Media Manipulated: A Memoir

The little pink pony in happier times

I started my first newspaper when I was in 4th grade, sometime in late 1972, and it was badly written and horribly illustrated and full of stories that were either badly reported, based entirely on gossip or made up on the spot. That publication was short-lived (d. 1973) but its spirit lives on in the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report and virtually every American cable news outlet.

In a related story: Fox News’s Glenn Beck, whose willingness to say or do anything for attention has swiftly made him a hugely influential TV pundit, asserts that his media empire, which grosses north of $30 million US a year, asserted recently that it’s really all just entertainment. That all of his super-nationalist patriotism, with its 9 theses and 12 assertions, plus also its tear-stained recriminations and spit-flecked denunciations, much of which now resides at the heart of the Tea Party movement, is merely showbiz posturing. Which maybe isn’t a surprise, because the even-more-successful Rush Limbaugh tends to say precisely the same thing — that he’s really just an entertainer —  which is also probably what Keith Olbermann thinks every time he thunders through another Special Comment and/or Worst Person in the World segment. Then you realize how Beck, et. al, influence the T.P. types, whose protestations influence the political process, which influences the American gov’t, which holds a certain amount of sway over the entire free world. At which point, well, shit.

Last night I was summoned to a hotel bar to meet a source for a story I’m writing, a feature story, nothing all that important, and at the appointed time I was greeted not by my source (name and identity still unknown, btw) but by a confused woman who had been paid $10 by a stranger on the street, who asked her to hand me a small box that contained the head of a Lil’ Pink Pony (or whatever it’s called) and a note instructing me to email a single question, which would be answered via some mp3 message. So okay, fine, I’m up for this kind of antic. I realize this is an absurd game, that it suits the quirky personal and/or commercial and/or media interests of my subject. But what else is new? I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years, writing celebrity profiles, TV reviews, investigative pieces, medical stories, political stories, on and on and on. And I think all of them involved some measure of attempted/successful fibbing, distorting and obvious manipulation on the part of the subjects. In other words: there is very little separating a decapitated toy pony from the text of your average press release. Or White House briefing, for that matter.

Follow the jump for more on Glenn Beck, the big sex story I just wrote and more…

Sometimes the purpose of all of this, particularly when it comes to my own participation, seems elusive. To put it mildly. Are there other ways to earn a living? And if I’m going to be part of a vast fun-and-illusion factory, maybe I should get myself a top hat (with spangles. I’d want spangles on mine) and jump right into the ring.

The rewarding part comes when it seems like you’ve put your finger on some real thing, a split second of clarity, a moment of transcendence, and you manage to put it into words that may actually reach your friends and neighbors and give them something to think about. It’s an elusive target, and always, maddeningly, subject to the subjective judgments of others. For instance, I think there’s something sick and wrong about Glenn Beck’s 3 card monte version of moral fire and brimstone. As if it could ever be cool to play at matters of national/global policy — to actively screw with processes that affect the lives and sometimes deaths of the most vulnerable among us — because it’s fun and profitable. But even Richard Nixon had soul, to paraphrase Neil Young, and if Beck’s hokum makes his fans feel and think something, no matter how absurd, I guess that IS his job. And maybe it’s not his fault that our government is full of desperate, gullible and easily-led types whose commitment to the public interest takes a poor second to their own need for power and fame. That, I’m sorry to say, is pretty much our fault.

Now it’s time for me to get back to my job(s). I’m still waiting on the mp3 from the pink pony guys, and I’ve got a major investigative thing on sex set to appear in the Sunday Oregonian (you’ll want to check that out), plus also a handful of other newspaper stories in the works (celebrities, trends, the usual) and an endless procession of tasks related to the book I’m working on…..which also turns out to be about celebrities, the media, American culture, politics and image.

Sometimes I think I should just toss it all and go back to my first journalistic love, that fourth grade newspaper. We wrote it directly onto a ditto master that would imprint our scrawled words in fresh blue ink on the opposite side of the page. We’d clip that to the big metal roller in the middle of the ditto machine, turn the crank and see our work published on clean, white paper, right before our eyes. The stack of freshly run-off sheets emerged warm and redolent of ink and industry, then deliver them ourselves, walking around the classroom and handing them to our classmates, and to our teachers (Mr. Brooks, Ms. King). We could watch them read, see them respond, hear them talk about it all, right in front of us. Sometimes professional journalism, circa 2010, can feel that rewarding. Just not very often.

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