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Mass media as mass controversy


Citizen Kane and Citizen Moore

Since the early 90s, people around the world could follow armed conflicts in their own living room. Our perception of war has since changed. Today, the mass media offers us mass controversy.


Much seems new: the Arab TV-station of Al Jazeera, Michael Moore and his 100-million Bush-Bash documentary, and a new world-record of conspiracy theories.

But nothing is really new under the sun. If we look back in time, in America’s 1930s, we can see that the media sometimes had a bigger influence on society. William R. Hearst and the newspaper he owned, New York Morning Journal, were accused of triggering the start of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Hearst also managed, by the by, to make marijuana illegal.

Michael Moore and William Hearst have a lot of things in common: they are both controversial and feed on ‘yellow journalism’—the kind of journalism that overuses sensationalism when reporting. Both were active in politics (even though Moore ran for office just so he could fire a school principal), and both ended up with unwanted movies made about them.

Moore can be funny, but he’s not necessarily consistent. In 2000, he supported Ralph Nader while bashing both the Republican and the Democratic parties. In one of his college speeches, he said that Al Gore is a good, but dumb, guy.

In the 2004 elections, it was Bush’s turn to be crowned as dumb. When Moore was asked whether he would support Nader, he firmly responded that he would not—and later, he added that Nader must be crazy to still run for office.

Another Moore tactic is floating impossible questions. “Would you send your child to Iraq?” Moore asks people in favor of the war. The problem with this argument is that it can work both ways. It’s not hard to put someone in a delicate position by asking them a no-win question on par with ‘who do you love most, your mommy or your daddy?’

Yet, fairness tells me to give Moore some credit—a lot of credit, actually. He is a good researcher and a talented journalist—at least when he’s making documentaries. He blends emotional scenes with humorous scenes; he adds tragedy to optimism; and he can turn a suit-guy into a ‘Fonzie.’ But if you take all of these magical mixtures away from Fahrenheit 911, the film would end up being two ‘60 Minutes’ episodes, not a cash cow documentary.

Smile – you’re on candid camera

Watching BBC World can be quite the experience. I was quite impressed recently when I saw a Dow Chemicals spokesman announce that the company would pay billions of dollars to victims of India’s Bhopal disaster.

The following day I learned that it was all a hoax! Activist Andy Bichlbaum and his friend, Mike Bonanno, had set everything up. With some quick Google research I learn that these guys have been doing this kind of thing for a few years. Fifty mouse-clicks later I emailed them. Within hours I get a reply from Bonanno telling me to call them at their residence in Paris.

The Hollywood Reporter’s web site credited Bichlbaum and Bonanno for hatching a new genre called ‘Subversive Documentary.’

It all started when they made a website identical to President Bush’s official site—the only difference was the content. They later did the same to the WTO. The effect was not what they expected. They were taken seriously and were asked to represent WTO at a convention in Switzerland. Once there, they made sure to shock everyone with their gestures, speeches, and low-class behaviour.

BBC fell in the same trap. Bichlbaum and Bonanno’s phony Dow Chemicals site looked real enough and BBC contacted them for an interview.

Bonanno laughs and says: “BBC reached out to us. We didn’t plan this. We would’ve rather had Fox [News] if we could, but Fox couldn’t get a damn about the Dow [Chemicals]. We actually like BBC.”

I then asked Andy how they plan their missions and he explained, “In this case, it took us four days to rehearse. We were already informed about the issue. That’s all it takes; some fake web-sites and some fake IDs.”

They both admit that much can go wrong when performing their acts. At the thought of getting persecuted, they answer that “it can always happen,” but think that the consequences of their actions wouldn’t be too harsh.

“We usually have a lawyer, but we always get one after doing our stuff,” Bonanno says.

In 2005, the two friends will go on a European tour to promote their documentary and hopefully improve their current economical status.

“I’ve dropped out of college for one year to do this, and Andy has been unemployed for two years. Right now he’s just trying to pay the rent,” says Bonanno.

Journalism at the edge

John Simpson is the BBC’s World-Affairs-Editor. Since the ´70s, when his career began to flourish, Simpson has witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, and world struggles with the Taliban. Simpson has been punched in the stomach by one of his co-workers, and arrested. He has watched his staff die in Iraq from American ‘friendly’ fire. Yet he remains positive and, most importantly, objective in his reports.

I had the opportunity to speak to John Simpson recently. When I asked him about the difference between Fox News and BBC, he scoffed, “To be honest, I don’t think there is any comparison between the BBC and Fox News. Fox News is a disgrace; I think it’s disgusting.

“The idea of having people with fixed opinions about things, whether they’re liberal or conservative opinions, is something the BBC finds completely alien to our broadcasting culture. We wouldn’t want to be any part of that, or have any part of that. We don’t hire people because they are left-wingers or right-wingers; we expect them to be objective.”

Simpson’s TV show is called ‘Simpson’s World.’ He and a camera-man travel around the world, interviewing common people as well as political figures, and describing their day-to-day life. “I want to interview different sort of people; people who perhaps aren’t used to that kind of aggressive questioning and who got ideas which need to be brought out,” Simpson explains.

The environment in which they’re at could be anything from a ‘no-mans-land’ in Israel, to a luxurious villa in Saudi Arabia. In January, Simpson will be covering the Iraqi elections.

At the thought of being kidnapped and murdered, Simpson realizes that risking his life is a part of the job and that “it’s got to be done.”


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