This blog post is a continuation of a discussion started on Media and the Truth: A Love Story – Part One. Please view the previous post so that this one makes sense. Thank you.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/ll has been praised and lambasted by the press and his audience.
While Moore’s documentation of the foibles of President Bush, the events of 9/11, and the war in Iraq seems to be constructed out of film footage, newspapers, and interviews, these conventions of filmmaking have been used in every way to misconstrue the truth. From the way Moore narrates his documentary and interviews people to the way he quotes individuals, he cunningly creates a vehicle for ideology which appears to be unbiased and truthful, but instead surreptitiously exploits the trusted form of the documentary to inject his own political biases. In the paper Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/111 author David Kopel of the Independence Institute cites 59 separate instances in which Moore presented untruthful information rather than accurately presenting the truth. Mr. Moore’s latest documentary, Sicko, which criticizes the American health care system, has already been criticized by Newsweek for being inaccurate. It has gotten to the point that Moore’s documentaries have been recognized for what they are, propaganda, and have been set aside for ridicule by left and right alike.
The 1991 film JFK was a creation of director Oliver Stone, known for his films Platoon and Wall Street, which retold the
machinations of the Kennedy assassination through the eyes of the New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. The gripping 190 minutes follows Garrison as he pieces together exactly who killed President Kennedy and why. The film was so skillfully executed that any reasonable person watching the film could walk out three hours later believing that the Warren Report was fiction and that the conspiracy behind the murder was deftly laid out in this film. In the book False Witness2, the Patricia Lambert listed 79 liberties taken in the film, most of them in which Stone twisted the truth in order to weave
a fantastic tale of conspiracy and deceit to perhaps sell more tickets, or purvey his own biases about the cause of Kennedy’s death. The late Peter Jennings of ABC News produced a documentary concerning the JFK assassination which looked closely
at Stone’s movie. Jennings pointed out dozens of inaccuracies, if not outright embellishments, which plague Stone’s version of the assassination, creating a convincing rebuttal to the movie JFK and bolstering the single-gunman theory and the findings of the Warren Report, the official report by the U.S. government on the findings on the assassination. When Stone was asked about these fallacies, he stated that as any artist does he took creative license to embellish the story to entertain his audience. This clearly raises the question, “Where do you cross the line from entertainment to non-fiction reporting.” Clearly the line has been less discriminate with these latest films. The same claim of crossing the line has been raised with biographical films such as The Hurricane, Erin Brockovich, and others.
The internet has perhaps hundreds of instances in which false information has been proffered for accurate news. In newspapers, magazine, and news broadcasts, incorrect reporting has caused false information to have been disseminated and understood to be true. While many can understand that mistakes will happen when reporting the news, some of the more blatant, perhaps intentional, efforts to use false information to support a reporter’s own personal biases are less forgivable. One of the most best known cases was with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes. News corporations make their bread and butter with accurately reporting news, so it is in everyone’s best interest that news reports are fully investigate and vetted. However, Dan Rather insisted on reporting on a letter documenting President Bush’s military service in the
late ‘60s and early ‘70s which no other news source was willing to cite, mainly because none of them could verify the authenticity of the report. As it turned out, the report was a forgery created to hurt President Bush shortly before the presidential election, and Dan Rather not only went for the bait but defended his actions. Rather reportedly resigned earlier than expected because of this debacle, though his retirement had been expected in that general time period. This unfortunate mistake marred decades of otherwise excellent journalism.
Film and television are not the only domains of propaganda passing as news and entertainment. In print, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has spawned an entire cottage industry which has created websites, books, and videos debunking the message
of The Da Vinci. The message of The Da Vinci Code is inflammatory enough on its own, one which reveals the humanity of Christ and the sacred lineage of Jesus continuing through history through his wife, Mary Magdalene, but to add fuel to the fire Dan Brown writes before the prologue that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.3” The casual reader might be lead to believe that the teachings of the Gnostic Gospels, which indicate that Jesus was in love with Mary Magdalene and kissed her often on the mouth, were true, and that, according to the author and his mouthpiece in the novel, Sir Leigh Teabing, Jesus had a baby with Mary who then fled to France and founded the royal line of the Merovingian kings. The same question is raised as before. When should a novel be interpreted as a work of non-fiction? Usually, never, but when the author prefaces his work by saying many of its elements are true, then the reader is left to his or her own devices to determine the fictional or non-fictional nature of the information.
It is beyond debate that inaccuracies have been presented in works of television and film which are to be interpreted as non-fiction, namely the evening news, newspapers, and documentaries. More debatable is the presentation of fallacies in works of fiction which border on non-fiction due to their documentary-like presentation or scholarly prefaces. Whichever the case may be, their audiences member are being deceived, led to believe, whether by accident or intent, that the information they are receiving is accurate and fair when it is clearly biases and contrived. The media have a responsibility to the people it serves to be clear when it is presenting fact or fiction, report or opinion. The average person in the United States, or elsewhere in the world, does not have the means to determine whether or not a letter is a forgery, or if a statement made by a documentarian is truthful or not. Most Americans cannot go to Iraq to confirm bombings in a Baghdad neighborhood or test the font, paper, and content of a letter about someone’s military service. There is certainly a place for those who investigate the veracity of the message of the media, but the fruit of their labor is not always readily available to the average filmgoer or news watcher. The American audience has only one source for its Truth concerning world events, and that is its media. We rely on the media to do this, which is why the media has to uphold the solemn duty of protecting the truth for the people it serves.
In the movie Wag the Dog the audiences sees how easily one man can fool an entire nation into thinking they are at war
with Albania by filming just one shot of a girl running across a sound-stage and using CGI to create the village around her and even the cat in her arms. With the advance in technology, people with the right access and knowledge could tell the masses anything they wanted to and the people would have no choice but to believe it, because they would have seen it on TV, and if they see it on TV, it must be true. This is why the media must police itself, which calls into question if the fox is being asked to watch the hen-house.
The time has come for America to demand a stronger presence among the media to be a watchdog against such abuse of our nation’s airwaves, theater screens, and printed matter. Currently, there is no one organization which can be turned to for unbiased reports on what members of the media are habitually fraudulent in their work. There are no serious repercussions for the artists and business-people who engage in misinformation. This could be solved in two steps. First, there could be an organization similar to the Motion Picture Association of America for the film industry or the Security and Exchange Commission for stocks and bonds traders, but rather than determining the rating of a film or legality of trade they would be responsible for reporting falsehoods in media and appropriately fining or punishing those who openly and unrepentantly offend and re-offend. In light of the outright blatant fraud perpetrated by people in the media today, it would be a logical conclusion that those offenders will not stop until their behavior has the appropriate consequences. This commission for truthfulness in media would be not only in the best interest of the people, but also would be in the best interest of the media in that their integrity may be further scrutinized and affirmed. It would seem that only with this sort of challenge would America at large be able to watch the news or a documentary and know that what they are seeing is, at least in someone’s eyes, the truth.
Unfortunately, nothing sounds more 1984ish, George Orwellian, and Big Brotherly than the Commission of Truth. Sounds like its straight out of The Colbert Report and his measures of ‘truthiness’. So, alas, the proletariat of the U.S. is left to their own devices to determine who is telling the truth, when they are telling the truth, and just what the truth is. Just as our old friend Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” we may all be left to answer that question ourselves.
- David Kopel, (2006) Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11 Golden, CO: The Independence Institute
- Patricia Lambert, (1998) False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison’s Investigation and Oliver Stone’s Film JFK New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc.
- Dan Brown, (2003) The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday