Wag the Media

Hyper-obsessed media reports of Bill Clinton's alleged sexual relations with a 21 year-old White House intern raise the age old question: Does life imitate art or vice versa?The art in this case is Wag the Dog, the biting, cynical satire about using Hollywood techniques and mass media to fake a war with Albania. The reason for fabricating the war: The President's sexual molestation of a Firefly Girl (read Girl Scout) in the White House. Look back a bit to the long-forgotten season before sex scandal ground zero for a variation on the war-media theme, and the trend really began with James Bond's triumphant return in Tomorrow Never Dies. The culprit: A power-crazed media mogul, a la Rupert Murdoch, who attempts to start a war to seal his monopoly over the global media system.Fast forward to present: This week the Los Angeles Times and other major media report that the U.S. is edging closer to military strikes against Iraq-the most serious threat of military action since the Gulf War-to force Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to complete the long-delayed destruction of his regime's deadliest weapons.Hollywood, politicians and the media have a long history of colluding to distract the public and make wars, which are generally good business for all three. For Clinton, confronting Iraq couldn't come too soon as the media barrage about his personal life is beginning to erode his public support. No matter if we go to war to distract the public and media from Clinton's troubles, the confluence of events in fact and fiction is putting the press in yet more of a disparaging light, with attitudes toward the press already at record lows. Public disgust with the media's current feeding frenzy and an almost complete breakdown in boundaries between news reporting and tabloids could do untold damage on the credibility of the news industry in the long run.According to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, "The furious, almost blinding pace of coverage of allegations of scandalous behavior in the White House has all but shattered traditional media standards and opened the floodgates to a torrent of thinly sourced allegations and unrestrained speculation." Said noted press critic and U.S. New and World Report editor James Fallows, the reporting has "gotten out of control." WHEN JOURNALISTS WORE WHITE HATSRemember back 20 years or so when we saw films like All the President's Men and Under Fire? Then, journalists were heroes, and the media - especially The Washington Post-were bulwarks against the excesses of power. Not any more. The mirror that is Hollywood, reflecting back the image of our culture, has a new vision of the media and it isn't pretty. No place is the transformation of media to monster so complete as in Tomorrow Never Dies. Here the arch villain, Elliot Carver, kills his wife and plots a war between China and Britain just so his media empire can flaunt the scoop of the century, and give him paramount access to every television screen on earth. Bond is, of course, among the most infamous Brits around-think Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell with better haircuts. Who ever thought of James Bond as a trained-to-kill media watchdog? "It's my theory that they wanted an adversary for Bond that the public would really hate," speculated humorist Art Buchwald in his syndicated column. "Today's movie goers are no longer intimidated by South American dictators or Russian generals. Recent surveys reveal that the public is scared silly by the media. So the producer decided to model the arch villain after a media mogul because he knew that the audience would really root for Bond to destroy him."As critic Dana Bisbee writes, "Journalists are the new villains of pop culture." But there is much more to the public's feelings about the media than mere suspicion of the press. The public simply doesn't trust or believe what it sees, hears and reads, and the media and Hollywood are actors in this drama.THE LIBERATION OF TED KOPPELSex stories do change things. You know there is new ground being broken when Ted Koppel opens Nightline saying, "It may, as you will hear later in the program, ultimately come down to the question of whether oral sex does or does not constitute adultery." Nightline offered the theory that Clinton may think that intercourse is adultery, but fellatio just a casual Arkansas undertaking-which is why Clinton can issue those earnest denials with a straight face. We now have a situation where the lure of the tabloid is completely irresistible to all media everywhere, or as Frank Rich wryly noted in the New York Times last week, "All Monica, All the Time." There no longer appears to be a line between Sally Jesse Raphael and network news . The Unabomber cops a plea, the Pope is in Cuba, Arafat is at the White House, and where is the media? Focused on the President's zipper. When all three network anchors abandon the historic, unprecedented Castro-Pope encounter and rush home for an unconfirmed sex story, we understand what the priority is. The MSNBC banner reads: "President in Crisis." CNN's special report: "Investigating the President." The First Lady comes out swinging on the Today show, and by the evening news poker-faced anchors are asking Rep. Dick Armey if he believes there is a "right-wing conspiracy" at work. Is this really a presidency in jeopardy, or is it the final abdication of truth to the power of spin? Spin, after all, is the well-greased machine exposed so cunningly in Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog. Robert DeNiro's Connie Brean, the powerful, undercover, presidential media-fixer with a lethal touch, is the living incarnation of this essential political tool. Coupled with Dustin Hoffman's self-centered, Robert Evans-type producer the two pull off the ultimate in spin control. It's a perfect marriage of modern day media handling and the best of Hollywood story-telling.MEDIA MONOPOLY GROWS UPDepending on your vantage point, Wag the Dog is either a funny satire, or enervating cynicism that contributes to the very problem it is skewering. But no matter what your take, Wag the Dog represents a new level of understanding of our mediated world. Since today's giant global media conglomerates shape virtually every aspect of media reality through the seamless dynamics of synergy-owning the programming and the capacity to deliver it, in news, music, radio, television, movies, book, online and through various other sources of entertainment-virtually any reality is possible."You'll remember the picture 50 years from now, they'll have forgotten the war," says Brean. "Gulf War? Smart bomb falling down a chimney, 2500 missions a day, 100 days, one video of one bomb. And the American people bought that war. War is show business."The film's behind-the-scenes media manipulations render the practicing news media and the president mere props in a larger game. It's no wonder that close to 90 percent of the public think media owners exercise too much control over the press. Nor should anyone be surprised when large numbers of Americans report that they feel powerless in a system they perceive is locked up by a hegemonic troika of corporate moguls, corrupt politicians and wealthy media celebs formally known as journalists. Politics may still be different than show business, but if Wag the Dog accomplishes one thing, it clearly shows how close these two worlds have become. Today we have a media system where major arms and nuclear manufacturers General Electric and Westinghouse own NBC and CBS; ABC is owned by Disney, America's largest entertainment operation and, historically, war is entertainment. Time Warner owns CNN, who's reputation was established and highest popularity achieved during the Gulf War. And now that MSNBC and Murdoch's Fox have entered the 24 hour news/talk show format, all aching for that mesmerizing moment when all America is again glued to the tube, do we doubt that there will be more war in our future? Politicians, always looking to boost their popularity, will be no doubt ready to provide the synergy. Remember, two days after 241 Marines were killed in a terrorist truck bombing in Beirut, Ronald Reagan invaded Granada, a country with fewer than 100,000 people. Former Presidential adviser Dick Morris was particularly revealing when he recently wrote: "In the aftermath of the Olympic Bombing and the assault on the American base in Saudi Arabia, many of us at the White House longed for a clear adversary against whom to demonstrate the President's strength and decisiveness. We didn't in fact fabricate one as DeNiro and Hoffman do in the film, but that wasn't because we didn't want to. Unfortunately, neither the FBI or the CIA could pin the blame on a bombable enemy. So our dreams of a macho response went unfulfilled."So are we ready for Gulf War II? Bombs may well drop, and in the meantime it looks like the hot-and-bothered White House press corps may not get its longed for climax in the Monica Lewinsky story anytime soon. The relation of art to life in this case may actually put the dog firmly back in control of the wag: The public is watching with a wary eye, and it knows this unzipping won't soon be the undoing of the President. The question is: Does the media?Don Hazen is executive director of the Institute for Alternative Journalism and co-editor of "We the Media: A Citizens Guide to Fighting for Media Democracy" (New Press, 1997).

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