SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

The message of movies like "Contact" is that we need to get a grip on what is real and what is not.


Ted Gup
July 18, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

the much-hyped movie "Contact" is aswirl in a peculiar mix of controversies. There is the issue of various CNN newsmen lending their familiar faces and voices to a work of science fiction. And the White House has cried foul at the "Forrest Gump"-like use of President Clinton, whose image was manipulated by a computer and spliced into the story.

But there is another more intriguing question implicit in the debate surrounding "Contact," one that goes beyond the propriety of allowing anchors to be actors or the legal niceties of appropriating a presidential mug. "Contact" is a vivid illustration of just how far we have come in blurring the line between fantasy and fact, amusement and news, imagination and reality. If "Contact" stands for anything, it should be as a much-needed warning to get a grip on what is real and what is not.

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In recent years, scriptwriters and studios have increasingly neglected story, opting instead to boost sagging plot lines with the indicia of reality -- from the ever-more anatomically correct dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" and "Lost World," to the computer-enhanced tornadoes of "Twister." The aim is to divert our attention away from deficiencies of plot and character, targeting instead a kind of ersatz credibility achieved through special effects or the bald importation of elements from the real world. At the same time, news-gathering organizations like CNN have embraced Hollywood storyboards to bolster their flagging audience.

Not so long ago, it was considered slightly bad form for a reporter, when he or she was on a particularly good story, to openly "think book." Nowadays, the hidden thought is "think movie." Studios have hired ex-journalists to scour the landscape and snare options on news stories and magazine pieces before they have even hit the light of print. A journalist friend of mine has a deal with a major studio giving it first right of refusal on his pieces -- in advance of publication. Not long ago I sold a film treatment to Columbia Pictures based on a series of articles on government relocation plans in the event of nuclear war. The lure was irresistible. No wonder the cinematic is creeping onto the front page and the front page into the cinema.

Much of it has to do with that magical business word, "synergy." ABC marries Disney and Time weds Warner in unholy unions of journalism and entertainment, enabling them to accomplish together what could not be achieved alone: the capturing of a truly mass audience. Thus CNN executives saw nothing wrong in allowing news-gatherers and presenters to lend their credibility to a movie that has very little to do with reality. It was, after all, a "family project" -- to one and all. Meanwhile Time magazine editors use computers to turn a cover photo of O.J. Simpson into something darker and more sinister, not unlike a director adjusting the lighting on a movie set.

Once upon a time, the power of facts alone was enough to move people. That seems no longer to be the case. Now we engineer and enhance reality in a seamless middle ground where Hollywood fantasies devoid of story meet news programs' rivetingly entertaining pieces of reportage that are woefully short on truth. The graphically re-enacted "true accounts" we witness on "America's Most Wanted" are just a channel switch away from the cinema veriti visions of "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide." Newsmagazines like "Turning Point" and "PrimeTime Live" are breathless with scripted excitement, while "The X-Files" cooly elaborates on what we already know to be the real truth "out there."

What does it matter? So a presidential cameo gives credence to the notion of extraterrestrials. "We don't seriously worry that most Americans think that the president has started having contact with little green people," White House spokesman Mike McCurry assured us. But the vast majority of Americans believe that little green men exist. Half of them, according to a recent poll, believe, along with Special Agent Fox Mulder, that the government is covering up this particular "truth." Forget for a moment that we've been fruitlessly beaming radio waves into deep space for the past 40 years without any response, or that astronomers believe the odds against other organic, intelligent life forms existing in the universe are, well, astronomical.

Not too many Americans know this. More of them are convinced of Oliver Stone's version of the Kennedy assassination than the one provided by the Warren Commission. History as written by Hollywood studios has spawned a generation tormented by conspiracies.

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As if bowing to the inevitable, universities -- the supposed repository of rational learning -- are teaching a new course. It is called "creative nonfiction," a kind of transmogrification of what was once respectfully dubbed "literary journalism." At its best, it grafts time-honored techniques of story-telling onto the reporter's craft. But this new genre, not content with the knowable, now threatens to erode the distinction between the reporter's art and art itself.

Where the facts do not suffice, the drama is insufficient or the story does not have a neat beginning, middle and end, then poetic license is invoked. Interior monologues proliferate and the subjects of stories become characters in morality plays. I have had students who are no longer embarrassed to ask the question, "Does is matter if it's really true?" And I am left to wonder how much longer they will be able to recognize the line that separates what is and what is not.

At its core, the blurring of the line reflects a desperate search for audience by both the bearers of news and the tellers of stories. But there is a price to be paid for such an audience. It is credibility, no longer the ultimate coin of the realm, but a cheap token to be traded in for a bit part in a flick.


Ted Gup

Ted Gup has written for Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, GQ, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Salon.com and other publications. A professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, he is the author of "The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA."

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