Art and Manipulation
In the piece, Carr calls out these two writers for their recent mea culpas for fabrication and plagiarism, revelations that seem to get more frequent with less consequence. Lehrer is lying low, no doubt well sustained by the revenue from his three previous bestsellers (money he will not have to return despite its fruit from a poisonous tree quality). Plus he has the sympathy of dear friends like Malcolm Gladwell who responded when informed about Lehrer’s coming clean after failing in his efforts to cover it up:
“I am heartbroken. Jonah is a friend. He is a decent and sweet and hugely talented guy, and I cannot imagine what he is going through right now.”
What he’s going through? What about the chumps who bought and believed his work?
As for Zakaria, after less than a week suspension from Time and CNN, he’s back at work.
David Carr is an old school, hard-living journalist (check out The Night of the Gun). As such he has the gravelly voice, cantankerousness and guts to call them as he sees them. To Carr, misrepresenting, fabricating, or stealing other people’s words and ideas is as fundamental a transgression as THOU SHALT NOT KILL. Carr’s probably not a sweet and a hugely talented guy, but veracity and full disclosure is his code. It’s a damn important code shared by, I fear, fewer and fewer of his colleagues in the journalism “business.”
Everything wasn’t always a “business.” We didn’t always look at the world in terms of return on investment, quarterly profits, or net worth. We didn’t follow Presidential elections based on how much money a candidate raises per month or define the American dream based purely on the pursuit of Ayn Randian self-interest.
We admired people for what they did. Not how much money they made.
As a boy, I remember passing an overly serious lady in the street and making some smart aleck remark. My mother spun me around, grabbed my shoulders and with fury in her eyes said, That woman has the most important job in the world . . . She’s a teacher!
There used to be something called the “public interest.” And it wasn’t all that long ago. The Federal Communications Commission used to require television networks to devote a certain number of hours of programming per month that discuss “public issues, serve minority interests and eliminate superfluous advertising.”
When it first came online, the electromagnetic spectrum that gave birth to mass communication was viewed as a limited public resource . . . like water, power and telephone lines once were. A Trusteeship model to oversee the use of that spectrum (with the government regulating its exploitation) was in effect until the Reagan “Revolution” in the 1980s.
I remember reading as a kid how tribes in what would become New York could not comprehend how English and Dutch settlers believed one person could own a piece of “land.” To them, and later to people like Woody Guthrie, the land couldn’t be owned any more than air could be owned. I don’t think anyone believes that today.
The Reagan era began the dismantling of regulated American markets, but its apotheosis did not arrive until President Bill Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which effectively repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. And we all know how that’s turned out.
Both Republicans and Democrats, increasingly dependent on corporate campaign contributions, abandoned the notion that government should protect the public interest. As a result the Trustee model is just about dead.
In its place, Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 estimation of the American character is now practically institutionalized:
“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”
It’s not without irony that Coolidge’s speech was before the Society for American Newspaper Editors, essentially excusing them from conflicts of interest between editorial and sales:
“There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise…Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences.”
In other words, give the people what they want…a yardstick to measure themselves according to their position in the marketplace. It took a while, but we got what Coolidge prescribed. Today Super PACs, Hollywood dinner parties, and Paul Ryan’s six pack abs are front page news…the “issues” driving the Presidential campaign. To be important today requires outrageous wealth and celebrity. Not principles or ideas or the courage to express them.
The FCC also used to oversee something called “The Fairness Doctrine,” which required television stations to provide both sides or multiple sides of a public issue (FOX NEWS was an impossibility back then) and limited marketing and advertising to impressionable children.
I was a member of one of the last generations who were only hammered by Madison Avenue in clearly defined time periods. Like most kids of the era, I was usually running around outside playing “kick the can” when those shows came on. It’s true that I do have an unquenchable desire for Kool-Aid. But I’m able to change my brand of toothpaste without too much psychic anxiety.
How many kids do you see running around today? When my kids run around screaming, people look at me like there’s something wrong with them. Why aren’t they docile and quiet like all the other kids sitting in front of their TVs?
It is estimated that a child in the United States sees 3,000 advertisements on television, the internet, billboards, and magazines every single day. It’s also no secret that cognitively, children eight years old and younger are defenseless against propaganda.
Their brains just don’t understand the concept of an unreliable narrator. They believe in the omniscience of the third party voice over. If an authority figure or voice says something, it’s true. This quality is something pedophiles are very well aware. Anyone with a child will tell you that sarcasm and irony are lost on them. They just don’t get it. It’s why other nations ban advertising to children.
I understand that the government Trustee regulatory model does have serious dangers. Taken to the nth degree, you’re looking at George Orwell’s 1984—a tyranny run by ideological bureaucrats pushing Big Brother values. No one wants to live among sexless shave headed proletariats eating greasy boiled cabbage…wearing the same sackcloth jumpers…obedient to a singular ethereal being inside a plasma screen.
Ridley Scott, Steve Jobs and Apple brilliantly played that fear for all it was worth. So much so that even today, Apple, a monster corporation with more wealth than innumerable nation states and exploitative manufacturing practices, is considered cool and revolutionary. People actually stop and pose for iPhone photos in front of Apple stores in Manhattan to show their friends back in Anytown, U.S.A.
What’s the opposite of Big Brother?
We’re living in it.
The alternative to an ideologically based culture with multiple values (Democracy is an ideology by the way) is one with only one value, consumerism. It is obedience and deference to the all mighty multi-faceted “free” market. Consumption is all.
If you appeal to a critical mass of viewers/readers/consumers, you win. You draw more advertisers to pay more money to reach the mass and/or tightly defined demographic, which in turn increases your quarterly profit, which then results in a rise in the value of your company’s publicly traded shares. It’s simple. The more people or the “better targeted” people that consume your media, the more money you make. And money is the only goal.
Placating to the “public interest”—what’s good for them—is ridiculous in the market model. How would Comcast know what “good” is for people? How does the government? Simply feed people the information/entertainment they want to hear (people like Edward Bernays figured that out a hundred years ago) and watch the dollars roll in.
That’s it. The only value? The bottom line.
The problem with the market as savior model, though, is that it appeals to only one human quality—selfishness. In that 1925 “business is business” speech to the media elite, Calvin Coolidge recognized this danger too:
“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence…But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it…But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”
So how did we get the ascension of a man capable of holding two opposing opinions like Calvin Coolidge to Paul Ryan?
Back in 1987, James L. Brooks created a work of art that not only presciently characterized how this shift happened—from we to all me—he didn’t bore the shit out of the viewer doing it. No egg headed doctoral thesis movie, just great meaningful story.
Broadcast News is wildly entertaining. It deals with real people, struggling with the minuscule day to day decisions that define who they are. And like all great art, their drama reflects the hidden anxiety of an era.
The movie’s genre is as old as Euripides. The classic love triangle story. But what gets between the lovers is not fate or family, but ethics.
Holly Hunter plays Jane Craig, a big network television news producer. This was the era of the three networks drawing millions of viewers every night for the evening news. Craig is the cute, librarian-sexy know-it-all from your High School or College history class with the impeccably organized notebooks. She’s straight A all the way, and if you’re a guy, you think she’d be the kind of wife who would make you a better person, but deep down you know the relationship would end in divorce.
William Hurt plays Tom Grunick, the dashing up and coming network anchor. He’s remarkably gifted as a communication vessel—sincere looks, great diction—but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s the kind of guy who takes shortcuts. He has little problem getting what he wants, whenever he wants it. He sees himself as the exception to the rule. But he’s so charismatic and charming, you forgive him for it.
And the third player is Aaron Altman, played perfectly by Albert Brooks. Altman is the Jewish intellectual type…incredibly erudite, principled and funny. But he’s also Mr. Rough-Edge Chip-on-the-Shoulder. He’s not, as Chris Farley once said, “viewer friendly.” He sweats too much.
Altman loves Craig, romantically.
Craig loves Altman as a friend. He’s that sort of fawning male puppy who will always drop whatever he’s doing to care for her. Intellectual S and M. And it works for them.
Along comes Tom Grunick, and Jane can’t help herself but fall for the guy. He’s dumb, but so handsome and cool. She can edit him, make him better.
In one incredible scene, James L. Brooks portrays the three cornered dynamic between these characters. And of how together they are magic.
Altman is off work, hanging at home. A major news story breaks and the only ones available to do the pre-emptive live news coverage are Tom Grunick and Jane Craig.
Altman calls Craig at the studio and asks if she needs him.
No we’re fine.
Altman turns on the TV and watches Grunick perform. He’s doing an amazing job and it’s excruciating for Altman … After Hurt as Grunick reels off a very difficult piece of copy comes a great line of dialogue that only Albert Brooks could deliver.
“A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors placed in powerful posts.”
Altman knows that Grunick’s earpiece is wired into the control booth. And it’s eating him alive because he knows that his beloved Jane is on the other end of that wire, coaching Grunick.
But James L. Brooks doesn’t just play the scene for laughs. He invests it with a deeper meaning. Not with speeches but through action. After venting his sophomoric heckling, Altman appreciates that getting the story right is more important than his bitchy, jealous bullshit.
He calls Jane who is miked directly into Grunick.
I think the pilot that shot down the Libyan in 1981 is stationed right here. Maybe you could get him—and maybe Tom should say that our F-14 is one of the hardest planes to fly. They’re nicknamed ‘Tomcats’.
Craig coos Altman’s expertise into Grunick’s ear and Altman’s words come perfectly pour out of his mouth. Together, the trio—communicator, editor, researcher—is impeccable. The news brief is just about perfect.
But tellingly, the only one who gets pats on the back is Grunick. He parlays the success into a part time anchor position.
Later on in the movie, Grunick interviews a rape victim for the show. He’s decided to do some offsite pieces himself to get more street cred as a journalist. Craig and Altman watch the interview. Craig is impressed by the job Grunick did. It’s very moving and at one point in the interview, Grunick tears up as the young woman shares her terrible story. Altman thinks its bullshit.
Altman later confirms that Grunick had only one cameraman with him during the interview. Altman shakes his head in disgust, but he keeps his feelings to himself…until he can’t stand it anymore. Here is the setup for the payoff of the entire story.
I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.
This isn’t friendship.
What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail.
No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing…he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen.
Craig ignores Altman’s warning. At the tail end of the movie, Altman gets fired. Grunick gets promoted. Just as he’s leaving, Altman tries to stop himself from telling Craig, but he’s so heartbroken he has to pass on his hurt.
Here is the payoff:
Jane, you know how Tom had tears in the piece the other night? Ask yourself how we were able to see them when he only had one camera and that was pointing at the girl during the interview.
Aaron knows that telling Craig about Grunick only having one camera for his big rape interview will force her to dump Grunick. There is no way that someone as principled as Craig will be able to live with a liar and fabricator like Grunick.
With only one camera, the interview could only be done with a one shot on the interviewee. Reaction shots from the interviewer—Grunick—would not be able to be filmed. Unless, after the interview, Grunick turned the camera around, faked the reactions (including the tears) and then edited them into the final piece.
Grunick had no problem throwing away journalistic principles to serve his own self-interest. Having the shot of him crying manipulates the audience away from the real story—the deep wounds of a woman’s abuse—onto him.
Isn’t that Tom Grunick a good, sensitive guy…
The takeaway from the interview furthers Tom’s career at the expense of not only the woman being interviewed, but of his entire audience. They’ve been manipulated just for Grunick’s benefit.
In a great show of faith in humanity, James L. Brooks made Jane Craig the protagonist of his movie…the lead that every person who watches the film will identify. Like all of us, she can get sucked into vacuity, but by relying on her principles, she’ll make it back to meaning.
This is what David Carr is pointing out about the actions of Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria. Lehrer and Zakaria are the latest in a long line of plagiarists and fabricators like Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, James Fry, Kaavya Viswanathan, Clifford Irving etc. etc. who continue to bit by bit… erode important fundamental principles of civilized society.
As the crime of intellectual deception through manipulative art becomes less and less of a big deal, is there any wonder that we’re losing our ability to discern moral wrongs?
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