Archive for the ‘Media’ Category


November 9, 2015


Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, tells the story of the widely criticized CBS News report about Bush’s National Guard service. The controversy around the report resulted in several people losing their jobs, and it forced Dan Rather into early retirement.

Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a producer for CBS News. She organizes an investigation into Bush’s National Guard service during the 1970’s, specifically as to whether he received preferential treatment and whether he went AWOL at one point. Mapes is contacted by a former National Guard officer, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), who gives her documents allegedly written by a now deceased National Guard officer, which are highly critical of Bush. The documents are used in a 60 Minutes report. Almost immediately, the Internet is flooded with accusations that the documents are forged.

I found Truth to be an intelligent and compelling drama, despite some hokey moments. The acting is quite good; Cate Blanchett is affecting as Mapes. However, there were some things about the film that bothered me. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Vanderbilt goes out of his way to depict Bill Burkett in a sympathetic light, despite the fact the he lied to Mapes about how he obtained the documents. This seems odd, especially since there is very good reason to believe that Burkett may have been the one who forged the documents. The paper trail ends with Burkett, and he possessed the necessary knowledge to write the documents. Also the film doesn’t mention that Burkett was an outspoken critic of Bush before he produced the documents, which was something that Mapes must have been aware of.

In one scene, a character makes a speech about corporate control of the news media. Although I think corporate control is a problem, I don’t think it has any bearing on this incident, and the film doesn’t make a convincing case that it does.

Truth does make a valid point that the pressure of deadlines can lead reporters to make unwise decisions. However, I think Mapes should have known better than to use the documents from Burkett in the report.

In my opinion, the The New York Times’s coverage of Iraq during the build-up to the Iraq war was far more egregious than what Mapes and CBS News did, since it created support for an illegal war. Yet only one person there, Judith Miller, lost her job because of it. I think this says something about the media’s priorities.

Best of Enemies

September 14, 2015


Best of Enemies is a documentary about the series of “debates” that took place between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It’s an odd film, since it typifies the very phenomenon that it seeks to criticize. The film alleges that these debates were the beginning of the “talking heads” approach to news programming, and it alleges that political discourse is the poorer in this country because of this. Yet in its own narrow focus on the personalities of the two men, the film merely becomes an example of this same approach. There is little discussion of the issues that the two men debated – quite important issues the included the Vietnam War, poverty, and the right to protest.

This film is more-or-less even-handed in its depiction of the two men, with interviews with friends and admirers of both of them. It probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of either one of them. There are some amusing moments, but because of its shallowness, it never really rises above the level of fluff.

What Donald Trump Tells Us About Ourselves

July 23, 2015


I normally don’t watch CNN, but they show it on the TV at the food court at my local Gelson’s, so I couldn’t help watching it while I was waiting to use the men’s room. Donald Trump had given a speech at a retirement community somewhere, and he had gotten a good reception. However, one woman who was interviewed said, “He frightens me.” When asked why she gone had to see his speech anyway, she said, “He’s a celebrity.” Trumps’ candidacy shows the triumph of celebrity in our society. Trump is a celebrity, so he must be listened to. Fame trumps all other considerations.

Trump first came to national attention during the 1980’s. The eighties were a decade of make-believe. President Reagan presided over a humiliating military retreat from Lebanon, nevertheless we were told that he had made America “great again”; he had shown the world that we were not to be trifled with! Trump was another fantasy. A man who filed for bankruptcy three times, he was touted as a financial wizard, a man who had mastered “the art of the deal”. Does the re-emergence of Trump suggest that we are heading into another period of make-believe? Perhaps we don’t want to deal with the disappointments we’ve had. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a bust. Obama’s promised “hope and change” have merely been a weak economic recovery and a deeply flawed health care bill. Trump offers us a fantasy world in which one only has to proclaim oneself great, and – hey presto! – one is automatically great.

The election of Ronald Reagan was seen as a symbol of how movies have come to dominate our culture. Trump promises to do the same thing for tacky reality TV shows.

The Diminishing of Christopher Hitchens

March 14, 2015


A foundation has recently announced that it will be handing out an annual journalism award named after Christopher Hitchens. One of the judges for this award will be Christopher “Thanks, Dad!” Buckley, so you know beforehand that this will be yet another meaningless award that we can all safely ignore.

I stopped paying attention to Hitchens back in 2001, when he wrote that the 9/11 attacks gave him a feeling of “exhilaration”. (Katha Pollitt rightly called this “childishness”.) At the time, I made the naive, but nonetheless reasonable, assumption that everyone else had done the same thing. I gradually became aware that I was sadly mistaken about this. (Personal disclosure: I never met Hitchens, but he once spat a cigarette at a friend of mine.) Hitchens became a noisy advocate for the illegal invasion of Iraq. In spite of this, Hitchens is greatly admired today, but he is admired for the wrong reasons.

Hitchens’s most important work is also his least influential: The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he convincingly argued that Kissinger is a war criminal and possibly a traitor as well. Today, Kissinger is widely feted, and he even makes appearances on comedy shows. When an anti-war group recently interrupted Kissinger’s testimony before a Senate Committee, Sen. John McCain called them “low-life scum”. McCain apparently doesn’t mind the fact that he spent six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp because Nixon and Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War. Such forgiveness is truly touching to see. (This same McCain once said that he wouldn’t mind if US troops were in Iraq for the next 100 years. This is masochism as foreign policy.)

According to Vanity Fair: “… the foundation intends both the prize and the award ceremony to celebrate and draw public attention to the values that marked Christopher Hitchens’s life and career…” What it will actually celebrate is the moral bankruptcy of our society.

Why I’m Glad That ‘The Colbert Report’ Has Come to an End

December 23, 2014


Stephen Colbert is a talented guy who has often made me laugh, but I must admit that I’m glad his faux-news show has come to end. On his final show, one of Colbert’s guests was Henry Kissinger. This was Kissinger’s second appearance on the Report. Earlier this year he appeared in a comedy sketch with Colbert. So, Colbert has had the rare distinction of doing comedy with a war criminal.

This shows us the limitation of Colbert’s approach to political satire. Through it, politicians come to be seen as simply funny people who say and do funny things that Colbert gets to poke fun at. What gets lost sight of here is that these people make decisions that hurt other people. And Kissinger made decisions that caused unimaginable suffering.

I wish Colbert good luck with his new talk show. I just hope that he leaves political satire to people who actually care.

When Bad Things Happen to Bad People

December 6, 2014


The Silicon Valley billionaire, Chris Hughes, has bought The New Republic. He has fired two of the editors, Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier, and he has announced he is going to transform the journal into a “digital media company”. This has provoked a great gnashing of teeth and howls of outrage from journalists. “One of journalism’s great publications” (according to The Daily Beast) is being destroyed. I, for one, can only say “Good riddance”. This illiberal “liberal” magazine has been an eyesore on newsstands for as long as I can remember. The writers and editors at TNR have been wrong on almost every major issue of the past thirty years. They supported the contras. They supported the welfare “reform” act. They supported the invasion of Iraq. TNR did, however, provide us with some schadenfreude when its best writer was exposed as a pathological liar, which was the only good it ever did. So, more power to you, Chris Hayes. Burn this house down!

Rumor has it that National Review is also in trouble. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Some Thoughts about Bill Cosby

November 21, 2014


The accusations against Bill Cosby have left me feeling conflicted. I grew up listening to his early comedy albums and watching his TV specials. I would listen to his records with my friends and my brothers and sometimes with my whole family. I recently re-listened to some of the routines from those old albums, and I must say that they hold up pretty well.

During the 1970’s, however, I began to lose interest in Cosby. First, he produced a Saturday morning cartoon show called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which flattened all the subtlety and nuance that had made his childhood stories funny. (The fact that the show was “educational” only made it worse. Comedy isn’t supposed to be educational.) Then there were the TV commercials. Jello pudding and Jello pudding pops. He did a commercial for Hi-C, in which, with a perfectly straight face, he assured us that this soft drink is good for us because it contains “ten percent real fruit juice”. He was the pitchman for Coca-Cola during the “New Coke” fiasco. (Spy magazine once called Cosby “grimly unavoidable”.) It seemed to me that Cosby had ceased to be a comedian and had become a brand. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the accusations against Cosby date back to this period.)

I never watched Cosby’s 1980’s TV show. For all I knew, it may have been funny, but I didn’t really care. For me, Cosby was someone who had started out being really cool and had become uncool. I could never get over my disappointment.

Whether or not the accusations against Cosby prove to be true, I will always think fondly of his early comedy. It seems to me that he is someone who got lost.

Kill the Messenger

November 16, 2014


Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman, tells the story of Gary Webb, the journalist who reported on contra drug-dealing in the US, and who was blacklisted by the news media for his efforts. The film follows Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he gradually uncovers the story and then writes about it for the San Jose Mercury News. The article causes a sensation, but then it immediately comes under attack from major news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Webb then struggles to defend the article, as well as his reputation.

An interesting question here is: why was Webb’s article so controversial? I remember during the 1980’s hearing rumors that the contras were running drugs. A Senate committee eventually confirmed this as true. So why did Webb’s revelations upset so many people? I can only guess it was because Webb drew an explicit connection between the contras and the crack cocaine epidemic that swept South-Central Los Angeles in the 1980’s. I remember at the time, some journalists expressed fear of “black anger” as a result of Webb’s article.

This film suggests another possible motive: reporters at major newspapers were incensed that they had been scooped by a mid-size paper. Webb was, in that respect, a victim of the news media pecking order. What this movie also makes clear is the extraordinary vindictiveness of these people: even after the CIA admitted that Webb’s story was basically true, he was unable to get work at any newspaper.

Kill the Messenger is a tribute to a courageous reporter.


November 3, 2014


Filmmakers seem to have it in for the news media nowadays. First there was Gone Girl, and now there is Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. (There is also Kill the Messenger, about the media’s trashing of Gary Webb, which I have yet to see.)

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief living in Los Angeles. One night he sees a freelance camera crew filming an accident. He gets the idea that he might be able to make a living this way. He steals an expensive bicycle, and he takes it to a pawn shop and trades it in for a camcorder and a police scanner. He struggles at first, but then he manages to get some graphic footage of a crime scene. He takes it to a local TV station. The station manager, Nina Romina (Rene Russo) buys the film, and she offers him advice on what things to look for. Louis then hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). Louis sees an enormous opportunity for himself when he arrives at a home invasion before the police do.

Louis Bloom speaks in a mixture of self-help cliches and technocratic jargon. At times he sounds almost as though he were giving a TED talk. (I have had bosses who have said some of the same things to me that Bloom says to people.) He is an embodiment of our society’s penchant for hype and boosterism. Yet underneath his glib facade is a man with no empathy for other people, who is willing to commit murder just to get ahead. The film implies that it is these very qualities that make it possible for Louis to be so successful at what he does.

Nina tells Louis that her station promotes the idea that urban crime is spreading into suburban areas. She tells him that she prefers him to cover crimes in wealthy neighborhoods in which the victims are white. She is open and honest about the station’s fearmongering.

Nightcrawler is a powerful indictment of the news media.

Gone Girl

October 29, 2014


Gone Girl is a film directed by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based upon her own novel. The film is a thriller with elements of social criticism in it.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home one day to find that his house has apparently been broken into and that his wife, Amy (Amanda Pike) is missing. During the subsequent police investigation, Nick makes conflicting statements, and it is gradually revealed that he was emotionally estranged form Amy. Because Amy is the daughter of a writer of a popular series of children’s books, the case draws national attention. Suspicion begins to grow among both the police and the public that Nick murdered Amy. Nick’s sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), is suspected of being his accomplice.

What I found most interesting about this film is its devastating portrayal of the news media. Many of the events in this film are driven by a cable news reporter named Ellen Abbot (Missi Pyle), a character who is clearly modeled after Nancy Grace. Her sensationalist and biased reporting on the case help to create a lynch mob atmosphere in the small town in which Nick and Margo live. Gone Girl depicts the destructive effects of news reporters who try to identify “good guys” and “bad guys” in every situation, even though reality is rarely ever that simple. (I would argue that a similar criticism could be made of the Left, but I won’t go into that here.)


The early scenes create a strong feeling of suspense, as well as of foreboding. However, when, about halfway through the film, we learn what actually happened to Amy, it becomes basically a melodrama, and a somewhat cynical one at that. The film implies that the reason for Amy’s destructive behavior is that she is an emotionally needy sociopath. There is, however, a vague class consciousness here as well. Amy has a trust fund from her parents, and it appears that a sense of entitlement is part of her emotional make-up.

There is some psychological nuance, however. When Amy sees Nick apologize to her on TV for his behavior towards her, she decides to go back to him. Later, Nick tells Amy that he didn’t really mean it when he made that apology. She tells him she doesn’t care, that she would be happy to have him pretend to be the person he was at that moment. It’s clear at this point that Amy sees little distinction between fiction and reality. This may have something to do with the fact that Amy’s mother used her as the fictionalized subject of her children’s books.

And there is a deeper social criticism here as well. This film implies that many of us are like Amy: we are attracted to fake sentiment. After Amy returns, the media accept her implausible story of being kidnapped. People want to believe her story is true. Someone suggests that Nick and Amy should be in a “reality” TV show. Later, when Nick threatens to leave their loveless marriage, Amy tells him that the public will hate him for it. At this point, the public has become an almost tangible presence in their household. They are aware that they are constantly being watched by the media. Their fake marriage appeals to a society that watches obviously staged “reality” TV shows. At one point, Margo suggests to Nick that he too has come to like the spectacle of their fake marriage.

This movie goes on a bit long. Some things could have been cut out of it. Still, for all its flaws, Gone Girl is the most interesting and thought-provoking American film that I have seen in a long time.