President trump seems preoccupied with saving America from, stuff. Before the 2016 election, we were told that the greatest threat to America was Hillary Clinton. Having slain the dragon in November, what new villains face America in 2017? The answer, obviously, is the media! President Trump is hell-bent on protecting America from the slavering jaws of a rapacious press!
That’s right, the media is now our enemy, spreading fake news and lies. Thank you, Mr. President, for letting us know that the media can be biased or untruthful. If not for you, the average American would not know…. Wait!… Hold on… BREAKING NEWS… “Inside sources tell us that Americans already know that the news is BIASED!” Well, what do you know! A biased Media is not new NEWS!
In America, we have always had a split image of the “press”, to use that antiquated term for the news, from back when news was primarily on paper. In that age of paper, we came up with the idea of a “crusading reporter”. The reporter who cleaned up bad politics, petty crime, embezzlement and misuse of public funds, and generally worked for the public good. Is this a cartoon image of the press? You bet it was! And at the height of the cartoon good guy newsman, a character called Superman was created.
Why was Superman a news reporter? Mostly because there are problems in the world that can’t be solved by punching it in the face. The nod to the value of the press was when a problem was too big for superman, but it was a job for Clark Kent, Ace reporter. Cartoonish? Absolutely, but it did highlight that by the middle of the 20th century, the world had grown larger than your hometown and too complex to understand without someone who can explain it to you.
Still, when America wasn’t reading cartoon, it was watching movies. Like Citizen Kane (1941), universally regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. What is it about? It’s a thinly veiled docudrama about William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron of the middle 20th century. It shows the King of Newspapers as arbitrary and vindictive, using his power to punish his enemies and bend the world to his will. For students of film and those who want to dig a little deeper, reality does copy art! Hearst did not like his depiction in the movie, and he used the power of his newspaper to stop the release of the film (not a single Hearst paper carried an ad or a review for Citizen Kane).
The unforgettable “NETWORK” (1976) was about media’s fall from grace, as it moved from News to Infotainment. How the Walter Cronkite and Edward E. Morrow type journalists with integrity degenerated into shock jocks and ambush journalists. While the term “alt facts” wasn’t used, NETWORK certainly showed how facts could be twisted. Why? To get more ratings.
In 1951 there was a brilliant film, “Ace in the Hole”, about the coverage of a man who was stuck underground in a mine cave in. Here, the reporter, played by Burt Lancaster, is the villain. Rather than a heartless news corporation, we see an individual reporter whose career is in freefall and needs “one big story” to get him back to the top. In a foretaste of the Internet, he is exploiting print and broadcast (radio) and has co-opted the public into becoming part of his media circus. In this movie, there is a literal circus… selling popcorn, soda, souvenirs, and tickets on rides… growing on top of the where the miner is buried. A subtle, but powerful image to remind us about how the public works with the media to create the worst of these sideshows.
By the way, if you can still remember what you just read in the last sentence, the miner dies. Of pneumonia, while waiting for the rescue crew to reach him. Which is a total bummer. For everyone. If they rescued the miner, there would be celebration and more customers at the circus. But with just a dead miner, it was time to pack up and go home.
A lesser known movie is, “Wrong is Right” (1982). Here, the media is a problem, but it is not the main villain. The media is shown as being the equivalent of the ambulance chasing lawyer. Not a lot of ethics, but not overtly evil. Here the ultimate villain ends up being, the White House! In the end, a war is started in the Middle East to prevent a terrorist attack. But the war is started based on intentionally planted “alternative facts” from White House insiders.
Manipulation from the White House? How about that! America not only knows about manipulation from the media, it knows about manipulation from the White House. If we went back to the cartoonish adventures of Superman, for the past couple of decades there has been a running theme of Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, becoming president of the United States. Here, Superman can crush Lex’s robots or withstand his death rays, but only Clark Kent (and his girlfriend Lois Lane) have the power of the media to stop President Lex Luthor’s nefarious schemes to take over America!
America taken over by a hair challenged billionaire who thinks he is smarter than anyone else? (OK, Lex Luthor IS smarter than anyone else.) Who will rescue America if a real villain tries to take over? We might not have Superman, but we do have thousands of Clark Kents and Lois Lanes. Clark and Lois just need guidelines to make sure that they do not stoop to fake news, alternative facts, and manipulation that Lex Luthor’s team is so fond of. Hey! How about this for a new 21st Century code of ethics for all of our Internet bloggers… Truth, Justice and the American way! Nearly a century later, the news might benefit from those six little words!