Or read the transcript below:
(Transcription by J. C. Hendershot)
Interview with Michael Pack, by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, Thursday, July 8, 2010
ROGER ARONOFF: Good morning, and welcome to Take AIM, Accuracy in Media’s weekly talk show on BlogTalkRadio. AIM is America’s original media watchdog, and every week we point out biased coverage and bring you the stories the mainstream media ignore. We encourage you to visit our website at aim.org , and sign up to receive our daily E-mail so you can keep track of what the media are up to. I am Roger Aronoff, a media analyst with AIM, and we have a great show planned for you today. Our guest is Michael Pack. Based here in Washington, D.C., he has written, produced, and directed a number of nationally broadcast documentaries. We will discuss his most recent film, The Last 600 Meters, a 90-minute documentary that looks at the two biggest battles of the Iraq War, Najaf and Fallujah, in 2004. The film won the Founder’s Choice Award at the G.I. Film Festival in Washington. From 2003 to 2006, Michael Pack served as Senior Vice President for Programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he launched several new initiatives that included America at a Crossroads, a series of 20 documentary films addressing issues facing the U.S. in the wake of 9/11. His television credits include Rediscovering George Washington, hosted by Richard Brookhiser; Hollywood vs. Religion, hosted by Michael Medved; and America’s Political Parties, hosted by Ben Wattenberg and David Gergen; among others. All of them aired nationally on PBS. In 2002, President Bush nominated, and the Senate confirmed, Michael Pack to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, which oversees the National Endowment for the Humanities. Previously, he was director of WORLDNET, the U.S. Information Agency’s global satellite network, and before that he attended Yale, Berkley, and studied film at New York University. Before launching his company, Manifold Productions, Mr. Pack worked extensively in production and post-production; as a staff editor for RAI, the Italian TV network; and for Pathe News in New York. You can read more of Michael’s bio on his company’s website at manifoldproductions.com . Michael, welcome to Take AIM!
MICHAEL PACK: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be talking to you, Roger.
ARONOFF: Great. I’ve mentioned a few of the distinguished positions you’ve held, and about your company, and shortly we’ll discuss your latest documentary, but tell us about how you decided to make films for a living. Were documentaries what you always wanted to make?
PACK: I began wanting to make feature films, narrative feature films, and I actually would still like to make narrative feature films, but after I went to NYU, in the mid ’70s, a partner and I made a half-hour film, on our own, called Hard Bargain. And that half-hour film did very well: It played on Showtime, it played at a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art, and it aired on a bunch of PBS stations. At that time, it was possible to do Showtime and PBS; they weren’t quite as mutually exclusive as today. And as a result of being on PBS, it won an award called INPUT that is still ongoing—it’s not exactly an award, but it was selected to appear in this festival which has the best of public broadcasting, which still exists. At that time, the Rockefeller brothers’ fund gave some of us independent filmmakers a stipend to go travel, and the festival was in Venice, Italy. So I was in my early 20s, and being paid to go to Venice, Italy, so it was a very heady experience. And there I met a lot of other filmmakers who had been on public broadcasting, mostly documentaries, and they were all making documentaries that I strongly did not agree with. They were, at that time, nuclear freeze documentaries and anti-nuclear power documentaries and environmental documentaries and documentaries about America in Latin America, and I thought—I mean, every single one of them was from what I would call an extreme Leftist perspective, and my partner and I thought, We really need to provide the other voice, and we’ll do that for a while, and then we’ll go to Hollywood and become great movie directors! But the providing another voice, another point of view, process was a longer and more complicated one than we thought—and so I’m still doing it now, 30-plus years later; I started Manifold Productions in 1977.
ARONOFF: Yes. That’s interesting, because back in the 1980s, AIM had some history with PBS. There was a series about the Vietnam War on PBS, and AIM looked at it, and spotted a lot of errors and bias in it, and came up with a two-part thing called Television’s Vietnam. During the Reagan era, we were able, actually, to get it on PBS, and at that time the Fairness Doctrine was in effect. It was a different age back then. So you approached it from a conservative or right-of-center point of view when you decided to get into documentary films?
PACK: Well, yes. I’m not sure I thought—over the years, I can see it more clearly, that way. At the time, I just thought, opposed to what these guys thought—
PACK: —but now, I see, clearly, there is definitely—they are clearly left-of-center, and my general views, as a rule, are right-of-center.
PACK: I still think, thinking back on the AIM critique of television, the PBS Vietnam series—that even without the Fairness Doctrine, public broadcasting has an obligation to have other points of view because all these entities get federal funds, and as recipients of federal funds, they’re really obliged to reflect, to some extent, the opinions of the American people, or the sort of political spectrum that exists in America. And that is in the law that created CPB in the first place.
ARONOFF: Give us a little explanation. You were with CPB, Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Explain the difference and the commonality of CPB and PBS, and how much, approximately, they get today in federal dollars.
PACK: Right. People are often very confused about how it all relates. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was founded during the Johnson administration, in the late ’60s, and it is a recipient of federal funds for public broadcasting, public television and public radio. Today, it gets approximately 500 million dollars a year, and it gives away most of it as block grants to stations. On the other hand, PBS is a membership organization of those stations, and its funds come from dues from the stations. So it is not a direct recipient of federal funds, but gets some money, also, directly from CPB. So it’s a complicated system. All the individual stations have power, as well as PBS and CPB, and the radio side, NPR. So it’s complicated, but, basically, that $500 million, which is about 15 to 20 percent of the total budget of public television, comes from the fed—public broadcasting, comes from the federal government. And because of that, it has an obligation—and Congress has made that clear over the years—to both be—for balance and objectivity. And by balance, it needs to reflect lots of the views that cover the American political spectrum, and I think it needs to do a better job at that. Still, today, same as in the ’70s—I think it can do better.
ARONOFF: While we, and others, sort of on the Right have gone after them for Left-wing bias, there were shows like Buckley’s Firing Line and Louis Rukeyser’s Wall $treet Week, but the complaint really was more about documentaries and the Frontline series.
ARONOFF: So, having been in on the inside of the decisions of what documentaries to produce and air, were there political considerations that went into the decisions?
PACK: Well, I think it’s complicated. I think it’s not only documentaries—I mean, I personally think, even though radio is not my field, that NPR has a lot of great radio talk show hosts, like Diane Rehm and Terry Gross. It should have at least one right-of-center talk show host, I think.
PACK: But I agree with you, Roger, that the focus has always been on the documentaries. And PBS itself likes to say that it would take documentaries as long as the quality were high—and it is really true, on their side of the question, that many, many right-of-center documentaries are not of the quality of left-of-center documentaries, in part because the funding and support of left-of-center documentaries is so much vastly bigger. Part of the problem, I think, goes way back into film school. Film schools—now there are thousands across the country, graduating tens or hundreds of thousands of students every year, and they’re all—all those professors tend to be left-of-center, and they graduate students that are left-of-center, so out of the crop of thousands—tens or hundreds of thousands of students, a handful are highly skilled. And there isn’t that same talent pool for right-of-center, or libertarian, or conservative documentaries—whatever the stripe. That said, I think in public broadcasting, like in academia, people have their biases, and they come from a certain community. And the community they come from tends to be one that is more comfortable with, and more knowledgeable of, and more used to, the thinking of left-of-center, and even more, I’d say, mainstream media-type thinking.
ARONOFF: Mm-hmm. How do you see the Obama administration in terms of their running CPB and VOA? Are you noticing differences from previous administrations in terms of, say, political influence from the White House, or its appointees, over the programming we see on TV?
PACK: I think it’s usually the case that administrations—takes them a long time before they get down to focusing on these cultural entities like CPB. But I think that Obama—as you mentioned when you discussed my bio, I was also on the Council for National Endowment for the Humanities, and I do think that in the case of the endowments, especially, things are getting more politicized under Obama than they were under Bush. The people who run them are taking stands that were more political than their Republican predecessors would be comfortable with. And one of the things I’m anxious to do is start an organization that, from a right-of-center perspective, would look at those institutions, and make sure that when they do something like that, enough criticism is out there—kind of keeping them in line. So I do notice that shift. I think it’s been pretty—it’s not huge, but I think there’s a chance that it would become more serious over time, especially if there is a second Obama administration.
ARONOFF: Right. Can you give me an example or two of—?
PACK: I think an example would be—the NEA had a staffer, who has since been let go, who had a conference call where he appealed to artists to help extend the Obama agenda in other areas, like health care reform. And it had never been—the NEA is supposed to be apolitical. You’re not supposed to ask artists to serve an administration’s agenda, worthy or not worthy—and I think that one was not even particularly worthy. So I think people were shocked, and they let him go, but I think it was amazing that it even got to that point, or even that that urge was felt. So it’s one sign, and I think that—I’m a little concerned that the NEA isn’t paying enough attention to its Council, which is there to kind of make sure that the program—that the grants it makes are done properly, to provide oversight. I hope—it doesn’t seem like it’s being allowed to fully execute its oversight role. So I think there’s some causes for concern.
ARONOFF: On that topic, while we’re on that, anything about their efforts to control and regulate the content of just regular broadcast talk radio and everything through the FCC? Anything give you concern about the direction in which they’re heading—sort of toward a Fairness Doctrine by a different name, or other things that they’re trying to do?
PACK: I think that the effort that comes and goes—I haven’t heard it right now—to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, and to use it to try to make sure that there isn’t so much Right-wing talk radio—I think that is a project of some Democrats in Congress, and I think that would be really horrible.
PACK: And it kind of comes back again and again. I think that it should be a reminder to people that we do not want to allow Congress to decide what should be on talk radio, when we look at public broadcasting, which is the organization that they’re responsible to keep fair, objective, and balanced—and have trouble doing that! I hear that sometimes. I think right now Congress would not be—the Democrats in Congress, who are the ones behind it, would not be strong enough to push it through, but if things took another turn, it would come back, and we should all be alert to stop it.
ARONOFF: I saw your latest film, The Last 600 Meters, on the big screen at the recent G.I. Film Festival, and I hope people get to see it in that venue, in that format. It was amazing, it was just great. I got to see you there, that night, at the reception. This film took the audience to a place I don’t think that I’ve ever been in a film—I mean, I’m not sure war has ever been filmed like this one in Iraq. Tell us how this came about, and why you picked the battles at Najaf and Fallujah to focus on.
PACK: This film—which, I have to say, is principally funded by my former employer, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so it is the case, in my own career, they have always been generous to me, and have put all my films on, for which I am grateful—this film began by starting to look at technology in warfare, but, as often happens, as you know, Roger, in documentaries, you start one place and you end up somewhere else.
PACK: We thought technology would be the story in this war, but it turned out not. As I researched it, in 2006 and ’07, I knew a little bit—I had heard the name Fallujah, but I was reminded that I, personally, knew so little about what happened. These battles—Fallujah and Najaf, which—the first battle of Fallujah, then Najaf, and the second battle of Fallujah, which took place over a nine-month period in 2004, were the biggest battles of the war, and the most kinetic, intense battles of the war. They were the Iraq War’s equivalent of D-Day, or Iwo Jima, or Gettysburg. As I listened to these people tell their stories, I really felt, strongly, that those stories needed to be told. I mean, we ask these young men and women to risk their lives, and, in some cases, lose their lives, to defend us, and to pursue our foreign policy objectives abroad. The least that we can do is tell their stories. And so I tried, in this film, to not put my own views—though I have many views on the war—in. So there’s no narration, and I tried to let the people who actually fought the battles to tell the stories, from corporals up to three-star generals, but mainly focusing on—focusing exclusively on people who were on the field at the time, and to tell, more or less, what happened in their words. And it’s not always pretty. They’re sent into Fallujah, and pulled out. Their objectives are changed. They’re disappointed. Errors are made. But their heroism, and their commitment was moving to me, and is moving to me still—and I wanted to portray it. I think we need to celebrate them. Too often, the media only treats soldiers as victims. They want to show them coming home wounded, or families mourning their dead, and while those are important stories, I think the people over there want to celebrated doing the thing that they think that they came there to do. And I don’t think the stories about Iraq should only be Haditha and Abu Ghraib. I think Fallujah and Najaf, although not stories of perfect battles, are stories that incorporated the heroism of our young men and women fighting over there. So I wanted to tell their story, and I tried to tell it with their own words and footage that were taken by much-more-heroic-than-me cameramen and still photographers who shot it at the time—so we don’t use any generic Iraq footage, we don’t use any re-enactments. We use footage where the people who are being interviewed are in. We try to make people feel what it was like to be there. I’m very committed to trying to get it on the big screen. I appreciate your comments, Roger, that you enjoyed seeing it that way. It’s really designed for that. Although it’s going to be on PBS eventually, PBS has generously given us a chance to try to raise money to get a theatrical release first, and I would very much like to do that.
PACK: There have been a lot anti-war movies that have been in movie theaters, starting with Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore, but onto Taxi to the Dark Side, and Gunner Palace, and Iraq in Fragments, and Control Room. Some of them have won Academy Awards, many have been nominated. Some made money, some didn’t. But they’ve been out there, affecting the debate. So I think there should be a film—I don’t consider this film all that political, but at least it takes a positive view of the men and women fighting there, and celebrates what they did—and I think it needs to be part of that debate, so we’re trying to raise an additional bunch of money to pay for the prints and advertising for a theatrical release.
ARONOFF: Yeah, I agree with everything you said there. The thing about Hollywood’s portrayal of the war—I mean, virtually every one of these films has been to show that this was a—we shouldn’t have been there, the soldiers were brutal, the mission caused them to be brutal—but yours really focused almost on the nobility—
ARONOFF: —and the unity that these people had, to care for each other, and, basically, the sensitivity that they showed, even though, during a war, battles like that, sensitivity might not be the word that comes to mind. Fallujah is really, probably, the iconic battle. You had the two—it started right after, I believe, the four men were hung on the bridge—
ARONOFF: —and then the first battle of Fallujah. Sort of lost that one, then came back and took the town back. Is that about right?
PACK: That’s right. In the 2004 period, we had not, I think, yet gotten our strategy right, so even the second battle of Fallujah was not as conclusive as it could have been. Some people escaped. It wasn’t built on the same way it did later, in the surge. But, in fact, it at least changed the structure from the first battle of Fallujah, and kind of set the grounds for the Anbar Awakening later. And, indeed, the first battle of Fallujah, not only did we have to withdraw, but the town was handed over to a Fallujah brigade—essentially, people who were very influenced by the insurgents already—and lost control of the town completely. I think there was a feeling that we needed to reverse that, and the second battle of Fallujah surely did that. I think the men and women in my film—it’s not only that they care about each other, but they believe, I think, in America’s exceptionalism, and its ability to bring powerful ideas abroad, not just—they believe in the mission. I think Hollywood movies, which usually portray them as victims, and often paranoid, deluded figures—at its best only portrays them as there for the thrill of it. Hurt Locker, a movie I liked, is the closest you can come to something that is—portrays them positively, but even there, they have no higher ideal than just getting a thrill out of the risk of danger. But I think it’s significant that the ones that are the least anti-military are the ones that do better in the box office, and I think that would be true in the documentary realm as well.
ARONOFF: You mentioned the brave men who shot this footage. Tell a little more about that. Were these Marines themselves? Were they embedded reporters? How many hours of footage did you have to work with?
PACK: We had thousands and thousands and thousands of stills, and we had hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, but finding good footage was tricky. In this war, unlike, say, World War II, which had much rarer and scarcer 35 millimeter footage, here was endless video, but most of it was not great, so we had to find footage that was shot by people who, I think, are themselves artists, both people who were working for the military, and private, embedded still photographers and video journalists—although mainly still photographers. I think the material we have is great. I think the stills, in some ways, are like paintings—the faces of the men are amazing, and the composition is startling. I think that they’re great art in and of themselves, and I think it’s a remarkable thing that these people, under fire, are still making—thinking about framing, thinking about composition, shooting this video, and stills. I could not do it, and I am in awe of those who can. Before we close, Roger, let me remind you that we have another film coming out soon, if we have a minute or two for that.
ARONOFF: Okay. What was the most moving, emotional part for you, both in terms of the footage, and in terms of the process of making this film?
PACK: For me, it’s the stories. The movie goes lower and lower down, and I think the intensity increases, so it’s particularly like a feature film in that sense. In TV, they like to put everything up front to hold the audience. We ended with a slide, going through Fallujah, and meeting those guys—they were mainly lance corporals and sergeants—meeting those guys, and talking to them, I think was very moving. We had them over here for dinner, and they hadn’t been together before Fallujah, and then I interviewed them the next day. They were just great young men, and America is lucky to have them, to such a point that my oldest son, who is going to be a senior in high school, is interested in joining the Marine Corps, even though we had no Marine experience in my family, ever. These young men were just very—their stories were compelling, and they were just great. I think the thing that moves me is these people that are in the film. We had a screening in San Diego where two of them, former Lieutenant Jesse Grapes, and now-Colonel Willard Buhl were there, and hearing them speak again, even after the film, in questions and answers, reminded me that America is lucky to have these people. It’s unbelievable to me that we can still produce men of this character. They use words like honor, which you don’t hear outside of the military at all—in the gang world, in the military, that’s it. A word like honor, which used to define what it meant to mean a man for thousands of years in Western civilization, is now only in this area—but we are lucky that it is there, that it means something to them. It was extremely moving to me, and, I think, changed forever my view of things.
ARONOFF: Where and when can people see this film? There’s no date yet set on PBS?
PACK: There is no date because we’re trying to get it into theaters first.
ARONOFF: Okay. Right.
PACK: If we’re lucky, and we raise some money over the summer and into the early fall, we would try to get it into movie theaters in the early part of next year and then, hopefully, on PBS, maybe the end of next year. So they’ll have to check our website that you mentioned earlier, Manifoldproductions.com, www.manifoldproductions.com,  for when it’s going to be anywhere. But that’s our basic timetable. We would hope, by early next year, to have it in theaters, and shortly thereafter, we would also release DVDs of it.
ARONOFF: What is the current state of documentary filmmaking, distribution, today? What are young people who are—you know, everyone has a camera today, and goes out and shoots and thinks they have a documentary in their camera, but is it a good climate for doing it? Can people ever make money with them, and get them distributed? I mean, if someone with your background, and you have such a powerful film, and are having—you probably will end up getting some distribution, but doesn’t figure to be wide distribution—so talk about that, the current state of filmmaking and distribution for documentaries.
PACK: I think that, compared to the ’70s, when I started, there’s now a profusion of these nonfiction pieces of all sizes and shapes, but the same number are getting wide distribution as before, so there’s now a vast number that aren’t. Some people don’t care. They make—I talked to a young filmmaker earlier this week who never had anything on TV, and doesn’t expect to. He makes these videos, he puts them on his website, and he travels around and speaks in churches, actually, and show his films—and that works for him. It wouldn’t work for me! The great thing about a PBS broadcast is that, at the end of the day, five million people will see The Last 600 Meters, not a few thousand. Only that, I think, wide exposure—it’s hard to work for years on a film, and put so much time, effort, and money into it without getting that out of it. I think it is hard.
PACK: It’s always been hard, and a lot of the mass broadcasts are still controlled by a handful of gatekeepers. I think eventually the Internet will change that, but not quite yet. Except for small pieces on YouTube. I still think PBS, for instance, as well as other television, is an important way to reach people. I think it’s hard, and I think a lot of people are making documentaries just because they’re on lower budgets, with less expectation, that are less well-made—and not finishing them. So it’s both good and bad, and I’m hopeful in terms of future distribution, future means of distribution.
ARONOFF: Okay. We’re going to go over a few extra minutes, because I want you to tell us about this other film that you have coming out.
PACK: Okay. This will out on PBS before The Last 600 Meters, because it will not go through theatrical release. We have finished the sequel to the George Washington film that you mentioned in my bio. It’s a two-hour film about Alexander Hamilton, called Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, hosted by Richard Brookhiser—who also hosted the Washington show—hosted and written by him. It is a look at this often neglected Founder, and like the Washington show, we look for evidence of Hamilton today. So it’s not a Ken Burns or History Channel-style—slow pans on stills and talking to—interviewing academic experts, although I’m an admirer of those kinds of films—and there are no re-enactments, another major form of history storytelling. We looked for parallels and evidence of Hamilton today. For example, in Hamilton—he shot—the duel, so we went and talked to gang members who had also been in, essentially, duels with guns and pistols, and asked them what it was like, and what did they think of Hamilton’s duel. On the other side of the spectrum, Hamilton, who was the first Treasury Secretary, also dealt with the first financial crisis, in 1792, so while we were filming in 2008, we spoke to Hank Paulson, who was then Treasury Secretary, dealing with an enormous financial crisis, and we asked him whether what he did was in Hamilton’s tradition, and what did he think Hamilton would do? So we try to look for contemporary reflections at the same time that we tell Hamilton’s own story, and his story’s a great story. He was illegitimate. He came from the Islands. His father left them when they were at a young age. His mother died. He had a very tough first fourteen years. And his success was built on the fact that his employer and his minister raised charity to send him to college in America—otherwise he might have ended his days in the Islands. Out of that difficult beginning, he became Washington’s chief aide in the war; instrumental in the creation of the Constitution; one of the co-authors of the definitive work on the Constitution, the Federalist Papers; a major New York lawyer; then Treasury Secretary under George Washington, where he helped fashion the economic system we live in today; then died in a duel. It’s a great story.
ARONOFF: Sounds like it. Once again, where can people go to learn more about your films—as far as seeing it, going to have to wait next year, either in the theaters or on PBS—but do you want to give the website one more time?
PACK: Sure. The website is www.manifoldproductions —M-A-N-I-F-O-L-D-P-R-O-D-U-C-T-I-O-N-S—.com, and they’ll both be on PBS, Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton and—
ARONOFF: Right . . .
PACK: —The Last 600 Meters. But I’m really hoping, wherever your listeners are, that we will get The Last 600 Meters into a theater near them soon.
ARONOFF: Okay. Any final thoughts on your part?
PACK: I just want to make sure I am sufficiently encouraging to young producers. I think, especially, in your audience, Roger, I believe we need more films like this. I do think young producers who are right-of-center can get their work on PBS. I think it’s possible and worth trying. Often they feel the atmosphere is hostile. I would call it difficult, but possible.
ARONOFF: Our guest has been Michael Pack of Manifold Productions. His new film, The Last 600 Meters. Thank you, Michael, so much for being with us today on Take AIM.
PACK: Thank you, Roger.