Hollywood blockbusters are not normally the place one finds insight, but a new action thriller recently provided an unexpected reflection on today’s news media. In Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw, a movie all about cars and guns and hence more tailored to deplorables than urban sophisticates, there’s a scene where the arch villain (played by Idris Elba) is seeking to track down our heroes, secret agents Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Jason Statham. Elba retreats to a high-tech command centre where he dictates a story framing the good guys for the murder and mayhem he himself has committed. A bunch of keyboard jockeys are shown dutifully relaying his words into their computers. Moments later, across a bank of TV screens showing multiple news anchors and networks, Elba’s narrative is broadcast. As the news.
We have always known that what passes for the news can be managed in many ways. From Evelyn Waugh’s hapless reporter William Boot to Big Brother’s intimidating Soviet-style commands and various levels of government and business intervention and agenda-making in between, we know the news is simply the first cut of history and hence not necessarily accurate. But this was neither a sci-fi dystopia nor government propaganda, nor even about the media itself. This was a simultaneous electronic insertion of a phony story into multiple ‘independent’ news media by a shadowy criminal organisation, set in the present day, and simply presented as a casual plot development.
Forgive me if I’m making too much of this – realism is not the strong suit of films of this kind – but this narrative step strikes me as an acceptance of the potential corruption of our news media, both by Hollywood scriptwriters and all the levels of film bureaucracy that the storyline had to go through, as well as the audience, whom it was presumed would just think Oh yes, fake news, that’s how it goes. So in popular culture terms, the media is no longer a kaleidoscope of independent bodies and mediums, with varying credibility, using research and fact-checkers to find the truth, but something that can be manipulated externally and en masse by the powerful. Right then.
It hasn’t always been so. There was a time, thinking of Watergate and Deep Throat, when journalists were held up as heroes, indeed, crusaders for truth. Now journalists are ciphers or worse, dupes, in the service of others, and the media itself not necessarily to be trusted.
It is unsurprising that this attitude exists when we have US President Trump bellowing from the rooftops about fake news, and an adversarial legacy media bleating about Russia, Russia, Russia, for two years, only to be left red-faced when the inherently silly notion of Trump colluding with Russia to steal an election collapsed in an embarrassing heap.
And it follows a longer degradation of media standards in which the lines between reporting and opinion were allowed to blur, such that the Get Trump agenda of the NY Times, MSNBC and others is now out in the open and in Australia, even bosses at Their ABC speak of wanting more diversity of opinion.
The advent of online and social media, more instant than it is accurate, has accelerated this distrust of what we are told, and with good reason; those administering it can be extraordinarily capricious. Twitter last week temporarily froze the account of Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate Leader, for posting a video of demonstrators outside McConnell’s home; some had urged violence against the 77-year-old. Twitter said the video contravened its policy against violent threats, which would have been more credible had they not just allowed #MassacreMitch to trend.
Online media is further robbing legacy media of ad revenue, to the point where newsroom resources are thin, and dwindling. NY Times shares plunged as much as 20 per cent a few weeks ago when it predicted falling ad revenues; how much of that is linked to the paper’s diminished credibility after cheerleading the Russia collusion hoax? Other Russia devotees, such as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, have seen their ratings slashed.
Even when facts are available, legacy media cannot be depended upon to report them accurately. Many still think that Trump described neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people’ after the 2017 Charlottesville protests, when the ‘very fine people’ transcript, available at the click of a button online, shows that he clearly said, at the time and in reference to this exact point: ‘I am not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.’ Had his words been accurately reported then, what is referred to as the Charlottesville fine people hoax would never have got going – and the Left would have been deprived of their key evidence for Trump being a racist. Even Joe Biden fell for it a few days ago, when he insisted that Trump had indeed described neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people’. If you can rewrite history to slur the president, and carry the day across most of the media for years, how different is that to fingering the wrong people in a police hunt, à la Idris Elba? Joe in the street is not, of course, following all these developments closely, and nor should he, but recent media failures have plainly filtered through into popular culture; it is now accepted that the news media can be rubbish, and sometimes, deliberately so.
One can only regret the way the established media has allowed its credibility to be trashed; it feels like a loss. Does it matter? Possibly not. Mass media is a mere blip in the long arc of human history. We will listen to those we are inclined to agree with and avoid or ignore those we disagree with, which humans have probably always done. A case in point: a new documentary Planet of the Humans backed by Hollywood activist Michael Moore attacks renewable energy’s ‘false promises’. Director Jeff Gibbs says: ‘It was kind of crushing to discover that the things I believed in weren’t real and to discover the solar panels and wind turbines are not going to save us.’ In fact the flaws of renewables have been long known but you do have to choose to listen to alternative voices to sort out facts from rhetoric. And that doesn’t happen quickly. Day to day we will be vulnerable to deception, and no amount of media experience or cynicism will protect us.
The sage Canadian commentator Mark Steyn said recently that he had often wondered how a dystopian future would actually develop. He said, one day you are driving down the road in your suit, the next it’s dystopian, dangerous and dark, how do you get from here to there? Media that can be manipulated is a step along this path.
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