Beyond bias: stock imagery and paradigmatic politics in Citizens United documentaries

by Scott Krzych

In 2008, Citizens United, a production company specializing in direct-to-DVD political documentaries, distributed Hillary: The Movie (Alan Peterson), a scathing critique of Hillary Clinton. The timing of the film’s release led to a court challenge by the FEC, alleging a violation of federal election laws that prohibit corporately sponsored campaign advertising within thirty days of a primary election. The case eventually appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court (Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission). In the now infamous ruling, the Court’s conservative majority effectively removed limitations on corporate expenditures for political campaigns, bestowing on corporations the same right of free speech previously reserved for individuals.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The controversy surrounding the Citizens United decision and its impact on campaign finance in subsequent elections has perhaps diverted any media or scholarly attention away from the film on which the case originally centered, not to mention the growing library of documentaries distributed by Citizens United in the past decade. This article considers a variety of Citizens United documentaries and analyzes how the films employ traditional modes of documentary representation, a formal strategy, I argue, that provides a generic alibi for the films’ otherwise polemical discourse, specifically the films’ expression of a uniformly conservative, neo-liberal ideology.

Regardless of their respective subjective matter—immigration, energy, abortion, health care, cultural history, etc.—the oeuvre of Citizens United films expresses a consistent set of conservative political ideas and talking points. Self-explanatory and affirmative titles include Rediscovering God in America (Kevin Mitchell, 2008) and Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (Ken Knoblock, 2009), but the films more typically take antagonistic positions against progressive institutions and politicians, including such films as Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60 (Kevin Knoblock, 2005), ACLU: At War with America (David N. Bossie, 2006), and Hype: The Obama Effect (Alan Peterson, 2008), among over a dozen others. As a collection, the films reiterate what Jeffrey P. Jones identifies as the “standard ideological tenets of contemporary conservatism” valorized on such other media outlets as talk-radio and Fox News:

“militaristic patriotism, patriarchal gender norms, conservative cultural ‘values,’ Christian religiosity, Second Amendment rights, and free market capitalism, [and also the denigration of] government, immigrants, liberals, labor unions, and non-Christian religions.” [2]

The ideological content of the Citizens United films reproduce without significant qualification these conservative tenets. The more striking feature of the films, then, concerns the formal manifestation of these ideas on-screen. To call the films “documentaries,” after all, is too generous an application of the term; the films resemble something more like television attack ads stretched to feature length. This extended duration, matched with the simplistic, almost automatic repetition of conservative tenets produces an aesthetic dilemma: how to fill time and (visual) space in pseudo-documentaries that include little historical research and which rely primarily on didactic interviews with conservative pundits and Republican officials? 

Citizens United documentary, Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny. Citizens United documentary, Broken Promises: United Nations at 60

Citizens United documentary, ACLU: At War with America

Citizens United documentary, Hype: The Obama Effect


Citizens United films appear to solve this problem by relying on stock footage—video clips professionally produced for licensing purposes—as visual illustrations of and even ostensible confirmations for their political arguments. Even when they appropriate newsreels, newspaper clippings, or other archival materials to illustrate historical narratives and political talking-points, Citizens United films demonstrate an overriding stock logic: the transformation of visual evidence into generic, paradigmatic images.

In Citizens United films, stock images paired with political talking-points produce a self-enclosed feedback loop in which form and subject matter become nearly indistinguishable. Rather than offering concrete explanations for historical events, Citizens United films more often avoid any account of the historical world that might be susceptible to rebuttal or even debate. The generic images, paired as they are with political speech, provide the films with a semblance of argumentation but one that never descends from the general into the particular. The ideological performances avoid the outright appearance of propaganda, however, by couching their reactionary arguments in more widely recognizable forms of documentary representation. This appeal to the generic, as well as to the expectations associated with a particular genre, is similar to the manner in which Fox News relies on the banner of journalism and the “traditional legitimating aspects of the genre” to validate the otherwise propagandistic speech that occurs on its network.[3] What distinguishes Citizens United films from other conservative media outlets and modes of expression, though, arises from an even more radical dissolution of any distinction between words and images, speech and evidence, stock footage and the historical archive.

Paradigmatic images

The history of Citizens United includes an early example of inflammatory political imagery. Founded by political operative Floyd Brown during the 1988 presidential campaign, Citizens United’s original claim to fame was its production of the infamous “Willie Horton” television spots.[4] The ads, we may recall, portray the Democratic nominee, Governor Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime. In voice-over, the narrator explains how Dukakis “allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.” One of these passes went to William Horton, an African American man serving a life sentence for murder. As Horton’s mug shot appears on-screen, the narrator describes how, during one of the weekend passes, Horton kidnapped a young couple, “stabb[ed] the man and repeatedly rap[ed] his girlfriend.” The ad has since served as the epitome of political mudslinging in the television era. The Horton ad not only misconstrued the facts (the prisoner furlough program was established prior to Dukakis’ tenure as governor); the series of Horton ads also “were widely criticized for fueling white stereotypes of violent and criminal tendencies among young black men.”[5] In other words, the ad only appears to criticize the policy of prisoner furlough programs; in reality, the topic of furlough programs merely provides an opportunity to associate the Democratic presidential nominee with a stereotypical image of a violent black man. Behind the apparent critique of Dukakis’ policies as a governor, the real aim of the ad is a despicable appeal to racial stereotypes, including the depiction of African American men as a specifically sexualized threat to white women. Despite a general consensus labeling the Horton ads as racist in subsequent accounts of the election, the news media in 1988 generally overlooked the ads’ racial undertones. Only in the aftermath of the election, Tali Mendelberg notes, were the campaign ads and their “implicit racial appeals” identified as such.[6]

The fact that at the time the news media could overlook a campaign ad that would later stand as a hallmark of racial stereotyping in political advertising speaks to the broader issue of stereotypes and stereotypical representation—a topic key to understanding the paradigmatic or stock images operative in the Citizens United library of films. One of the most troubling features of stereotypes, generally speaking, is the unconscious manner by which they invoke and reproduce prejudiced assumptions. Particularly in cases of racially-driven stereotypes, implicit assumptions about entire ethnic groups simultaneously mask and effectuate a stereotype’s meaning. As W.J.T. Mitchell writes, stereotypes

“are not special or exceptional figures, but invisible (or semivisible) and ordinary, insinuating themselves into everyday life and constituting the social screens that make encounters with other people possible—and, in a very real sense, impossible.”[7]

Stereotypes, Mitchell continues,

“circulate across sensory registers from the visible to the audible, and they typically conceal themselves as transparent, hyperlegible, inaudible, and invisible cognitive templates of prejudice.”[8]

The biases that ground stereotypes resist correction precisely to the extent that they delimit the world, filtering experience according to predetermined assumptions and binary categories (i.e., white/black, makers/takers, soldiers/terrorists). As a form of rhetorical shorthand, Jörg Schweinitz writes,

“stereotypes, just like schemata, do not consist of complete passages of text or images, and they hardly consist of fully formed ideas.”[9]

The more recent films distributed by Citizens United lack the explicit racism of the Horton ads, but the films nevertheless employ a variety of stereotypical references. My emphasis here is less on the specific content of the various stereotypes deployed by Citizens United films. Instead, I emphasize the cognitive shortcuts offered by stereotypes and other paradigmatic references as a means to disseminate political talking-points in a manner that avoids the more rigorous expectations of political argument or debate—an economical form of political expression, in both senses of the word “economy.”

The appearance of stereotypes, racial or otherwise, in several Citizens United films establish “cognitive templates of prejudice” that simplify otherwise complex topics to serve the films’ ideological ends. Generation Zero (Stephen K. Bannon, 2010) and Occupy Unmasked (Stephen K. Bannon, 2012) tell histories of “leftist political radicalism” in the U.S. to contextualize, respectively, the films’ explanations of the 2008 financial crisis and the roots of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Both films suggest links between the Democratic Party and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, and both films display brief and out-of-context archival footage of African American men and women holding firearms and calling for revolution. These images of Blank Panthers, public domain footage of a 1968 demonstration at a courthouse in Oakland, California, have appeared in other documentaries concerning the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement. Here, as the Citizens United films marshal the images, the rapidly paced montages of African American “radicals” gain a politically loaded significance through the addition of staged interviews with several conservative political celebrities who read the scenes as teleological signposts. In Occupy Unmasked, conservative author and talk-radio host David Horowitz diagnoses “the left” as having a long-standing sympathy for violent political causes and “Black Panther tactics.”[10] Horowitz draws a parallel between Black Panthers’ militancy and Stalinist Russia, while an archival montage juxtaposes images of Stalin with a clip of H. Rap Brown stating,

“Violence is as American as cherry pie.”

Archival images of a Black Panther protest in Occupy Unmasked. New Leftist turned conservative author, activist, and talk-radio host, David Horowitz in Occupy Unmasked.

Images of Joseph Stalin appear in a montage, juxtaposed with ...

... H. Rap Brown in Occupy Unmasked.

Taken in context, when Brown refers to the violence endemic to U.S. history, he means to implicate, specifically, violence done against African Americans during slavery, in the Jim Crow South, during the Civil Rights movement, and in countless times and places before and in-between. The sequence’s editing, however, recasts his comment so as to evacuate its context, reproducing his words simply as an indication of black radicalism. This is followed by video footage of an Occupy Wall Street protestor wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Che Guevera. The montage thereby suggests an historical link between present and past progressive political movements, while avoiding any thorough accounting of the Civil Rights movement and, likewise, drawing maximum rhetorical effect from the stereotype of African Americans as radical, violent, and Other.

In addition to this reliance on racial stereotypes, the terms socialism or socialist have a similarly stereotypical function and appear with more frequency in Citizens United films. ACLU: At War With America, for instance,depicts the American Civil Liberties Union as a radical, “anti-American” organization, due simply to its founding by a professed socialist, Roger Baldwin. The film includes no explicit commentary to explain why an affinity for socialism should be understood as synonymous with “anti-American” sentiment, just as Occupy Unmasked and Generation Zero provide no historical background to contextualize the selected images of Black Panther Party members. Such stereotypes discount prima facie any political movement or social actor presumed to embody the derogatory label ascribed to them.

The examples from Generation Zero, Occupy Unmasked,and ACLU: At War With America rely on racial stereotypes and political biases that have circulated in conservative groups for decades. Beyond these routine rhetorical appeals, Citizens United films also demonstrate the capacity to produce new rhetorical forms to fit with any conceivable, contemporary political debate. In these cases, the schematic logic and cognitive condensations typical of stereotypes remains operative, but the rhetorical and visual content appears more flexibly attuned to the specifics of a given topic. Indeed, several films demonstrate a remarkable capacity to correlate a litany of illustrative images with an equally wide array of political talking points. Like racially-driven stereotypes, the presentations economize their arguments through the cognitive shorthand of paradigmatic language, but they also demonstrate an economical form of representation through the licensing of pre-produced stock video footage.

Most Citizens United films are composed of staged interviews. Recognizable conservative politicians and pundits speak directly into the camera, offering an array of talking points appropriate to the subject matter of the films in which they appear. The interviews occasionally appear in tandem with historical newsreels or other archival imagery, but the most typical visual accompaniments are stock video clips licensed from a small selection of production companies.[11] Compared to more typical uses of stereotypes in political media, which tend to repeat biases already present in public discourse, the examples below demonstrate a more flexible, creative, and peformative capacity to construct imaginary worlds conducive to any political topic or opinion. In the following examples—I offer brief summaries of three cases—words and (stock) images function in a rhetorical feedback loop.

Fire From the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman (Stephen K. Bannon, 2010) presents itself as a critical alternative to what the film’s participants describe as feminism’s destructive legacy. The all-female cast of interviewees includes Michele Bachmann, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Phyllis Schlafly.

Talking-head interviews in Fire From the Heartland include appearances by former United States House of Representative Michele Bachmann. . .

... conservative commentator, Michelle Malkin . . .

. . .  conservative commentator, Ann Coulter . . .

. . .  and conservative activist, Phyllis Schlafly.

Fire From the Heartland blames the demise of patriarchy for such contemporary social ills as unemployment, failure of public education, urban crime, and more. In one of the few sequences to take aim at a specific contemporary topic, Bachmann argues that the Affordable Care Act, derisively termed Obamacare, places too much authority in the hands of the federal government. Universal healthcare coverage will produce a wide variety of negative social effects, Bachmann predicts, because the law’s provision allows children to remain on their parents’ health care plans until age twenty-six. Obamacare, she continues, will arrest normal psychological development and likewise produce a self-entitled, immature generation of people.

Stock-video of a lonely New Year’s Eve celebration in Fire From the Heartland

Stock-video of an “immature” office worker in Fire from the Heartland.

The accompanying stock video reiterates Bachmann’s statement by picturing several young men engaged in presumably adolescent behavior, including a man celebrating New Years Eve alone in his apartment and a white-collar worker tossing a paper airplane over the side of his cubicle. The generic images give visual form to Bachmann’s prophetic claim. That is to say, Bachmann offers a hyperbolic generalization about the future psychological effects of a single law on millions of individuals, a claim, in its generalization, impossible to substantiate. The generic stock images, then, are an economical means of illustration for categorical statements offered in the absence of verifiable evidence.

An even more cynical appropriation of stock video occurs in We Have the Power: Making America Energy Independent (Terry Moloney, 2008). The documentary explicitly endorses any and all avenues to expand domestic energy resources and to decrease U.S. dependence on international markets. In practice, the film emphasizes fossil fuel and nuclear power as ideal energy sources, with only passing consideration given to renewable energy like wind or solar power. In one striking sequence, Newt Gingrich, the film’s primary narrator, argues that the United States should maximize access to its domestic resources by drilling offshore:

“With today’s advances in technology and environmental regulations, exploration can be conducted along the outer continental shelf in ways that keep the drilling out of sight and protects the environment.”

Gingrich uses the term exploration as a presumably less offensive synonym for drilling. The visual accompaniment to Gingrich’s commentary—stock video of scuba divers casually swimming near a reef —seems to confirm the benign, even recreational aspects of “exploration” along the continental shelf. Trading accuracy for affect, the terminological substitution obscures the cost and danger involved in extracting oil from the sea floor.[12] The stock video takes the talking points’ rhetorical aim a step further by picturing what the language intends to suggest.

Finally, at least for this present overview of examples, Battle For America (2010) blames President Obama for the recessed economy following his election. Commentators in the documentary acknowledge that the United States was already in a deep recession when Obama was elected to office. However, Battle for America overlooks entirely Bush administration policies relevant to, if not responsible for, the 2008 financial collapse. Political strategist Dick Morris declares, without evidence or explanation,

“[Obama] took a disaster and turned it into a catastrophe, and he ran the country into the ground.”

Appearing on-screen at the same time is a stock video clip, which depicts a graph chart with an animated red arrow that plunges so low as to crash through the floor. The animated chart bears no referential relation to economic data but simply reiterates Morris’ claim in graphic form.

In each of these examples, the films offer their viewers the formal appearance of political argument but without any corresponding evidence that would ground the arguments in empirical reality. The stock images, instead, provide visual images reminiscent of evidence but which lack an empirical referent. Consider, by contrast, the progressive political diagnosis of income inequality offered by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, in the documentary Inequality for All (Kornbluth 2013). In the film, Reich refers repeatedly to a graph chart that tracks income inequality in the United States between the respective Wall Street collapses in 1928 and 2008. The chart indicates a rapid rise in income inequality as a precursor to both the Great Depression and Great Recession and thereby grounds Reich’s corresponding arguments in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy (among other prescriptions) in historical data. This is not to say the graph substantiates beyond a reasonable doubt Reich’s diagnoses of contemporary economic ills. The important point to draw from this admittedly unfair comparison is that Reich’s visual evidence begs for further elaboration. Specifically, it necessities a transition from the general representation of nearly a century of economic history (displayed in the chart) to the more particular interpretations (offered by Reich and other interviewees) of what the data means and how it should inform public policy. The graph video chart licensed by Battle for America makes no similar distinction because its generic quality makes no claim to historical reality. Its signification remains entirely rhetorical, a visual repetition of Morris’ talking point, though its appearance strategically aligns a political claim with a visual corollary in a formal manner similar to other political documentaries.

Stock-video of an animated graph-chart, meant to indicate the failed “Obama economy” in Battle for America. Charting income inequality in Inequality for All


The use of suggestive words and imagery to frame a political issue is nothing new to political discourse, let alone to contemporary conservative media. In the case of Fox News, as Jones finds, rhetorical framing and talking-points skew political discussions toward biased ends. Performative speech-acts offered by network hosts may introduce entirely new ideas into political discourse that were not otherwise operative in the debate. When the hosts of Fox & Friends (1996-present) label a proposed Islamic community center in Manhattan a “Ground Zero Mosque,” or when Sarah Palin writes on Facebook that “Obamacare” will include “death panels,” such

“speech acts or utterances don’t just report or describe something, but actually bring that thing into being through the act of speaking.”[13]

In the same manner, (re)describing offshore drilling as “exploration” or claiming Obama has destroyed the U.S. economy are performative utterances, the presentation of contestable claims as if they were widely-accepted facts.