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What 'Lies' Beneath

Crank Call


Published February 21, 2001 at 6:39 p.m.

Which is worse — the death of civility in Baghdad, or the $100 million that Hannibal has reportedly sucked in at the box office in two short weekends? Should I be more concerned about “consumer confidence” or “Muslim extremists?” Will you be watching Timothy McVeigh’s televised execution? And why is Bill Clinton getting more publicity than President Select?

I ask rhetorically, of course. Words are only tools in the civil society — they don’t mean a thing. Nor do numbers, apparently. Last week, The Los Angeles Times caused a small flap among journalists by running a four-day series about the accuracy of news reporting in Hollywood. Evidently, no one’s been attending to it — accuracy, that is.

“The media’s obsession with opening weekend grosses is as ironic as it may be destructive,” writes Times staff correspondent David Shaw: “Why? Because virtually everyone in Hollywood agrees that most of the numbers the studios report to the media are inaccurate, if not downright dishonest.” Investigative reporting in Hollywood, according to Shaw, has degenerated into “breathless accounts of who’s in, out, up or down — and celebrity profiles that are almost as flattering as they are formulaic.” Shaw quotes film producer Linda Obst: “Inhale. Lie. Exhale. Lie.”

“Long-term survivors find successful techniques that don’t require lying,” Obst explains without elaboration. “In Hollywood, everyone’s either a friend or an enemy.” Obst’s movie credits include 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle and 1997’s Contact, so I don’t know how current she might be.

In case you’ve forgotten, Contact was the aliens-from-space movie that put Jodie Foster into bed with Matthew McConaughey, the most insincere actor in Tinseltown until Kevin Spacey took the job. In Contact, Foster looked like Pinocchio and McConaughey played “the spiritual advisor to the President of the United States,” so I’d say lying, in Obst’s case, is a matter of perspective.

As for Hannibal, Sir Anthony Hopkins compares this dumbbell exercise in computer blood-and-gore to that poor, exploited visionary, the Bard of Avon. You know the argument: There’s just as much violence in Titus Andronicus! The queen eats her own children in a pie!

“Censorship is tyranny!” Sir Tony explodes — he’s an American citizen now, and pretty quick on the draw. So widespread is the nothing-to-it notion about Hannibal that even Jeremy Irons, who turned down the part of Hannibal Lecter, was quoted last week from New Zealand as he prepared to sail the Tasman Sea in a racing competition.

“I don’t think we need to be too worried about gory, horrendous stories, they have been around forever,” Irons says. And speaking of Shakespeare, Hopkins says, “live theater is boring.” That’s how much Hamlet and Hannibal have in common.

Anyway, I’m not as worried about lying in Hollywood as I am that reporters are suddenly pretending it’s news. The L.A. Times points to a changing corporate and technological culture, in which “lines between Hollywood and Wall Street have become increasingly blurred,” but that can’t be the point of a four-day feature. Sure enough, correspondent Shaw quotes Bernard Weinraub, The New York Times’ longtime man in La-La Land. Are lying movie moguls “really so very different from politicians?” Shaw wonders.

“Yes,” Weinraub replies on cue. “People lie much more flagrantly in Hollywood than in Washington. The level of duplicity and deception is greater in Hollywood.”

Thus we’re encouraged to take lying for granted in one arena (entertainment) while ignoring it — in fact, conspiring with it — in another (politics). Journalism’s lickspittle coverage of the entertainment industry is nothing next to the blow jobs the Bushmen have been getting in this, their obligatory “honeymoon” period. In regard to the last week’s action against Iraq specifically, The New York Times states: “George W. Bush, not yet a month into his presidency, has arrived on the world stage. And despite his inexperience there, he has given the signal that he is a player.”

What, was there some doubt about this? “My personal opinion is that he is smarter than he is letting on,” says Newsday’s Associate Editor James S. Toedtman. “I don’t know about his curiosity, but he’s a smart guy. Smart enough to develop a very, very slick strategy… smart enough to know when and how and with whom to pick a fight.”

That it’s all being done for Poppy’s honor and the oilmen’s pockets is pretty smart, too, don’t you think? Smart as in “cheeky.” So brown are the noses in Washington right now that Select has even forsaken the regular White House news conference, “which gives a forum to those who continuously fire off partisan salvos,” Toedtman scolds. Our 43rd president prefers the staged media event — one a day, “and with very limited exposure for himself.” That’s because if they let him out without a keeper he sounds like this:

“Redefining the role of the United States from enablers to keep the peace to enablers to keep the peace from peacekeepers is going to be an assignment.”

Or: “I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors as well.”

I refer you all again to Jacob Weisberg’s Complete Bushisms, now available in costly paperback at your local mega-bookstore. Finally, I forgot to add for irate readers that a coup d’état doesn’t need to be plotted in advance. All it needs is opportunity, a distracted public, the state apparatus and a craven press. Smart, indeed.

Speaking of Crank Call