Television is making more documentaries than ever—but skipping the journalism

Hillary Clinton was ready to bare her soul, or so Hulu subscribers were told in March. After missing her shot at the presidency, Clinton would, at last, let her guard down. A four-part documentary promised to reveal the true Clinton, anchored by two thousand hours of fly-on-the-wall footage from her 2016 campaign and thirty-five hours of interviews with director Nanette Burstein. “Nothing was off-limits,” Clinton said while promoting the series. Critics marveled at her “remarkable frankness” and “surprisingly candid new public persona.” The film received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, losing earlier this month to ESPN’s ten-part series on Michael Jordan, The Last Dance

Since this spring, the people behind Hillary have pledged that their film offers an honest portrait, honoring the documentary format’s journalistic traditions. Howard Owens, an executive producer, told me, “Our ability to maintain editorial independence is what made this one of the most interesting political docs of all time.” While any access-dependent journalism involves an implicit quid pro quo—an exchange of vulnerability for publicity—Hillary is only compelling if viewers believe they are seeing the work of filmmakers in pursuit of the unvarnished truth. 

But imagine if Hillary began with a disclosure of what really happened: Much of the footage you’re about to see was shot by the Clinton campaign, and Clinton’s political action committee was paid to license it. Hillary Clinton selected the production company, helped pick the director, and weighed in during editing. Instead of being received as an evenhanded work of journalism, the documentary might have landed like a belated campaign ad. 

Buzzed-about productions like Hillary arrive on streaming platforms practically every month, thanks to aggressive investments from Netflix and its competitors. Filmmakers used to avoid the label “documentary”; audiences considered them about as exciting as homework. But today there are more than a thousand documentary films available on Netflix and Amazon Prime; in March, Netflix announced that 147 million households worldwide had watched at least one of its documentaries during the previous year. Docs like The Last Dance and HBO’s Leaving Neverland are massive cultural events.

Yet this golden age of documentaries is defined, in part, by the blurring of what it even means to be a documentary. Desperate for access to celebrities who prefer to promote themselves on social media rather than go through news media, filmmakers are increasingly willing to surrender their editorial independence. It is common to give subjects incentives that would be scandalous in any other news medium: paying for access, clearing quotes and clips, giving a subject’s business partners a producing credit. Although journalistically rigorous documentaries are also flourishing—like 13th, Ava DuVernay’s study of mass incarceration, or The Cave, about hospital workers in the Syrian civil war—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, HBO, Showtime, and their peers are allowing big-budget documentaries to skirt the guardrails of truth-telling. Projects like Hillary bet on the likelihood that viewers, eager for a glimpse behind the scenes, will forget to ask who’s behind the camera.   

Many of the twenty-plus industry leaders I interviewed for this story told me that conflicts of interest are now part of the cost of doing business. Journalism schools, meanwhile, continue to teach documentary filmmaking, and the form’s traditionalists worry that streaming giants are prioritizing good television at the expense of sound reporting.

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“These are the best of times and the worst of times,” said Dan Birman, director of the Netflix documentary Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story and a journalism professor at USC. “Documentaries have never been so popular, but it opens up the possibility that filmmakers will abuse the form in the name of entertainment.”

 

Hollywood took time to know what to make of documentaries. The first major commercial success, 1922’s Nanook of the North, about an Inuk man in the Canadian Arctic, was rejected by top studios but eventually arrived in theaters to critical acclaim. The director, Robert Flaherty, received a lucrative deal from Paramount and decided to make his next documentary about Samoa. When he screened Moana of the South Seas for Paramount, however, the studio heads responded with silence. Eventually Flaherty asked for feedback, The New Yorker reported, and one exec screamed, “Where’s the blizzards?” 

Most documentaries featured foreign exotica or government propaganda until 1951, when Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow created See It Now, television’s first documentary series about current events. The program aired weekly on CBS for seven years, steadily losing money, until its features on McCarthyism and nuclear weapons had scared away the last sponsors. After a scandalous revelation that hit quiz shows were feeding answers to contestants, however, TV networks sought to regain viewers’ trust by providing public-interest documentaries, the most prominent of which was Friendly’s new prime-time venture, CBS Reports.

The hour-long series averaged six million viewers, one-fourth of the audience for entertainment shows on ABC and NBC during its time slot. But CBS Reports was a news department production and Friendly was a journalism stickler, refusing to use background music, which he considered too theatrical, or to let sponsors peek over the wall of editorial independence to preview his shows. “It isn’t easy,” he told The New Yorker in 1962, “to say no and hear the guy from the sales department say, ‘OK, Fred, but your integrity is going to cost us two hundred thousand.’ ” 

From the moment documentaries became an outlet for journalism, ethical gray areas emergedlike dubbing silent footage with stock audio. In exchange for access to Queen Elizabeth II, BBC documentarians gave the British monarchs half of the profits from Royal Family, a global blockbuster in 1969. (Among the revelations: Elizabeth’s horses were fed carrots on starched linen napkins.) Still, Friendly was establishing documentary filmmaking as a journalistic profession and believed his ethical standards would become industry norms. 

By the 1980s, when Margaret Drain worked at CBS Reports, TV documentaries had become an endangered species. But small aesthetic concessions didn’t compromise the journalism’s integrity, she says. As executive producer of American Experience on PBS from 1996 to 2003, Drain oversaw an acclaimed series of biographies of US presidents and made a point not to interview any living former presidents or their spouses. “We wanted the freedom to go in any direction,” she says. Plus, “we didn’t want the perception from the audience that this was a vanity project.” 

Public broadcasting is the standard-bearer for TV documentaries, and viewers in doubt can read PBS’s twelve pages of editorial standards and practices. Anyone who gives more than one dollar to finance a film is vetted, and producers must disclose “any real or perceived conflicts that could have the appearance of influencing content.” 

“That takes a number of projects out of our consideration,” says Lois Vossen, executive producer of Independent Lens. Vossen pointed to The Last Dance as one such project. In 1997, Michael Jordan allowed NBA camera crews to follow his final season with the Chicago Bulls, but five hundred hours of footage sat in vaults for the next two decades because Jordan granted access on the condition that he could decide when, if ever, amazing shots of his airplane card games and tirades at practice could be released. He finally gave the green light this summer to ESPN; his production company is listed as a partner. “PBS would never allow us to do that,” Vossen says. 

For Libby Geist, vice president of ESPN Films, Jordan’s involvement was a small price to pay. “It was either the story never gets told and the footage stays in a vault, or you shake hands, they become a production partner, and you get to make this epic film,” she says, stressing that ESPN had creative control and that the network would never pay Jordan, or anyone else, to sit for interviews. “There’s a lot in there that does not make Michael look like a saint.”

At least ESPN had rules to bend. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple, HBO, and Showtime have no restrictions on who can produce a documentary or be compensated to participate, nor do they vet financiers before acquiring a project, according to several producers who frequently do business with them. (All six companies declined to comment.) “I can say this about all the buyers,” says Joseph Amodei, president of the distributor Virgil Films. “If it’s a really good film and they feel their consumers will view it, I don’t think it matters whose name is in the producer credits.” 

There are also significant financial incentives for documentary filmmakers to loosen their grip on editorial independence. As the popularity of the genre goes up, profit margins are getting slimmer. “Acquisition prices have come down at least 50 percent over the past five years,” Amodei says, as streamers increasingly produce their own documentaries or sign first-look contracts with top studios. When streamers do go shopping, they usually have finely tuned analytics in mind, says Nick Royak, acquisitions manager at Gravitas Ventures. Buyers tell distributors like Gravitas precisely what demographic they’re looking to appeal to, what genre (say, crime or politics) they want to bolster, or what scripted content could benefit from a companion documentary. Though making a documentary is becoming less expensive overall, thanks to affordable cameras and editing software, there is one major exception: licensing fees. 

Footage licensing fees have skyrocketed to match the surging popularity of documentaries, and filmmakers can only get so far with free “fair use.” Documentaries about musicians in particular are riddled with creative conflicts, but directors have little choice: films about musicians need music, and licensing can be prohibitively expensive. “That’s why you have the labels involved,” says Richard Abramowitz, a distributor specializing in music films. “Some of them are smart enough to realize that the visibility of a documentary will increase the value of the catalogue.” After Showtime released a documentary in August about the Go-Go’s, coproduced by their label, Universal Music, the band’s album sales shot up 179 percent, according to Billboard. Apple TV+ paid a reported $25 million for an upcoming documentary about eighteen-year-old Billie Eilish produced by her label, Interscope Records. 

It’s hard to maintain a facade of objectivity, and some documentaries don’t bother trying. Early in David Foster: Off the Record, released on Netflix this summer, the notoriously hands-on songwriter warns the camera crew, “I’m going to be over your shoulder the whole fucking way.” 

All that matters is who controls the final cut, director Vlad Yudin assured me. He won over the campy Moschino designer Jeremy Scott with his elaborate vision for filming, including interviewing Scott on a 360-degree green-screen setup that cost thirty-five thousand dollars for a single day’s use. Yudin also got access for his documentary, now on Netflix, by agreeing to a fifty-fifty revenue split with Scott. “You have to find a middle ground,” Yudin says. “Trust me, a lot of filmmakers negotiate.” 

 

Whereas Fred Friendly referred to his cumbersome filming equipment as a “one-ton pencil,” D.A. Pennebaker designed a handheld sixteen-millimeter camera in the 1950s that was perfect for becoming a fly on the wall. He popularized vérité documentaries with portraits of Bob Dylan and John F. Kennedy and set his sights, in 1992, on the dark-horse presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Despite hundreds of requests for access, Bill wouldn’t budge—but his communications director, George Stephanopolous, offered a compromise: Pennebaker and his wife and codirector, Chris Hegedus, could come film Bill’s rapid-response “war room” in Little Rock.   

Stephanopolous tasked his assistant Heather Bethel Lueke with monitoring the documentary crew. “At first there was trepidation and self-consciousness,” she told me, “but it’s remarkable how quickly you forgot they were there” during thirty-three hours of filming. There are no interviews or narration in The War Room, just captivating scenes of James Carville and his staff strategizing about how to deflect reports of Bill’s sexual misdeeds and plant damning stories about George H.W. Bush. I asked Lueke if the film would have been as authentic had it been shot by Bill’s campaign. “Oh, gosh no,” she replied. “Not at all.” The staff would have fussed over an in-house production, Lueke explained, debating, “What are we going to shoot? How are we going to use it? What is the end goal?” 

By the time of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, things had changed. About a year after the election, Howard Owens got a call from Robert Barnett, the lawyer famous for helping politicians land multimillion-dollar book deals. Owens learned that Hillary was sitting on a mountain of campaign footage and wanted to package it for a documentary. His company, Propagate Content, jumped at the chance to produce it, and he made his pitch to Hillary and her longtime aide Huma Abedin at Hillary’s office near Times Square. 

“We hit it off,” Owens says. “My dad was a six-term Democratic state senator in Connecticut. I grew up in Democratic politics, so we connected on that level.” His co-CEO and –executive producer, Ben Silverman, had donated forty-six hundred dollars to Hillary’s campaign.

Owens and Hillary met with four potential directors, and Hillary responded best to Nanette Burstein. “We needed to make her feel comfortable with the process,” Owens says. “We weren’t trying to do a hatchet job. We like Hillary. We like what she represents.” He says he made it clear to Hillary that Burstein needed free rein and that Hillary couldn’t meddle in the filmmaking process, but she was certainly an active participant, lobbying Democrats like former president Obama to sit for an interview. 

Obama “was basically doing Hillary Clinton a favor,” says associate producer Ian Kelsey, who helped coordinate that interview. “We had phenomenal access, and with that comes strings.” During editing, segments were emailed to Abedin and the Clintons for their feedback. They suggested a few changes, such as resequencing clips about Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegation against Bill, and the producers took their advice, Kelsey says. “It’s not like the Clintons had final edit. They were also cognizant of wanting to keep things independent, because they didn’t want the whole project to be dismissed as a star vehicle.” 

Those who brush off objectivity concerns with documentaries like to say that viewers can judge for themselves what to trust. But even the New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik completely misunderstood what he was seeing in Hillary, praising Burstein for securing “exclusive behind-the-scenes access” during the campaign when in fact employees of Hillary’s campaign shot the footage. 

When I asked Burstein about inheriting the campaign home video, she says it might have been more authentic, because Clinton and her aides knew “if something were filmed that they didn’t like, they wouldn’t have to worry about it.” (Burstein says nothing was weeded out from the material she received.) Had documentarians been pointing the cameras, she suspects, the campaign “would have been more paranoid.” 

After the election, the footage was transferred to Clinton’s PAC, Onward Together, which received an undisclosed licensing fee for the documentary. “We went to a variety of potential buyers,” Barnett told me. “Hulu ended up making the best offer.” 

The self-serving slant of Hillary didn’t fool thirty Republicans approached for interviews. As much as conservatives love trashing Clinton, not a single one of them aside from former senator Bill Frist agreed to talk.

 

Nowadays, everyone stars in their own movie, as the saying goes about social media. That’s true in a more literal sense for celebrities who’ve added an omnipresent “content guy” to their entourage, capturing day-to-day mundanities in anticipation of a to-be-determined documentary. Inheriting this type of footage is a mixed bag for filmmakers: chefs like to oversee the chopping and cooking, not just the plating. 

Dwyane Wade was, almost by accident, among the first athletes to realize the value of preemptively documenting everything. In the summer of 2010, Wade landed an endorsement deal with Flip Video, the pocket-size-camera company, so his longtime photographer, Bob Metelus, started using that device. He followed Wade for a series of free-agency meetings, the footage he captured culminating in a delightful scene of Wade and his family shrieking as they watched LeBron James announce on The Decision that he’d be joining Wade’s Miami Heat. Metelus upgraded his Flip cam and became a permanent fly on the wall. When Wade retired last year and partnered with Imagine Entertainment for the ESPN documentary D. Wade: Life Unexpected, Metelus had to hire a team to sort through forty terabytes of footage. 

Although increasingly rare, it’s still possible to embed with a subject without sacrificing objectivity. The director Ryan White is choosy about the films he works on, declining requests from stars who’ve shot their own footage or have a publicity machine that would be breathing down his neck. Luckily, his dream subject, Serena Williams, agreed to let White follow her for a year in 2015. “A week later I was on a flight to Paris” for the French Open, he says, shadowing Williams as she won the next three major tennis titles. “My film ended up becoming maybe the best athlete ever having the best year of her life,” he says, until Williams suffered her biggest letdown, a stunning upset at the US Open. “No one could reach her for days,” White says, but he tracked her down and persuaded her to discuss the defeat. 

A couple of months later, White screened an early cut of Serena: The Other Side of Greatness for Williams at WME’s theater in Los Angeles. When it had finished, Williams turned to White and said, “That was really heavy. I have one note: you got the score wrong for my third-round match in the French Open.” White was relieved but not surprised. “Serena is obviously a mega-brand,” he says, “but she’s not controlling of her image. She doesn’t give a shit what people think about her, and that makes for a perfect documentary subject.” 

For some journalists, a successful profile contains at least something that its subject didn’t want published. With that mantra in mind, it’s startling to hear Rob Swartz, senior vice president of the cable network Reelz, say, “I fully expect that every celebrity who participates in a documentary of ours is going to really like it.” It’s a matter of labeling, he explains. “What looks like a documentary can mean many different things. A news department and a TV development executive can end up with something that looks almost identical, but it’s a very different process.” 

The best journalism is engrossing, but the most entertaining documentaries aren’t necessarily journalism. “We have a generation of filmmakers growing into the profession who aren’t always sure about this distinction,” says Birman, the director and professor. A documentary’s credibility is tainted, for instance, when its subject is also a producer. “Even if that person is completely open about their story and lets the facts be told,” he says, “the minute their name is on the film is the minute the content becomes suspect.” 

Two of last year’s most popular “documentaries” offered a study of skewed perspectives. Netflix and Hulu released films about the disastrous Fyre Festival within days of each other; Hulu’s paid the event’s chief fraudster, Billy McFarland, to sit for interviews, while Netflix offered a more sympathetic portrayal of McFarland’s marketing partners, Jerry Media—likely because the agency had a substantial hand in editing. Viewers got to decide which film was less truthful. 

 

Apathy about editorial independence can be found in the field’s highest ranks. Submarine Entertainment is behind six of the past twelve winners of the Academy Award for Best Documentary, including last year’s recipient, American Factory. The company’s copresident Josh Braun isn’t bothered by public figures getting to craft their own portraits. “In this day and age, a celebrity probably won’t want to give access without being involved or compensated,” he says. “So it’s tricky, because in theory they’re not supposed to be, but…there’s no incentive for them to give you their most private stuff, so why not offer to pay them? I think it’s reasonable.” 

Surely viewers would be outraged if Fuyao, the Chinese manufacturing company in American Factory that took over a GM plant in Ohio, had been paid or given a producer credit, I said. What’s the difference? “It’s all about the stakes,” Braun replied. “In the case of a documentary about a celebrity, you’re creating stakes that even at the highest level aren’t real stakes. Who would it affect, other than a fan being disappointed that maybe they whitewashed a piece of the story? If the story was about someone sexually assaulting somebody, that would be a whole different level. But if it’s like, ‘I’d rather you not use that picture of me because I look old,’ then no one cares and no one will ever know.”

Several producers echoed that, arguing that editorial rules only make sense for documentaries about grave political matters. It sends a strange message to viewers of everything else: This story is so superficial and inconsequential, what difference does integrity make? Repeatedly, I heard the claim that audiences only care about watching an entertaining story, not a work of credible journalism. 

If that were truly the case, producers would be more forthcoming. Just as print journalists are expected to disclose potential conflicts of interest, documentaries should state up front whether anyone on-screen had a creative role or financial stake. Subgenres of documentary should also be labeled, the way books are. Memoirs, “as told to” autobiographies, authorized biographies, and unauthorized biographies all can have literary merit, but it would be unscrupulous of a publisher to try and pass off one kind for another.   

It takes artistry and obsessive research to tell a life story in a way that can be consumed in one sitting, whether in a print profile or documentary film, and the most evocative portraits focus more on personalities than achievements. Michael Jordan is fascinating because of his tortured competitiveness, just as Hillary Clinton is for her inscrutable public persona. Anyone interesting enough to be the subject of a documentary is complex enough to have good and bad sides, and the danger of people telling their own story isn’t what they could include, but rather what they might omit. 

Working for, or in partnership with, one’s subject creates the possibility of a flattering polish. That’s bad enough. Who could be faulted for looking at an artist’s portrait of their patron and wondering, “Were they really that attractive?” It takes courage to sit for someone who is free to paint the full picture, warts and all. 

In 1961, Joan Didion offered a cautionary note to the subjects of magazine profiles. “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” she wrote. “And it always does.” 

A journalist like Didion wants to tell a true story. Anything else is advertising, no matter what you call it.

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Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt

TOP IMAGE: Director Nanette Burstein, left, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton pose together at the premiere of the Hulu documentary "Hillary" in New York. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP