About three years ago, Fred Peabody had decided to go independent. He had been a freelance producer for a while, working on commission for such networks as the Discovery and History Channels after honing his chops as a staffer at such places as “20/20” and the Canadian news magazine “The Fifth Estate,” but in looking for real freedom, he found himself recalling when he had a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the periodical of the Washington D.C.-based muckraker whose investigative journalism was a continual source of speaking truth to power, not only for those holding public office, but for those working in the media. As it happened, Peabody learned that the Toronto-based producer Peter Raymont had also subscribed to the Weekly and soon, the filmmaker was making his first feature documentary.
“All Governments Lie” is an impassioned celebration of Stone, known to most in his heyday as simply Izzy, who inspired many with his deep dives into arcane public and private records – as noted in the film, he suggests starting with the fine print on page 17 of any official government report for the most important details – and his fervent offensives against McCarthyism and in favor of the Civil Rights movement. But the film doesn’t rely solely on Stone’s own words to suggest the continuing vitality of his work, instead turning the spotlight towards the current generation of journalists that have established themselves in the alternative media, carrying on Stone’s penchant for pugnacious prose and fearless inquiry. Zipping in and out of the newsrooms of the Intercept and Democracy Now, tagging along with Matt Taibbi on Republican primary trail and John Carlos Frey as he uncovers a mass grave of migrants in South Texas, and snagging sit-downs with Izzy acolytes such as Michael Moore and Carl Bernstein, “All Governments Lie” shows the breadth of Stone’s influence at a time when it’s never been easier to report on the world around you and yet more difficult for real reporting to break through the din of large media outlets with corporate interests to protect and opinion often valued over fact.
Recently, when Peabody was in Los Angeles, he spoke about how he created such a vibrant tribute to Stone and a portrait of the state of independent journalism today, as well as how his own experience contributed to the story he wanted to tell about the profession and how doing a film about investigative journalism required some snooping around on his own.
Was it natural to bring in the stories of today’s independent journalists when telling the story of I.F. Stone or did this begin as a biography that grew into something larger?
Just for a minute. We very quickly realized to do a good film here, it can’t just be interviews with people talking about I.F. Stone. We had to draw in the public, most of whom have never heard of I.F. Stone, if we wanted to get the message out of what he stood for. So we started looking around, thinking, let’s make it about Izzy and the Izzies of today — who are the Izzies of today? It turned out there was something called the Izzy Award handed out every year to a journalist following in the footsteps of I.F. Stone with some outstanding, independent, investigative, adversarial work and that is given every year by the Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College in upstate New York. Myra Macpherson is often invited to speak at the Izzy Awards and she wrote the definitive biography on I.F. Stone, which is called “All Governments Lie,” so we optioned her book, and we started talking to Jeff Cohen, a founding director of that center, finding out who had won the Izzy Award lately and thinking we should follow some of them.
Jeff actually is the one who told us if you want to find a guy who really is an I.F. Stone of today, the only one who writes as well as Izzy is Matt Taibbi. He’s never won the Izzy Award, and I believe Jeff said [they’ve] talked about giving it to him, but some people would say that Rolling Stone is the mainstream media. But Jann Wenner, the owner of Rolling Stone, has always had adversarial investigative journalism as part of his magazine, going back to Hunter S. Thompson, and Matt Taibbi is very much the Hunter S. Thompson of today, I think. Not quite as insane… [laughs] but just as good at skewering hypocrisy with making serious points with humor. So we said, yeah, let’s [follow] Matt Taibbi, and the ones who have won [the Izzy] are Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman, John Carlos Frey, Glenn Greenwald…of course, Carl Bernstein, he didn’t need it. [laughs] You’re doing fine.
Even though you’re telling the stories of other journalists, did you find your own experience as one was shaping the story?
I guess that just happens naturally. I never thought about my own experience that much, except when you’re talking about the ideas of “Manufacturing Consent,” which I urge [anyone] to run out and buy if you’ve never read it. It could’ve been written yesterday because everything that Noam Chomsky and Professor [Edward S.] Herman, who co-wrote it, are talking about — the way the mainstream corporate media are almost an unstated tacit propaganda arm for government and corporate elites, and the way the system works — that message is beautifully illustrated [in their book] with examples from the late ‘80s of how the mainstream media covered what was going on in Central America, Nicaragua and Cambodia, but your mind automatically provides the current examples that equally fit that idea. Then there’s the other central point in “Manufacturing Consent,” which is that this is not done with heavy-handed censorship. Nobody’s standing over the reporters at The New York Times, saying “We have to support the government [or] say what the State Department is saying.” But somehow it just happens. It is a self-selecting process where the people who end up working at The New York Times fit The New York Times idea of what a journalist should be, otherwise, they wouldn’t get the job — or they’d get squeezed out, as is what happened with Chris Hedges – he was a reporter at the New York Times who [says in the film], “Those reporters who really care, will eventually be branded as management problems.” [laughs]
I also felt I was using my filmmaker chops that I developed way back when you could do filmmaking on a news magazine, when segments were more like little documentaries and they were shot on film. You won’t see that anywhere now on a news magazine on a major network, but I was lucky to learn my craft at the CBC on the investigative show “The Fifth Estate,” which is still on the air. Many of the editors that we worked with had gone to film school – they loved cinema and I loved cinema, and really I learned to make a film at “The Fifth Estate.” When I started at “20/20” in 1988, they were doing a lot of the pieces on film and some of the producers were more like documentary filmmakers. Maybe the other 60% of the producers had come from hard news and they didn’t even understand film. They’d been doing tape, and the whole editing process on tape was much more crude. You couldn’t just fine tune it by snipping out a frame here and a frame there — it was a horrible way to edit — so they were happy to let those of us who worked on film, work on film. I was able to do film pieces that were like little documentaries that I’m still proud of today and that broke new ground journalistically. But it’s a whole different ball game today. It’s sad. I saw “20/20” getting worse and worse, I saw “Dateline” getting worse and worse to the point where they’re not really news magazines. They’re crime and tabloid magazines now, with a little consumer news.
[With “All Governments Lie,”] I felt a certain freedom to do a more personal film, to follow a theme that I felt was important, so it was liberating in that sense. I had two great editors – Jim Monroe, who’s mainly a drama editor, did the bulk of the heavy lifting and I think that helped to have a guy with drama sensibilities, but then he was booked onto another big project, so we finished the editing with James Yeats, who had been Jim Monroe’s assistant. He had an energetic and edgy style that we could see when we gave him little segments to edit, so it was great to incorporate some of this younger guy’s sensibilities with Jim’s, and I was lucky that things worked out the way they did.
How did you decide to structure this?
It’s easier when you’re doing a documentary about one person or one institution, with maybe two or three central characters, but here we had a handful of central characters, so at a certain point, especially after we shot everything, the film in the edit room takes on a life of its own. I realized as the director this film should be a hybrid —part verite and part essay documentary, which seems to be a pretty recent phenomenon. ”Inside Job,” I’d call a very successful essay documentary, and the documentary based on “Manufacturing Consent,” which was more of a profile of Noam Chomsky, was a big precedent. We also wanted to be following a situation, particularly [as we did] with John Carlos Frey [who’s covering a story about mass graves in South Texas], to take you through the film.
Were you actually allowed to embed yourself in the newsrooms for a few days at places such as the Young Turks or The Intercept or Democracy Now?
If only. We’re always pushing our luck at those places because they’re not used to having media crews wandering around. [laughs] The good news is for a documentary about I.F. Stone, people were willing to go the extra mile, so that got us in the door at Democracy Now and the Intercept, Initially, it was, “Yeah, Ok, you can come and do an interview and shoot a little B-roll,” so we interviewed Amy [Goodman at Democracy Now] and shot a little B-roll and the same with the Intercept, but we kept saying, “Yeah, but we really need a sense of [the place], so we did three trips to New York City and people at both places were getting a little more used to us. Even though we weren’t quite given permission to wander around with a camera, we started doing it and nobody objected.
I think we might’ve been the first and last to be at the Intercept, which is so security-conscious. They have a security director who was watching us like a hawk. Our camera pointed at a door on one occasion, and the security director said, “You cannot show that door.” And so we said, “Okay, we won’t.” Jeremy Scahill, who was basically the one who got us in there, said as we were leaving, “I’m going to have to answer for this now” [or something to that effect]. I guess the security director was going to give him a lecture.
Which is funny given the subject you’re covering.
[laughs] Yeah, and Jeremy even said, “I think you guys should have the extra access because of what you’re doing, telling the public about I.F. Stone and what he stands for.” That meant a lot to him and Glenn Greenwald, who we just lucked out [in getting for an interview]. On our third visit to the Intercept in New York, it was late December and we didn’t even know he was going to be there, but they were going to have some meetings and their holiday party. [Greenwald’s] never in that newsroom, and we couldn’t afford to go to Brazil, so it was a rare opportunity. We did an interview with Glenn when he came up to Toronto two years ago and we didn’t use a lot of it because it became a little outdated, but that would’ve been all we had. When we did some filming at the Washington bureau of the Intercept, just before that day [in New York], we told Dan [Froomkin, the Washington editor of the Intercept] we were going to film a little more with Jeremy in a couple of days, and he casually mentioned, “Well, Glenn will be there.” And I was like, “Really?” Thank you, God.” You know? Because he’s probably only there once a year or something.
It’s interesting also to hear you say an interview with Glenn would be outdated — you obviously show in the film how the need for independent investigative reporting hasn’t changed, but was it a constant challenge to create something that stayed relevant and didn’t latch itself onto current times too much?
I did think about that a little bit, but I thought if we do this well, it won’t feel dated. It will last as a look at a piece of history in terms of the [presidential] campaign — a very weird piece of political history — and I always thought during the making of this film, I wanted it to have a shelf-life, particularly at universities, not just in journalism programs, but also political science. It’s got a lot of information there that students should be exposed to, particularly a lot of journalism programs because at universities in Canada and the U.S. [those programs] are geared towards people who can get jobs in the mainstream media because that’s where the jobs are. But as we show in the film, a new world is opening up and the better journalism departments are teaching students there’s an alternative if you don’t want to work for a big corporate owned news [organizations]. There are few journalism students today that are getting that message and even the internships that are offered [through colleges], how many journalism programs are offering internships at independent outlets? I would say very few. They’d be happy to have them probably, but it’s just by default that [most of the] internships are at the local newspaper or the local TV network, so I hope we plant some seeds with this film for the next crop of I.F. Stones — and Amy Goodmans.