, the overwhelming majority of which are tuned into the same news broadcast.

The video not only counters this presentation by depicteing what the media had elided, but also refuses to succumb to the same methods. for instance, the video contains interviews of several different types of people, from the black community to the inner-city white community to newsmen. The interviews are conducted in a non-confrontational, non-60 Minutes style. Interviewees at times contradict themselves or are contradicted by other testimonials; they are even indirectly contradicted by the video’s narration. Notably this occurred concerning the number of black deaths at the hands of white vigilantes, a statistic that was never covered by television.

At no point does the video try to establish any one person as a repository of truth. At no point does the video’s narration directly attack or deny the testimony of an interviewee. At one point, an interviewer gently prefaces his question with, “I hope you don’t consider this an unfair question.” The spokesmen are allowed freedom to speak and an alert viewer can form his own opinions by detecting the falsity and/or honesty in the responses. Though the videomaker’s sympathies lie largely with the black community, newsmen are not baited with loaded questions. Much of their testimony indicates concern over their own personal responsibility during the crisis rather than wanton disregard for ethics.

In order to refute television’s construction of individuals as spokesmen, the interviewees in Race Against Prime Time are never identified by name unless they previously were identified by the media during the crisis. Instead, the captions below their images explain the position they held during the crisis – community member, assignment editor, investigative reporter, etc. This is an attempt to counter television’s tendancy to produce spokesmen as embodiments of some imaginary “proper perspective.”

Marvin Dunn was one of the two people interviewed who are referred to by name. his interview in Race Against Prime Time functions as a dedifferentiation of his creation by the media as a qualified spokesman during the crisis. He admits to his obscurity befor ethe crisis and asserts that it is possible that his “15-20 seconds of interpretation of complex events… may have contributed to the problem.” The documentary presents history, then, not as a single entity easily understood by gifted or “expert” individuals or even by those who have experienced certain aspects of the crisis firsthand, but as sets of interrelated, competing, and often contradictory information – all subject to reevaluation.

 

Read some risky writing.

 

An important way that Race Against Prime Time denies an unproblematic approach to history is in its use of file footage of the crisis obtained from both the networks and the local stations. This footage is never presented full-screen; rather, it is filmed as a screen with an area of black surrounding it. Additionally, the dates and codes that identify the footage, normally eliminated electronically for the purposes of most videomakers, are left at the top of the screen. This formal device consistently distances the viewer from the object being viewed in such a way that all such images are thus seen as being the product of a specific mode of organizing ideas – as such, they are never ideologically innocent. More importantly, however, this distancing device conveys the suseptibility of these images, indeed all images, to reinterpretation, which is precisely what this documentary does.

The videomakers found that television crews were inevitably drawn to dramatic images of violence and protest, and that some stories, which could not be described with as dramatic an image, were often overlooked or de-emphasized.

This point leads to a comment about the structure of the video – it consistently rejects the formal pattern of Hollywood narrative. Narrative structure conceals itself, makes itself invisible, tries to wrap ideology in the guise of “entertainment.”

There are many strategies that narrative uses to make the viewer secretly swallow its hidden messages. Two of them are: sympathetic, attractive characters played by expressive actors and action-packed stories containing familiar developments and themes combined with editing techniques that elicit predictable emotional responses.

Race Against Prime Time, on the other hand, is as transparent as possible about its strategies. The interviewees never become “fully-developed characters,” and are not idealized as in many leftist documentaries of which Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA is representative. Instead, they are presented as so many diverse viewpoints to be evaluated. Both the people and the events in Race Against Prime Time are devoid of devices that artificially induce feelings of empathy and catharsis in narrative film, and as a result, their purpose of provoking thought is not overshadowed by drama.

From the outset, the issues being addressed are put forward and the methods used are presented. The documentary is honest about its sources, explaining the reasoning behind the selection of spokesmen with a written onscreen insert. There are no reporudctions or re-creations of events; in an effort to emphasize distance, twice viewers are reminded that the filmakers began filming two weeks after the crisis. Most of the images are accompanied by a soundtrack where the sound and the image were recorded at the same time. The few times when the images does not itself produce the sound, this fact is pointed out. For example, a voice-over from a young black man is heard only as long as it occurred in actual time – in screen-time, the accompanying image lasts longer – and when the voice stops, the soundtrack goes silent.

 

Help me out?

 

These devices are used to call attention to the editing and dubbing processes themselves and to emphasize that there has been no reconstruction of events. Further, traditional subjective devices such as extreme close-ups, expressive lighting, artsy frame composition, etc. are avoided almost completely. The narrator’s voice is kept at a flat, unemotional tone.

All these methods counter television news’ preoccupation with dramatic images based on Hollywood archetypes. Race Against Prime Time effectively rebuts the avoidance of in-depth analysis by both television and most other narrative documentaries.

In essence, this video documentary lives up to its billing – “For those viewers who choose to watch Race Against Prime Time… watching the news will never be the same.”

Rent Race Against Prime Time on Vimeo.

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