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A Pioneering Reality TV Producer’s Penance: Funding a New Documentary Journalism Program

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Jonathan Murray

Jonathan Murray, the man who with partner Mary-Ellis Bunim brought us MTV’s “The Real World” and its sassy tagline, “When people stop being polite and start getting real,” has donated $6.7 million to create a documentary journalism program at the University of Missouri. The doc world should take note.

It’s a significant event for documentaries because it creates an institutional link between nonfiction filmmaking and journalism. And it comes at a vital moment when the Golden Age of documentary has seen great strides taken in storytelling and cinematic achievement, but sometimes at the cost of journalistic conventions. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing — in fact, I have tried to champion the innovative hybrid documentary here — but it’s a tension that needs to be understood and reflected upon. This program could be ground zero for such consideration.

The news was announced last month, but I learned more about the program while I was at the school for the Based on a True Story conference, where journalist-types hosted documentary-types for a confab before the weekend’s True/False documentary festival.

It’s ironic that Murray is making a move to create greater rigor in documentary when he helped open the gates to the reality TV wasteland that we live in today. (Bunim/Murray Productions has credits on hits including “Road Rules,” “Project Runway,” “The Simple Life,” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”) When “The Real World” began, there was a glimmer of a notion that people might begin to reveal their true selves if some of the politeness of the everyday was removed. But over the past three decades, the genre has become preposterous to the point that not being polite means being outrageous enough to win ratings, get book deals, etc.

Granted, reality shows have opened audiences’ hearts too — The story of HIV-positive Pedro on “The Real World” helped make the world a little more of an understanding, compassionate place. But reality TV isn’t primarily an educational tool. And for those of us who like to have a little depth with our entertainment, most of reality TV has turned into must-miss TV.

Murray, who studied journalism at the University of Missouri, made the donation “because I have the money to do it now,” he tells me. “Plus, I have a little more time.”

A couple of years ago, Murray was asked to speak at the school and he began thinking about his love of documentaries and their relationship to journalism. True/False organizers David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, who have helped bring documentary filmmakers to the school to meet with students, helped make the potential synergy between docs and journalism all the more apparent for Murray.

“The School of Journalism at the University of Missouri has a program for broadcast, magazine, print… but it doesn’t have documentary,” Murray says. “This will fill out the program.”

He sees in documentary an opportunity for journalists to “pick up serious subjects and create conversations around them,” he says.

He recognizes that there are many different kinds of documentaries but that this program will be rooted in journalism. “That doesn’t mean they can’t stray from that,” he says. “Just as I strayed away from the journalism school.”

Murray says he has “no sense of guilt” when it comes to some of the lowest-common denominator reality TV shows out there. “I am responsible for the shows I work on,” he says. “And I have loved what I have done in reality TV.”

In fact, the new program doesn’t really have anything to do with reality TV, Murray says, although, “That doesn’t mean that some of the history, techniques or ethics of nonfiction aren’t related. Knowing them will help make you a better practitioner of reality TV. But that’s not what this is about.”

“The program is housed in the journalism school. It will teach students to be sure they have the facts straight and that they are thinking about the ethics,” he says. “Still, we are putting the program together and we are not sure how broad the approach will be. We’ll have to teach a foundation, but they can experiment.”

The program isn’t the only move Murray is making toward documentaries. He has been considering directing his own documentary. “I keep getting pushed up to management,” he says. “I want to get closer to the filmmaking.”

He says two documentaries that might serve as models for what interests him are Food, Inc. (POV 2010) and Valentine Road, the latter of which he produced.

True/False has always been a hotbed of nonfiction filmmaking that tweaks the notion of an objective truth, and straddles the line between art and factual reportage, so this program will be planting its roots near a fault line between docs and journalism. That could make the town of Columbia, MO (pop. 113,000) a vital bridge between the two.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki