Review: HOLLYWOOD NATION by James Hirsen

Left Coast Lies, Old Media Spin, and the New Media Revolution

FULL DISCLOSURE: This book was provided by Crown Forum publishing. I will follow MO’s MO and quote some sections of the book that support my views and gush about how right the author is.

This book was a bit of a surprise to me. I was expecting a lot of discussion about how Hollywood films and television were undermining America blah blah blah. Instead, it’s mainly about how Hollywood-esque tactics and superstar-like news personalities are bringing us news that appears to be entertainment. Or is it entertainment that appears to be news?

(For what it’s worth, I generally buy the “Hollywood films and television are undermining America” blah blah. But that, apparently, is a different book.)

Here’s a good place to start:

The news business itself is undergoing a Tinseltown makeover. To function as a free society we need information delivered to us in an accurate, unadulterated, and uncensored manner. But these days our needs and wants seem to be at odds a bit, because we’re looking to receive our news and analyses in fun, bite–sized morsels. The truth is that bare–bones facts can be so–I believe the word is–boring. So papers dress up communiques with eye-pleasing charts, headlines, photos, colors, and the like. Television uses brightly lighted sets, telegenic anchors, attention-grabbing sound effects, and arresting sound bites to give pizzazz to otherwise lackluster dispatches. And news organizations produce special reports and documentaries that aim to do more than just inform us; they try to make our imaginations take flight, tickle our funny bones, or scare the pants off us in a Saturday-matinee kind of way.

Ever so slowly things have gone through an adjustment. Now News is Big Entertainment. And Entertainment is Big News.

This is basically the heart of the book, and a big part of what’s wrong with the news media today. Well, that and all the lying.

Most readers of this site, no doubt, subscribe to the theory of media bias to the Left. I do, at least when speaking in general terms. I believe there’s a certain bias against whoever happens to be the President at the time, and a bias against all things traditional, regardless of political affiliation, but as an erstwhile Right-winger, the Leftward lean seems apparent enough.

Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw has rejected the notion of the existence of a mainstream media bias. He told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, “The idea that we would set out, consciously or unconsciously, to put some kind of ideological framework over what we’re doing is nonsense.” As I read those words, I asked myself, How can anyone be sure whether he or she has not done something when that something could have been done unconsciously? I can’t figure that one out, unless Tom had been getting some assistance from the Amazing Kreskin.

Kreskin snarks or no, I don’t think that word means what Brokaw thinks it means. And honest debate, a cornerstone of democracy, suffers for it. I’m not talking about opinion columnists or pundits, here. I’m talking news reporting.

News legend Edward R. Murrow once said that there is no such thing as true objectivity in handling the news. In his view, the job of a reporter is “to know one ‘s own prejudices and try to do the best you can to be fair.” Not a bad approach to take in the news biz, or in life.

I don’t honestly think the problem is, so much, the fact that bias exists. I think the problem is the denial of bias by so many of those in the business and the unwillingness of so many consumers of news to admit that their sources aren’t untainted.

All that said, we should still expect journalists to strive to achieve objectivity–or as Murrow put it, to recognize personal bias and do one’s best to be fair. But many big-time news figures simply refuse to acknowledge any prejudices. Peter Jennings of ABC described colleagues as being “largely in the center without particular axes to grind, without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage–at least certainly not on purpose.” NBC’s now-retired Tom Brokaw was especially adamant about the topic: “The idea that we would set out, consciously or unconsciously, to put some kind of ideological framework over what we’re doing is nonsense,” he affirmed. And CBS’s Dan Rather weighed in on the subject by saying, “I’ve worked around reporters all my life. Most reporters, when you get to know them, would fall in the general category of kind of commonsense moderates.”

If we’re talking across the spectrum of medial large and small, perhaps. But outside of Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal, it seems that the Left-leaning ideology has a pretty savage stranglehold on major news outlets. Only the fact that Fox News continues to blow the cable competition out of the water prevents a virtual clean-sweep of the heavy hitters that inform the public at large and determine what the issues are.

Between chapters, Hirsen prints interviews with various news and media personalities. Confusingly, some of the interview quotes also run in the book proper and managed to bewilder me from time to time as I wondered if I was re-reading a page by accident. In any event, Bill O’Reilly has this to say about the changing face of Mainstream Media:

The Left has had a monopoly on the broadcast media and much of the print media for decades. And now they are taking it on the chin because conservative and traditional Americans felt they were underrepresented in the press. So once Fox News came on and said, “We’ll give voice to this point of view, this opinion, conservative and traditional as well as liberal too,” I mean we do that as well, they didn’t like it. They didn’t like losing their monopoly.

The real tipping point was that the elite media–the New York Times, L.A. Times, network news, PBS, NPR, CNN–in the past had demeaned points of view which they disagreed with, actively demeaned them by ignoring them altogether or by putting people on and just scoffing at them.

Now that message got across. Once Fox got up and did not do that, did not demean the point of view of the pro-life people or the NRA, they didn’t demean it–challenged it on occasion, but didn’t demean it–then the lefties really got crazed, because they said, “Uh-oh, now we are in a position where we are going to be perceived as being one-sided. We can’t have that, because our whole myth is that we are fair.” But they aren’t. They never have been.

The immediate reaction that 90% of those who don’t watch Fox News will be “But, but, but…Fox News isn’t unbiased!” They’re right. Most of them are also hypocrites. The point isn’t that Fox News is “Fair and Balanced”, though I think they’re the closest to that standard we have today, the point is that the question of biased reporting and slanted coverage are entering into the awareness of the public. And that the news empires do not like it. The world, the world they thrived in and controlled to large extent, is fading away.

Hirsen notes that journalism school teaches detachment, and O’Reilly cuts him off:

No, you can’t. You just can’t do that because then you have moral equivalencies going on. I mean, you have to decide if Saddam Hussein is a bad man or not. That’s part of being a journalist, deciding what the field of battle is, what the theater is. You didn’t send your reporters to World War II thinking, “Well, let’s give Hitler a break. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.” That’s ridiculous. You go in. You make determinations based upon what you know and what you see. And then you report what happens. And that’s objectivity. But you don’t go in like a zombie and say, “Gee, I think Goebbels has a point.” That’s ridiculous.

Now, O’Reilly commits the sin of using the Nazis in his analogy. To modern Americans, the Nazis were so clearly Evil that their value for comparisons is virtually nil. (Bushitler excepted, of course.) In the mind of most modern Americans the Nazis are, unfortunately, merely caricatures of archetypes. But the analogy stands if you put yourself into the shoes of Americans and American reporters living it in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the mists of time and the fading of living memory began to lend an air of myth and legend to the tales. Today, we have a lot of folks giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt, and a lot of folks giving plenty of air time to those who think Goebbels has a point.

The films of Hollywood are not totally ignored, and Hirsen asks Peggy Noonan

Hollywood is playing journalist with movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Fahrenheit 9/11. How do you think these types of cinema are impacting public perception?

Noonan responds

I don’t know. I suspect those inclined to believe a certain kind of propaganda come away reinforced. I suspect some who aren’t too informed find themselves impressed. I suspect some know that Hollywood these days is always pushing an agenda, and are not impressed by the propaganda but enjoy the entertainment. And I suspect a lot of people just don’t go. Fahrenheit was big for a documentary but not big for a movie. Day After Tomorrow I think kind of flopped but I sort of liked it because I liked the tale of survival part. But this all comes with the territory of freedom of speech.

Hirsen also notes this

Another invented saga, September Tapes, purported to describe the search for Osama bin Laden. It featured some actual documentary footage shot in Afghanistan, but with a twist: A single actor with scripted lines was surrounded by real people who were really reacting to those lines. Director Christian Johnston had to modify his script to conform to real situations that he and his team came across, including live ammunition and bounty hunters. The Department of Defense ended up requesting a full review of the footage because of the possibility of classified information being compromised.

I rented The September Tapes a while back, not knowing what it was. I couldn’t believe that it was the genuine article, as I’d never heard of it, but I decided to check it out. I think I maybe made it thirty minutes in before bailing. Bad. Bad. Bad. I was quite amused to learn about it in this book.

The moral of the story?

The correct answer to the media quandary is the same one we’ve been scoring with for over two hundred years–freedom. The more we encourage the establishment of New Media conduits through new technology, the more diversity of thought and the larger the array of choices that are available to us.

In this charmed situation, the burden of determining truth shifts to the court of public opinion. Much like the dueling advocacy in a legal setting, where each side presents its case from a distinct point of view, the information consumers, just like a jury, become fact finders. The New Media provide the “check” to the long-standing sources. The multitude of choices and voices enable us to unearth the truth, and we’re able to do so by using our own preferred modes. We’re in the digital driver’s seat. Finally. So now even when we’re hit with something as audacious as a Rather-stained memo or as demeaning as a Michael Moore schlockumentary we can be confident that the free-wheeling, pajama-wearing thumb typers, bird-dogging radio broadcasters, and cable fact sniffers will be on their tail.

As a blogger myself, of course, I’m buying this. Not that there won’t be pitfalls and new dangers to be alert for, of course. New Worlds are always like that. And we must all be careful of rashly discarding more of the Old than we need to. But there are going to be more sides to the story from now on, and they’re all going to be biased. If we all know that, and realize that all voices have at least a hint of that bias, we’ll have a fighting chance to continue the struggle for democracy and freedom.

You can even watch a trailer for HOLLYWOOD NATION. Buy it through Amazon here.

Comments

  1. “For what it’s worth, I generally buy the ‘Hollywood films and television are undermining America’ blah blah.” Well, the impression I got of the Vietnam war from watching movies (which I still like – e.g. Apocalypse Now!, Platoon, etc.) and even reading books is certainly very different from what some people tell me was the case, including several veterans. I like the movies because they’re ‘art’, not because they’re history. Still, if you don’t know better and just watch the movies, you’d have a pretty twisted view of that whole era. I think it’s like the media. We all know that the actors are pretty fruity, but I attribute it mostly to stories of the brutality being more interesting to depict. That and it’s a pretty complex time which was hard to understand so people don’t really try – they just latch onto the first impression they get and ignore everything beyond that. On the other hand, there are plenty of war movies that depict Americans as the ‘good guys’ – why are there so few from the Vietnam era? Imagine if movies made today about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were as pessimistic as those about Vietnam… that certainly would only distort peoples’ perspectives even further than the media are already. I can see it now. Movie after movie about Abu Gharib. Ugh. “This is basically the heart of the book, and a big part of what’s wrong with the news media today. Well, that and all the lying.” You forgot about the lack of fact checking and reporters ‘on the ground’ in trouble spots (second-hand reporting), their massive ego, presenting opinion as fact, … “Most readers of this site, no doubt, subscribe to the theory of media bias to the Left.” I’m not ‘on the right’ and I definitely think the media is biased to the left. They’re also just plain sensationalistic though…

  2. Actually, now that I think of it, Blackhawk Down was a really good movie! The effects were great, the acting was great and I believe it represented the situation and events very well and in a balanced manner. Anyone know of other movies like that? I was just thinking… those people who bring up Vietnam all the time… have they ever heard of Korea? And wondering if the reason that Korea was won (and I think we can all agree that was a good thing) and Vietnam lost was that in the intervening years China developed nuclear bomb technology. Nobody was THAT worried about pissing China off during the Korean war. Thoughts?

  3. Always amazes me how people on the right can find some excuse to call the media left biased. Since you need a clue, here’s a couple: Invasion of Iraq- NYT and WAPO both completely carried water for the Decepticon administration. Favorable stories, such as WMD’s, aluminum tubes for centrifuges, mobil truck weapons labs- those all went on the front page. The- ‘we’re not sure’, ‘nuke experts disagree on tubes’, and the like all got buried deep inside. And of course the op-ed pages supported them. Hey remember when president jackass, during the gore debates told us he didnt believe in nation building, and thought that lebanon was a good example of US military intervention. God what a jackass. And thats what he’s given us- the lebanon invasion- pointless, casualty causing invasion,- as well as a complete absence of nation building… Anywho, the press didnt even skip a beat on his stupidity, treating the whole thing as some kind of football game. ‘oh, bush did surprisingly well’ (despite his intellectual handicap)’

  4. Korea wasn’t ‘lost’, it is still happening. If it were considered to be over, it would be more of a tie. As other’s have noted elsewhere, the U.S. didn’t lose Vietnam (at least not militarily), we just negotiated peace, left, and it fell a few years later…which is a failure of the will of the American people/politicians, than of might. In regards to the main points: The real bias in the MSM is not the leftyness, imo, but rather a money bias…it’s the drive to make money for their stockholders which makes them stupid/insane. Seeming ‘Leftyness’ of reporting I think can be chalked up to leftyness in the Universities which train them; ever hear of a MSM journaist without a college degree? Consider NPR and friends. It’s obvious that they want to do mostly leftist reporting. But, both their charter and the law prevent them from doing so; they now have an ombudsman apparantly. So NPR gets that large niche of listeners who just can’t stand MSMs constant annoying sales pitches. Blog visitors now have even more pitch-free choices. YAY

  5. “Always amazes me how people on the right can find some excuse to call the media left biased.” Did you not read my comment where I pointed out that I’m not on the right and I find plenty of media bias? Yes, the MSM went on, and on, and on about WMDs. Sorry, that didn’t help anyone. Yes, we had evidence (and still do) that Iraq has/had them, but that wasn’t the only point. If you listened to the media, you would have thought (and many did) that it was the be-all and end-all of reasons to get rid of that bastard Saddam. Those of us who have cognitive function have plenty of reasons, many of them better, why getting rid of him was the right thing to do. Hell, I’m pissed off it wasn’t done in 1991, or earlier. “Korea wasn’t ‘lost’, it is still happening. If it were considered to be over, it would be more of a tie.” I agree, it’s still happening. It was a win in the sense that North Korea didn’t get what they wanted. I think that counts as a military win. In fact, if the politicians hadn’t stopped the generals, they probably would have pushed into China when they had the chance – so in the sense that it wasn’t a victory, that was at least partially a political decision. Obviously it would have been better for everyone (except Mr. Kim and his cronies) if they had been vanquished. I guess you could argue it’s a tie, I’d say it’s more of a stalemate.

  6. Oh, and by the way: “And thats what he’s given us- the lebanon invasion- pointless, casualty causing invasion” I think that’s an incredibly misguided opinion which can only be formed either with a level of ignorance that astounds me, or else you’ve been listening to the media too much. You know, the one you claim isn’t biased, but which feeds you this kind of rubbish? Please explain why ridding the world of yet another brutal tyrant (which the US has kindly performed many times in the last century, to the benefit of hundreds of millions of people) is ‘pointless’?

  7. So the news has gone Hollywood? That’s not news if you read Neal Postman’s book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death — Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business’. That book is 20 years old now.

  8. Jerome: Though I wasn’t aware of that book, I don’t think anyone was claiming the idea was a new one. That might be worth checking out to see what the thinking was at the time concerning countermeasures. Conservative talk radio sort of started, and the internet has really opened up, the competition. 20 years ago that wasn’t the case, and Fox was just getting started at all… Of course, many on talk radio and Fox have become Hollywoodish stars themselves. Which is too bad. One interesting thing about old books on current issues is to see how the predictions turned out.

  9. On the Postman book: He claims that television is meant to be entertainment, and so news, etc., will always be so. Thus the endless fires, car accidents being highlighted. BTW, Mr. Postman had no solutions. If people would rather be entertained then they would gravitate towards TV. Personally, I unplugged 20 years ago. We have a VCR/DVD viewer but no broadcast or cable.

  10. Jerome: Thanks for the reply. I’ve got to disagree that the television is simply ‘meant to be entertainment’ any more than the radio or print are (or are not) ‘meant to be entertainment’. There’s no doubt that a large percentage of what’s on television is truly awful in more ways than can be counted. But there is also much good and the rewards of searching out that good are immense.

  11. Please explain why ridding the world of yet another brutal tyrant (which the US has kindly performed many times in the last century, to the benefit of hundreds of millions of people) is ‘pointless’?’ I read in a number of places that the story going around among Iraqis in Iraq is that of a man selling ice in the street. A man with a beard comes over. He grabs the ice pick, anounces ‘there was no ice in allah’s time’ and stabs the ice seller to death. Supposedly Iraqi’s consider this an apocraphyl story. Whether this is true or not I cannot say. But it illustrates an important point, before there was one sadam. Now the sadams are legion. But please, dont take my word for it, jump right in to the ongoing civil war.

  12. You compare the average thug on the street to Saddam. That’s pretty spurious. Saddam had the connections and ability to rule the whole country by fear. What’s more, he could back up his fear with action. That’s something I don’t see any of these current thugs, even Zarqari, being able to do. Secondly, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT WE ARE THERE TO GET RID OF! If we leave, it will only get worse. If we stay, it will get better (and it is getting better!) So, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Your point was that the occupation was pointless, but in reality, it’s helping prevent this very thing you are outraged about. Every country has random thugs and criminals. Iraq just has more than most because nobody did anything about them – in fact it nutrured them – for decades. If we build a proper society there, which it seems we’re doing, that society won’t stand for this kind of rubbish. Not doing any nation building? What do you call creating a government, calling elections, building security forces, repairing infrastructure and services? Sheesh… try to inform yourself of some facts before you argue with us, rather than regurgitating the same old lies.

  13. But please, dont take my word for it, jump right in to the ongoing civil war.’ If someone gave me a rifle and a trip to Iraq and secured my job for me while I was gone and found a way to pay my mortgage in the meantime, I’d do it. I don’t think they’d want me, because I’d be a lousy soldier, but if for some reason I’m wrong about that I’m willing to go. As somebody pointed out, just because you’re not a fireman, doesn’t mean you can’t be pro-firefighting. However, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. I’m not afraid. Are you?

  14. Nice to know that you wont go becouse youve got an excuse – ‘I don’t think they’d want me, because I’d be a lousy soldier’. Stand up or shut up. ‘If we leave, it will only get worse.’ – agreed. ‘If we stay, it will get better (and it is getting better!) ‘ – disagree- what information forms the basis of these opinions? okay youve got ‘creating a government, calling elections, building security forces’ none of which actually mean anything since, the government and the security forces are 99% ineffective. and you also fantasize that this government is ‘repairing infrastructure and services’- you need to read more- cause it aint happening. My point- which maybe i didnt make clear enough, was that we had already detered the state actors. the non-state actors have been the problem. first wtc attack, bombing of the us embassies in africa, 9/11, the cole- these were all non-state affiliated actors- terrorists. they werent going to be detered by you ‘replacement theory’ even if it worked. which it doesnt. Of course the destabilizing of Iraq has given them a new place to practice their terrorist craft. and of course being an urban country compared to afghanistan, its given them an ideal urban training ground.

  15. “Nice to know that you wont go becouse youve got an excuse – ‘I don’t think they’d want me, because I’d be a lousy soldier’. Stand up or shut up.” What a load of rubbish. What would you have me do, exactly? Leave my home country, which I happen to like, go live in the US (which I’ve done before, and I came back home, despite having several offers to stay permanently) just so I, an overweight, unfit man with lung and heart problems and less-than-stellar eyesight, can join the Army or Marines? How exactly is that going to help anyone? “- disagree- what information forms the basis of these opinions? okay youve got ‘creating a government, calling elections, building security forces’ none of which actually mean anything since, the government and the security forces are 99% ineffective.” Let’s see: * clear reduction in violence, in terms of number of attacks * many areas are virtually violence-free * many Iraqis are fed up with the terrorists and actively helping root them out * many Iraqis are getting involved in the political system * terrorists are getting desperate – we know from captured letters they’ve written, plus the increasing desperation of their attacks * large numbers of Iraqi military and police personnel are becoming increasingly effective Geez, where do you get this ‘99% ineffective’ figure from? The reports I’ve read say that the Iraqi forces are actually becoming quite competent and in many cases operating entirely without coalition support, and they’re capturing terrorists too. “and you also fantasize that this government is ‘repairing infrastructure and services’- you need to read more- cause it aint happening.” I read several reports recently about infrastructure that was repaired and improved. Electrical generators, water purification plants, housing, all sorts of stuff. That was just in one week! Why are you such an expert on what is, or isn’t happening in Iraq? “My point- which maybe i didnt make clear enough, was that we had already detered the state actors” How, exactly? Shit, I have better things to do than this…