Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Gone with the wind?

Allow me to pick up on a notion I brought up 14 months ago, on the occasion of the Democratic National Convention. At that time, I made the following observation about Frank Capra’s 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart: “Stewart’s homespun character, Jefferson Smith, has become a political prototype. He didn’t originate the persona of the fellow with country roots who can see through all the bull and tell right and wrong, but he definitely planted it into the American consciousness, and every politician has tried to emulate him ever since. Indeed, everyone elected to the Congress since this movie has tried to cast himself in the Jimmy Stewart role.”

I actually believe that movies influence reality or, at least, our perception of reality. And it’s not only movies. I think our culture’s literature in general has a big effect on how we, as a society, perceive events. When a movie character like Jefferson Smith becomes firmly entrenched in our popular culture as a political hero, how could any real-life politician not attempt to appropriate a bit of his aura, consciously or unconsciously? Would I go so far as to suggest that having Jefferson as a middle name helps explain the rise of one of the most formidable American politicians of recent times? Needless to say, Bill Clinton’s own extraordinary political skills explain his success, but having the Jefferson name certainly reminded voters of one of the country’s most admired presidents and perhaps prodded subliminal associations with Frank Capra’s hero as well. And coming from a place called Hope certainly didn’t hurt either.

But politicians and their handlers aren’t the only ones who are inspired by the movies. If anything, journalists (who are, after all, in the storytelling business) are, I would argue, even more shaped by the cultural legends that find form in our big screen entertainments. I think a lot of it is unconscious but, increasingly, a lot of it seems deliberate as well. Like the way network newscasts will suddenly take an increased interest in global warming around the time a movie like The Day After Tomorrow is released. Especially on the network that is owned by the same corporation that owns the studio that is releasing the movie. And thirty years after the release of Jaws, we still get treated periodically to spates of shark attack stories that bear no statistical relation in their frequency to the actual occurrence of shark attacks.

Still, the most insidious of the cinematic influence on our news consumption is not nearly as obvious as the above examples. Political junkies on both the right and the left complain, respectively, that the mass media are either too liberal or too conservative. Right-wingers in particular complain that the media have a liberal agenda. The truth is that the media do indeed have an agenda, but it isn’t strictly liberal. Their agenda is to tell a good story. And if that agenda makes them seem liberal, then it is probably because liberal values (which emphasize things like compassion, helping others and championing the poor at the expense of the rich) make a more compelling story than conservative themes, which are liable to stress such notions as self-reliance and accumulating and preserving wealth. The natural narrative of journalists (not far removed from a good Frank Capra movie) fits comfortably with the frequent rhetoric of the Democratic Party. So it’s really no wonder that we hear so much about “liberal bias.” The irony, of course, is that committed liberals don’t think the press’s orientation is nearly liberal enough. They see organizations owned and controlled by large profit-making corporations interested mostly, at the end of the day, in preserving society’s status quo. No wonder everybody always seems to be down on the media. They can’t please anybody.

Media critic Neal Gabler is fond of talking of the “templates” used by the media. By this he means that journalists, figuratively, have a collection of story scripts in their back pocket and, when the right elements appear in real life, they pull out one of these scripts, or templates, and then proceed to tell the same time-honored story once more, but with fresh details. A recent/current example of this phenomenon that springs to my mind (if not necessarily Gabler’s) is all the coverage that attended the vigil of Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas—at least until things like Supreme Court nominations and hurricanes eased her off the front page. Ms. Sheehan was a story made for television and newspapers. She could well have been a heroine from a Capra movie or, to cite a more recent prototype, Sally Field in Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie Norma Rae. As with her celluloid counterparts, Sheehan got attention for a passionate cause and for standing up to authority. In all cases, we have a heroine with all odds against her and little but her voice and her heart to rally opinion and support. The irony, of course, is that Norma Rae was based on a real person, involved in a unionization battle in a southern textile mill. So we have art (if journalism can be considered an art) documenting reality imitating art imitating reality.

Most everyone agrees that Sheehan would not have gotten nearly the attention that she did if her vigil had not been held in August, when most of official Washington was on vacation, leaving a huge void in the most typical sources of news for the press, and if the White House press corps weren’t forced to spend a boring few weeks in rural Texas. The sad circumstance that she was the mother of a fallen soldier made her story difficult to resist, from a human interest point of view, let alone from a political view. Several news outlets did one of their typical things by extrapolating that she “symbolized” or “represented” or was “indicative” of a changing mood toward the war in Iraq, implying if not actually stating that she was some sort of catalyst of public opinion. While it was certainly true that support for the war and approval for President Bush, as expressed in opinion polls, had declined, there was absolutely no poll evidence to suggest that Sheehan herself had changed anybody’s mind. Indeed, the polls showed that opinion on Sheehan herself more or less mirrored the public’s already-held opinions on the war. Nor was it even a case that Sheehan’s own mind on the war or her own political views were actually changed by her son’s death—as we learned from the tons of information, both positive and negative, that began spewing from the usual political advocates trying to either burnish her image or discredit her completely. In the end, Sheehan the human being was quickly overtaken by a character in the press’s and, subsequently various political advocates’, templates. And, of course, we can probably expect a movie to be made about her at some point.

If you want to see a real time-worn template in action, just keep watching all the hurricane coverage. I think by now we all know it by heart. The anticipatory coverage gives us all the worst case scenarios. Then the hurricane lands and grown men stand in front of a camera, for no particular useful reason, trying not to be blown away by 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds. Then, more often than not, we hear that such-and-such city (i.e. medium-to-major media market) “dodged the bullet.” It ends with tales of damage and stoic rebuilding.

That template has now been altered, of course. When coverage of Katrina got to the New-Oreleans-dodged-the-bullet stage, the media got caught off guard by the subsequent flooding, so they will be more careful about Rita. The unfortunate thing was that the city, state and federal governments seemed to be using the same template for Katrina as the press. We may expect as much from the media. But we would like to have higher expectations of our government.

Time for all the would-be Jimmy Stewarts to go into action again.

-S.L., 22 September 2005

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