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Documentaries aren’t journalism, and there’s nothing wrong with that

Chuck Todd at last year's Meet the Press Film Festival. (William B. Plowman)

Chuck Todd is on a mission.

As he explained during a conversation at AFI Docs in Washington last summer, Todd — moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” — is convinced that, for an audiovisual millennial generation, and in an era when the most pressing issues of the day demand more than a 90-second TV spot or front page article to explain them, “We have to consider [documentaries] journalism.”

Todd is so passionate about documentaries as journalism that last year he started a festival dedicated to the idea. In conjunction with the American Film Institute, the second edition of the Meet the Press Film Festival will get underway Sunday with a two-day showcase of short nonfiction films addressing an array of contemporary issues, from climate change and sexual abuse to wealth inequity and immigration.

At first glance, these films exemplify Todd’s docs-as-journalism theory: In the opening-night film, “G Is for Gun,” a small community in western Ohio grapples with the ethics, economics and efficacy of arming teachers as a response to school shootings. “Let My People Vote” follows a grass-roots activist in 2016 as he runs headlong into Florida’s law forbidding ex-felons to vote. Both are economical, lucid and informative, laying out the facts in a series of easily digestible vignettes and quotes.

But they also demonstrate why, in my conversation with Todd at AFI Docs, I vigorously pushed back on his desire to conflate two related but crucially different practices.

Although “G Is for Gun” gives space for all sides of a wrenching public debate, there is no doubt about its critical stance toward guns in schools. If “Let My People Vote” were to translate into a form of written journalism, it would be an op-ed column: At no point do the filmmakers examine the reasoning behind Florida’s voting law, however flawed or fundamentally unjust.

To be clear: These films do an outstanding job of threading viewers through their respective arguments, illuminating the effects of local and state legislation and giving voice to citizens living with their fallout. But, even though they share a lot of DNA with journalism — concern with facts, accuracy, fairness, clarity and concision — these films also obey the conventions of cinema, using visual language, music and editing less in service to neutral information delivery than to tell vivid, powerful stories.

The distinction is just as obvious at the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival, the fourth edition of which begins Wednesday. In many ways, Double Exposure — a project of the news organization 100Reporters — will continue the themes presented at Meet the Press, exploring the ways in which documentaries and journalism intersect and inform each other. Oddly enough, its opening-night film could be Exhibit A in why they differ in important ways.

In “Watergate,” filmmaker Charles Ferguson creates a four-hour-plus primer on the fall of Richard M. Nixon, delving into fascinating detail about how civic institutions worked on behalf of justice, despite Nixon’s best efforts to thwart them. The twist in “Watergate” is that Ferguson — who won an Oscar for his 2010 financial-crisis documentary “Inside Job” — enlists an ensemble of actors to play Nixon and his aides. Using more than 3,000 hours of tapes Nixon made during meetings and on phone calls, Ferguson puts the literal words of their real-life characters into the actors’ mouths, staging their encounters like a Hollywood film, with sophisticated lighting and production values.

As interpretive history, “Watergate” is granular, immersive and mesmerizingly engrossing; Ferguson does a particularly adroit job of compressing and synthesizing the complicated hierarchies, loyalties and competing interests of the Nixon White House, and making a not-so-subtle case that we face similar abrogations of the public trust today. In other words, “Watergate” is a terrific film. But is it journalism?

I would argue no. I would argue that it’s art, and I would argue that the difference matters. Filmmakers operating at Ferguson’s level — and that of many others in the Meet the Press and Double Exposure festivals — are working with the same raw materials as journalists, including facts, on-the-record disclosures, historical records and the fruits of gnarly, time-consuming investigations. But they have an entirely different expressive vocabulary at their disposal as well, including the atmosphere and texture cinematography can convey; music to spark specific feelings in the audience; selective framing and editing; and, as Ferguson’s reenactment conceit aptly illustrates, artistic license.

This isn’t to insist that journalism is Platonically objective: Even the most dispassionate reporters make choices about what to leave in and what to leave out of their articles. But the best of them strive to leave their personal point of view out of it. Not only are documentarians not obligated to erase their point of view — as artists they must have one, and a strong one at that. Otherwise, they’re producing a dry compendium of facts or a dreary, shapeless chronicle of people doing stuff. Put simply: The journalist’s mission is to share information, whereas the filmmaker’s mission is to elicit emotion.

As this summer’s big documentary hits, “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” prove, those missions can happily coexist. And there’s no doubt that the lines between documentaries and journalism are getting blurrier. (Is a “Frontline” episode a nonfiction film or a long-form news report? Go!) Traditional news outlets, including The Washington Post and the New York Times, have gotten into the doc game, as have news-oriented cable channels like CNN and ESPN. “Free Solo,” which is already breaking box-office records, arrives in theaters under the auspices of National Geographic. After a theatrical run, “Watergate” will be shown on the History Channel.

Still, as well-reported as the films at Meet the Press and Double Exposure are, and as rigorously as many of their makers hew to journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy and transparency, calling them cinema rather than journalism is more than mere semantics. At a time when the press is regularly attacked as “fake news” or the vehicle for partisan bias, precision matters more than ever. Filmmakers aren’t simply reporters with cameras, finding and promulgating facts. They analyze and interpret those facts to create meaning, and to take their audience on a journey that is every bit as entertaining and emotional as it is informative.

A mentor of mine once wisely said: If you have a choice between two things, take both. The good news — the great news, really — is that these films are being made, that they’re being made well and that they are finding audiences. Thanks to festivals such as AFI Docs, Meet the Press and Double Exposure, viewers are assured to come away with a deeper understanding of the subjects at hand. With luck, they’ll also have a renewed appreciation for documentaries as an art form, and for their makers as artists who are every bit as essential to a vibrant democracy as a free press.

The Meet the Press Festiv a l With AFI will take place Sunday and Monday at Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. Visit

The Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and Symposium will take place Wednesday through Oct. 14 at the National Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center. Visit