Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Time Travel Journalism

I'm burying the lead with that title, because this is actually about the experience of re-watching All The President's Men last week with the perspective of being on the far side of the millennium. If you haven't seen (or seen in a while) the film, it's streaming right now on Amazon Prime and you should check it out.

Most people agree the 70s were a pretty fertile time for American films and I'd make a case that All The President's Men marks a turning point in pop culture, politics, pop journalism, and film. Released in 1976, after Jaws planted the flag on the beachhead of summer blockbuster paradigms in 1975, but before Star Wars swung the entire industry to that model a year later. ATPM grossed $70m and won four Academy Awards, including ones for Best Supporting Actor and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

The 70s, although separated from us temporally by a good four decades, were not as far off as we may like to think. Economic problems, although of a different nature, were common. Inflation, income disparity, an oil crisis. Unrest in the Middle East, as well as tensions with the Soviet Bloc. Racial strife. And, oh my, distrust in the political system, largely cause by the Watergate cover-up, ending with the resignation of a sitting President.

Despite this past year's accolades for Spotlight, it's worth remembering that ATPM was one of the first modern journalist-as-hero movies to grab the popular spotlight. The cover-up motifs that run through each work are highlighted by the unthinkable reality that the perpetrators of the cover-ups were people abusing sacred trusts. As print journalism continues its long painful death spiral, there is something refreshingly innocent about characters righteously pursuing the truth and publishing it. Not some crazy little blog (kinda like this one), but in a national daily, read by millions.

ATPM has a certain tightness of story that you don't see in films currently, which are all bloated beyond repair in service to some vague notion of branding. Goldman's script, based on the book by Woodward and Bernstein - focuses on "the story" as character. The cover-up is a character the reporters are searching to uncover, to really get to know. That is the story of the film and it stays relentlessly focused on that topic.

There is no flab on the film's structure - when the story is done, they're out - credits roll. It's almost shockingly fresh. They get to the point, tell the story cleanly, keep focus, and don't let anything drag. The amount of tension that's built without any real physical confrontation is remarkable. It's old-school, straight-up filmmaking, and well worth a fresh look, even if it's just to secretly giggle when you realize all the reporters' diligent research now can be handled with google and a cell phone.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Political Interlude Nobody's Going to Read

As we all patiently wait for the arrival of Spring on our calendars, I'm going to dip my toe into the political maelstrom for one brief point about Narrative; please note I'm using that word in the grand sense. Much of our lives is spent constructing narratives that explain our everyday existence, a story framework that gives meaning where there may, in fact, be none. We all imagine ourselves as the central hero of a grand narrative of our lives. It's comforting, right?

Writers spend their lives grappling with issues of storytelling and the meaning of narratives and one thing most of us understand is that at the root of all drama is conflict. Without conflict, little to no drama. The type of conflict is in many ways irrelevant. Its existence, and the attendant drama, hold an audience's attention. The conflict, for an adept writer, can be created out of whole cloth, but as long as an audience wants to believe it, an audience will watch it.

In the entertainment world, where keeping audience attention is critical, the truth of an actual conflict is secondary to keeping the audience in their seats.

In the political world, I think manufactured conflict is a bit more problematic. At this point in time, I can't shake the feeling that the media is manufacturing conflict - and thus narrative - where none actually exists and I can see only two possible motives, one self-serving, one that could be considered journalistic over-reach.

I'm primarily (pun intended) focused on the democratic party right now. I'm a lifelong democrat, so they occupy most of my focus, both positive and negative. If you look at today's primary standings, Clinton has 1231 delegates and Sanders has 576. Since we liberals are the ones to tout our belief in science and math, can we focus for a second on the fact that this numerical disparity would be considered a commanding lead in any other race? It is nearly a statistical impossibility that Sanders can win the nomination yet the media still portrays this as a neck and neck race. Why?


By manufacturing a conflict, the media has the narrative that is Clinton v. Sanders. That narrative is what keeps people tuning in. If the democratic story is over until the general campaign begins, all those democrats may turn their channels from the news outlets until that point in time. Those revenue dollars then go somewhere other than the news channels. So, that's the self-serving motive that I pointed out. The news media needs to generate viewers and one way to do it is report things in such a way to keep their narrative running.

You may shrug this off and say, "hey, it's the media. This is what they do." Yes and no. News outlets are supposed to report on events with editorial balance, but you may have noticed that over the last few years, traditional news has slipped into the "infotainment" category, where we rely ever-increasingly on the news channels' interpretations of the events, rather than any kind of objective reporting. When much of the public relies more heavily on TV Comedians for their news sources than actual news-reporting agencies, there's a problem.

To recap, Clinton has a nearly unbeatable lead and all reality-based statistics point to the conclusion that she will be the Democratic nominee for president. Everyone can understand the need for ratings and the self-serving motives of TV Networks in prolonging a story. But the troubling undercurrent here is that you could argue that the news outlets are actually trying to influence the elections. Does the constant narrative of an underdog win by Sanders somehow destabilize the elections themselves? Is he the one being propped up by the media, rather than the popularly-touted claim that Clinton is always getting the benefit of the doubt?

I make no judgment about the candidates themselves, but I do encourage you to question your news sources and the media. Their agenda may not always be the same as yours.

Apologies for the dip into politics. Martini Mondays will return in the spring!