Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is still in theaters, but in October, Vermonters all across the state will be able to watch something just as provocative on public-access cable TV -- Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire. The documentary, produced by Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally and funded by the Media Education Foundation, explores the Bush administration's motives for going to war with Iraq and chastises the mainstream media for not pursuing the story more aggressively. The film has garnered praise from critics, many of whom say it's more sober, cogent and thorough than Moore's fiery polemic.
Hijacking Catastrophe will air on Vermont stations thanks to the promotional efforts of the Action Coalition for Media Education, or ACME. This 2-year-old national coalition of teachers, creative types, public-health advocates and activists encourages people to think critically about what the media cover and why. Coalition partners include media education heavyweights such as Naomi Klein, Robert McChesney and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. ACME president Rob Williams lives in Waitsfield, and one of the group's three local chapters is based in Vermont -- the others are in Albuquerque and northern California.
"We live in the most media-saturated culture that has existed in world history," says Williams, noting that six companies control 90 percent of media content worldwide. "Americans want their media back. They are tired of seeing the publicly owned airwaves owned, controlled and managed by giant corporate elites."
The Vermont chapter of ACME has planned several events in October, including a media education workshop in Burlington, October 14-15, a panel discussion October 21 and various screenings of both Hijacking Catastrophe and Unprecedented -- a documentary about the 2000 election.
ACME operates outside the corporate sphere. Unlike other media literacy organizations, such as the Alliance for a Media Literate America, ACME does not accept any financial support from media companies such as Time Warner or Discovery. Its work is entirely funded through grassroots and foundation support. ACME is also highly decentralized, proudly defining itself on its website as "a coalition" rather than "an organization." Its various partners -- such as the TV Turnoff Network, the Center for Digital Democracy and Smoke Free Movies -- do their own things, mostly using the coalition for promotion and networking.
Even when ACME sponsors fundraisers, they're usually for someone else. This summer, the Vermont chapter began hosting monthly film screenings under a project called "Reel Action." Williams helped organize two viewings of Outfoxed and Orwell Rolls in His Grave at Waitsfield's Eclipse Theater in July and August. The events raised $1000 for a community-run, low-power FM radio station in the Mad River Valley.
Hijacking Catastrophe was September's Reel Action selection. ACME Vermont held screenings in Brattleboro, Burlington and Waitsfield. An audience member in Waitsfield offered to buy DVD versions for every public-access channel in the state -- which is how it will end up on TV.
The 60-minute film begins with a chilling montage of clips showing President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeating that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. "They do have weapons of mass destruction," says McClellan in a press conference. "That is what this war was about." The montage is followed by a quote: "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." Who said it? Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, at the Nuremburg War Trials. That's not the only time the film likens neocons to Nazis.
Jess Wilson, the president of ACME Vermont and director of Burlington's Channel 17, is excited to air the film, but she encourages people to examine it as critically as they would any other media offering. "You shouldn't just accept this as the truth, either," Wilson suggests. To that end, two ACME members developed a study guide for the film, downloadable for free from http://www.acme  coalition.org.
Activists aren't the only ones decrying the media's lackluster reporting on the war -- both The New York Times and the Washington Post have issued public apologies in recent weeks for not digging further into the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, claims which now appear to have been false.
Wilson doesn't mince words when she talks about the media and Iraq. "The mainstream media are not doing their job," she says. Wilson cites a Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) study showing that in the two weeks leading up to Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech before the UN in February 2003, ABC, NBC and PBS aired interviews with 393 sources. They talked mainly with current and retired U.S. officials. Only three of the 393 were affiliated with antiwar groups. "And that's not counting the Fox Networks of the world," says Wilson. "Something's going on here."
An announcement this weekend from CBS News seems to bolster her claim. The network, still shell-shocked from Dan Rather's "Memo-gate," says it is postponing an investigative report on the rationale behind the Iraq War. A spokesperson said it would be "inappropriate" to air it so close to the election.