Is it fact? Or is it fiction? – sensationalism in TV news; realism in movies

Is it fact? Or is it fiction? – sensationalism in TV news; realism in movies – Cover Story

Deborah Baldwin

From Hollywood to the 6 o’clock news, it’s getting harder and harder to tell.

“Everything looks real, and therefore it is real; in any case the fact that it seems real is real, and the thing is real even if, like Alice in Wonderland, it never existed.”

– Umberto Eco, writing about Ripley’s Museums in Travels in Hyperreality

Something is happening in Hollywood that makes going to the movies a little like reading the Washington Post, only with better pictures.

Eddie Murphy recently starred in a send-up of Congress called The Distinguished Gentleman, featuring bribery masked as honoraria fees (the target of multiple news media exposes during the 1980s), amoral interest-group lobbyists (ditto) and earnest public-interest advocates pitted against a corrupt establishment.

Tim Robbins, in Bob Roberts, played a political candidate who bore an eerie resemblance to Oliver North. Kevin Kline was Dave, an honest citizen who stumbled into the White House, discovered incompetence and deceit, fought the chief of staff and won. The cast of bad guys in The Fugitive managed to include Washington’s very own Food and Drug Administration, in cahoots with a bad drug company. And Clint Eastwood, playing a Secret Service agent (In the Line of Fire), tangled with a homicidal ex-CIA employee who got close to the president of the United States by donating $50,000 in “soft money” to his reelection campaign.

Common Cause Magazine, you might say, on the Big Screen.

The book industry joined right in. Joyce Carol Oates wrote Black Water, a novel thinly based on the Ted Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, while novelist Brian Moore turned Haiti and its embattled leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide into the novel No Other Life. Carl Hiaasen, a columnist at the Miami Herald, penned a political potboiler called Strip Tease with a plot so “outrageously far-fetched” (to quote the New York Times) that it featured a congressman who – brace yourself – takes money from millionaire sugar barons.

But if books and motion pictures seem more interested than usual in real-life events, often the news media seem to spin the other way, borrowing tactics from the entertainment industry and raising an interesting issue for the average distracted American: Where did I see this before? Is it true, or is it fiction?

And does it matter?

For anyone who depends on the media for information about the real world, the answer is bound to be yes. As if learning the truth about anything weren’t hard enough, we must now deal with news producers whose idea of a good story is heavily influenced by prime-time docudramas, and with docudrama producers whose idea of good story is the latest heartbreaking news – plus or minus a few facts.

Critics who keep an eye on eroding standards in the broadcast and publishing industries blame a number of forces for the muddle of fact and fiction all around us, including media owners obsessed with the bottom line, advertisers who cheapen the language, academic “relativists” who question the truth of just about everything, politicians who can’t distinguish between truth and fantasy, and a public with an insatiable appetite for those delicious morsels about celebrities that substitute for knowledge in today’s culture. In a rush to pander to the market, critics say, the media are sacrificing a comforting, if occasionally misplaced, assumption: that we can turn on the 6 o’clock news or open a newspaper, nonfiction book or newsmagazine, and learn something close to what really happened.

Not that the blurring of fact and fiction is exactly new.

After posting an inquiry on today’s version of a campus bulletin board – an electronic message service called PROFNet – Common Cause Magazine heard from a dozen academic experts who spoke of the phenomenon as a great American tradition. Newsreels about the Spanish-American war were staged in New Jersey with actors, according to Robert Branham, a professor at Bates College. Fictional films, including such classics as Medium Cool and Dr. Strangelove, long ago made use of government and/or news footage, and Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane, which includes footage from real-looking fake newsreels, is a made-up story based on the actual life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The earliest novels, written in the 1600s, were based on the lives of certain French aristocrats, according to University of Rochester professor Thomas DiPiero. And in a manner that would make a made-for-TV producer proud, Shakespeare helped himself to the lives of celebs like King Henry V.

Asked about the way Hollywood and the news media carry on today, some of the professors were philosophical. Others, referring to close encounters with students raised on television, seemed appalled by the way changing technology is making it easier and easier to mix up phony facts, films and photographs with real ones.

All in all, 1993 was a bad year for those who worry about Americans losing their grip on reality. Joe McGinniss, author of an “interpretive biography” of Ted Kennedy, took heat from critics exercised by the book’s blend of fact and fiction. Dubbing the book “virtual biography,” Boston Globe writer Gail Caldwell observed, “Artifice and image have not only eclipsed our material culture, they’ve become it. Never has the truth seemed so anachronistic, or reality so manipulable.” The critics found it all the more maddening that McGinniss reportedly landed a $2 million advance for the book, which was published by Paramount Communications subsidiary Simon & Schuster and sold to TV.

The only Hollywood touch missing from Dateline NBC’s test-crash torching of a GM truck was a stuntman. True crime shows (Cops, Top Cops), using videotape acquired during actual busts, made convincing recreations – minus any footage that would make the suspects look sympathetic or embarrass the police, according to a first-person account by a former production aide in the November issue of Harper’s. TV docudramas swept audiences from Waco, Texas, to the tribulations of Baby Jessica and Amy Fisher and back, with barely a pause for reflection. Time got duped into publishing staged photographs of child prostitutes in Moscow. Newspaper editors struggled with the ethics of using photographs that are transmitted (and thus easily altered) by computer, mindful of the controversy that arose when National Geographic published a picture of the Great Pyramids that had been edited electronically to bring the pyramids closer together.

This was the year NBC Nightly News ginned up pictures of dead fish to show the effects of clearcutting, only to apologize later because the fish were neither dead nor from the area in question. This was also the year an editor at the prestigious New Yorker said without apology that he stitched together material from several interviews and relocated the supposed conversation in order to make a nonfiction article read better.

These are, of course, notable exceptions to general journalistic practice. But they nonetheless give pause to a number of media critics, among them University of Massachusetts journalism professor Howard Ziff, who worries that his students have become so accustomed to hybrids of fact and fiction that they no longer get the difference. Referring to the scandal that arose 13 years ago, when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a story about a child drug addict, he says that today “a strong case can be made, a mistaken one, that she was doing the right thing, that there was a `larger truth.’ My students have a kind of naive or sophomoric view that truth is malleable,” and reporters have a license to shape and change content to reflect their views.

Concern about the reliability of the news media often focuses on television because it tends to value entertainment and immediacy at the expense of accuracy and context. TV “news magazines” have become so popular they’re under pressure to out-perform one another, and they make so much money for the networks (partly because they’re cheap to produce) that they’re beginning to influence the regular news programs. Freelance video journalists, feeling a special need to compete, are sometimes tempted to make things up: In one case described by a journalist stationed in Hong Kong, a freelancer fabricated a feature about a Chinese entrepreneur and his family, complete with compelling footage of the Great Wall, and sold the bill of goods to a global TV wire service.

Back in New York, the competition for cheaply acquired ratings has inspired six 60 Minutes wannabes, all of them under pressure, like Dateline, to produce dramatic visuals. And all of them influenced, points out Stephen Hess, who tracks the media for the Brookings Institution, by 60 Minutes’ heavy use of such Hollywood techniques as focusing the camera in on the subject/villain while maintaining a respectful distance from the narrative-controlling reporter/hero.

Hess believes some of the most egregious examples of the dictum “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” can be found in the print media. McGinniss’s The Last Brother may be a bad book, in other words, but in some ways it is the logical extension of countless similar attempts to take raw factual material and embroider it in the interests of a good story. As one Washington Post writer put it, “McGinniss’s real misfortune was to become a symbol of the excesses of contemporary nonfiction.”

Hess traces the origins of such excesses to books like Woodward and Bernstein’s Final Days, which recreated scenes like the one where President Nixon kneels on the floor to pray, and before that The New Yorker, which helped launch a relatively benign form of New Journalism that led the way for bigger problems.

Not only did the well-known weekly introduce narrative writing and other trappings of fiction into nonfiction writing during the 1960s (it published Truman Capote’s critically acclaimed “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, in 1965), but it has on occasion taken some unusual liberties with such basic tenets of journalism as getting people’s names and identities right. Nearly 10 years ago, staff writer Alastair Reid announced that in an effort to make his stories about Spain more colorful he had fashioned composite conversations and even the people who had them. More recently the magazine’s highly regarded reporter Janet Malcolm was found guilty of misquoting and libeling a psychoanalyst whom she profiled 10 years ago. Malcolm defended the practice of weaving together a series of interviews, and clearly the jury felt ambivalent, reaching a verdict but awarding no money.

In an appendage to one of her investigative series, published in book form as The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm goes to pains to point out the absurdity of quoting people exactly the way they talk, complete with ums and ahs and unfinished sentences. The question, however, is not whether it makes sense to make sentence fragments whole but whether to put words in a subject’s mouth. Malcolm’s “saying people don’t talk coherently and it’s a service to the reader to get to the heart of what they’re saying – I don’t dismiss that out of hand,” says Ziff, a former newspaper reporter. But the problem of deciding where to stop in terms of smoothing out language, he adds, should “arise from the standard that quotes should be verbatim. If you start [with the assumption] that you are the arbiter of this `construction,’ you’re in a terrible bind.”

What makes television different, says Penn State professor Steven Knowlton, co-editor of the new book The Journalist’s Moral Compass, is its crushing need for visual drama, which can push producers to embellish upon the facts. And the tragedy, he says, is that often the embellishment is unnecessary. Dateline’s producers had the goods on the GM truck; when they cheated a little to ensure that their report ended with a bang – literally – they lost the story as well as their high moral ground, giving GM ammunition to retaliate and diminishing the credibility of the news media.

Knowlton says it doesn’t have to be this way. Overall, journalism ethics are stronger today than 20 years ago, he says, and he is heartened by the high moral principles he finds among his students – even if many of them suspect you have to hide those principles to compete in the workplace. The answer to bad TV, he says, is for audiences to demand better-quality journalism. As he sees it, the current phenomenon “seems to be if you lower your expectations you won’t be disappointed.”

Others think TV is too far gone to fix. “I’m very pessimistic,” says Stephen Hess, making mention of media-tobacco-insurance tycoon Laurence Tisch, who runs CBS. “You can shame The New Yorker. I don’t think you can get to TV.” The network bigwigs may not even be willing to listen to their own superstars: The silence was deafening after CBS anchor Dan Rather recently complained, “They’ve got us putting more and more fuzz and wuzz on the air … so as to compete not with other news programs but with entertainment programs, including those posing as news programs….”

As the news media thrash around with the ethics of simplifying complicated, ambiguous events, academia has been beset by a struggle over the very nature of truth and the way in which it is revealed.

Much of this is a healthy debate about the many cultural distortions that influence the teaching of history, literature and so on, as well as a recognition of the social and political factors that influence art forms like photography and documentary film. The debate over how to recognize and deal with these influences has spilled over into criticism of the news media’s very definition of news and how it is presented – as well as the shortcomings of the visual media themselves.

Some of these shortcomings are a product of technological progress. Digital photography, for example, enables news organizations to “download” images over computer lines quickly and any piece of the picture, without leaving a trace, just as fast. An argument about the ethics of making editorial changes in supposedly “realistic” photographs erupted at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year when the paper removed a stray Coke can from a portrait of an award-winning photographer (a controversy celebrated by the introduction of bouncing Coke-can screen savers on Post-Dispatch computers). J.D. Whitmire, who teaches electronic photojournalism at the University of Missouri, says the question of whether it is ever appropriate to alter photographs is a matter of hot debate. Generally, says Charles Cooper, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, it’s considered acceptable to use “photo illustrations” in, say, the food section, but verboten to use them in connection with real news.

TV news footage is another ball of wax. With today’s sophisticated equipment, the problem is deciding which images go on the air, how they are edited and how the “story” is framed.

The twin pressures of short audience attention spans and the corporate bottom line were recently reflected in the networks’ airing of three seconds of racially charged footage of an American soldier’s corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. This tiny segment hardly comprised the “truth” about Somalia, yet arguably was a prime factor in the U.S. decision to withdraw. At the same time, it is hard to picture a news producer who would turn the footage down. After all, the incident did happen.

Might the story have been done another way? Depends on whom you ask. Some say it would be hard to put the event in the proper in-depth context on any news program. Others say in cases like this the networks simply need a push to do the right thing. Knowlton argues, for example, that news executives at least discussed the possibility that they were handling the Somalia footage sensationally before making the decision to go ahead and do it anyway.

Of course, in the realm of the theoretical, communications PhDs devote their days to discussions of how all news is “constructed.” And in fact, when video does come our way unedited, the impact can be stunning. Consider the raw footage of a robbery-in-progress that was taken from a store’s video monitor and aired on local Washington TV this fall.

Documentaries, because they filter truth through the director’s prism, typically carry a strong point of view, even though the average viewer may assume they represent objective “facts.” A powerful inducement, says Brian Henderson, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the narrator’s voice, which sounds authoritative whether it’s a deep-throated Dateline anchor talking about exploding trucks or David McCullough’s voice-over during the highly praised PBS series on the Civil War. “We pay attention to the voice,” Henderson says, “and the image is an implicit illustration …. It’s hard to be critical of both at the same time.”

Students of the documentary art form often praise filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who presents a strong point of view without story-manipulating narrations; similarly, filmmaker Errol Morris gets points for his post-modern, narration-less Thin Blue Line, which was only partly about a man unfairly convicted of murder, as more than one film professor hastens to point out; mostly it was about the business of finding the truth and getting it on film.

Pointing to what he believes is the phoniness of many documentaries, MIT media professor Henry Jenkins says, somewhat perversely, “Docudrama is more healthy because it signals that it is constructed … and invites us to think more closely” about the way reality is altered in the media, presumably reminding today’s sophisticated, media-savvy audiences that they should be wary of everything they see on TV.

“It’d be easy to be an alarmist, but it’s part and parcel of our culture,” Jenkins says of the many ways fact and fiction abut in the popular culture. A sitcom like Murphy Brown will incorporate real news events like then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticizing Murphy Brown because we live in a “heavily mediated culture,” he says. “Murphy Brown and Quayle both came into my living room the same way,” he adds, and furthermore, politicians, like Hollywood celebrities, are both fashioned and packaged by media handlers. So it actually makes sense, Jenkins argues, to blend real politics and fake film scenarios.

Sometimes the same people are consulting on the film and the candidate. The wordsmith responsible for the movie Dave also contributed material to a speech given by President Clinton. Before moving to Hollywood to write and produce The Distinguished Gentleman, Marty Kaplan worked for the Democrats. So did Patrick Caddell, who helped make In the Line of Fire. (“He added a lot of nice touches that gave a sense of reality,” the movie’s executive producer commented later.)

But is this something to be happy about? And what about Jenkins’s strange fondness for docudrama?

Among critics of the genre, the worst example of what can happen when a clever moviemaker plays with the facts is Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, which they say presented a wildly inaccurate version of the Kennedy assassination but in such an effective way – the use of a short piece of grainy, black and white footage in particular seemed to convey reality – that it exploited the credulity of viewers too young to recall the real event.

The movie resonated partly because no one believes the whole story of the assassination ever became public. But critics say that hardly excuses Stone from failing to include a disclaimer to the effect that he had filled the vacuum with equal parts of stray evidence and whole-cloth supposition.

At a standing-room-only panel discussion called “Hollywood & History: The Debate Over JFK,” hosted by the Nation Institute at the Town Hall theater in New York last fall, nonfiction author (and Warren Commission historian) Edward Jay Epstein said, “I’m going to be in a minority [and argue] there is a difference between fiction and nonfiction, and I don’t believe the difference is trivial. Both are forms of knowledge, and both can strive for the truth. But [the] nonfiction writer is bound by the universe of discoverable fact. When he reaches the limits of that universe he stops…[while in fiction! he uses his imagination to fill in the gaps.” When writers try to mix the two, Epstein said, the result is not a hybrid but “pure fiction.”

The audience was more sympathetic to an apologia from Hollywood writer Nora Ephron, who argued that fiction can get at larger truths than fact. After bitterly describing how the country’s most prestigious newspaper attacked her version of the truth in the screenplay for Silkwood, a 1983 Hollywood movie based on a frontpage news story, Ephron said to applause, “A docudrama, in case you don’t know, is a movie the New York Times disagrees with the politics of.”

“We wrote a character who was considerably closer to whoever [nuclear power plant whistleblower! Karen Silkwood was than the person who had been written about in journalistic accounts,” she insisted, and she praised Stone for similarly venturing to cover material journalists claim as theirs alone.

Norman Mailer, who has blended fact and fiction in such works as Armies of the Night, was similarly disposed to appreciate Stone’s efforts. He basically offered the director credit for countering one inaccurate myth with another, noting, “No film could ever be made of the Kennedy assassination that would be accurate,” and suggesting that government lies and coverups were to blame for 20 years’ worth of conspiracy theories. If young viewers were getting the wrong version of events from JFK, Mailer said, “One can only shrug,” a view echoed by Ephron, who went on to deride journalists for foolishly believing that a more-accurate-than-thou narrative can spring from conventional reporting.

Stone ended the panel discussion as if to fulfill his critics’ worst nightmares. “Even if I am totally wrong, Mr. Epstein, I am right,” he said, adding, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in the ’90s, must reflect the tragic realism of repressed and ignorant masses still imprisoned in a single-party superstate with its own cold war police, religion and culture.”

Clearly, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which featured Jimmy Stewart in the role of an idealistic young politician who fights the forces of corruption in Congress, was “not a political scientist’s view of how things work in Washington,” says Marquette University professor John McAdams, and neither was Stone’s JFK a historian’s view of what happened in Dallas. McAdams, who teaches a course about Kennedy’s assassination, beginning with a careful viewing of the flaws in JFK, says it’s important to understand that our culture searches for dramatic, simplistic narratives to explain why things happen.

“People generally are uncomfortable with ambiguity,” McAdams says, “and this creates a bias toward movies with heroes and villains.” Stone’s version of reality “invests the assassination with tremendous significance. But if Oswald had a lousy childhood and just happened to work in the schoolbook depository, that invests the event with no significance. It becomes a random event, random terror, and people don’t want to believe history moves that way.”

McAdams goes on to criticize Capra’s famed movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which he says created a myth about the nobility of family-owned savings and loans. The movie’s treacly “Capra-corn,” McAdams claims, contributed to the nation’s complacency when S&Ls began pouring money into shoddy real estate deals during die 1980s.

While it may seem like a stretch to blame Frank Capra for the S&L disaster, McAdams isn’t the only critic to see a reverse flow of influence: from fiction to reality, not the other way around.

The search for a narrative thread in today’s complex world may compel us to organize information with the help of frameworks provided in fiction. Witness how helpful the 1979 movie The China Syndrome was in understanding the nuclear near-disaster at Three Mile Island, which occurred after the movie’s release. And it’s no coincidence, media critic Mark Crispin Miller has pointed out, that the Pentagon packaged the Gulf War in a manner less reminiscent of the news than of shoot-’em-up-cowboys director John Ford.

Of course, spend too much time in academia, or too much time at the video store, and pretty soon everything you see in the news looks as if it came from the movies. Cornell professor Timothy Murray, with apparent straight face, argues that a real-life woman in White Plains, N.Y., went to trial for shooting her lover’s wife because the prosecutor took the movie Fatal Attraction to heart, overlooking the possibility that the wife had been assailed by her husband.

Lapsing into language that becomes familiar after a sixth or seventh conversation with a media theorist, Murray explains that “fictional models permeate factual discourse.” In other words, we use fiction to shape our understanding of fact. The more the facts in a given case are disputed, he adds, the more likely a TV or cinematic version of events will shape public opinion.

From Murray’s point of view, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings weren’t really a search for Supreme Court nominee. They were a film about a mischievous kid caught in a porno shop by a vengeful, neurotic woman. Both main characters in this melodrama “bore the imprint of American cinematic behavior,” Murray says, but Hill, who carried the weight of numerous “crazy, spumed women films,” ended up (at least initially) as less credible.

And anyone who thinks the hearings were aired in the interest of furthering public understanding of the Supreme Court nomination process, Murray adds, missed the point: The hearings were on TV because they were “awfully good docudrama.”

Assuming he’s right, and such fare is indeed responsible for the terrible state of gender politics in this country, it’s no surprise that Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) had a familiar-sounding explanation when accused of sexual harassment last year. Sidestepping the facts in the case, he simply labeled his accusers “spurred and revengeful” and hoped public opinion – aided by fiction, which is aided by fact – would do the rest.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Common Cause Magazine

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