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The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Blog post written by Evan Johnson, Journalism, Environmental Studies, German Language Studies ‘13, FLEFF Intern, Marlboro, VT
Danny Schecter is a journalist and independent film producer. He is the winner of multiple awards including the Society of Professional Journalists' 2001 Award for Excellence in Documentary Journalism. His film, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time will be shown at FLEFF on April 16 at 2 pm at Cinemapolis. Mr. Schecter and I spoke recently about his film, the recent financial crisis and the responsibilities of journalists.
Evan Johnson: What originally drew you to the theme of your movie, Plunder?
Danny Schecter: In 2005 I began thinking about what kind I could do that would bring people together and about the shared problems in our country that transcend partisan politics. I focused on the issue debt. So many people are in debt; students, people with mortgages and credit cards. So I made a film called In Debt We Trust and that film warned of the financial crisis. That came out in 2006 and the reaction was ‘you’re an alarmist. How can you say the economy is going to crash when everything is going so well?’ And the six months later the market began to melt down. I went from a zero to a hero. I wasn’t the only one who saw these problems coming by any means but the people who did see them coming were ignored. We’ve moved from warning of a crisis to an actual crisis. And as that crisis developed they saw the same patterns. No one was asking any deeper questions and that led me to stop looking at the problem as a business problem and start looking at it as a crime problem. I believe this is the most serious problem because it’s the economic security of the entire planet.
EJ: As a lone journalist or investigative reporter, how do you confront an issue as large as white-collar crime or chronic debt?
DS: You have to find who’s going to be willing to talk to you and a lot of people. I couldn’t get the FBI to talk to me because they did. I also wanted to talk to insiders, not just critics, professors of economics, radicals the like. I wanted to talk to people who were actually in the industry and I actually did find some. I talked to a convicted white-collar criminal. I talked to financial journalists, people who worked at Bear Stearns or Goldman Sachs and they basically confirmed or gave more details on all of this. I tried to tell this story about the financial crisis through the prism of crime and that’s what makes the film unique and different. But it’s not a view that’s accepted.
EJ: When confronting something so enormous and convoluted, how do you explain it to a lay audience? How do you simplify the crisis in the film?
DS: Look at the film and you’ll see how I did it. I try and break it down and I’ve also written a companion book called The Crime of Our Time to further detail and document my findings. I’m an investigative reporter. What I wanted to try and say who is behind this and what is the nature of our economy. We have a “F.I.R.E.” economy. This means it is made of three principle institutions. The “F” is for financing companies, the “I” is for insurance companies and “R.E.” is for real estate. What we found is that these three industries were working together at a profit to get people to take on more debt than they could afford. I’m fighting a battle not just to find out the facts, but also to communicate the facts.
EJ: If this system is ripping off so many people, what actions should consumers take to protect themselves?
DS: The first action an individual can take is to educate themselves and understand what actually happened. And you can’t go rely on the mainstream media for that – you’ve got to try to investigate it yourself. Ask deeper questions Read books like mine, seeing films like mine and other films. Inside Job, another film on this, won the academy award for documentary. It doesn’t go as far as my film goes, but it’s a good start in understanding the financial crisis. We live in a country where there is very little financial literacy. Most people are scared of money and don’t know much about it. The main thing is to press the government to put these [criminals] to jail. WE have to prosecute them and not let them get away with it. We don’t need a bail-out – we need a jail-out.
EJ: What are some changes that journalists need to make in their coverage of the financial crisis?
DS: There used to be what were called labor reporters who reported on working people. But as the unions lost power, a lot of these people became business reporters. They went to business school and they identified with the people who were running these companies. They’re weren’t skeptical and they weren’t asking hard questions. But that’s the goal of a reporter – find the truth. You’re not a stenographer - you’re a journalist.
EJ: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists or students who want to pursue a career in investigative reporting?
DS: There are lots of different filmmakers. You can make YouTube videos and watch your cat jump through hoops but if you’re really interested in more serious issues, what I would recommend would be to find a mentor - filmmaker, an educator or someone who you can work with and learn by doing. I’ve had interns from Ithaca College and they all come away feeling like they’ve learned a lot.