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Neal Gabler Takes On The Disneyfication of America.

By Gregory McNamee

MAY 3, 1999: 

Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, by Neal Gabler
(Alfred A. Knopf). Cloth, $25.

IN THE FIRST six months of 1998, according to Newsweek magazine, the three major supermarket tabloids--the National Enquirer, the Star and the Globe--declined in circulation by more than 15 percent.

The reason, the Newsweek report suggested, was that the major news media, newspapers and television networks alike, had taken up the role of the traditional tabloids: writing checks for rumors, trading in unsubstantiated reports, and playing to the lowest common denominator. Why, after all, would anyone pay a buck for slimy bits of gossip on flyblown newsprint when gossip is readily available for free, courtesy of Barbara Walters and Dan Rather?

For a brief moment in the early days of American journalism, writes Neal Gabler in Life the Movie, newspapers, seeing themselves as an instrument of civic education, struggled to maintain high standards both of reporting and of writing. When in the 1890s metropolitan dailies first began to publish Sunday editions, loaded with comics and coupons, newspaper publisher William Cullen Bryant thought the dumbing-down wouldn't last. "There is too much moral sense in our community," he intoned, "to allow such a speculation proving profitable."

Bryant was wrong: Americans have always been short of moral sense, as de Tocqueville noted, and have always been hungry for mindless entertainment. In our time we need consider only the O. J. Simpson trial as evidence. That hunger, Gabler writes, has lately been spilling out of the old confines--the movie theaters and sideshows, casinos and sports bars--into every aspect of our lives. You can easily see this for yourself: next time you go to the grocery store for a carton of milk, check out the dumps of videocassette movies next to the booze, lotto tickets and other forms of moronic escape. Mass entertainment is everywhere.

In such a culture, writes Gabler, it is small wonder that politicians are so concerned that their actions be media-friendly--and that so many actors and celebrities should now hold public office. (President Kennedy's son John Jr. launched the magazine George, the avowed purpose of which is to celebrate the celebrity of politics. The old man must be spinning in his grave.) And celebrities and easy solutions are what the voters want, says former Nixon speechwriter Raymond Price: "Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we're talking about."

And in that media-friendly brand of politics, action is less important than the appearance of action, and those actions taken rather than just talked about are more often than not taken only after they've been tested on focus groups, comprised of ordinary citizens, who inform the ruling class on such matters as whether a president should apologize for improprieties or launch cruise missiles at baby-formula factories.

When the media fail to respond properly to those focus groups' recommendations, confusion ensues, as one White House staffer recently admitted when he said of President Clinton and company in response to all the bad press they'd been garnering, "We know how to govern. We just don't know how to give the perception of governing."

Perception: that's the magic word. In the new age, facts are secondary to appearances and beliefs--or as Price goes on to explain, "Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier." A federal commission recently declared that, thanks to a long-buried auditing error, the rate of inflation had been misrepresented for years, overstated by somewhere between 30 and 60 percent. No one on the commission could say by just how much: what mattered was that Americans believed that inflation was rampant, believed that they paid too much in taxes and received too little from government and society in return. Similarly, Americans accept wildly overestimated figures on the level of cocaine use, child kidnapping and sexual abuse, and other signs of doomsday fed to them by the propagandists of the Christian right.

In a world where perception is king, however, it doesn't matter: facts are unimportant, and checking those facts is only the province of fuss-budgets and professional naysayers out to spoil everyone's fun.

Gabler is one such fuss-budget, and in the pages of Life the Movie he gadflies about dissecting such appalling media-made specimens as Camille Paglia and Michael Jackson, analyzing trends in contemporary advertising (in which the idea seems to be not so much to sell a product as to make people feel good about buying that product, giving modern capitalism a kind of pseudo-therapeutic aspect), and pointing out the dangers of living in a world in which image is everything--or perhaps everything is image. His catalog of offenders is endless: "Movie premieres, press conferences, balloon crossings, sponsored sporting contests, award ceremonies, demonstrations and hunger strikes," he writes, "all [are] synthetic, manufactured pseudo-events that wouldn't have existed if someone hadn't been seeking publicity and if the media hadn't been seeking something to fill their pages and airwaves, preferably something entertaining."

Gabler's angry attack on the culture of mediocrity is itself an entertainment of a sort, as he weighs in on Diane Sawyer's sleaziness, Bill Clinton's fawning for acceptance, and our generalized lust for the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. He's right to complain, and he makes a righteous roar; but it's a roar silenced all the same, and quickly, by the whirlwind of carnival barkers and sideshow acts surrounding us, promising to distract us from the awful realities of life and entertain us to the bitter end.


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