Ask the Filmmaker

Ryan in Montana asks: I saw your documentary on the political environment in my hometown of Kalispell, MT. While I deplore Keith Hammer and his ilk, I agree that those wackos who have threatened them are far worse. It really bothers me that these few idiots do so much harm to the conservative cause. Where I think your documentary was greatly biased is that the wackos aren't just on the conservative side. Have you asked John Stokes how many threats he has gotten? What about the groups that spike trees and burn new homes? I admire people who try to protect our environment, but Keith Hammer has gone way too far. Extremism comes in all forms. You dishonestly chose to focus on a few conservative idiots and give the environmental extremist a complete pass. We are honest and hard working people in Kalispell. We have a long tradition of working the land and managing the resources. But all this has been taken from us and we are left with huge corporations like Plum Creek that buy up all the private land which forces the average guy into the city.

Patrice O'Neill: Thanks for your comments, Ryan. Although you are clearly upset about the film, I was heartened to see that you were disturbed by threats against your political opponents. This is one of the main reasons I made the documentary. We may disagree with each other strongly, but we can still be civil to each other as neighbors and fellow citizens. The film was not about environmental policies or an in-depth examination of so-called "extremist" groups from any particular perspective. It is about how a community gets along during a period of deep conflict and change. I focused on the Flathead Valley, during a specific period of time, so all of the incidents take place over the past few years and the characters either lived or had influence in the area. There were no reports of environmental groups that spiked trees or burned down homes while I was there -- nor did I hear from anyone that such incidents had occurred in the Valley, so there was no reason to explore this in the documentary. I do distinguish reporting from rumor. I was struck by how much information was circulated by rumor.

I couldn't identify any so-called idiots in my film. The people who appear have a wide variety of political perspectives often quite independent from the labels of Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal -- as you Montanans often do. However, a number of people in the film who stand strongly for respecting each other despite differences identify strongly as conservatives.

There are deep differences over how the environment should be protected and used. Especially for people outside the Valley, I think it would be interesting to hear why you disagree with someone, rather than identifying them as the source of the problem without explanation. Often anger is legitimately based on deep divisions over actions and policies, but one thing that struck me while we were shooting is that anger is further fueled by misinformation. If we hear something about someone a few times, we begin to accept it as truth. I would encourage you to contact the people you disagree with and engage in a discussion. Maybe it won't resolve your differences, but you'll see each other as human, which can be quite significant when tensions run high.

If I were doing a film on environmental policies in Montana, I certainly would have included some of the context you suggested -- Plum Creek is one of the largest private landowners in the country. As such, this $1.5 billion corporation has tremendous influence over what land gets logged or used for recreation in the remaining forest land in our country.

Larry in California asks: The film mentions a statistic regarding the percentage of people who obtain their news from radio talk shows. My recollection is that the statistic was 25%. What was your source for this statistic?

O'Neill: Larry, the statistic came from "How Americans Get Their News," a Gallup poll from December 31, 2002. 22 percent of Americans rely on talk radio as their primary news source, a figure that nearly doubled from 12 percent in 1995.

Jeff in Illinois asks: Did anyone in that town think about bringing Stokes up on FCC charges? If people could complain about ABC and Viacom, they sure as heck could complain about his use of "bastard" when a child could hear it. His show is way outside of safe harbor zones.

O'Neill: A local group in the Flathead Valley is organizing a complaint drive, instructing concerned citizens to record offensive material on KGEZ and file formal complaints with FCC.

Tasia in Texas asks: Does Kalispell have a public radio station? Also, why don't the "silent majority" find a way to host a talk radio show that would reflect their opinions and give the community an outlet for expressing their opinions that are contrary to Stokes' and his listeners' views? That would also give the youth of the community another option for getting involved in politics (as one youth mentioned as a reason for listening to Stokes' broadcast while hanging out after school).

O'Neill: Flathead Valley residents can receive Montana Public Radio on station KUKL, but that signal is out of Missoula -- about 120 miles south of Kalispell -- so it isn't really a local station. The Valley does have its own public affairs programming from another local AM station, KOFI, where host Wendy Ostrom Price provides a more moderate voice for the larger community.

George in California asks: I wondered about John Stokes' background -- a Kalispell native? Always in radio? Where did he get the money for the station?

O'Neill: John Stokes was originally a real estate broker in the state of Washington. He moved to Montana in early '90s and made an unsuccessful run for the Montana Senate in 1996. In 2000, he bought KGEZ. According to the Montana Human Rights Network's July 2004 Newsletter (PDF, page 4), a nearby mortgage group called Questa Resources found initial investors for the purchase of the radio station. Questa Resources is now in the midst of foreclosure proceedings against Stokes.

Marc in West Virginia asks: I would love to see some kind of in-depth exposing of the funding and other support this kind of far-right radio talk show host receives. Although I understand there are a few on the left (Howard Stern?) they don't strike me as pernicious as the right; however, I'd welcome their exposure, as well, were they to be found.

O'Neill: Marc, for more information about the political role of talk radio, you may want to read the article "Host," by David Foster Wallace. This piece, which originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, reads more like a case study and includes a number of useful footnotes. As for finding out about media funding and ownership, the Columbia Journalism Review's "Who Owns What" page is a great resource. You may also want to look at our Resources section on Talk Radio Culture and the "Delve Deeper" prepared by the American Library Association.

Gary in Kentucky asks: Why is your provocative story about Kalispell called "The Fire Next Time," when that is also the title of James Baldwin's best selling 1963 book, The Fire Next Time?

O'Neill: Gary, thanks for asking. In 1963, James Baldwin warned of "the fire next time" in his book about the perilous divide in the country's race relations. Forty years later, we have borrowed his eloquent language to pose another urgent warning. In this one place over a short period of time, we see how quickly a volatile atmosphere can turn dangerous when the power of media is able to spark the flames of conflict and silence those who might otherwise speak up.

Jack in Georgia asks: I had no idea what the controversy was about until almost 20 minutes into the program. All I knew was that a conservative radio host was arousing violence against liberals who all just wanted peace. I have a very hard time believing those were the only two sides to the disagreement. I found it particularly telling when the accusations about the environmentalist website that seemed to endorse arson was never visited or researched, but instead we got to see an interview explaining that all the fires were not related to arson, completely blowing off the fact that some environment groups do, in fact, participate in violence against property. In fact, I honestly don't know about any of the issues the conservatives were angry about. All the show was about was hate speech by the conservatives and the wonderful peace loving liberals that, according to the show, were almost next to God in their goodness. You know as well as I do that this is not in anyway telling the full or true story. My show would be about the political undertones that have been inserted into the entertainment industry since the days of Norman Lear.

O'Neill: Jack, everybody would make a different movie. At the same time, every viewer brings their own perspective to watching a film. (Some of the issues you raise in your comments about what was covered and why are addressed in my response above to Ryan in Montana.)

I looked at this story through my own experience and tried to foreground the issue that I felt need to be discussed by a national audience -- i.e.: what happens when our differences become so pronounced that we stop seeing each other as people? How can we maintain a democracy when anger and fear overshadow civic dialogue?

I agree with you, there are many more sides than two to these divisions over growth, the environment, government, the schools and the role of media in our communities. What struck me about this story is that only two distinct perspectives, particularly about the environment, became dominant. People who were not strongly passionate about their views often became disaffected from the process. (For another example of that, read the Talking Back discussion board on this website. There are a few dominant voices. Others who had initially joined in seemed to finally become disengaged from a dialogue that did not seem to move forward.)

Just to make it clear, there are some deeply conservative folks in this film who have been verbally attacked on John Stokes' radio show. If you look at the video of the community dialogue following the screenings of "The Fire Next Time" in the Flathead Valley, there is a remarkable mix of people talking to each other about how to solve these problems. Some in the audiences expressed anger that the film treated environmentalists as good people. I tried to treat everyone in the film in a respectful way.