copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

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 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.”

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. 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. 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 (Figure 3)—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.

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.

What Jones rightly identifies as performative speech on Fox News takes an even more radical form in Citizens United films due to the expressive similarity between words and images, talking points and stock footage. The stock videos exist in a paradigmatic state similar to the paradigm of signifiers available to the speaker of a given language. Indeed, considering their ready accessibility in online databases, the stock video clips share more in common with linguistic modes of expression than with archival or found footage typically found in compilation documentaries (an issue I discuss more below). In Battle for America, in addition to the stock animated chart used to illustrate Obama’s alleged destruction of the economy, a variety of other stock video clips appear throughout the film to correlate with a predictably negative assessment of the White House and Congressional Democrats in the first two years of the Obama administration. Other stock video clips reiterate generic claims about the Democratic Party’s ineptitude, including a heavyset, shirtless man who fails in his attempt to dunk a basketball; a white collar worker (the same actor and set pictured in Fire from the Heartland) who knocks down a house of cards just as he attempts to place the final card on top; and, most spectacularly, a computer-generated animated sequence depicting the Earth from space as it explodes.

Each of these video clips, selected from a larger database of available images, offer a similar affective product; each setting or scenario is recognizable as something negative, displeasing, or undesirable. Though lacking the bigotry of more conventional stereotypes, these examples of stock footage, paired as they are with political speech, nevertheless demonstrate a similar mode of paradigmatic generalization, a “cognitive template of prejudice” applied to the process of political reasoning. As Roland Barthes discusses in Elements of Semiology, speech normally operates according to a syntagmatic ordering of words selected from a broader set of available signifiers. The individual placement of any particular signifier within a sentence functions paradigmatically, such that one signifier could be replaced by many other alternatives. For example, the incomplete sentence, “My favorite thing to eat for dessert is ____”, could be completed by the insertion of such signifiers as chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, or cherry pie; each of these sweet treats, and many others like them, are “members” of the paradigm dessert, of signifiers signifying foods regularly consumed at the end of a meal. Certain statements or combinations of words, however, may be repeated so often in a given historical moment that longer strings of signifiers come to exist paradigmatically—in such cases, an entire phrase becomes available for selection in a manner usually reserved for individual words. Citing Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes writes,

“there is . . . a whole series of sentences which belong to language, and which the individual no longer has to combine himself.”[14]

For instance, if a speaker encounters an idiosyncratic American cultural practice, she may describe the practice as being as American as cherry pie. To utter the phrase as American as cherry pie does not require the speaker to contemplate the ontology of American experience or even to understand the historical significance of cherry pie in regional American cooking. Instead, the referential value of the paradigmatic phrase derives from its repetition. A speaker learns that as American as cherry pie may be used to describe a phenomenon deemed to be uniquely American and applies the paradigmatic statement without any necessary consideration of what the statement actually means. Barthes terms this kind of linguistic phenomenon a stereotype. From this semiotic perspective, a stereotype can be more than a biased assumption about a group of people; it can also function as a debased form of speech that privileges efficiency over careful thought, the generic over the contextual. A stereotype outsources critical thought and relieves a speaker from the work of speech; it replaces the active selection of words with a passive reiteration and repetition of the self-similar. Once it exists, a stereotype “belongs to language” in general rather than to specific, contextual, contingent speech acts.

To return to just one of the examples of stock-video in Battle for America, we could say that the clip showing a shirtless man who fails to dunk a basketball “belongs to language” in that there are countless ways in which the clip could be applied. In another context, the clip might be used to reiterate the racial stereotype, “white men can’t jump”; it could be used as a dig against the athletic limitations of individuals who are mildly overweight; or more philosophically the stock-video could illustrate the existential limitations of mortal beings. In the context of Battle for America, the video clip is meant to illustrate ineptitude, specifically Obama’s incapacity to respond effectively to an economic crisis. Such an application of the stock-video may be one of the more generic significations implicit in the clip, but this is precisely my point. The generic nature of the clips’ meaning, like the ahistorical arguments leveled against Obama, do not achieve anything more than a general repetition of negative signifiers.

In the examples drawn from Citizens United, stock images provide evocative images for any conceivable topic or talking point. Moreover, the accompanying images provide visual variety to films otherwise composed entirely of talking-heads. Stock video thereby provides the primary visual content by which the films mimic the appearance of documentary form. With all of the typical features of compilation documentary present in the films—interviews, montages of “archival” footage, occasional narration—Citizens United marshals the formal structure of nonfiction film without any of the attendant ethical imperatives normally associated with the genre. Again, in the case of Fox News,Jones finds comparable examples of generic mimicry:

“Fox’s performances of ideology cannot be separated from their occurrence as news. … It is the genre of news that offers important and necessary ‘cover’ for the network, helping to thwart charges of propaganda or partisanship.”[15]

Similarly, the visual strategies employed by Citizens United might be less troubling if they did not take the explicit form of documentary. In other words, Citizens United films simulate the appearance of documentary form just as stereotypes mimic the form of thoughtful speech.

Documentary and paradigmatic arguments

Documentary films present arguments about the historical world—this is one of the genre’s most distinguishing features. Whereas fiction films offer imaginative scenarios whose references to the real world are only metaphorical, Bill Nichols argues, documentaries present arguments about the world as it was, is, or could be. Due to their often indexical relationship to historical events,

“documentaries partake of the same order of reality as that to which they refer.”[16]

Carl Plantinga also appeals to documentary’s argumentative status against “postmodern skeptics” who would claim that nonfiction films have inherent biases that render them untrustworthy as historical documents. Plantinga writes,

“Nonfiction film makes no claim to reproduce the real, but rather makes claims about the ‘real,’ just as any nonfiction communication does.”[17]

Drawing from Plantinga, Paul Ward also describes a documentary’s appeal to historical truth as limited by the intersubjective boundaries of any speech act:

“The only unchanging thing about documentary is that it is a form that makes assertions or truth claims about the real world or real people in that world.”[18]

Undoubtedly, Citizens United films use stock footage to illustrate arguable positions about the world. However, these arguable positions do not necessarily take the form of argumentative expression because the stock images deploy paradigmatic generalities unrestrained by the limitations of historical reference. By this I do not intend to argue with the definitions of documentary offered by Nichols, Plantinga, or Ward, among others. Instead my interest is to demonstrate how Citizens United invokes the generic trademarks of documentary form even while avoiding explicit argumentation in favor of paradigmatic performance.

In an essay that also considers paradigmatic images and their implicit resistance to definitions of documentary form, Dirk Eitzen expresses dissatisfaction with accounts of documentary that emphasize the argumentative features of nonfiction film over other modes of address. Eitzen develops his critique with reference to a sequence from the first episode of Ken Burn’s The Civil War (1991), one that epitomizes Burn’s documentary aesthetic.[19] The scene in question, the final one from the episode, begins with a long quote from a letter a soldier wrote to his wife prior to dying in battle, narrated in voice-over; archival images of soldiers and their wives appear on-screen, followed finally by present-day images of Civil War canons.

For Eitzen, the combination of historical material with other illustrative representations, both archival and staged, has a melodramatic appeal to audiences rather than an argumentative one. Eitzen explains Burns’ non-argumentative aesthetic by invoking a semiotic vocabulary in a fashion similar to my discussion thus far of Citizens United:

“One might say that instead of stressing the syntagmatic connections between elements—the horizontal links: sequence, logic, cause and effect, and so forth—this scene emphasizes the paradigmatic dimension, piling meaning upon meaning to create a kind of emotional depth.”[20]

For Eitzen, the sequence in The Civil War offers no explicit argument, at least not as documentary scholars define the term. The intersection of interrelated texts, sounds, and images suggests the depiction of something truthful—say, about the impact of war on familial relationships—but the sequence is melodramatically evocative rather than argumentative. Archival images of soldiers and their wives offer generic illustration for the more specific events referenced in the narrated letter, thereby providing viewers with some small insight into both an individual story (a single soldier writing to his wife) and a broader category of experience (the impact of war on families). Since the sequence draws no explicit distinctions between the specific historical references and the more general, or generic, illustrations, Burns thereby maximizes the affective intersection of the general with the particular.

The paradigmatic, stock images that appear in the examples cited from Citizens United likewise avoid the explicit appearance of argumentation. In contrast to the melodramatic purposes of a filmmaker like Burns, however, the quasi-arguments of Citizens United serve a more cynical purpose. Political speakers like Bachmann, Gingrich, and Morris, offer debatable accounts of health care legislation, energy policy, and economic history, but the speakers’ performative utterances assume what they might otherwise be compelled to demonstrate through evidence, explanation, or argument. The stock images, rather than offering confirmation for their statements function as visual synonyms for the performative talking points. If the sequences attempt to offer convincing accounts of their subject matter, then their effectiveness derives from the seamlessness by which the visual world accords with the verbal, or to borrow and revise Nichols’s definitions of documentary, the talking points and stock-video partake of the same order of generic reality as that to which they refer.

The effectiveness of conservative political rhetoric is often attributed to what Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella term the “echo chamber.”[21] Conservative websites, talk-radio, and cable-news work together to create a cross-media system where even the most specious ideas gain traction, not by virtue of their logic, evidence, or historical accuracy, but simply because the same ideas repeat across seemingly independent outlets. In the echo chamber, circulation and repetition give talking-points the semblance of reliability. Moreover, the echo chamber proves profitable for corporations who derive advertising revenue from the niche marketing targeted at self-selecting political audiences. In the case of Citizens United, we encounter a more immediate, self-enclosed feedback loop, a case of circulation and repetition that occurs at the level of style. Stock images combine with political talking points, creating an audio-visual union specifically tailored to a given topic but still generic enough to avoid the possibility of counterfactual rebuttal. Additionally, the political ideology of neo-liberalism, enamored as it is with the free-market, finds an aesthetic correlative in the films’ reliance on databases of stock footage to generate the majority of its visual content, that is, on visual commodities produced to maximize their potential exchange value by blurring the boundary between the general and the particular. The examples drawn from Fire from the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America undoubtedly represent some of the more egregious examples of stock footage use in the Citizens United library of films. In other cases, Citizens United films do offer explicit arguments and rely on historical newsreels or archival footage. However, even in these examples, the films produce similar cognitive shortcuts by refusing to make distinctions between historical newsreels and stock footage, as if all images, regardless of their origin or manner of production, entailed the same evidentiary status.

Compilation and found footage

There is nothing especially suspicious or even unusual about the appropriation of archival, found, or stock footage in documentary film. As Jay Leyda recounts in Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film, early filmmakers frequently employed compilation strategies for the purposes of both fiction and non-fiction alike. Among numerous examples, Leyda reminds us that Edwin Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1903) appropriated stock footage of fire brigades from the nascent Edison archive, to which Porter added a fictional depiction of a mother and child in danger from a domestic fire, thereby producing a coherent narrative structure.[22]

As newsreel archives ballooned in size following the First World War, filmmakers gained greater access to stock footage that could be refashioned to illustrate contemporary events, and it was typical for editors to appropriate images without clarifying their historical origins for audiences. For Leyda, such compilations were made possible by the dual nature of newsreel footage. Newsreels are composed both of indexical representations of historical events and formal visual features whose qualities may afford alternative uses. He writes,

“Beyond its [historical] information, each piece of newsreel has a formal content, unremarked though visible.”

These formal elements include

“areas of black, white, and greys that make up the shapes of people and places, the distribution of these areas into compositions (accidental or otherwise), the movement of the people and objects shown, the direction of this movement, and the rhythm of movement, an element possibly quite distinct from the graphic rhythm of the composition.”[23]

A particular newsreel may contain historical content—reference to specific times, places, and events—wholly different from the purposes of the newsreel’s later use. Indeed, the formal elements of color or shade, scale or size, movement or composition, make the same found footage eminently useful for alternative purposes.[24]

Apart from the relatively uncontroversial cases of archival substitution considered by Leyda, filmmakers may also appropriate archival footage for more politically didactic ends. In such cases, the reappearance of archival materials in different contexts may provide an effective means for an audience’s historical enlightenment. As Jamie Baron writes in The Archive Effect,  

“The recontextualization of the found document, creates the opportunity for multiple readings of that document.”[25]

The possibility for multiple readings may arise directly from a director’s purposeful intervention, Baron notes, as in the case of Michael Moore’s appropriation of found footage for satirical effect, particularly in his early films Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002). Baron also cites the temporal difference between a film’s original context and later reappearances as key feature of its revelatory power. In The Atomic Café (Pierce Rafferty, Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, 1982), for instance, Cold War propaganda films provoke an epistemological self-consciousness on the part of audiences when viewed in a context different from their original distribution. The “famous ‘duck and cover’ educational films that taught children how to duck down and cover their heads with their hands in case of an atomic blast” will appear to contemporary audiences, “with our own extratextual knowledge of radiation, blatantly absurd.”[26]

Catherine Russell makes a similar point in her own discussion of The Atomic Café: the “historical gap” between the government propaganda films at the moment of their production, in contrast to the presumably more enlightened present, creates a temporal rift by which audiences may discover a “fantasy America” during the Cold War in which propaganda “produced a simulated version of [the United States] to offset the fear of death.”[27] Whether in the poorly-acted propaganda films that appear throughout The Atomic Café or the megalomaniacal ramblings of Senator Joseph McCarthy displayed in the Emile de Antonio compilation film Point of Order (1964), found footage may function as an antidote to ideological bias, highlighting previously normative prejudices that from our historical vantage point now appear contingent and constructed.

These accounts of found footage affirm that the image has a certain independence. The particular shapes or colors, events or ideas originally captured or intended in what are later rediscovered and termed archival materials do not circumscribe the potential future uses that a given image may eventually serve. A simple but significant distinction exists between the stock video as used in Citizens United and more traditional uses of found footage in compilation documentaries: stock footage is produced with the explicit intention that the images will be used for a variety of different purposes. A stock image economizes on the inherent polysemy of signification and interpretation, and stock photographers take this polysemy into account to inform the production process. As Paul Frosh notes in his book-length study of the stock photo industry, The Image Factory, a stock image or video sequence must be general enough in its connotations that it may express ideas or emotions applicable to multiple contexts but not so general that it loses its affective force. [28] A stock photo, Frosh writes,

“offers up an ensemble of possible references to pre-formed systems of cultural meaning, yet since . . . it is produced with no final purpose or addressee in mind . . . it proposes no definite destination but only multiple trajectories.”[29]

Any archival image remains susceptible to appropriation, of course, but stock footage embraces appropriation in advance of its production, aspiring to acquire a paradigmatic status for as many prospective users as are willing to pay a licensing fee. The economic imperative welcomes reduplication as the necessary ground for its profit motive. Stock footage cannot be taken out of context precisely because stock images are produced to fit flexibly into whatever context in which they variously appear.

In the fields of advertising or publishing, the licensing of a stock photo or video may be entirely innocuous: if the situation is such that a generic image will suffice, then economics may dictate that the cost of licensing an image is preferable to producing one from scratch. The same economic imperative holds for the production of the stock photos themselves, such as when the same model or actor appears in a variety of different costumes to exemplify a variety of paradigmatic vocations. This very phenomenon of “re-using” a single actor (or setting) to illustrate a variety of different paradigmatic meanings can be found in Fire from the Heartland. As I already mentioned, a stock-video sequence in Fire From the Heartland depicts a young man celebrating New Year’s Eve by himself, an image here meant to align with Michele Bachman’s claim that Obama’s plans for universal health care will produce a generation of immature individuals. Moments later in Fire From the Heartland, another stock-video sequence appears (licensed from the same stock-video production company), revealing the same set and male actor, with the addition of a woman (presumably in the role of girlfriend) and a birthday cake. The set remains similarly decorated as in the scene of a lonely New Year's Eve, but the additions—a woman and a cake—transform the scene’s meaning to indicate a birthday celebration. With minor changes, the stock-video scene is economized to produce a wide variety of potential meanings and thereby the widest potential for licensing opportunities—one set, at least two possible stock representations, and an almost innumerable number of possible applications. In the case of political rhetoric as we find it in Citizens United, however, the same economizing of the image demonstrates a more troubling effect. Radical statements and claims, which would seem to demand rigorous evidence, instead appear in confluence with images conveniently licensed for their connotative effects.

Jodi Dean reminds us of (what should be) a key difference between consumer marketing and political campaigns. Advertising appeals to individual, idiosyncratic preferences and desires; and audiences are unlikely to judge a marketing campaign according to how accurately it reflects the world. Politics, by contrast, concerns the “terrain upon which claims to universality are raised and defended” and should stretch citizens

“to think beyond themselves as specific individuals with preferences and interests and consider what is best for anyone.”[30]

The advertising logic employed by Citizens United, then, displays a perverse irony: images produced to suggest “an ensemble of possible references” with “no final purpose . . . but only multiple trajectories” nevertheless serve as visual accompaniments to moralistic pronouncements of supposed truth. The flexibility of stock, in other words, gives generic ground the inflexible mantra of conservative discourse.

The examples of stock video in Fire From the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America constitute admittedly egregious cases in the Citizens United collection. Stock images provide visual feedback for rhetorical talking points but offer no substantiating evidence or historical context for the political claims found there. On the occasions when Citizens United films offer substantive arguments grounded in historical research, they tend to apply the same stock logic to any image regardless of its origin or the manner of its production. Newsreels, found footage, and archival images are used interchangeably with stock film and video to develop broad historical narratives conducive to partisan arguments. The images drawn from paradigmatic archives and rendered in the manner of stock footage serve as illustrations for equally generic moralistic assumptions.

In the examples discussed thus far, I have generally treated as irrelevant the truth-value of any ideas expressed in Citizens United films. The relative merits of the Affordable Health Care Act, the costs and benefits of offshore drilling, the impact of governmental policy on economic recovery, and the systemic causes of global financial collapse—these are serious topics deserving of serious consideration. As far as Citizens United films are concerned, however, any political issue, no matter how complex, boils down to a simple choice: either redemption will be found in the neo-conservative affirmation of “traditional values” and a neo-liberal embrace of the “free market,” or we will face the apocalyptic demise of U.S. exceptionalism at the hands of racial and sexual minorities and as a result of the federal government’s overreach. If such ideological biases produce moralistic simplification of complex issues, then the aesthetic rendering of these biases in the visual form of stock footage (or historical newsreels treated as no different from stock footage) suggests a different problem concerning political misrepresentation. The ideological biases operative in the films, more than simply framing “evidence” to the benefit of a predetermined ideological perspective, treat political representation as a purely formal endeavor. Rather than correlating arguments with evidence, Citizens United films construct only an affective exchange between word and image, talking points and stock footage. Apart from the biased ends these visual sequences serve to promote, the films appropriate the very styles and structures of documentary in service of evocative paradigmatic sequences, mimicking the formal appearance of documentary arguments. Citizens United films accordingly display a perverse pedagogy. As a collection, the films model for their viewers debased forms of critical thinking, journalistic research, scientific expertise, historiography, and, most important for our purpose, documentary form.

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]

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 ofevidence, 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.

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.


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.


1. Randall P. Bezanson, Too Much Free Speech? (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 7-10. [return to text]

2. Jeffrey P. Jones, “Fox & Friends’ Fear Factor: Performing Ideology in Morning Talk,” in How to Watch Tele- vision: Media Criticism in Practice, eds. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 189.

3. Jeffrey P. Jones, “Fox News and the Performance of Ideology,” Cinema Journal 51.4 (Summer 2012): 179.

4. See Eric Boehlert, “You can’t teach an old attack dog new tricks.” Salon.com (July 20, 2004).

5. Fred Slocum and Yueh-Ting Lee, “Race, Racial Stereotypes, and American Politics” in The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrmination (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010), 22.

6. Tali Mendelberg, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implict Messages, and the Norm of Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 9.

7. W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 296.

8. Ibid.

9. Schweinitz, Jörg, Film and Stereotype: A Challenge for Cinema and Theory,trans. Laura Schleussner (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 28.

10. David Horowitz is a conservative author and talk-radio host. He makes regular appearances in conservative documentaries, where his criticism of leftists, socialists, and so-called “Marxist academics” is supposed to gain its authority from his own activity as a New Leftist in the 1960s prior to his rejection of leftism and conversion to conservative political ideology.

11. Some of the stock image houses and web resources used by Citizens United films include Streamline Films (http://www.streamlinefilms.com), Wazee Digital (http://www.wazeedigital.com), and Pond 5 (https://www.pond5.com/sound-effects/).

12. Republican consultant and pollster, Frank Luntz, takes credit for the rhetorical substitution of exploration for drilling in contemporary conservative talking-points in Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 285.

13. Jones (2013), 188. See also Jones’ discussion of Sarah Palin in Jeffrey P. Jones, “Parody, Performativity, and Play” in A Companion to New Media Dynamics, eds. John Hartley, Jean Burgess, and Axel Bruns (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.), 396-406.

14. Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 19.

Jones (2012), 179.

16. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 28.

17. Carl Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 38.

18. Paul Ward, Documentary: The Margins of Reality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), [find page number].

19. Dirk Eitzen, “When is a Documentary?: Documentary as a Mode of Reception” Cinema Journal 35.1 (Autumn 1995): 87.

20. Ibid.

21. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

22. Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 14-15.

23. Ibid., 22.

24. As I have already noted and will continue to discuss, producers (or aggregators) of stock footage maximize profits by licensing images that may be used for a wide variety of applications. The same holds true for the appropriation of archival and found footage. Television footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Towers on 9/11 is just one telling example. On Fox News throughout the “War on Terror,” recourse to images of the Towers served as melodramatic justification for George W. Bush’s aggressive foreign policy. By contrast, in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), similar footage is used in a montage meant to represent 9/11 as the culminating example of blowback for U.S. involvement in various covert operations during the 20th, including the training and support of Osama Bin Laden in fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In just these two instances, the same footage serves as illustration for two completely opposed political positions, not to mention two fundamentally different accounts of recent historical events.

25. Jamie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 39.

26. Ibid.

27. Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 255.

28. Paul Frosh, The Image Factory: Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry (New York: Berg, 2003), 72.

29. Ibid., 74.

30. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neo-Liberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 22.

31. Christian Metz discusses the use of optical transitions in narrative cinema with related semiotic terms, but he treats optical transitions, like lap-dissolves, as syntagmic procedures. My analysis treats such visible transitions as paradigmatic because the appropriation of actual headlines for the purposes of formal transition appropriates historical content and then deploys them in the mode of a formal transition. Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema,trans. Celia Britton, Anwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 193-94.

32. Mark Andrejevic, Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know (New York: Routledge), 118.

33. See also Micahel Barkun’s discussion of birther and other conspiracies that proliferate online, what he terms digital “subculture[s] based upon nonfalsfiable beliefs.” Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America 2nd Edition (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013), 185.

34. Andrejevic, 119.

35. Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, Inc., 1922), 95.

36. Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 38.

37. Anker, Elisabeth R. Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

38. See Scott Krzych, “The Price of Knowledge: Hysterical Discourse in Anti-Michael Moore Documentaries,” The Comparatist 39 (October 2015): 80-100.

39. Alterman, Eric. Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (New York: Nation Books, 2011), 100-06.

40. Zaitchick, Alexander. Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010), 150-59.

41. Brock, David, and Ari Rabin-Havt. The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 104-42.