‘Summer of Soul’ is the definition of must-see TV

You may have heard that “Summer of Soul” is the must-see music documentary of 2021. You heard correctly. I saw it last night on Hulu, and it is magnificent. From Stevie Wonder to the Edwin Hawkins Singers, from Gladys Knight and the Pips to the Chambers Brothers, “Summer of Soul” is packed with two hours of great music, the fascinating story of how it came together, and the cultural and political context in which it played out.

The film shows us highlights from six free concerts held in Harlem during the summer of 1969, the same summer that gave us Woodstock. Needless to say, the music was a lot better at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Though there’s too much cutting away from the music for my tastes, director Questlove chose wisely, devoting the longest uninterrupted stretches to Sly and the Family Stone and to Nina Simone. Also transcendent: a 30-year-old Mavis Staples dueting with her idol, Mahalia Jackson, on “Precious Lord,” dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

You might also be interested in this post by journalist Greg Mitchell, who finds that claims of the footage being “locked in a basement” for the past 50 years are greatly exaggerated. It turns out that some of the key performances, including Sly’s and Simone’s, had been available on YouTube for years.

Unfortunately, since Mitchell’s piece was published, Disney has blocked access. Which is all the more reason to see “Summer of Soul.”

‘Atomic Cover-Up’ reveals a previously unseen story of human devastation

Previously published at GBH News.

The documentary “Atomic Cover-Up” begins on an oddly hopeful note. In December 1945, four months after the bombing of Nagasaki, Lt. Col. Daniel McGovern was leading a film crew through the rubble when he picked up the strains of “Silent Night.”

“I heard voices singing,” he says, adding that at first he thought he was imagining it. He wasn’t. He and the crew set up their equipment inside the cathedral where the voices were coming from and began filming. We see a priest and children singing.

“And I look out and see complete devastation,” McGovern says. “And hear the voices.” The singing continues as the camera pans across the ruins of a city that had been utterly destroyed by the second of two atomic bombs dropped by U.S. forces.

Written and directed by the journalist Greg Mitchell, the recently released “Atomic Cover-Up” is the culmination of a decades-long quest to release footage of the human suffering caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Mitchell himself put years into the effort, writing a book about it in 2011 whose subtitle refers to “the greatest movie never made.”

Well, now it’s been made, and the terrible images captured after the bombings — including color film seen for the first time — are a testament to the lives lost and ruined. It is the visual equivalent of John Hersey’s classic 1946 New Yorker article and book “Hiroshima.” (The 52-minute documentary can be seen online through Tuesday, March 30. Details are below.)

The story is told mainly by McGovern and Lt. Herbert Sussan, who died in 1985, possibly from exposure to radiation, and to whom the film is dedicated. They as well as Japanese filmmakers set about documenting the human suffering caused by the bombs only to have their work censored and suppressed.

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the leader of the American occupation, ordered the Japanese footage confiscated, the Japanese made a copy and hid it in a ceiling. “We knew that we risked a long sentence in a U.S. military prison,” says one of the filmmakers, Ito Sueo.

McGovern and Sussan, meanwhile, were blocked from releasing their footage because the U.S. military had classified it, preferring to show images that depicted the destruction of buildings but leaving out the price paid by the people on the ground — the overwhelming majority of them civilians, many of them women and children.

Sussan later worked for CBS and NBC, where he implored the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to help him get the footage released. He even tried to enlist the help of the president who ordered the bombings, Harry Truman. All of it was to no avail. Over time, though, the footage was declassified. In 1967, Japanese films seized by the U.S. were repatriated. And so began the long process of bringing these unsettling truths before the public.

For more than three-quarters of a century, we have debated whether it was necessary to use atomic weapons in order to bring about an end to the war in Japan. There’s crucial context that must be considered — atomic bombs had never been used before, so it was hard to imagine that the U.S. would hold back from unleashing a powerful new weapon in what was total war. The conventional bombing of Dresden, Germany, in February 1945 had claimed 25,000 lives. At the time, dropping atomic bombs on Japan must have seemed like just another ratcheting-up of the war effort.

Yet we soon knew better. More than 100,000 people were killed immediately in the two bombings, and nearly as many were injured. We learned about the horrors of radiation poisoning. And — let us hope — we learned that humankind can never use such weapons again.

Mitchell, who has long argued that the bombings were unnecessary, tells us toward the end of the film that U.S. military officials and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower himself believed that the Japanese would have surrendered in a matter of months even if atomic bombs hadn’t been used. Thus, in Mitchell’s view, we all bear moral responsibility for what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is much in “Atomic Cover-Up” that’s difficult to look at. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching scene is that of a teenage boy who is lying on his stomach, every bit of skin peeled off his back so that his muscles are fully exposed. We are told that he was kept alive in what was essentially a penicillin bath, and that doctors persisted with their efforts despite the boy’s pleas that he be allowed to die.

Yet that leads to a moment of grace as moving as the sounds of “Silent Night.” We later learn that the boy survived and, as an adult, became an anti-nuclear activist. There are very few moments in the film that transcend despair. As a viewer, I found myself holding on to such moments as a way to get through the rest of it.

Mitchell has brought to us a story that is both excruciating and of paramount importance. Everyone should see it. We have never come to terms with the horror of what was done in our name in August 1945. People of goodwill can differ over whether we did the right thing in order to bring a terrible war to its conclusion or if, instead, we committed unforgivable crimes against humanity.

What none of us can do is look away.

How to watch: “Atomic Cover-Up,” written and directed by Greg Mitchell, may be seen for two more days, today and on Tuesday, March 30, as part of the Cinejoy Virtual Film Festival, where it premiered on March 20. Click here to purchase tickets and view the film. Mitchell is working on plans for further distribution and asks that anyone interested send him an email; his contact information is here.

Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Nation goes open-source

The Nation, the leading left-liberal opinion journal, has launched a slick new website using Drupal, an open-source content-management system that’s free and can be tweaked by anyone. “If he understood open source, Glenn Beck might well denounce it as a socialist practice,” writes Peter Rothberg.

A bit of an exaggeration, given that Drupal is used by such diverse organizations as GateHouse Media and the White House. (Oh, wait …)

The best news for media junkies is that Greg Mitchell’s blog, Media Fix, has finally made its long-awaited debut. Mitchell, the former editor of Editor & Publisher, is a double-barreled master of the tweet, posting what seems like 18 hours a day at @GregMitch and @MediaFixBlog. His blog goes straight into my Google Reader list.

Like its more moderate counterpart, The New Republic, The Nation will reserve some of its premium content for paying customers, writes editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. A shame, since opinion journals are trafficking in influence, not revenue.

Nevertheless, I suspect TheNation.com will quickly prove to be more widely read (if it isn’t already) than the rather hidebound print edition.

Editor & Publisher lives

The venerable newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher lives after going dark at the end of 2009. But editor Greg Mitchell tweets that neither he nor staff writer Joe Strupp were offered jobs at the new E&P. The new editor will be another E&P veteran, Mark Fitzgerald.

Will Mitchell and Strupp’s Web site, E&P in Exile, morph into something else now that the magazine is being revived without them? Stay tuned.