Friday, May 20, 2011

Forrest Gump and Donald Trump: The Oliver Stoning of America

It's been a roller coaster month for important news stories, and the media has been there to cover it: Osama bin Laden is killed; the flooding Mississippi River submerges Memphis; gas prices climb to all-time highs, while oil companies continue to reel in record profits; politicians continue to fight over how to reduce the federal budget deficit; mostly peaceful revolutions in the Middle East turn violent, as an insurgency against Moammar Gadhafi's reign in Libya fails to prompt the defiant leader to resign, even with the help of NATO air strikes; the Israeli Prime Minister rejects Obama's call to return to Israel's 1967 borders; Donald Trump drops out of the 2012 GOP presidential race... Wait a minute. Why is that news?

The fact that Trump's announcement was news at all puts a spotlight on the media's role in blurring the line between news and entertainment. While CNN was sending 400 reporters to cover the royal wedding, after only sending 40 reporters to cover the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the real news seemed to be that Charlie Sheen was no longer in the news.

If this is getting confusing, let me put this all in perspective, so I can get back to my usual activities of watching funny videos of cats on the Internet.

Back in November of 2010, Trump told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's Good Morning America that a presidential run “could be fun”... And fun it has been – if you're a fan of idiotic gibberish. It was obvious from the start that this was not a real news story. Trump was “running” for president to boost the ratings for Celebrity Apprentice, the popular reality show in which he got to show his presidential credentials by moderating fights between Meat Loaf and Gary Busey, and other C-list actors, has-beens and musicians.

When it looked like the media was losing interest in Trump, and comedians had come to the end of funny jokes about his hair, Trump came up with the perfect campaign strategy. In early April, he demanded to see President Obama's long-form birth certificate, saying he doubted that Obama was born in the United States. He claimed that he had sent investigators to Hawaii. “I have people that actually have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they're finding”, Trump said in an interview on NBC's Today Show. Calling it potentially one of the biggest scams in the history of politics, Trump jumped to second in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of potential Republican nominees, tying Mike Huckabee with 17% behind Mitt Romney's 27%, showing that either the American public is incredibly stupid, or these polls don't accurately reflect the views of the voting public. Or maybe the pollsters wait until happy hour to ask their questions.

As Trump continued his attack on Obama's citizenship and lack of foreign policy credentials, he continued to rise in the polls, hovering near the top. He came up with catchy sound bites such as: “I love this country, but this country is going to hell... The world laughs at us. They won't be laughing if I'm elected president.” His ego is so big, and his narcissistic personality made it impossible for Trump to realize that the world was in fact already laughing at him.

Obama strategically produced his long-form birth certificate, and with perfect political timing orchestrated the killing of Osama bin Laden, announcing the news during a prime time showing of Trump's Celebrity Apprentice, causing the show to be interrupted. But the night before he got bin Laden, the President appeared at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, an annual event that gives the president a chance to do some stand-up comedy. George W. Bush wasn't so funny when he was president, but Obama has shown that he can hold his own with professional comedians, including Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers this year. The President's monologue poked fun at various politicians and the media, but he reserved his best jokes for Trump. For example, after a week when Trump incredibly took credit for the fact that Obama turned over his long-form Hawaiian birth certificate, Obama joked that Trump could now focus on the serious issues, from whether the moon landing actually happened to “where are Biggie and Tupac?” It was funnier in person, from Obama's deadpan delivery, to Trump's stone-faced look, caught by the television cameras as the audience laughed hysterically.

As uncomfortable as Trump looked to be during Obama's zingers, he seemed even less amused as Meyers picked up where Obama left off. “Donald Trump often talks about running as a Republican,” said Meyers. “I just assumed he was running as a joke.” Close-up of Trump as he looked as though he was about to throw his chair at the stage. Again, it was funnier in person, and as is usually the case in comedy, the truth is sometimes the funniest. The fact is, and pretty much the whole audience that night as well as the television audience knew, he was running as a joke. Trump obviously knew.

The media also knew that Trump was running as a joke. So why did they continue shoving microphones and television cameras at him every time he uttered another stupid comment? Let's see, after he took credit for getting to the bottom of Obama's birth certificate, saying he was “honored” to give the American people an answer to this important question, Trump decided to continue to find new ways to sound like a racist. The man who said he has a good relationship with “the blacks” went on to question Obama's college degree. You would have thought the birth certificate fiasco would have knocked him out of his fake campaign right then and there. But no, the nation's most famous snake-oil salesman was becoming the leader not of the GOP but of the Society of Village Idiots by demanding that Obama release his records from Occidental College.

While Obama was secretly plotting to take down Osama bin Laden, Trump was plotting his next brilliant political maneuver, designed to convince us that he was a serious candidate. His new campaign promise was to get to the bottom of the question of how Obama made it into the Ivy League, transferring from Occidental to Columbia, and then going to Harvard. How could a black man of Obama's inferior intellect, Trump wondered, get into the Ivy League. Drum roll please: affirmative action.

So the media hung on Trump's every word, no matter how stupid and implausible. The reason, as is has been the growing trend in this so-called journalism, is because of ratings. Entertainment sells - the wackier the better. And it didn't just start with Charlie Sheen, who, like Trump, turned the media into his own private publicity machine.

It wasn't always this way. Long before Sheen had a public mental breakdown for profit, and Trump waged a fake presidential campaign to boost ratings for his reality show, there were real newscasters delivering real news. Entertainment was presented as entertainment.

Years ago, the adults used to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News while the kids played with toy guns, Lincoln Logs, Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes. It was a simpler time. Nobody knew Rock Hudson was gay or what drugs Doris Day was hooked on - and nobody cared. In fact, they preferred it that way. The American Dream was 2.5 kids and a house with a white picket fence, not 10,000 followers on Twitter and a Facebook page showing pictures of your chance encounter with Erik Estrada.

Now we have 24-hour news coverage with the help of the Internet and mobile devices that keep us connected. We have instant access into the lives of Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, and other celebrities who have gone on to make us forget about Robert Downey, Jr.'s drug-induced meltdown or Winona Ryder's shoplifting spree.

Before Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central became the primary source of news for young people, news and entertainment were separate. Things started changing in 1978, when ABC started a news program called 20/20. The show was a ratings disaster, until they realized that instead of interviewing world leaders and other news makers and important people, the only people viewers were interested in were movie stars and rock stars. That was inevitable. Television is an entertainment medium, and has always had to fight the urge to not entertain us. That leaves newspapers, and with modern technology, who needs them?

So we jump a few years forward to Dateline NBC, which started out as a copy of 20/20 in 1992. The show evolved into an investigative series looking into things like food safety, but quickly found ratings gold in 2004 when Chris Hansen began catching pedophiles on To Catch A Predator.

Not only did Hansen's investigative reporting examine a serious news issue, but by using Dateline's signature hidden-camera techniques, Hansen was able to insert himself into the story, becoming sort of a modern day G-Man of sex crimes. Audiences were mesmerized as our superhero Hansen saved us from the most heinous criminals around. It was better than Law & Order: SVU.

For a while, NBC had a hit on its hands, even beating one of the most popular comedies, The Office, in the ratings. Then, in 2006, one of the predators that Hansen caught shot himself in the head while the NBC News cameras waited outside his home. Some people started to wonder whether this whole Peeping Tom era of hidden cameras had gone overboard. These were definitely sick people, and were the worst type of criminals out there, but their crimes were hypothetical, and they wouldn't even have been there if NBC hadn't lured them there.

This game of entrapment lasted a few more years until NBC pulled the plug in 2008, but not because the pedophile that Hansen brought into our living rooms to entertain us shot his brains out. The show was canceled because it had become so popular that was impossible to attract potential predators to the location where a particular show was being filmed. It turned out that the show was a favorite among pedophiles. But the show never seems to die. Repeats continue to air occasionally on MSNBC, and a new spin-off called Predator Raw: The Unseen Tapes continues with previously unseen footage containing additional commentary by Hansen.

The progression from shows 20/20 to Dateline's To Catch A Predator evolved into Comedy Central's Daily Show making fun of the media. But somewhere in between, Hollywood caught on to the popularity of news as entertainment, as Oliver Stone made us believe things were true even though they weren't, for the sake of making real events more entertaining. He wrote and directed movies like JFK and Nixon, and when things started to get slow in the screenplay, Stone freely made things up.

Another form of entertainment that became popular in film started around the time Forrest Gump met John F. Kennedy. At that time, television commercials starred dead people. Along with the Oliver Stoning of America, the line between reality and news and entertainment was becoming blurred beyond recognition. And now, with every young person schooled in Photoshop, seeing is no longer believing.

True events and real people like Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen, however, continue to capture the really big television ratings and Internet chatter. Leading up to the Internet takeover was the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case, which was known as "the trial of the century", but was really the biggest takeover of the airwaves ever, at least up to that point. The Los Angeles Times covered the O.J. case on its front page for more than 300 days after the murders, and the major television networks gave more air time to the trial than to the Bosnian War and the Oklahoma City bombing case combined.

The O.J. Simpson case was immediately followed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which led to the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and high ratings for news channels, with its perfect mix of sex, politics, and lying and cheating.

The high point of media madness had not yet occured, however, until June 25, 2009. That was the day that Michael Jackson died, and anyone doubting the sanity of the news media only had to watch CNN's Anderson Cooper go on the air with a feature about Jackson's former pet "Bubbles the Chimp". My faith in the news business, and Anderson Cooper, went down a notch.

But Cooper is not normally known for reporting on celebrity pets. In addition to his long-running show Anderson Cooper 360, his most recent gig is CBS' 60 Minutes, where he interviewed Eminem and Lady Gaga in addition to Afgan cops. Cooper has become the model for the modern day reporter who is also a celebrity who interviews other celebrities who think they are reporters. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, and George Clooney, among many others, have made an art form out of the celebrity as serious newsmaker. But in reality, they are actually using their celebrity to do good - unlike egomaniacs like Donald Trump, who spends most of his time trying to make us think he's richer than he really is - or Charlie Sheen, who spends most of his time trying to make us think he's saner than he really is.

Although Anderson Cooper has been sidetracked by celebrities, both human and chimp, he has redeemed himself with some solid reporting on at his desks at CNN and CBS. However, the lunatics have seemingly taken over the asylum elsewhere. Fox News leads the way with nut jobs like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity anchoring, along with a list of correspondents that belong in a Will Farrell comedy, not on a major cable news network. The network trademarked the slogan "Fair and Balanced", just in case anybody questioned them. Fox News spends its time defending people like Donald Trump, and was a big supporter of Trump during his very important search for President Obama's birth certificate.

When President Obama took credit for giving the order to raid Osama bin Laden's compound, Fox News gave special thanks to members of the military and, of course, the true mastermind, George W. Bush. At the time, Donald Trump was still a candidate, and just as Fox News was trying to figure out a way to give Trump credit for taking out bin Laden, Trump dropped out of the race.

On May 16th, NBC announced the shows it was picking up for next season. On that list was Celebrity Apprentice. That was, not coincidentally, the day that Donald Trump dropped out of a presidential race that he was never actually in. It was a bad day for comedians. Jon Stewart and his joke writers were saddened by Trump's departure, so Stewart begged him to come back.

The media is no longer repeating every goofy thing Donald Trump says, and the in-depth coverage of how he gets his hair to look that way - which was first reported by Time Magazine and picked up by the major news media – has come to an end.

When we got Osama bin Laden, it looked like the news was actually news. Not so. The White House lost control of the story and the media began to focus on what was actually a small news item in the scheme of things: the collection of porn found on bin Laden's computer hard drives. Finally, when we got back on track with the news of what else was found on the hard drives, the American public got bored.

We have moved on to more important news. In a bombshell announcement, Arnold Schwarzenneger admitted that he had fathered a child with a member of his household staff ten years ago. That was a few days after he separated from his wife. New revelations come out daily. Today's headline: "Mother of Schwarzenneger's Love Child Revealed!"

Other news that competes with the Schwarzenneger revelation: Lindsay Lohan sentenced to "shoplifting alternative school"; a man eats his 25,000th Big Mac; the Royal Couple go on a $720,000 honeymoon; Gwyneth Paltrow furthers her musical career by turning to rap; the Apocalypse is scheduled for May 21st; the Apocalypse is rescheduled until next year; the top two contestants are revealed on American Idol; Stephen Hawking announces that there's no heaven... Wait a minute - that sounds like news to me.

I must admit, sometimes I fall for all this entertainment masquerading as news. But I'm not letting the media get away with their charade this time. I want to know what's really happening - what's really affecting our lives. The only news that matters right now is Oprah's farewell spectacular, airing on May 23rd and 24th.

When that's over, I'll go back to watching funny videos of cats on the Internet. That is, until the next celebrity goes off the deep end, or the world's most wanted terrorist leaves behind a collection of porn. After all, Oprah just doesn't have the same entertainment value as Charlie Sheen, Osama bin Laden, or Donald Trump.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Good week for Obama - Bad week for bin Laden and Trump

That's one way to grab the media spotlight from Donald Trump. On Sunday night, President Obama delivered a speech that will go down in history, interrupting the Sunday night TV schedule, including Trump's “Celebrity Apprentice”, to announce the death of Osama bin Laden. It was 66 years to the day that Hitler was pronounced dead.

Criticized by Republicans for being soft on terrorism, Obama not only put a stop to that talk, but continued to confound his political critics with his calm and seemingly aloof demeanor.

The raid on Osama bin Laden's compound not only took extraordinary courage from the members of the military special forces who carried it out, but from the president himself, who by ordering it, opened himself up to some serious second-guessing if the mission had been unsuccessful.

What turned out to be a very good week for Obama turned out to be a very bad one for Donald Trump, who last week made a buffoon of himself by holding a press conference to announce that he was honored to be responsible for forcing Obama to turn over his long-form birth certificate.

It is now more than ever obvious that there are more important issues facing America than Trump's birther idiocy. The media was reporting Trump's bizarre antics as if it were news, but Obama was quietly going about his job running the country. On hindsight, Obama has not only shown that he's quite adept at multi-tasking, but that he's also one cool customer.

While the risky top-secret mission to bring down the most hated man since Hitler was being carried out, Obama was doing his stand-up comedy routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night. The annual night of light-hearted fun was all the more remarkable when we realize that while Obama was delivering spot-on one-liners taking on Trump's paranoid birther conspiracy, Paul Ryan's budget proposal, funding cuts for NPR, and even his own sagging poll numbers, Obama's mission to root out Osama bin Laden was being meticulously planned and on the verge of being carried out.

Suddenly Obama's long-form birth certificate didn't seem so important, and Donald Trump had been relegated to the political trash heap reserved for losers and has-beens.

And Obama proved that he can calmly juggle matters of national security with idiotic pop-culture absurdities such as Trump and his right wing conspiracy theorists.