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“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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