By John Sullivan
If media reports are to be believed, President Donald Trump is entering that phase of his presidency when he loses touch with reality, as Richard Nixon did when he began speaking to paintings in the White House. Or so we’re told. Today the accusation is that he is “peddling conspiracy theories” because of his tweetstorm complaining that mainstream and social media companies are biased against him and those who don’t share a progressive outlook.
When he begins talking to inanimate objects I’ll join in the chorus in urging him to step aside, but in this present kerfuffle, I have a message for the president: You’re not crazy, and I know this from personal experience. You see, I’ve faced this media and social media viewpoint discrimination firsthand on multiple occasions when releasing my films.
I’ve been responsible for the No. 2, No. 6 and No. 7 political documentaries of all time, grossing $55 million at the box office. My team and I were able to accomplish this despite constant efforts by the titans of Silicon Valley, Hollywood and New York to stop us. What I’ve faced was never a secret and was well-documented even by what the president might call the Fake News Media.
In 2008 my documentary film “Expelled” faced a frivolous lawsuit by Yoko Ono who attempted to stop its release in theaters because we played and critiqued 15 seconds of the song “Imagine” under fair use. The suit was later tossed out by the judge but not before it caused tremendous damage to the release of the film.
In 2014 when we were in the middle of releasing a film I directed, “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” one day we noticed that Google had rigged search engine results to eliminate the show times and information on the film that typically populate searches for movies. It was only when honest media outlets covered it and we threatened legal action that they stopped what they were doing and allowed Americans to have the news they were entitled to: information on the availability of a nationally distributed picture at a theater near them.
That was followed by Costco’s curious decision to remove the film’s companion book from all of its retail stores just before the film was released (a decision it later reversed under customer pressure) and the New York Times’ decision not to list the book on its best-seller chart despite sales that should have landed it at No. 8.
And still it goes on.
In my latest film, “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” I document how the media, which ordinarily prides itself on uncovering what is hidden, tried mightily not to cover the trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. It was only when one honest journalist named Kirsten Powers noticed the silence and covered it that things began to change. Then there was the movie that quickly followed. Oh, wait, there was no movie. Until now.
When the team and I decided to make that movie, strangely enough, we couldn’t find a studio in Hollywood that wanted to fund it, so it was done the old-fashioned way: We went directly to the public to crowdfund the film, but even that attempt to crowdfund was nearly thwarted by the social media elite when Kickstarter, the most prominent crowdfunding site, denied the request to raise funds on their platform because it might offend their “community standards.”
We finally found a platform that believed in free speech and ideas and raised the money we needed in one of the largest film raises in the history of crowdfunding. Which brings us to today: our film “Gosnell” releases Oct. 12, and if you haven’t heard about it yet, there may be a reason for that. You see, these social media platforms have become information toll roads, but rather than accepting our coins for passage, the toll they require is ideological adherence. I was informed by one group that tried to help promote our film and trailer through Facebook by “boosting” a link to an article by a mainstream Hollywood publication that it was denied because it constituted “political speech.” This is not an isolated incident but has happened repeatedly. We tried to advertise on NPR but they would not allow us to call Kermit Gosnell an “abortionist” or “abortion doctor” even though their own coverage of the subject uses the terms. And recently, we had the Hyatt in Austin cancel a screening that was scheduled on the same night as a Planned Parenthood Gala, giving Texans a choice as to what they support. Their event wasn’t canceled. Ours was.
We expect this type of behavior of banning and censorship in countries like North Korea, Iran and the former Soviet Union, but not here in America where political ideas are supposed to be freely shared, debated and challenged but never censored. I’m not as concerned about Russians hijacking our elections and our free speech. I’m far more concerned about my fellow citizens who live in area codes like 310, 415 and 212 who try every trick in the book to silence fellow citizens who disagree with them, by rigging – yes, rigging – the game so that they win and their opponents lose in the battle of ideas, before the game even begins.
President Trump may have his eccentricities (A Big Mac for breakfast, sir? Really?) and he may lack a filter (so did my Dad and a couple of uncles), but when it comes to censorship, crazy is one thing he isn’t – and if the platforms that have threatened mine and my family’s livelihood won’t police themselves, then the president may have to use the power of the federal government to make sure powerful forces in Silicon Valley, New York and Hollywood stop censoring the political speech of their fellow citizens.
John Sullivan is a film director and producer. His next film, “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Greatest Serial Killer,” debuts in theaters nationwide on Oct. 12.