Year 8, Day 149 - 5/28/16 - Movie #2,348
BEFORE: Matthew Modine carries over to be the co-narrator of this documentary, and (full disclosure) I'm friends with the director, Jen Senko, and also the producer, and also the animator, and quite a few other people in the credits. Heck, I was a Kickstarter backer of this film, and I've only ever backed, like, three projects on that site. But when you're friends with indie filmmakers, sometimes you do what you can - and that's how I got a copy of Jen's previous doc, "Vanishing City".
THE PLOT: Jen Senko, a documentary filmmaker, looks at the rise of right-wing media through the lens of her WWII vet father who changed from a life-long, nonpolitical Democrat to an angry, right-wing fanatic after his discovery of talk radio on a lengthened commute to work.
AFTER: Now, as someone with friends in high places, I could have gone to the premiere of this film back in March, but I think I was a little busy with the new job, and I turned down the invite. In a way, I'm glad that I did, because this film has only become more relevant to current events, now that this year's election primaries have taken place. By taking a look at some notable elections of the past, and detailing the rise of the Fox News channel, the director managed to make a film with some incredible insights into what's going on RIGHT NOW in American politics.
Consider this: Remember the 1960 election (OK, I don't, I wasn't born yet) when Nixon lost to JFK, partially because Nixon looked all sweaty and shifty-eyed on TV during their debate? I've heard that many people who listened to the debate on radio scored it for Nixon, but most people who saw him on TV ended up favoring Kennedy. Suddenly, there was a shift in presidential politics, thanks to TV, and Americans started electing the candidates who looked better on TV. TV was important, and only became more so as things progressed. And Nixon's media advisor, Roger Ailes, would go on to become the Chairman and CEO of what channel? Hint: it's Fox News.
Fast-forward to the Reagan years - we know now that Reagan's "Supply-side economics" wasn't just a bunch of voodoo, it was a bunch of poo-poo. But somehow he convinced average Americans that if rich people could pay less taxes, and big business could just get the break that it needed, the results would be better for everyone. The money would eventually "trickle down" to the poor and the middle-class, so rather than give it to them directly, it made sense to give it to the rich people, so the poor could get it. Right. There was something trickling down on the poor people in the 1980's, but it wasn't money. But there was the President, selling a worthless plan, but repeating the lie enough for people to believe in it. Did everyone miss the fact that Reagan used to be an actor? An actor's someone who pretends for a living, right? Says words that don't need to be true, ring any bells?
Fast-forward to the Clinton years, and Hillary's belief in a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" to take her husband down. OK, I think Bill had a lot to do with the events that made him lose credibility, but just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that they AREN'T out to get you. The simple fact is that conservative people have long held a belief that the media swings to the liberal side, so they felt totally justified in setting up a TV network that would espouse their side of the story, because that would balance the scales. The only problem becomes, if you try to balance the scales in your favor by stating a bunch of "facts" that aren't really true, citing studies and surveys that are skewed or falsified, you may start out with the best intentions of balancing things, but you end up feeding people a steady diet of lies on a daily basis, and how can that be good for the country.
Quick answer, it's not - spreading mistruths and biased information about certain ethnic groups, or classes of society has brought us to where we are now - a country that's so divided on every issue, everything's either black or white, with no middle ground, that at many times there seem to be two Americas, and if you're not part of one, you must be part of the other. Can we all just take a minute and realize how stupid it is to say you live in a red state or a blue state, when so many states would more correctly be regarded as purple, once we took everyone's thoughts on complicated issues into account?
But, here's where we are, a nation that's now giving serious consideration to a candidate who, like Nixon, learned to manipulate the media with small, simple sound bites. And by that, he's saying, "Well, Americans are generally stupid, let me dumb this complicated issue down to a very simple nugget of hatred, that anyone can understand, and by playing on their fears, I'll appeal to Americans' hearts." Because there's this chemical rush that we humans get, and we can get it from exercise, or from reaching a complicated goal, but the quickest way to get there is through a quick burst of anger, and that's left over from our caveman "fight or flight" days, isn't it?
And like Reagan, he's trying to sell us a bunch of plans for things that don't make any sense - like a wall on the border that's 1,000 miles long and God-knows how high, one of the biggest construction projects ever proposed, and somehow he's going to make the people who DON'T want it to be there to pay for it. Just like "Supply-side economics", it's not feasible - it won't work, it can't work, and even if it could, which it can't, its very existence would make the people who put it there not only horrible people, but hypocrites, since that goes against the very principles the U.S.A. was founded on. But apparently if you repeat the lie enough times, and use colorful language and interesting sound-bites, you can get people to believe in it.
And now people are seriously considering voting for the man who represents the very worst parts of Nixon and Reagan, the lying liar parts, when in TV and print interviews he's said statements that have conflicted his other statements - he's for gun control, he's against it. He's pro-abortion, but if the country's against it, maybe we should prosecute women who get abortions. No, wait, we should punish the doctors - heck, we'll punish somebody, does it matter who? Why do I get the feeling that we're about to find ourselves not knowing which way is up for the next four years? Anybody who can spin on a dime like this, being put in a position of power, that frightens me quite a lot.
But let me get back to Frank Senko, a former Kennedy Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat (another incredible coincidence, when people are talking now about possible "Clinton Republicans" and "Trump Democrats"). Jen noticed that after the rise of Limbaugh, and her father's exposure to him during a series of long commutes, that he started spouting different political views, railing against "feminazis" and groups like PETA, when he'd always been kind to animals and even had a bit of a hippie phase when his kids did in the 1970's. What happened to him, and in fact to other older people around the country, whose adult children weighed in via Skype about similar changes?
What happened, plain and simple, is that certain news organizations started to drift from merely reporting the news, and turned toward shaping the news - picking key phrases that would scare and rile up the public, and making sure they were repeated each day by a chain of anchors and opinion-givers, like daily mantras. Because they had the attention of people stuck in traffic jams during drive-time, and they could repeat their lies and fabrications enough for people to start regarding them as facts. Something happens to people when they get older, they sometimes develop these belief systems that get very rigid, and any information that comes to them and doesn't fit gets rejected - but at the same time they somehow get more gullible, and they fall for telemarketing and internet scams that younger people would just immediately hang up the phone on, or delete from their mailboxes.
And that's the problem with the internet, it's a free-for-all where everyone can post anything they want, even if it's not true, and there are no repercussions. Oh, Fox News has fact-checkers, and they may run a retraction or a correction, but only days later, and in very small type, and by then the damage is already done. Where's the accountability in this country, to make sure that what people say on the magic picture box are genuinely real facts? It's not just old people any more, I'm seriously worried that as a species, we've forgotten how to hunt, gather, and now fact-check. Hunting and gathering, I can get - it's much easier to walk to the store and buy a pack of hot dogs than to wander around with a spear looking for them in the wild. But please, people, if we willingly give up our ability to think, to reason, to doubt what someone is trying to sell us, then we're truly doomed.
Now, with that said, the director faced a real uphill battle here, and that's not only making people aware of the problem, but making that awareness interesting and not preachy, and that means she had to walk a very fine line. But this was accomplished best by examining the small, the thoughts and reactions of one man, and how they changed over time, and what made them change. And by examining the small, we can start to get a grasp on the large, and wonder just how widespread the problem of ignorance and gullibility is. My fear is that it's much larger than we can imagine.
I strongly recommend that everyone check this film out (it's on iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube and GooglePlay), but more importantly that we all try to get back to a more cynical, but healthier, place where we don't believe everything that we read or hear, and that we set aside time to check so-called "facts" for ourselves, whenever possible. That goes for everyone, young and old alike.
Also starring Noam Chomsky, Steve Rendall, Jeff Cohen, Eric Boehlert, George Lakoff, Rick Perlstein, Claire Conner, Frank Luntz, David Brock.
RATING: 7 out of 10 dittoheads