CNN pre-empted its usual prime-time programming on New Year’s Day for a special two-hour film: a retrospective on the long career of the pop-rock group Chicago. The film traced the group’s arc from its humble roots to its induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year.
Only at the conclusion of the program did viewers get a subtle clue about the film’s origins. A credit line read: “Produced by Chicago.”
CNN, in other words, reserved two hours (plus two more for an immediate repeat) for a film about a subject made under the editorial control of the subject itself.
The network said it has no concerns about the film, called “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago.” But experts in documentary filmmaking had a few.
At the very least, they say, the network should have disclosed upfront and more directly to viewers that the contents of the program were determined by the musical group, not by independent journalists at CNN. At the other extreme, CNN might have considered not airing the film at all, on the grounds that it could be interpreted as a promotional exercise highlighting the group’s music just as it launches a new tour.
“Television news routinely tells us, as they should, when we see footage or other material not produced by the news organization’s own editorial process. I think that’s the sticky spot for CNN,” said Stacey Woelfel, director of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri. “I do believe they should be more transparent and explicit,” perhaps posting a brief statement before and during the program explaining the film’s origins.
CNN calls “Now More Than Ever” an “acquired” film, meaning the network’s journalists weren’t involved in its production. Its nonfiction film division, CNN Films, bought the broadcast rights from its distributor, FilmRise. The CNN division has acquired and aired other films, such as “Blackfish,” an exposé about the treatment of captive killer whales. Both were produced by independent filmmakers.
But unlike the makers of those films, the producers of “Now More Than Ever” had a direct, vested interest in their documentary. News organizations typically try to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with the people they cover, lest their reporting be perceived as a conflict of interest. It would be unthinkable, for example, for a news organization to air a film about a political candidate that was made by the candidate’s campaign without telling viewers where the film came from.
“The cardinal rule is that you have to be honest with your viewers or readers,” said Tom Bettag, a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and former network news producer. “If there had been a clear disclosure, I’d find it hard to say that that was terribly wrong. That said, to have avoided a full disclosure speaks volumes.”
He added, “Journalism’s first obligation is to the viewer. There is a clear understanding between the audience and a serious news organization that the program is being produced following news standards. To find out after the fact that a program was produced with the approval of the subject and by their people is a jolt. . . . Viewers can’t help but feel betrayed. They should, because it is clearly a betrayal.”
A CNN spokeswoman, Jennifer Dargan, said the network acquired “Now” as “a finished documentary film.” She said it is “not uncommon” for narrative documentaries, particularly those that require the acquisition of music rights, to be produced by people associated with the group. In addition, she said, the network aired the full credits of the film, and the production credits are available online.
CNN heavily promoted the film’s broadcast and produced its own news segments to call attention to it, including an interview segment before a recent live performance.
The Chicago film was directed and edited by Peter Pardini, whose uncle is Lou Pardini, the group’s keyboardist. It largely celebrates the musical group, but it does include segments and interviews about conflict among its various members and a period in which the group was abusing drugs. It also references the death of original guitarist Terry Kath, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot in 1978.
Peter Pardini also directed another film about the group, “Chicago World Tour 2011: Backstage Pass.”
In a statement relayed by CNN, Pardini said, “From the beginning, Chicago’s manager told me to make the movie I wanted to make and not to listen to anyone else’s opinion. This is exactly what happened. At no point did anyone from the band or management sit in with me or tell me how to edit the movie and the band didn’t see the movie until it was done.”