By Richard Reeves
The 30th president of the United States, who was not such a bad guy, sometimes seems to be remembered only for a single quote: "The business of America is business."
If Calvin Coolidge of Vermont were alive and awake now—he was noted for taking long naps—he might want to change that to, "The business of America is show business."
After all, if he read the news last Monday, he would see that both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times had major stories analyzing the impact of two new films moving, or trying to move, the national debate on critical issues.
I mean, who would have thought that the top of the front page of the Los Angeles paper would be:
"Movie Renews Pressure on CIA.
"The agency faces fresh questions about torture sparked by ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’"
That film, which isn’t even in most theaters yet, is a Page One topic because some critics believe it is trying to send the message that the United States fights terrorism with torture.
"Torture works" is a motto denied by many with less reach than the cinema. What restarted this dialogue (some of it bogus) are the opening scenes of "Zero Dark Thirty," showing American soldiers torturing Afghans and Pakistanis. The film then goes on to tell, in semi-documentary style, the story of our Central Intelligence Agency tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden, master of the Saudi Arabians who killed some 3,000 innocent Americans in three plane crashes on Sept. 11, 2001.
The second film, "Promised Land," which opened last weekend, was featured by The New York Times under the headline: "Drilling Far From Imminent, but Debate Roils a Region." The story there is the still relatively subdued controversy over energy companies wanting to use a technique called "fracking" to pump water and chemicals deep into the earth to fracture rock formations and release natural gas to the surface. The drillers argue that fracking will not only solve many of the country’s energy problems, but also will bring great prosperity to much of the American landscape. Opponents, environmentalists both national and home-grown, say the process will, like strip-mining, destroy the landscape.
In other news, NBC executives are issuing statement after statement cautioning against implying that there is even the remotest connection between their bloodier-and-guttier schedule and actual (copy-cat?) violence in places like schools and theaters. Perish the thought! Ben Affleck made a movie mocking Iranians and now people want him to run for the U.S. Senate. Oh, this just in: CBS and Yahoo! are putting together a 24/7 entertainment "news" channel. Pretty girls, talking airheads, rumors and promos. Good idea. Sure worked for ESPN—sports is an entertainment, after all.
All of this broke on a single day in the naked media city as entertainment becomes a bigger if less nutritious part of the news diets of our time. That is not to say all this is new. Politics has always been low-class show business. Torchlight parades and the Lincoln-Douglas debates were spectacles designed to attract crowds looking for cheers and laughs. Perhaps the most politically significant entertainment of all time was "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."
Creeping entertainment instead of real information is simply overwhelming old standards of fact, transparency, accountability and reality. Of course the definition of "reality" is changing as producers and programmers discover it is a lot cheaper to hire weirdos following weird scripts than it is to hire real actors and writers. "Saturday Night Live," Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are real, but what they say so well may or may not be. Not all of us can tell what is real and what is fantasy.
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