Recently I read the Washington Post article “His Fans Greenlighted the Project,” which reports on how Robert Greenwald got his fans to fund his documentary Iraq for Sale overnight in 2006 — before he even made the movie. The Post called is “a revolutionary idea.”
It was a brilliant idea and an idea that succeeded. But was it revolutionary?
I wrote in my historical independent journalism research paper about I.F. Stone’s Weekly. In the paper, I wrote that when I.F. Stone launched his weekly independent newspaper in 1953, in the frigid political climate created by McCarthyism, Izzy was smart in gaining subscribers. He employed what he called “piggy-back launching”: using the mailing lists of the defunct radical newspapers PM, the Star and the Compass to reach the right people. Izzy wrote in his autobiographical essay:
“The existence of these highly selective mailing lists made it possible to reach what would otherwise appear to be needles in a haystack—a scattered tiny minority of liberals and radicals unafraid in McCarthy’s heyday to support, and go on the mailing lists of, a new radical publication from Washington.”
Izzy’s newspaper got off the ground in the 1950s because he recognized that he had true fans who would believe in his new project and he found a way to tap into that fandom to fund the project. I wonder what Izzy could have done with the internet or how he would have launched his paper today. The thousand true fans concept that we’ve discussed in class comes to mind.
In his essay, Izzy doesn’t explain what that first mailing was — what did he send in the mail to those previous subscribers? Was it the first issue? Or did he get them to sign on with just a teaser of what was to come? I wonder how similar his method was to that of Brave New Films. If it was so similar, then was Greenwald revolutionary or adapting the same methods to updated technology?
The documentary was also lauded for being so community-oriented — it was primarily viewed in temples, churches, union halls and school auditoriums. This too was effective — though not revolutionary. As Rodger Streitmatter wrote in his book Voices of Revolution, one of the reasons the early labor presses were so successful were that they created a sense of camaraderie — workers would read them aloud to each other in union halls or other gathering places. Both the labor press and the Brave New Films documentary had vast impact because people consumed their reporting in groups where they could debate the content and plan further action.
I don’t think these connections takes anything away from the success of Iraq for Sale. On the contrary, I think these are arguments as to why it’s such a good example of great independent journalism — Greenwald learned from indies before him and built upon society’s technological advancements to make their methods even stronger. He might not be revolutionary but he is pretty inspiring.