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Scott Larson

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Shock and awe at the Oscars®

Usually, it’s the Academy Awards ceremony that gets me all worked up. This year, it’s been the reporting on the ceremony that’s got my brain buzzing.

To be sure, I am suffering from information overload. Since this war began, I have been drawn to the television and the radio for every piece of news I can get. When I can take no more, I turn it off. But after a few hours, I have to know what is happening and I run for the nearest information appliance. In Ireland, the Internet is too expensive to use continuously, so that is a source of information only intermittently. But thanks to the magic of satellite television and radio, I have a plethora of information sources at hand. Despite my occasional rants about Rupert Murdoch, I am in his debt for his Sky Digital, which brings me the BBC, Sky News, CNN, Fox News, and others. But I find it easier, and strangely more informative in the current 24-hours-a-day news cycle, to listen to the radio. A few weeks ago, I acquired a wonderful gadget called a WorldSpace radio. This simple little radio with a small satellite dish allows me to get a large number of radio stations from around the world, notably the BBC World Service and (for an annual subscription fee) National Public Radio, 24 hours a day. It’s news junkie heaven.

If only there weren’t so much news to listen to. I am constantly reminded of the Duran Duran song, “Too Much Information.” What’s more, having ready sources of news from three countries (I haven’t yet spent much monitoring the French or Spanish language channels available), I have been suffering some form of multiple (news) personality disorder. The war that, say, Fox News is reporting on seems a galaxy away from the one that Ireland’s RTÉ tells me about. One verges on being a cheerleader for the Pentagon, while the other competes with Al Jazeera for being Saddam Hussein’s mouthpiece. (I could get Al Jazeera on my dish, but I have chosen not to pay for it. Unfortunately, I don’t have the choice with RTÉ, since the Irish government confiscates money on its behalf as a condition of buying a TV.) The horrors of war, like beauty, are definitely in the eye of the beholder—or the reporter. Anyway, this fragmented information overload defined my state of mind on Sunday night when The Missus and I pulled an all-nighter to watch the Oscars in real-time.

RTÉ’s summary of the Academy Awards ceremony was that many of the participants took the opportunity to “oppose the war.” The more cautious NPR reported that many of the participants took the opportunity to “make political speeches.” My own reaction to both characterizations was, “huh?”

The ceremony I saw represented a huge effort to come together and find common ground between the two sides in America’s ongoing cultural war. To be sure, presenters were under coercion to follow the prepared script but, of course, comments and gestures slipped in. And practically all of them were sentiments that virtually every American could agree with. Adrien Brody and others hoped for peace and that the troops would be home soon, and that American soldiers as well as the Iraqi people would suffer a minimum of casualties. Who could argue with that? Even Barbra Streisand, a frequent lightning rod for the right wing, expressed a sentiment that no one could reasonably find fault with: “I am glad that I live in a country that guarantees every citizen, including artists, the right to say and to sing what you believe.” Pedro Almodóvar made a rare explicit attack on the legitimacy of the war, but it sounded so much like a perfunctory PR statement from a European who was criticizing his own government as much (or more) than the United States, it didn’t really jar.

So, by my count, that really leaves just one award recipient who made an overtly provocative political proclamation.

There has been talk lately of whether America’s left wing can find a spokesperson to do for their side what radio personality Rush Limbaugh does for the right wing. As Sunday night’s ceremony demonstrated, there is such a personality in the American mass media. He is Michael Moore.

Moore is indeed the “liberal Rush Limbaugh.” This is to say, he is a big fellow who broadcasts tirades in a very entertaining manner that are guaranteed to energize people who agree with him and aggravate those who don’t. Like Limbaugh, he is more interested in dividing people than in bringing them together. And, like Limbaugh, he never lets an inconvenient fact or, set of facts, get in the way of a good zinger. To be sure, Moore provides a public service with his films and television shows by highlighting situations and facts underreported or ignored by the mass media. The same, however, can also be said of Limbaugh. But, at the end of the day, neither man is above using selective editing to support the points he wants to make.

Moore was, of course, entitled to say anything he wanted in his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. One can argue about whether it was particularly appropriate or smart to make an outright verbal attack on the U.S. president and his execution of the war, just hours after hostilities had commenced. But no one can dispute his right to say it. Still, even many people who agree wholeheartedly with Moore’s view of the war as folly were turned off by his harangue. Beginning his remarks by bringing up the “illegitimacy” of the 2000 election immediately alienated half of his American audience. (And most of the other half already agrees with Moore on everything anyway.) And literally wagging his finger while criticizing Bush made him look, at best, strident and, at worst, like Bill Clinton denying that he had slept with an intern.

Worse for Moore, however, was the rhetorical device of calling Bush’s presidency “fictitious” in the same breath of describing himself as a maker of documentaries. As entertaining and thought-provoking as Moore’s films are, they have come under serious attack as not qualifying as true documentaries—for using such tactics as staging sequences without labeling them as such and editing footage of targets (like Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine) so tortuously as to change the meaning of their original words entirely.

When you think about it, Moore had the perfect opportunity to deliver his message to a televised audience of billions as well as the most receptive live audience he could ever have found in the United States. And, while he got plenty of cheers, he still managed to get a lot of boos as well. Worse, minutes later host Steve Martin was able to get truly resounding cheers from the audience with a quip about this self-avowed champion of labor being helped into a car trunk by Teamsters.

Ouch! That’s a bit like getting a laugh with a joke about Rush Limbaugh facing a firing squad of NRA members.


-S.L., 27 March 2003

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