It was just another morning at the Fox News Channel in New York: What began as a discussion of President Clinton’s sexual shenanigans quickly degenerated into a nasty squabble between a conservative and a liberal who couldn’t agree on anything. They angrily tried to out-shout each other, and a viewer looking for substance in the brief exchange would have been sorely disappointed. But a roomful of producers at the 24-hour cable news station were hugely pleased with what they had just seen.
“Let’s make sure that we book these two guys again,” said one producer. “They made fireworks together. And they looked great.”
That, in a nutshell, is one of the key messages in historian Neal Gabler’s latest book, “Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” Looking at the broad sweep of U.S. history, Gabler argues that the rise of 20th Century media culture—a world of tabloid newspapers, gossip magazines, radio talk shows, television sitcoms and movies above all—has dramatically transformed the way Americans view daily reality. Once, he suggests, people focused on character and ideas as the benchmarks by which to measure their lives. But today, all that has been replaced by a hunger for amusement. The nation worships images, not ideas, and celebrities dominate the news. It is, as Gabler frequently calls it, “The Republic of Entertainment.”
What happened at the Fox News Channel, he would argue, is just one more reflection of this sea change in U.S. life: once a literate, word-based culture, we are now influenced by pictures, personalities and surface media impressions. And the impact on American journalism is clear: The author says news values that once emphasized hard reporting have been superseded by the desire—and need—to entertain people. In today’s media, Gabler argues, the bottom line is not merely driven by dollars and profit margins; it’s also colored by the need to amuse.
How else to describe a news establishment that feasts on permanent scandals like the O.J. Simpson case and the Lewinsky affair, routinely ignoring or marginalizing other, more urgent stories around the globe? What else but a desire to titillate could explain the rise of mudslinging political talk shows? Indeed, the very structure of all-news cable channels like Fox, MSNBC and CNN requires a steady diet of talk, gossip and punditry—news as entertainment—to fill a 24-hour news hole.
Many journalists like to hold themselves apart from the shlockmeisters of pop culture. Yet even the most high-minded reporters and producers can succumb to the drumbeat of entertainment. Soon after the war in Kosovo began, for example, the media focused in a rush on the plight of three American POWs. Stories about the men, their families and their neighborhoods filled the airwaves and newspapers, as an army of reporters probed the warm and fuzzy “human angle” on a breaking story. But there was a war going on. A much bigger and more complex tale to relate.
“The press has an almost knee-jerk need to humanize every story,” said UCLA American history professor Joyce Appleby, in a prior interview with The Los Angeles Times. “It’s easy to do, and so we get the human drama in everything, whether it’s Olympic athletes, people on trial or captured soldiers in the army.” Such sensitivity can improve coverage in the long run, she adds, but in wartime it often muddies the big picture.
Gabler finds proof of the “urge to entertain” throughout American culture, ranging from fine art and literature to advertising and fashion. He portrays it as a disease corrupting politics and education, as well as self-help psychology. It’s a sprawling terrain, and to unify his findings, Gabler offers a provocative theory: Life has become a movie, a sensational parade of film stars, soap opera crises, and contrived happy endings. If Americans seem to be thinking less and less, the author suggests, it’s no surprise. For the culture that saturates us with celebrity and spectacle seems to put little value on sober thought.
Gabler, who has written critically acclaimed books on the history of Hollywoodand a biography of Walter Winchell, marshals convincing evidence to argue that movies are more responsible for these changes in American life than any other institution. To be sure, he finds roots of the current fascination with entertainment in 19th Century battles over pop culture vs. high culture, and he writes colorfully about the emergence of tabloid newspapers around the turn of the century. Yet he makes his strongest case with films. Indeed, he equates reality with a “life movie,” a “Truman Show” in which all Americans participate.
Beginning with a survey of silent films, which built a loyal, mass audience, and ending with modern-day blockbusters, the author writes that “over time, after tens of millions of [Americans] watched thousands of motion pictures, the movies gradually began occupying the American imagination like an expeditionary force, not only filling Americans’ heads with models to appropriate but imbuing them with an even more profound sense than anyone in the nineteenth century could possibly have had of how important appearances were….”
Critics have been mixed in their appraisal of “Life, The Movie,” some applauding Gabler’s theories, others calling them a rehash of work previously done by Daniel Boorstin, Dwight MacDonald and Neil Postman. But one point that few reviewers have mentioned—and which should concern journalists—is that the author pointedly refuses to judge the phenomenon he has described. Rather than take sides, he suggests in his conclusion that final battle between those who favor a more reality-based culture versus the forces of Entertainment has yet to be fought. And, more important, he studiously avoids offering any suggestions for a way to reverse the pop culture juggernaut that has hijacked America’s soul:
“To pretend that one can provide a remedy would be not only naive but duplicitous,” Gabler says, “since it would indulge the same sort of fantasy that got us here in the first place: that problems, like crises in movies, are susceptible to simple narrative solutions. You simply present a monster in the first reel and then have the hero vanquish it in the last.”
This kind of conclusion might suffice for an academic treatise, but journalists who like to believe they live and work in the real world—as opposed to the world of entertainment—will be impatient with Gabler’s views.
If anything, the trends he describes are a call to arms.
It’s difficult to know where to begin, given the sprawling, hugely amorphous character of today’s media. The delivery of news no longer means a handful of elite newspapers, magazines and television networks. It’s a world encompassing the Internet, video culture, tabloid magazines, trash TV and other “newer” voices, along with established journalistic outlets.
A newspaper editor may be powerless to halt the nationwide slide toward sleazy, tabloid values in daily news, but Sandra Rowe, Editor of The Portland Oregonian, offers one suggestion to put the Republic of Entertainment in its place. Instead of providing knee-jerk coverage for every mega-scandal that comes along, she says journalists should keep these stories in perspective and level with their readers.
“We need to be able to say, ‘Look, folks, nothing big happened on this story today, so we’re not covering it just for the sake of covering it,’” she told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “This is the very least we should do. And that means putting stories inside, or not running them at all. At some point, you have to take a stand.”
If coverage of a lurid story is inevitable, journalists should do a better job of keeping the public’s higher instincts in mind. During the Lewinsky scandal, the media kept wringing its hands over polls that showed people turned off by the story, even as they continued to watch and read. The seeming paradox is quite instructive, suggests Jacquelyn Sharkey, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Readers and viewers will dutifully process the news put before them, she suggests, but they are keenly attuned to a news organization’s integrity—or lack of integrity—in its presentation. And many will quickly lose respect for a news outlet that cheapens the news or panders to the public. Given the agonizing in many news organizations over the bottom line versus higher standards, this is important to remember.
But Gabler isn’t holding his breath that the media will change. He recounts the rush by news organizations to report the Clinton-Lewinsky story, long before most of them had done any serious reporting, and argues that it was a watershed moment: “The media, so often accused of liberal favoritism, were simply revealing—and reveling in—their true bias, the bias toward any story that had entertainment value.”
Josh Getlin is a national correspondent based in New York for The Los Angeles Times, who periodically covers the media.