JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Stock archives and the
reproduction of documentary form

In the examples drawn from Citizens United films thus far, political speech in both word and image goes to almost any lengths to validate neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative values. I say almost because each of the examples mimics the appearance of documentary form and thereby remain minimally limited by the expectations associated with the genre. In the most egregious parings of talking points with stock video footage (Fire from the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America), the reliance on stereotypical language and paradigmatic images privileges economical expression over argumentation. The stock images do not provide evidence for their accompanying talking points, but the correlation of words and images, at the very least, constructs complete audio-visual sequences reminiscent of (compilation) documentary form. Economically rendered stereotypes substitute for documentary arguments, and paradigmatic images rendered through moralistic teleologies masquerade as serious historiography.

Hillary: The Movie stands as the most complex (and troubling) documentary in the Citizens United library by offering definitive arguments grounded in references to historical events but which nevertheless deploy an overriding stock logic. That is to say, Hillary demonstrates a significant effort to compile evidence in support of its critique of Clinton, especially to validate the various conspiracy theories voiced by its participants concerning Clinton’s time served as First Lady in the 1990s. Nevertheless, evidence, as it appears in Hillary, derives not from investigation into anything that would remotely qualify as empirical reality but rather from archival materials and personal observations rendered in paradigmatic form.

Hillary begins with a sequence of close-up shots of numerous newspaper headlines, each one recounting a controversial moment from Clinton’s past. The newspaper clippings echo similarly negative remarks made by an assorted cast of longtime Clinton critics who appear intermittently on-screen, initiating an unrelenting attack on Clinton’s character that continues throughout the film. A formal alignment emerges between ad hominem attacks voiced in interviews and a complement of newspaper clippings that shuttle and flicker across the screen. Interviewees are prompted to describe Clinton in a few words. Author and pundit Ann Coulter calls Clinton “mendacious, venal, sneaky;” former Clinton advisor Dick Morris terms the candidate “ideological” and “intolerant;” Mark Levin, a talk-radio host, says, “she scares the hell out of me;” and Coulter appears again, sarcastically this time: “She looks good in a pants suit.” Appearing in tandem with these comments are an assortment of negative newspaper headlines about Clinton, fluttering on-screen in rapid succession to produce a catalogue of negative terms and phrases that mirror those offered by Coulter, Morris, and Levin. Already brief headlines are framed so as to reveal only a word or two at a time, effectively echoing the negative series of adjectives voiced in the interviews. Extreme close-ups reveal yellowed paper, sometimes faded type, and an assortment of suggestive portions of headlines and bylines: “lies,” “veracity,” and “perjury,” among many others. The extreme close-ups on the headlines obscure their original context, avoid thorough consideration of the actual reportage that each headline announces, and thereby discount the journalistic objectivity that an audience might otherwise attribute to them. In other words, the clippings align too perfectly with the partisan rhetoric expressed in the interviews and thereby forfeit their value as historical referents.

Following the opening sequence of stock headline clippings and developing a broader overview of controversies during Clinton’s time as First Lady, Hillary emphasizes the scope and range of allegations against her. These controversies include Clinton’s alleged involvement in the firing of long-time White House travel office employees to make room for allies from the presidential campaign (“Travelgate”); her radical, failed attempt to reform health care; suggestion by several witnesses that Clinton threatened a woman to squelch claims of sexual assault on the part of President Clinton; and assertions that she convinced her husband to pardon a group of convicted terrorists so as to gain electoral support in New York state as she ran for the U.S. Senate. In the various sequences that cover these controversies and claims, the film offers no substantiating evidence for the allegations. Instead, Hillary relies primarily on the confident assertions of its witnesses and interviewees, paired with near-constant montages of negative newspaper headlines. The film thus operates according to the logic of guilt-by-accumulation.

The headline images reiterate the comments made in interviews much like the stock-video clips that reiterate political talking points in Fire From the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America, though here the images carry the added weight of the journalistic archive. Close examination, however, reveals that the seemingly endless collection of newspaper clippings is not quite as extensive as it appears at first glance. Many of the same headlines reappear, though the speed of their appearance masks their repetition. The headlines thereby function like a formal transition, similar to templates for optical transitions (i.e., wipes, dissolves) typically found in non-linear video editing platforms. In this case, the content behind the form derives from the journalistic archive. What would in another scenario function as a merely transitional device here constitutes a breakdown of form and content, paradigm and syntagm.[31] [open endnotes in new window]

The connective tissue that binds the documentary together is not historical research but the image of historical research. That is to say, the headlines suggest a reservoir of data or information available to further support the allegations made by its interviewees. The fact that the film never explores the details of the journalistic record does not prevent the appearance of such archival markers from serving their purpose as paradigmatic images indicative of the film’s eponymous villain and her seemingly controversial past. It is entirely possible that any one, if not all, of the allegations offered against Clinton in Hillary may be true. Clinton may have orchestrated the travel-office firing in order to reward political allies with jobs in the White House; she may have hired a thug to threaten Katherine Wiley, we learn, preventing Wiley from testifying against President Clinton for alleged sexual harassment. Nevertheless, even as Hillary goes to great lengths to catalogue a list of individuals victimized in Clinton’s quest for power, it makes no similar effort to confirm the allegations. In other words, Hillary demonstrates a driving interest in the affective byproduct of an overwhelming quantity of allegations and in organizing the allegations in a formally coherent spectacle that maintains the appearance of documentary form. The actual truth-value of any specific claim seems almost irrelevant by comparison to the coherent formal arrangement of these claims.

Mark Andrejevic locates a similar logic operative in the contemporary peddling of conspiracy theories online. In Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know, Andrejevic identifies the defining features of conspiracy theories:

“non-debunkability (non-falsifiability); the displacement of accounts of system or structural forms of conflict with tales of deliberate machinations …; and, finally, a populist tendency to ‘other’ the alleged conspirators.”[32]

Andrejevic admits that a conspiracy theory should not be dismissed simply because it presumes to uncover hidden networks of power—many conspiracy theories, so called, have turned out to be true. Instead, Andrejevic is concerned with a particular case of pathological paranoia, one that is immune to any possible rebuttal, as in the case of “birthers” who, even when confronted with Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate, confirming his legal status as a U.S. citizen, nevertheless treat such evidence as merely a further case of conspiratorial deception.[33] In such circumstances, the conspiracy theorist demonstrates an affective investment in the consistency that the conspiracy theory provides for her ideological commitments irrespective of the so-called evidences in support of the theory. “A conspiracy theory can turn out to be true without absolving it of what might be described as the pathology of conspiracy,” Andrejevic writes.

“The fact that conspiracy theorists might have arrived, somehow, at the truth does not undo the ways in which their forms of theorizing reject – in spirit, if not in form – the evidence-based deliberation and standards of argumentation that might, in some cases, end up legitimating their claims.”[34]

Such “evidence-based deliberation and standards of argumentation” are not completely absent from Hillary; however, the arguments and accompanying evidences fail to offer a convincing indictment of Clinton because they never descend from their paradigmatic suggestiveness. Like the pathology of conspiracy described by Andrejevic, Hillary invests more affective weight in the display of argumentative form(s) than in the collection of empirically relevant content.

One final example from Hillary is worth consideration for its excessive emphasis on what amounts to a stock image of evidence, despite the fact that the image in question seems indexical in the strictest sense of the term. Peter F. Paul appears in interviews in Hillary and alleges that Clinton knowingly and purposefully misrepresented campaign budgets during her run for the U.S. Senate. In the final months of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we learn, Paul organized a star-studded fundraising event in Hollywood in the President’s honor; the money generated by the gala would go to support Hillary’s campaign for Senate. The event led to a relatively minor controversy, reported by newspapers at the time, in which the FEC fined Clinton’s campaign $35,000 for underreporting the costs for the event. Against Clinton’s claimed ignorance of an unintentional accounting era, Paul asserts that Clinton knowingly and purposefully broke the law.

Paul functions as a problematic witness for Hillary. Given his own checkered past, including criminal convictions for drug use and securities violations, Paul’s association with the Clintons paints a picture of the power-couple as willing to work with any unsavory character in their quests for electoral victories. Paul’s troubled biography also marks him as a potentially unreliable witness. In a seeming attempt by the filmmaker to bolster the allegations against Clinton, Paul appears on-screen strapped to a polygraph machine. What follows are a series of questions and responses that confirm only the professional relationship between Paul and Clinton—a fact never in dispute and entirely separate from Paul’s allegations about Clinton’s campaign finance misdeeds. The examiner asks, “Did you discuss with Hillary Clinton supporting her campaign in exchange for President Clinton helping you in your business concerns?” and “Did Hillary Clinton pledge President Clinton’s support for your business interests?”

Paul’s affirmative responses to the questions remain entirely irrelevant to his allegations that Clinton committed crimes. Close-up shots of the digital polygraph (like the headline clippings) suggest an aura of historical verifiability, but this semblance of facticity is only an image of truthfulness, effectively a stock image indicative of a truthful answer but which remains irrelevant as evidence for the purported claims against Clinton.

Peter Paul answers questions while strapped to a lie detector in Hillary: The Movie.

The lie detector images the “stock” truthfulness of Paul’s answers.

The data-image functions not as a verification of truth but rather as an ostensible picture of truth, a stock image meant to signify the filmmaker’s assurance that what Paul tells us has been scientifically adjudicated. The polygraph image functions as stock, moreover, because the irrelevance of the questions and answers contradicts the image’s supposed status as evidence. The polygraph image functions as a virtual or stock image of verifiability, but nothing more.

Any licensed stock image of a polygraph display would accomplish the same affective end as the one we see here, at least if we pay attention to the specific questions and answers the precede it. Indeed, we could say that the polygraph picture reiterates in a pointed and precise manner Hillary’s overarching rhetorical strategy: the collection of materials and images seemingly drawn from a verifiable historical record that instead signify a series of paradigmatic abstractions about Clinton (liar, cheater, criminal, etc.). The images themselves are neither illustrations nor confirmations of personal testimony. Instead, they are generic pictures, emblems of a speaker’s trustworthiness (Paul) or signposts suggesting a uniformly partisan perspective of the past (newspaper headlines). What makes Hillary biased, then, is not that it misrepresents the facts. The film’s bias, seen repeatedly in its stylistic representations of historical imagery, results from its outright refusal to engage with history as anything other than a spectacular collection of paradigmatic (rather than empirical) evidence to thereby simulate documentary form.

Conclusion

Bias is a term typically used to describe a failed intersection of ideology and epistemology. When bias is operative, prejudicial assumptions skew an account of the empirical world. For example, in the case of campaign finance, unlimited contributions made by corporations to political campaigns imply the direct risk that a politician, once elected, will favor the interests of wealthy donors over other constituents. In such cases, the presumption of bias appears to function according to a linear, causal path—money buys influence—even if the participants involved in the exchange disavow such a clear link between campaign finance and political favors. In other cases, bias may take the form of psychological filtering, say, when an individual displays an unconscious characteristic to protect against unwanted encounters with aspects of the world that contradict deeply held assumptions. As Walter Lippman notes in his classic text, Public Opinion, stereotypes are a form of bias that establish nearly impenetrable defenses against the agitation aroused by ideas or experiences that would otherwise complicate our understanding of the world as we believe it to be.[35] A key benefit of bias, understood in this way, appears to be conservation: maintaining the status quo in the face of possible contradiction. Richard Hofstadter describes political paranoia in similarly defensive terms, as having “the quality of a defensive act” that protects against “considerations that do not fortify [the paranoiac’s] ideas.”[36]

From this perspective, the examples drawn from Citizens United demonstrate an overriding defensiveness or formal conservativeness. The films argue against policies and politicians that are contrary to their political ideological paradigm and do not offer positive alternatives for viewers apart from the affective spectacle derived from formalizing their contrary positions. Fire from the Heartland predicts unexpected consequences of the Affordable Care Act as one reason for its rejection while offering no alternative solutions to the country’s systemic health care problems; We Have the Power lauds the safety of offshore drilling, implicitly arguing for the continued use of fossil fuels against alternative energy sources; Battle for America and Generation Zero place blame for the 2008 financial collapse on President Obama and baby-boomers respectively, avoiding any possible indictment of neo-conservative economic theories (particularly the deregulation of financial markets) put in place by Ronald Reagan and continuing through the presidency of George W. Bush. Even in the case of Hillary: The Movie, the film offers no new information concerning its eponymous subject, at least not for any viewers already familiar with what Clinton herself has termed the “vast right-wing conspiracies” peddled on conservative media outlets ever since she and her husband entered the national spotlight.

Yet, apart from the defensive ends that the political performances appear to serve, the stock style of Citizens United films departs from earlier instantiations of conservative political discourse in one important way. The films maintain the semblance of argument or political debate in their obvious attempts to mimic documentary form, while the emphasis on stereotypes, paradigmatic images, and stock footage avoids any significant engagement with the empirical world. By contrast, the “paranoid style in American politics,” as Hofstadter diagnosed it in the mid 20th-century, revels in the accumulation of detailed information in service of its conspiracy theories:

“The plausibility the paranoid style has for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure, in [the] appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions, the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable.”

Paranoid political discourse, Hofstadter argues, lacks neither information nor evidence but rather sensible judgment—a capacity to determine whether the evidence, no matter its quantity, plausibly suggests a particular conclusion. The care demonstrated by Citizens United films is different from the paranoid style identified by Hofstadter because it appears solely through the films’ simulation of documentary form, not in the accumulation of information.

The stock logic deployed by Citizens United films by no means epitomizes the entirety of contemporary conservative political discourse. Paranoid conspiracy theories, which emphasize the accumulation of evidence instead of the deployment of stock imagery, proliferate online. Melodramatic discourse, particularly the moralistic binary of good vs. evil employed to justify the “war on terror” following 9/11, has also proven a particularly effective means to validate the pro-active, rather than defensive, deployment of military force around the globe.[37] Despite the tendency of conservative political speakers to rely on simplistic moral binaries, Citizens United films demonstrate, I have argued, a radicalized version of this trope, specifically through the blurred generic boundaries between the logics of advertising, documentary form, and political expression.

Indeed, Citizens United stands as just one participant within a growing “cottage industry” of conservative political documentary. Following Michael Moore’s rise to prominence as a progressive documentary director, several conservative “rebuttal” documentaries appeared in the mid-2000s, including Michael & Me (Elder 2004), FarhenHype 9/11 (Peterson 2004), Celsius 41.11 (Knoblock 2004), Michael Moore Hates America (Wilson 2004), and Manufacturing Dissent (Caine & Melnyk 2007).[38] Similar to the anti-Michael Moore documentaries, many contemporary conservative documentary films present their arguments as responses or rebuttals to progressive political figures or “liberal” filmmakers. In response to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim 2006), films such as An Inconsistent Truth (Edwards 2012) and Blue (King 2014) were released with the explicit purpose to counter Gore’s claims and deny the existence climate change. The pro-hydraulic fracturing film, FrackNation (McElhinney and McAleer 2013), claims to rebut the claims made in the anti-fracking film Gasland (Fox 2010). Conservative commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, co-directed (with John Sullivan) 2016: Obama’s America (2012) and America: Imagine the World Without Her (2014), which critique the “anti-colonial” policies of President Obama and the “anti-American” interpretation of history found in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, respectively.

Finally, in addition to influencing public opinion or serving as an outlet for Republican candidates during electoral campaigns, conservative media has increasingly demonstrated a capacity to affect governmental policy. To cite just a few examples:

In these and numerous other examples there is no significant divide between the opinions offered through conservative media outlets and the actions taken by many elected Republican officials. Just as the perverse deployment of stock images in Citizens United calls attention to certain genre-bending strategies of conservative documentary, semiotic analysis such as I have offered here may further elucidate the formal dissolution of boundaries between political media, partisan rhetoric, and day-to-day governance.