LIED TO EVERY DAY
A few years ago, the tv station where I work was beginning to make preparations to move into a new location. The building that we'd occupied since the early 50's was old, filled with asbestos, and stretched way beyond the limitations of the facility. Cables, many of them unused for years, snaked through every crevice and gap, above every ceiling and under every floor. News Department employees had to go up four floors to get to the studio, five floors to get to the Control Room of the cramped, much-too-vertical old building. So the decision was finally made to leave the grand old girl behind and move into shiny new (all-digital) headquarters.
As the preparations for the extremely complicated changeover took shape, there was a lot of concern, particularly among those of us on the technical side, about whether or not there would be an effort to do a lot of automation. People were concerned about their livelihoods, and there was at least some justification for their concerns.
Now, if you've been reading this column for a while, you've probably gotten the idea that I'm not exactly the shy, wallflower type. True to form, I traipsed into the office of the Chief Engineer one day and put the question directly: Were there plans to lay off personnel after the move? This person looked me straight in the eye and assured me to my face that there were absolutely no plans to reduce personnel.
Our new location was an existing structure. Gutting and re-fitting it, and building a studio onto it, was a long and unbelievably complicated endeavor. From the time the demolition/construction got under way until we were actually on the air from the new building was a period of about nine months. Halfway through this process, that Chief Engineer left us to go to another station in another part of the country. It was only after this departure that we learned that not only had the plan for the installation of the new station been filled with things that had been (at best) only partially thought out, but that there had also been a plan for large layoffs in the technical personnel.
I hope you'll forgive me for beginning this month's column with an item that is only tangentially related to the media. It began that way this month, and it'll end that way this month, too. Somewhere in the middle, I'll try to stick more or less to my role as some sort of media commentator. But we're in some pretty serious times in this country these days, and believe it or not, there are even more serious issues to think about than whether you'll be able to play your CDs in a next-generation DVD player.
Folks, we are lied to every day. We're lied to by people who look us straight in the eye and expect us to trust them. Lying has become somewhat of a national pastime anymore, so much so that lots of people lie and call it sincerity. How did lying get to be so big?
I remember gasping in amazement in 1973 when Richard Nixon looked millions of us in the eye and proclaimed with a straight face "I am not a crook." Of course, we all know now that at that moment he was about as close to the truth as we are to Neptune, but ol' Tricky Dick was no neophyte at media manipulation. The only thing he didn't grasp was that there was no cute little doggie named Checkers to rescue him this time. He and his cronies got caught in one of the biggest lies ever, and they paid a pretty big price. Nixon, of course, did not invent the lie, and he certainly isn't single-handedly responsible for lying's newfound popularity. He merely raised lying to new and dizzying heights.
It wasn't long before people began to actually get ridiculed for telling the truth. Jimmy Carter, while running for the presidency in 1976, told an interviewer from Playboy magazine that he had "lusted in my heart" for women even though he'd never been unfaithful to his wife. Hails of derisive laughter descended upon Mr. Carter from all over the country, even though I can't think of a guy I know who hasn't had at least a little lust in his heart on nearly a daily basis. His honesty was "ingenuous" and "quaint." Carter was elected, but probably only because he ran against Gerald Ford, a man so bland that he made vanilla seem exotic by comparison.
But Carter ran into a buzz saw four years later, and it was in the 80s, with the coming of the Reagan Era, that lying really came into its own. The Iran/Contra mess was the first time we were shown what world-class liars our country had entrusted with positions of extreme power. Lt. Col. Oliver North wrapped himself in the American flag and lied forthrightly all over the national media. He told the truth about his lies and he lied about telling the truth. Such a master of obfuscation was he that it was impossible to tell anymore what was truth and what was fiction. Everything that emerged from this guy's mouth dripped with sincerity, and through it all, the camera dwelled on his lovely, adoring, all-American wife. By the time it was Reagan's turn to testify, most of us were so perplexed as to what was true and what wasn't that people were almost relieved to hear the President of the United States lie through his grinning, grandfatherly face that he had no idea what his underlings were up to.
By now I can sense that you're probably getting a little fidgety and wondering what the hell all of this has to do with the media. Don't worry. I feel your pain.
Well, the media is pretty much in the business of lying to us, and it's been going on for as long as there have been media. An awful lot of it is benign. Most television programs are fiction, which is, of course, a form of lying. The difference is that when you give people fiction, everyone is supposed to understand that by "fiction" we mean "something which, by its very nature, is not true." That there are people who believe, for instance, that soap opera characters are real people isn't the fault of the storytellers.
One thing, though, that the media have told people since time out of mind is that buying a new car will get you laid. Or drinking a certain beverage, or using a certain shaving cream (there's that old Noxzema "Take it off. Take it all off" commercial again!). How many of us have ever actually got laid because we bought a certain product? Show of hands...? Thought so. Yet this remains the best and most tried-and-true way to sell just about anything. The media are very persuasive, and they know just about every trick of persuasion and manipulation that exists.
These days the lies are a lot more insidious, though. My favorite, if that's actually a word that applies here, is that SUV's are safe. That's one of the biggest points made when selling these monstrosities. That lie is born out of the fact that an SUV will flatten, crush, destroy, and mangle beyond all recognition just about any other vehicle with which it collides. Never mind that it has a center of gravity almost as high as your forehead and that it is as likely to tip over in a tight turn as it is to pancake any small living thing in its path. Never mind that its fuel "economy" is closer to being measured in "gallons to the mile" instead of "miles to the gallon," or that a gravel driveway is as close to "off-road" as 90% of drivers will ever get. We've been told that we need these things, and damn it, we're going to have them! This lie has even become institutionalized now, with Congress refusing to penalize SUV's for their wastefulness on the grounds that forcing auto makers to build smaller, more economical (read "less profitable") vehicles, would imperil drivers forced to share the road with these behemoths. So it's okay to drive a huge machine that can crush a smaller car filled with children and their parents.
And why is that? Because we were told the lie that "Everybody's A Star" back in the 70's, and we bought it lock, stock and barrel. Twenty-five years later, the notion that any other person could be even remotely as important as "I" am is patently absurd.
Another great lie that the media perpetuate is the lie of the "left-wing media." Think about it for just a second. Scores of newspaper columnists, hundreds of radio talk show hosts, and television blowhards like Bill O'Reilly are constantly haranguing you that the media are filled with "bleeding hearts," mainly, it would seem, because Peter Jennings happens to be left of center. If you haven't seen through that one by now, then you probably have no hope at all of seeing through the latest Big Lie, even though it's one of the hugest ever.
Yes, your government is putting forth an all-out effort to make sure that you believe that it's absolutely imperative that we go to war against the sovereign nation of Iraq. Because we don't like the guy that runs the joint, that's why. And because a year ago some people who belong to the same religion attacked us. Of course, media manipulation plays a gigantic role in this campaign.
That there are hundreds of excellent reasons why we shouldn't do this is being swept under the rug so as not to deter us from our fervor for satisfying our lust for some Middle Eastern Islamic blood. That Saddam Hussein is a Sunni Muslim, not a Shiite Muslim, and has little or no affection for Islamic fundamentalists isn't really important, is it? I mean, aren't they all alike? These distinctions are subtleties, and subtlety and bomb-dropping don't exactly go hand-in-hand, do they? That not a single Iraqi was involved in 9/11, and no connection can be established between Iraq and al Qaida, is something we can think over later on, after the dust and debris have settled.
We're being told that we have to attack in order to save American lives. But wait a minute, won't all those soldiers we'll be sending over there be Americans, and won't some, maybe even an awful lot of them die? We're being told that we need to spare innocent lives, but how na´ve do we have to be to believe that no Iraqi civilians, including women and children, will be killed in such a war? And do we really believe that attacking Iraq will endear us to the hearts of the millions of Muslims around the world who don't hate us yet? A rational person might be forced to think that an awful lot of those people will be convinced that maybe Osama bin Laden is right; maybe this is a war of the West against Islam. Are you really willing to chance beginning World War III over this?
Ever thought about why it is that when China and Taiwan or India and Pakistan are rattling sabers at each other we want cooler heads to prevail, but it's perfectly okay for us to go halfway around the world to take on an impoverished nation that does not pose, and never has posed, a direct threat to us? And if we can go in and kick the snot out of another sovereign nation simply because we don't like the guy in charge, then who's next? France? Mexico??
Most importantly, if we got one good thing from September Eleventh of last year, it was the moral high ground. And yet the United States of America, a country that has never attacked another nation without provocation, would surrender that moral high ground, that one good thing, and become for the first time in its history an aggressor nation. That should be unconscionable to us all, and we should be outraged that any administration would even contemplate it.
Well, I can hear my dear friend Rusty Pipes telling me that it's getting far too crowded in his Closet, and I need to get out of there and back into the television where I belong. He's right, of course. As I said, this column has had only the most tangential relation to my usual subject matter, and I apologize to any of you who have taken exception. But, as I also said, these are serious times, and I just had to get this off my chest.
Dirty Talk Update
In light of the above this seems kind of frivolous, but I opened this can of worms last month and this is an item worthy of noting.
If you watched the season premiere of NYPD Blue a couple of weeks ago you heard another breakthrough moment. Detective John Clark, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, was having a conversation with his partner, Andy Sipowicz. In the course of their conversation, Clark mentioned his girlfriend, a detective in the same squad. He said, "I'm just getting tired of putting up with Rita's bullshit, you know?" I did a double-take. Last spring, as I said in last month's column, Anthony Edwards got to say the word "shit" in prime time. But his character was dying of cancer. This was just a normal conversation between two co-workers. How many times in the course of your workday do you use the word "bullshit?" This was a victory for every one of us who want to hear characters on tv shows talk the way we talk. So you no longer have to have terminal cancer to justify using the most common curse word of them all on commercial television.
Now if only someone would stand up to Dubya or Dick Cheney and say "Bullshit!" we'd really be getting somewhere!