At the 10th edition of One World Romania Documentary Film Festival for Human Rights I have the tremendous opportunity to sit down for an interview with Mr. Fred Peabody, Emmy-winning journalist and filmmaker who directed the film All Governemts Lie, which is screened at dozens of festivals around the world, as you can check up the schedule on their website. The film lovers from Romania, particularly from Bucharest, got the chance to see it at Cinema Eforie, where our interview took place. There is something quite magic in the air when you meet a real foreign journalist who happens to be also a filmmaker. I had so many things to learn from my 50 minutes long interview with Mr. Fred Peabody that I will be forever grateful and feel blessed for having this encounter with him.
Judy Florescu: How did you get involved into movie-making, as you are a journalist?
Fred Peabody: I have always worked in broadcast journalism. I started in radio journalism with Canadian Broadcasting corporation and then I moved to television journalism. I’ve never been a print journalist. Television journalism most of it required doing news magazine segments. There weren’t just short reports on nightly news, but I kind of specialized in doing investigative journalism segments and documentaries fairly early in my career in Canada. Then I moved out to the States and worked for a big American news magazine called 2020 at ABC news and I continued to do investigative journalism. Then, I decided I wanted to do some documentary work. I started with a lot tv documentaries for The History Channel, Discovery Channel, that kind of thing. And towards the end of my career I wanted to get back to journalism and I started looking for more writing by I.F. Stone, who had inspired me so many years earlier. I found an website ifstone.org where you can actually read every single issue of I.F. Stone’s weekly that he published his 20 years long career. It reminded me that this is the kind of journalism that I believe in and that we need more of today. The website was founded by Jeremy Stone, I.F. Stone’s son, who sadly passed away in January this year, but I am so glad that he got the chance to see our film premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Judy Florescu: How long did it take to interview all 16 journalists that are part of the film?
Fred Peabody: It was difficult. I don’t recommend anyone to try to have 16 characters in a documentary. It is much better to have maybe 3 characters. It makes it difficult to start your film and still to have a dramatic flow, but I think we found a way to do it. It was a little difficult to coordinate all the film-makers. We had a lot of people to see in different locations. We had a certain travel budget and we had to use it efficiently. So, it was a logistical and budgetary challenge more than anything else. The great thing was that the people I was asking for interviews they already knew that I was doing something to honor I. F. Stone, so they gave me access. People went the extra-mile to help us and let us get behind the scenes in place like The intercept and Democracy now. We could really capture what was going on. They don’t normally do that.
Judy Florescu: I read in one of your interviews that you were followed by security in news rooms. Why?
Fred Peabody: It is totally understandable that they have security measures. They need to protect their sources. They are dealing with whistle-blowers and leakers who are very courageous in their actions of exposing the wrong doing by government agencies, corporations. If you are a journalist you have to protect those sources. So that brings into question: how do you do that in an age with government surveillance is everywhere. It is harder to protect your sources now and to promise them anonymity.
Judy Florescu: What is the truth from a journalistic point of view?
Fred Peabody: We each have to have our own personal idea of what the truth is. As it applies to journalism, people throw around this word fake news. I don’t like it because it is used by people with different political persuasions. It is a meaningless term fake news. I prefer the term disinformation. Disinformation has been around for many decades. Disinformation campaigns we made particularly by governments through their intelligence agencies. The history goes back a long way. You can call it disinformation, you can call it propaganda. I’d rather use those terms than fake news because they are more descriptive. The way I see it – there is disinformation and propaganda and there is real journalism. My idea of real journalism is people who are investigating independently and reporting and scrutinizing government statements, government policies, government actions and corporate actions and policies. I think that the public needs to have a group of people, the free press. To me, free press means to be not owned by a gigantic corporation that is doing business with the government or that needs favors from the government on regulations order, that is not quite a free press. We need independent journalists to do investigative journalism with a skeptical view towards what governments are saying and doing, to find out whether is true or not.
Judy Florescu: What is the importance of fighting for the story you want to get?
Fred Peabody: There are no easy answers. If you are a journalist, I guess you ultimately have to trust yourself and you have to do everything you can to inform yourself about what is going on in the world. You also need to learn about history to know what has come before. It takes a lot of work for all of us, not just the journalists. We all have to be informed through reading and journalistic reports that we personally feel that we can trust, but also reading books, some of which are showing a pattern of things. What I wanted to do in this film was also to show how history repeats itself. The way the mainstream media corporate news behaved during the Vietnam war is kind of the way they behave during the Iraque war.
Judy Florescu: Can you recommend some books on journalism?
Fred Peabody: To me there is a book that stands above others, it is called: Manufacturing consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. It was published in 1988, but it feels like it could have been written yesterday. It is written by a professor named Noam Chomsky and another professor Edward Said. I also recommend a book by a journalist who appears in our film, Jeremy Scahill, and it is called Dirty wars, just like the documentary who was nominated for an Oscar. I highly recommend the book Fear and loathing on the campaign trail by Hunter S. Thompson.
Judy Florescu: How do you think independent journalism can be encouraged?
Fred Peabody: By spreading the word, readers’ donations and foundation grants. Most of the independent journalists work on a low scale budget. They don’t have the money to spend on big billboards or advertisements on buses. All the money they make goes into their work. A good journalist is not married to an ideology or to a political party. The mainstream news media particularly now should not get hysterical about Donald Trump’s latest tweet. They should focus their energy in doing some actual journalism about what is going on, about dismantling the environmental regulations, about people getting kicked off their health insurance.
Judy Florescu: You are travelling the world with your movie. Why is it important for you to meet the audiences from different parts of the world?
Fred Peabody: First of all I am honoured to be invited to screen the film in different parts of the world. If you are really passionate and believe in the film you are making you want it to be seen by as many people as possible. And I particularly want this film to be seen by young people, because they are the future. More than anything I really wanted to reach young students, and I think the movie is doing that. I am just honoured that festivals in many countries have seen our film, that we have been selected from hundreds of films that they were going to invite. So, every time we get an invitation I am honoured and it is also nice to go to a country you’ve never seen before.
Judy Florescu: You are an Emmy award winner and you still enjoy being selected to festivals.
Fred Peabody: The film festivals including this one I’m sure that they have some tough choices to make. I’m sure that they see every year hundreds of films. Maybe not all of them are good, but maybe the majority of them are good. And it must be very tough to narrow down the selection. I think one thing about this documentary, All governments lie, is that the election of Trump has made this film for many audiences be crucially important. As we all know, what the US Government does affects people and kills people sadly in many other countries as we know from history.
Judy Florescu: I report on culture and the arts. What do you think about cultural journalism?
Fred Peabody: I think reporting on culture and the arts is important and it is good to remember that important revelations were inspired by people who were artists, poets, playwrights. Often the artists are at the forefront of decent, of criticism, of tyranny. I have a tremendous respect for the arts.
Judy Florescu: What kind of advice would you give to a young journalist?
Fred Peabody: Don’t get distracted by the superficial. Concentrate your efforts on the important stories and that doesn’t mean to have no sense of humour. I. F. Stone had a sense of humour. Matt Taibbi from the Rolling Stone magazine has a wonderful sense of humour. He has been compared with Hunter S. Thompson, who was almost like his predecessor on the Rolling Stone magazine on writing incisive funny pieces about American politics. Humour also is something that can be used to enlighten people and to make important journalistic points.