Truthiness” and Other Media Tactics

Art, Culture, and Politics, presented by Frank Rich

At Campbell Hall, Sunday, April 9.

Reviewed by Karen Leigh

Only New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich would think to liken the O.J. Simpson murder trial to the 1970s television miniseries Roots. Comparing current journalism scandals to faded Simpson-era media creatures such as Kato Kaelin, Rich argued that both the Simpson circus and Roots acted as indecisive ongoing commentaries on race in American life. During his 90 minutes, Rich, a former Time magazine critic and author of the book Ghost Light, shared his growing concern with the irresponsibility of our nation’s media and entertainment industries. A passionate liberal, Rich made hay with the current Bush administration’s treatment of the Iraq War as an entertainment production. “You have to understand,” he quoted former White House aide Andy Card as saying about the war’s timing, “we don’t announce a new product in August.” To that effect, Rich alluded to a “fog of war” created by showbiz, citing corporate takeover of broadcast newsrooms as one culprit. CBS News, he explained, was once a powerful entity separate from the network’s entertainment division. These days, news is merely another sub-department within CBS television, which is now owned by Viacom. Shows like 60 Minutes are into the ratings game, diluting content and sensationalizing the news.

Rich referred to the current 24-hour cable broadcast phenomenon as a “mediathon” and noted that on CNN, “the Gulf War was the first event to get the ‘miniseries treatment’ … [CNN’s coverage] featured theme music and logos.” It’s always “cheap to have analysts come on CNN” and keep one story going all day, he added. “These people are like Hamburger Helper.”

Discussing the lack of truth inherent in today’s glittery news broadcasts, Rich quoted comedian Stephen Colbert’s neologism “truthiness,” a word for the new modus operandi of news anchors everywhere. “The decline and fall of truth began in the 1970s,” Rich said. As exemplified by runaway memoirist James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), “we live in a society where you can make up anything and get away with it” according to Rich. He then compared President Bush’s ability to invent false scenarios to that of popcorn-movie auteur Jerry Bruckheimer, and criticized the administration’s use of “sexy, scary” nuclear warfare as a propaganda tool engineered for mass consumption.

Rich’s audience continually laughed in horrified disbelief at the journalist’s revelations, such as the grim fact that the media embellished Private Jessica Lynch’s tale into falsity. Iraq protestor Cindy Sheehan, he marveled, “has brought this war’s dead out of the closet.” On Sunday, Rich did something similar for the cold, hard truth.

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