All roads lead to Washington:

They'll call it Mr. Karmazin Goes to Washington. (The original was Columbia Tristar, but you can't win them all.)...
October 1, 1999

They’ll call it Mr. Karmazin Goes to Washington. (The original was Columbia Tristar, but you can’t win them all.)

Paramount can produce it, the TV premiere will air on Showtime, and eventually you’ll be able to rent it at Blockbuster. Videos from the soundtrack album will go into heavy rotation on MTV all over the world. 60 Minutes will go behind the scenes, and it’ll be a topic for Letterman’s Top Ten. Maybe it can spin off into a Spelling series for upn.

Point is, as the trades hype ‘the biggest media deal in history,’ CBS head Mel Karmazin and Viacom chief Sumner Redstone are heading to D.C. for adventures in lobbying. Seems being the biggest is just not big enough, and the duo of mavens want Washington to ease regulations which limit the number of TV stations one company can own and prevent a company from owning two networks. If these rules stand, it’s a speed bump on the road to media monopolization and the duo will want it paved over. Pronto.

In this climate, in an era of media cartels that become fewer, prouder and mightier each quarter, Mike McNulty is a marvel. As mainstream media, particularly in the U.S., becomes increasingly politically vanilla (advertisers and shareholders are sensitive, you know. . . ), McNulty’s first film, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, vaulted him onto Nightline. Matt Drudge fawned over him on Fox News. More importantly, in the face of McNulty’s film, U.S. Attorney-General Janet Reno re-opened the Waco investigation and admitted that the U.S. government lied about what happened at the Branch Davidian compound on April 19, 1993. Seventy-six members of the religious sect were killed in a raging fire after a 51-day standoff.

Those who’ve seen the film – with its assertion that federal agents knowingly started the fatal fire – will likely agree it’s persuasive. I had a chance to view the whole film earlier this year on television and my thought at the time was ‘Where is the outrage about this?’ It’s not like the film was underground. It was an Academy Award nominee, for crying out loud. So the media and policy storm this film has kicked up is heartening, particularly because the film is the result of good, old-fashioned, tedious, frustrating digging. McNulty recruited Tuscon attorney David Hardy to file court orders, using the Freedom of Information Act to wrest from government agencies documents the agencies had previously denied even existed. It’s strong journalism. (Sidenote: McNulty is releasing a follow-up this fall. Perhaps because it smacks of `cashing in,’ the producers of his original film are not involved.)

Above all, McNulty managed to do what all doc-makers deep down aspire to do – he brought about change by making a film. And with mass public discourse falling under control of fewer and fewer people – guys with huge corporate agendas and unimaginable access – that’s going to be tougher than ever.

The indies might be heading off to Washington to rock the boat, but the big guys are taking the same trip – to make nice and ask for favors.

Mary Ellen Armstrong


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