Wag the Media
By Don Hazen
Remember 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 a pretty.
No place is the transformation of media to monster so complete as in Tomorrow Never Dies, the current James Bond flick. 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, so think Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell at the next level. Who ever thought of James Bond as a highly trained media watchdog?
"It's my theory that they wanted an adversary for Bond that the public would really hate," says humorist Art Buchwald. "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."
While there's a long history of the media as protagonist in films, Citizen Kane is perhaps the most memorable. But over the last two decades, journalists and television itself has increasingly taken its lumps. Most recently, Danny DiVito plays a corrupt editor of a sleazy Hollywood celeb rag in LA Confidential, and Dustin Hoffman a self-promoting newscaster in Mad City. Lest we forget Absence of Malice (1981), Broadcast News (1987) and The Paper (1994), which all show journalism in a less than favorable light. As critic Dana Bisbee writes, "Journalists are the new villains of pop culture."
Hollywood is simply keeping pace with the public's growing suspicion of the press.
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. Perhaps Sidney Lumet's great movie Network with its increasingly crazed visionary character screaming, "I'm not going to take it any more" foreshadowed the larger forces at work. But Network was in it's own way hopeful thinking that by using the tube it would help people get in touch with their inner anger at the inanity of the tube by revolting. Nice try. An irony not apparent in the most recent entry in the media paranoia sweepstakes: Wag the Dog.
Now we have the new nihilism, best represented by the Barry Levinson-directed film. Robert DiNiro stars as Connie Brean, the powerful, undercover, presidential media-fixer with a lethal touch, and Dustin Hoffman, who plays the prototype, self centered, oily Robert Evans-type producer (Stanley Motss, the "t" is silent), who nevertheless has drive, eternal optimism and panache to get any production made.
Together these two guys create a fake war between the U.S. and Albania, with media mirrors and major manipulation assistance from virtual reality computer wizardry designed for TV news. "Why Albania? What did they ever do to us? What did they ever do for us?" asks Brean in the film. The goal of the war diversion? To save the unseen president's election skin after he allegedly cops a feel of a Firefly (read: Girl Scout) visiting the White House.
Depending 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--the interconnected web of politics, Hollywood and the media. 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, Web sites and various other sources of entertainment, virtually any reality is possible.
Wag the Dog represents a long tradition of using Hollywood and creating images on behalf of making and breaking war, dating back to the Spanish American War. Brean provides some examples of the powerful images: naked Vietnamese girl covered in napalm burns; five U.S. Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima; British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's V for victory. "You'll remember the picture 50 years from now, they'll have forgotten the war. 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. Bizarrely, the only input the president has in the fake war scheme is to decide he wants a calico cat used in the fake Anne Frank-like scene in "Albania" on the movie set. Throughout Wag the Dog, we see technology, music, slogans and images--the best of Hollywood--all at the service of creating a virtual reality of no truth.
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.
Initially I was torn by Wag the Dog. I was taken aback by how subversive the film appeared to be. These days we don't get much political satire out of Hollywood. Some movies stick with you and you replay them with delight; others start to turn on second and third thinking ... which is what happened with Wag the Dog.
The film has some big holes. Washington Post writer Stephen Hunter takes the film to task for it's naivete. A defender of the 4th Estate, Hunter writes: "It's really unsophisticated about press culture and gullibility ... Any moderately experienced reporter would prick this balloon with a half an hour's worth of phone calls and begin to organize his Pulitzer acceptance speech ... his book contract."
New York Magazine 's David Denby explains: "Now satire doesn't have to be responsible, but it does have to be internally coherent, and this idea, however funny, is so extremely opportunistic ... that it falls into a variety of contradictions of it's own making."
The message of Wag the Dog is that our news media, the watchdogs of democracy, is so stupid or corrupt or both, and is so easily manipulated that it will cooperate in any lame-brain scheme. The great acting and especially the film's fast moving, wisecracking, disturbingly likable political manipulator Brean is very seductive, drawing us in to a sweet, funny, nefarious world where it all seems just honkey-dory. I know this is satire, but why aren't I happy? Unfortunately this is not the satire of Stanley Kubrick's Cold War farce Dr. Strangelove or Tim Robbins' ultra rightwing folksinger/senatorial candidate in Bob Roberts --it's satire with no way out.
Wag the Dog is so dark that it provides no environment for encouraging questions. It has no moral force, no redeeming character, no center of conscience. The Anne Heche character, DiNiro's sidekick, a youngish presidential aide, is chillingly played as an ambitious yuppie who never says no.
On the question of cynicism, director Levinson says, "Yes, the movie is cynical. That's the point. But it makes the audience ask questions."
Presidential aide Heche disagrees, but describes to the Boston Globe how it provokes questions: "I don't think it's cynical; I think it is truthful ... we are not being told all of the truth about what goes on in this world. And the reason we're not being told is that we don't ask to be told. The point of a film like this is to get people to question just how much of the truth they are being told."
There is a sleight of hand here. We're being told that this kind of movie makes for a better democracy, but that is far from clear. Exactly what questions for the citizenry are provoked by Wag the Dog ? Do we really know so very little about what's going on? Is there anything we could do about it if we wanted to? And most likely the inevitable: Am I paranoid?
How did Levinson get to making this movie, written by the famed wordsmith David Mamet? Apparently Levinson didn't like the first script written by Hillary Henkin, nor did he like the book on which the film is supposed to be based, American Hero by Larry Beinhart. American Hero, a terrifically funny book about how a real war--Desert Storm--could have been created for television.
Levinson, however, was struck by one thing: "The only thing I responded to is the idea of faking, not a whole war, which is what the book gets into, but the idea that you could float out some visuals as a diversion." Enter Mamet, who claims that he didn't even read American Hero, which is too bad.
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 tubes, 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 DiNiro 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."
It looks like James Bond had the right idea. But in the future he may have to tackle both the media moguls and the political leaders if he is going to stop the next war.
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Web extra the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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