'American Blogger' Still Isn't Getting The Outrage. Let Me Break It Down.

4 years ago

Casey Leigh Weigand's journey into blogging changed her life. It also inspired her husband, budding filmmaker Christopher Weigand, to undertake one of the biggest projects of his life. Last year, Christopher restored an Airstream trailer, put the family's nest egg on the line, and traveled 15,000 miles through 40 states to film the women who had connected with his wife through their blogs. He had seen Casey Leigh blossom through the openness shared with these distant friends, and was excited to share the power of story made possible through blogging.

That blogging has been happening for almost 20 years now didn't matter; it was inspiring to him, inspiring to people in his life, and no one had yet told its story in a documentary. Christopher titled his documentary American Blogger.

There is something truly beautiful in two creatives supporting one another through their art the way the Weigands do. And as Casey Leigh noted in today's post, titled "Response to the American Blogger Controversy" they never imagined that Christopher's uplifting film about the power of building community through blogging would become a target for so much derision.

Criticism of the documentary centers on its title, American Blogger. Most of the people Christopher Weigand interviewed in his film are young, white, female, able-bodied, and Christian.

Speaking with Brendan O'Connor at the Daily Dot, the filmmaker defended his work, saying that that the overwhelming whiteness of the bloggers depicted in the film wasn't intentional.

"I wasn't sure if anybody would try to question my motives on picking people or something. I filmed the women who said yes. It's not intentional if it's heavy one way or another," he says. "I would hope that nobody would ever look at that and make some political argument out of it."

But it's his subsequent comment that makes his position so troublesome:

I'm a documentarian. I see myself as a journalist. I can't force something that's not there," Wiegand explains. "I just film what is presented to me."

Of course, people of color—just like people over 30, people who are not able-bodied, people who are atheists, people who are gender-nonconforming, just to name a few of the people not represented in the film—are there. The landscape of blogging covers an incredibly wide terrain.

And that's what's feeding the continuing outrage over this trailer. American Blogger suffers from a terrible case of sampling bias, the selection error resulting from using a non-random sample of the population to describe that population, which—in this case—renders an enormous swath of the American blogosphere invisible.

In her response to the controversy, Casey Leigh Weigand stated:

These women inspired me, they moved me. They are a very VERY tiny piece of the puzzle to this big huge internet world but they are my story. Chris, as a storyteller, went out to tell this story. His story of learning what this was all about in my tiny world. The way these women tell their stories authentically does represent American Bloggers, but we are completely aware that not all categories of American Bloggers are represented in this film. Nor was that the goal for this first film. You can read this post from almost a year ago. Read the idea, the thought behind it. See where I mention American Blogger Part 2? From the beginning this was the start of a much bigger conversation. So many stories to be told. He also bought the domain (www.americanblogger.com) with the idea that it could eventually be more than a film but also a website. Featuring American Bloggers everyday. These are all ideas and dreams that he had but needed to start somewhere and build momentum to take this bigger places.

The full quote from the post CaseyLeigh linked to is "He has his cast set ( he has had people inquire about this and you never know...there could always be an American Blogger 2 to tell a whole new round of stories, there are SO many amazing stories out there to still be heard!)"—not exactly a plan to address bias. Meanwhile, I see nothing on the film's trailer, on the website, or in the myriad of posts by the featured bloggers about a sequel, nor do I see any mention at all of diversity in this project.

Though Christopher Weigand calls himself both a documentarian and a journalist, many people in the industry see documentaries as existing somewhere between journalism and expressive art. In a study of documentary ethics by the Center for Social Media at American University, the greatest challenge for documentarians is balancing their responsibility to their subjects with the trust put on them by viewers to tell the whole story. To these filmmakers (at least in this study), "ethics" means a commitment to do no harm, and to protect their subjects. Compare this to the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics: "Minimize harm" is present there as well—but it comes after, not before, "seek the truth and report it."

Ursula Liang, a New York-based filmmaker and creator of the documentary 9-Man, believes that a documentarian working to portray an industry has an ethical responsibility to interview a variety of people within it.

"In that sense, a documentary is just like writing an article," Liang told me. "You're going to interview a lot of people who don't make it into the article, Likewise, tons of stuff ends up on the cutting room floor—most people go from hundreds of hours down to one hour. But it's your obligation to seek all those things out."

So maybe we should hold documentarians to the same standards as we do journalists. Maybe we shouldn't. Often, we don't. We expect documentaries to tell specific stories about specific subjects, just as American Blogger tells the specific stories of these particular women.

But the trailer for American Blogger also makes specific promises to the viewer to change the way we see "an entire industry" and to "open our eyes to a thriving movement that could change the world."

We can demand that the film hold to that promise. From what we have seen on the trailer, it doesn't appear likely that it will.

I'm sure Christopher Weigand didn't make his viewers a promise he never meant to fulfill. He simply didn't look beyond the familiar, the easy to find. He had his cast set. And that's precisely where carelessness becomes hurt for groups that are so often left out of conversations in which they have a rightful place.

Lack of representation—of course—isn't simply a problem with this one documentary, nor with the blogging industry only. It's par for the course for many of the groups left out in Christopher Weigand's narrative.

But white people's eternal non-seeing of diversity everywhere around them is in and of itself an incredibly hot topic on the very same internet that is home to the blogs so well represented in Weigand's film—as this very controversy so vividly demonstrates. The omission made by the film and continued denials by the Weigands stand as a reminder that we seek what we know, we see what we know, and that this can blind us to the whole truth.

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