by Patrick Dobson
people stand in a nervous knot as a greeter from the Public
Library Association (PLA) runs from the front of the cavernous, 770-seat
meeting room at Bartle Hall to the back. Michael Moore is late. His flight
has been canceled due to a frozen radar unit that monitors air traffic at
Kansas City International. A later flight has been delayed as well. "I
wonder if he is coming at all," a PLA representative says with a frightened
look as she scans the standing-room-only crowd. "What am I supposed to tell
all these people?"
About 900 people have gathered to hear Moore give them the biting social commentary he became famous for in the documentary Roger & Me, the best-selling book Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American and the popular television show TV Nation. Another 800 people sit in a similar room on the floor below to watch Moore on a closed circuit video screen.
Conspicuously absent from the crowd are reporters and television camera crews -- not surprising, considering Moore's criticism of corporate-owned media (which dominate the Kansas City market) and journalism in general. When Moore appears with his signature ball cap, about 20 minutes late, the librarians erupt in applause. With a demure look on his face and a copy of Downsize This! under his arm, Moore waves to the crowd. He shakes the hands of the people gathered at the door before making his way to the stage. He is astounded at the sheer number of people in the room. From programs on library architecture, lobbying elected officials and dealing with new technology in the library, Moore has drawn nearly one-quarter of the 6,900 librarians gathered at the PLA's 7th National Conference.
They are laughing and talking as Moore puts his index finger to his mouth and whispers, "Shhhh." The librarians hush quickly. After a moment, Moore says with an astonished look, "It's a joke. Get it?"
After an hour
and a quarter of hysterical satire aimed squarely at corporate
domination of culture and politicians who would cut library funding, we
climb into the back of a chauffeured car to get to a Lawrence, KS, movie
theater that has just screened Moore's new movie, The Big One.
But movie promotion takes second priority as Moore explains why he wanted to speak to the librarians. He says he believes librarians and libraries have much to do with the struggle of the working class in corporate America. Their work is "so important to the democracy. Librarians are the caretakers and providers of probably one of our oldest democratic institutions," he says.
"This is something uniquely American -- the free public library. Ben Franklin saw the library as an institution that was not just a part of a free society, but a necessary element. If you do not have the information, you cannot make the decisions. How can you make the decision if you are ill-informed or ignorant? The library is there to keep you from being ignorant."
Moore is a firm believer in the notion that at the core of the American system of government, the citizens hold the power -- not business, not corporations, not politicians. Power brings responsibility, demanding that citizens become as informed as possible. Members of a democracy should listen to all sides of an argument, Moore believes, and then decide what they believe and vote accordingly.
"The library is where this begins," he says. "But the pricing of books has put book purchasing out of the hands of the average working person. They have to wait for the paperback to come out or they go to the library. If they can't get the book at the library because the library isn't open or there is a list of 15 people waiting for it because the library can't buy more than one copy, then we suffer as a society -- we are that much less of a democracy in my mind."
to the PLA began in 1976, when he started a weekly paper in his
hometown of Flint, MI -- fitting, perhaps, that at the celebration of the
Bicentennial, one voice would emerge in Flint to criticize business and its
influence in politics. At the time, Flint was one of General Motors'
manufacturing centers with over 15 factories making car parts, GM trucks and
cars, and employing some 50,000 people in auto and auto-related industries.
In The Flint Voice, which he later renamed The Michigan Voice, Moore repeatedly pointed out that Flint either had to diversify the kinds of industries it had as an employment base or find new ones altogether. One decision made in the GM corporate boardroom in Detroit could destroy Flint. He understood (probably before GM) that stiff competition from foreign car companies was changing the industry. But he also saw that greed and corporate proxy were destroying the social contract that the New Deal and labor unions had built.
The 1980s and GM proved Moore correct. The company closed factory after factory in Flint, throwing thousands of auto workers into the street to fight for the few jobs outside the industry. Throughout the process, GM demanded and received one tax break after another from the city of Flint, only to close even more factories.
In 1986, Moore published the last issue of The Michigan Voice and drove to San Francisco in a U-Haul to edit the progressive monthly Mother Jones. "I was at Mother Jones for three months," he says. "The owner of the magazine disagreed with me politically on many issues -- Nicaragua, the Palestinians," Moore says.
Approaching stories from a decidedly working-class viewpoint, Moore was an eye-opener for Mother Jones' more staid readers. His satirical editorials skewered the Reagan Administration's illegal support of the Contras, support for the more tawdry shenanigans of the Israeli government and right-wing attacks on immigration.
"I gave a column to an auto worker, Ben Hamper," Moore says. "We put him on the cover for his first try and it was supposed to be a regular column. At the end of three months, they fired me and Hamper quit with me. It was just after Labor Day."
of the Institute for Alternative Journalism Don Hazen was publisher
of Mother Jones at the time and responsible for firing Moore. "Mike and I
have had our differences," he says. "We worked together for a brief moment
at Mother Jones and did not talk for over a decade. We did not talk because
we were sworn enemies."
"It was culture shock for both of them," said one source close to the situation who wishes to remain anonymous. The combination of Hazen and Moore was a bad one. The two just didn't, and couldn't, mix. Hazen, the source says, was a well-educated executive with an eye to the bottom line. Aspiring to be a member of the West Coast liberal elite, Hazen wanted to ruffle feathers, but not so many as to ruin his career.
On the other hand, Moore was an insecure working-class man who never had a prosperous year. He was well-meaning and believed that a magazine whose masthead carried a picture of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, "orator, union organizer and hell-raiser," could be everything it pretended to be -- an organ for the great majority of working people and their concerns. Broke and looking to continue his work, Moore began his movie-making career.
Roger & Me was released in 1989. The film is about Moore's pursuit of General Motor's CEO Roger Smith to ask him why he was closing GM plants in Flint at a time of record GM profits. The film spoke loudly to working people squeezed by the era of junk bonds and Ronald Reagan, and put Moore on the American cultural map. It was an instant hit and went on to become the highest grossing documentary Hollywood had ever released.
Since Roger & Me, Moore has stayed in the limelight with frequent essays in progressive publications such as The Nation. He became even more famous with 16 TV Nation shows in 1993 and 1994, and his book Downsize This! in 1996.
Moore's new movie, The Big One, was made during a 1997 tour to promote Downsize This! On its release in mid-April, The Big One promises to increase Moore's fame and includes provocative scenes with union organizers at Border's Books, with dissembling security and PR personnel at the Leaf Corporation (makers of Payday candy bars and Jolly Ranchers hard candy) and, most astoundingly, a face-to-face interview with Nike President and CEO Phil Knight.
the Institute for Alternative Journalism-sponsored Media and Democracy
Congress in New York City last October, Moore criticized the Congress and
its attenders, saying that they should do more than talk to themselves and
agree or disagree about how "left" they were.
While many attendees said they liked the progress of the Congress, others reported being dissatisfied with enclaves of cliques and interest groups. Moore seemed to sense that dissatisfaction. Capitalizing on this and his own distrust of intellectuals, Moore chided left activists for being far from the people they were trying to reach.
"I love it when left activists tell me they don't watch TV," Moore said at the Media and Democracy Congress. "I think i'ts even funnier when someone tells me, 'I don't have a TV.'
"Hey! America is watching television."
Moore went on to say that snubbing a medium as powerful as television because it is too lowbrow was missing the point about what the left should be doing in the country.
"I want to see meaningful change in my lifetime," Moore said. He believed the only way to bring about that change was for the left to stop fighting each other and get out to ballparks, bowling alleys and taverns. There the activists would find working people who already have a fondness for many left-wing ideas, such as universal health care, environmental protection, pro-choice guarantees and security and safety in the workplace.
Moore's former boss Hazen did not regret inviting Moore to the Congress but was critical of his remarks. "I think the work he is doing is important. But he makes things more simple than they are," Hazen says. "His comments were reiterated in The Nation ('Is The Left Nuts [Or Is It Me?],' Nov. 17, 1997) and many responded to that. I agree that lots of progressives are much more interested in fighting each other. But there are larger audiences and issues, and Moore's behavior communicates to the public that we don't have our shit together.
"He said what no one was going to say to the Congress, much like in his other work. But like in his other work, he does not factor in other things, like race. All of his work revolves around Flint workers in bowling alleys. It is overstated."
New York Press' Alexander Cockburn wrote a scathing indictment of Moore
("Letter to Michael Moore, TV Nation," New York Press, Nov. 12-19, 1997) in
reaction to Moore's editorial in The Nation as a self-centered,
self-aggrandizing artist who has claimed the working class for his own.
"Your basic take is that no one but you knows about the working class except
you," Cockburn wrote. "No one ever talked to a working person except for
you. No one has ever been a working stiff except you ... By 'no one' here I
mean that vast mass you designate as 'the left,' cowering under the lash of
The Nation's Managing Editor JoAnn Wypijewsky, a long-time friend of Moore's, says she disagrees with Moore at the moment. "It's possible that he might have been disgusted by the Congress. But conferences of media people are not the same as talking about radicals in America. I don't think we have a left, but we have many leftists, and many who spend their days and nights talking and listening to the working class. They shouldn't be forgotten.
"The working class is more than white, male, middle age bowlers. They are there, but so are woman, blacks, Latinos, white young people. It is disservice to any potential movement to change to try to split people more than they already are. I don't think it serves any purpose to elevate one group over another as the one true group for change and another as obstruction."
On the other hand, Hazen and Wypijewsky praise Moore for both his sincere intent and his ability to connect with vast numbers of people. Radio talk show host, author and former Texas Democratic politico Jim Hightower says, "Michael Moore is bringing the message of the ravages of class war and the plight of working people into another dimension. I do radio, speeches and books. Michael not only does speeches and books, but he makes movies. He is reaching a whole world that wouldn't otherwise get this message through his motion picture work.
"Michael Moore is blessed with a delicious sense of humor and ability to convey these issues in a way that makes people respond positively and want to hear more. Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Molly Ivins are among the handful of solid progressive voices who have taken up an important megaphone in our society to shout 'the emperor has no clothes.' There is none better than Moore."
Hightower believes there aren't more voices like Moore's because corporate media is not a welcome place for those critical of corporate power. "A mediocre writer at midlevel paper in a midsize town with a right-wing viewpoint has no problem getting heard," says Hightower. Progressive voices, he says, do not often get center stage although they are more in line with the great majority of Americans, because they grate on corporate interests and their public relations machines.
instances, the media has left it to the corporate PR machines to get
information to people. "Journalists own stock," Moore says. "They play the
market. They want to be accepted. Most of these PR people at these
businesses and corporations used to be journalists. Now they are being paid
three times what they were paid as journalists. Journalists don't ever want
to mess up it where they might not be able to get that PR job they might
want to get someday.
"When people are less informed, they don't make good decisions. Hopefully, alternative papers will help get that information out there. We also need more people going to journalism school who really want to be journalists in the tradition of I.F. Stone. Not many, just a few."
But journalism schools will have to change since they are part of the problem with modern journalism, Moore believes. With state support decreasing, J-schools are more frequently funded by corporate interests. Also, journalism departments at colleges and universities are being submerged under the ubiquitous domain of the communications department. The result, he says, is that where journalism schools used to teach the basic tenants of who, what, when, where, how and why, "They no longer teach journalists to ask why."
Some weekly alternative papers have picked up where corporate-owned dailies have left off, Moore says, investigating stories the daily won't touch or that are too complicated to fit within their paradigm.
On the other hand, Moore says, "The alternative press in a lot of towns anymore is just an entertainment rag. It has always been like that in some way because the alternative press has been at the vanguard of the culture. It is very important, but it should never be at the expense of covering the issues. They should have a mix, a good mix."
Roger & Me, Downsize This! and TV Nation, Moore has asked questions
that journalists, both in the mainstream and alternative press, aren't
asking. And he has been able to make money doing it.
The Big One promises to make a big splash. Already, the movie studio, Miramax, has given $100,000 to education and the library in Flint, MI, as well as one-half of all profits above that $100,000. But how does a guy like Moore maintain a media niche as a critical corporate gadfly? "Making money makes it harder for them to off you," Hightower says. "A man with talent who makes money for them insures that they will keep him around. That doesn't mean they like him or don't scheme how to get rid of him. But Michael has figured out that we progressives have to be more creative and more entrepreneurial in order to get our voices widely distributed."
"Obviously I do quite well," says Moore. "(With TV Nation,) I have done a show for NBC. I have done a show for Fox. I got a Miramax movie and a HarperCollins book. I ain't living at the trailer park anymore." But money and fame brings its own critics. Some, like Cockburn and the New York Press, think Moore is getting famous on a working class that exists only in stereotypes.
Moore is circumspect on the issue. "When you come from the working class, you are happy when one of you gets out," he says. "You celebrate the fact that someone has gotten out. The only people who have ever been upset about how much someone like me makes are people who are already making the money or never had to work for their money. And they are pissed that somehow I slipped in under the radar and I got a little money.
"It is 'fuck you' money is what it is," he says as he begins to laugh heartily. "Because I say whatever I want to and I won't ever have to worry about a fucking thing for the rest of my fucking life.
"If you are a conservative politician or a business man, I am the last guy you want to have that fuck you money in his pocket -- because I ain't gonna like get rich and then go, 'Hey, man, let's go buy a yacht.' I am going to turn around and use that money to try to make this world a better place. That sounds kinda hokey, but that is the way it is. You gotta remember I went to the seminary to be a priest. I never left the seminary, I just like girls."
At the same time, Moore says he is not afraid of getting lost in the fame and the wealth. He says he gives away between 25-30 percent of his income to independent filmmakers and charitable causes directly benefiting workers. He says he keeps a six-month cushion in the bank in case his income ends for whatever reason. "That is a helluva lot more than many people have these days, but it is not a lot. On the food chain of Hollywood, I am pretty close to the bottom feeders."
criticism, Moore still focuses on the issues that brought him fame.
As governments bend more and more to corporate wishes, he is extremely angry
about the ways in which corporations use governments to secure their
Moore counters the argument that "a company needs to do whatever it needs to do to make a profit," by saying, "We will decide that, we the people. Should you be able to pollute the air so you can make a bigger profit? Should you be able to build unsafe products because it may be cheaper to build them and you can make a bigger profit? Should you be able to sell child pornography? You can make a profit on that. We pass laws in this country all the time that gets in the way of profit."
Moore sees his filmmaking as a way to let people know they have power to control the things that affect their lives. They just can't be bowled over or buffaloed by the public relations and the advertising, Moore says. At bottom, business should be about people -- not about greed.
"I believe all these corporate people have a conscience. But they have forgotten that," he says. "I see this as just me trying to penetrate that conscience a little bit. Actually, I look at us like we are Toto. We are all afraid of this big bad Wizard of Oz and Toto pulls back the curtain and there is just a scared little man. What is he saying into the microphone? 'Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.'
"They don't want you to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. But if your alternative newspaper or my movie or some brave journalist would just be like Toto and pull back the curtain a little bit, people would see that the Phil Knights of this world are just frightened little men.
"And with all these PR people standing around them, with all their marketing savvy, they couldn't handle the schlump in the ball cap. I realize Knight is just a man, and he is only one, and he is part of a very small group, and I am part of a very large group."
Phil Knight and Michael Moore share a moment
Albion Monitor April 22, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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